There’s something a little bit special about that first glimpse of River Cottage HQ, as you round the corner of the hill on the back of their tractor and the sun sets over the Devon-Dorset Border.
River Cottage Summer Night dining experiences are designed to make the most of long summer evenings and the late summer harvest. Guests are invited to visit the farm and dine communally over a four-course evening meal, made fresh from seasonal produce that has been grown, picked and foraged locally. We were lucky enough to be invited to one such evening earlier this month. Here’s what we thought…
On the evening of the Summer Nights dinner, we arrived at River Cottage HQ in traditional country style – on the back of their tractor trailer with around 30 other guests. It’s exactly this sort of unique quirk that sets these dining experiences apart from ordinary supper clubs and there’s something a little bit special about that first glimpse of the cottage, as you round the corner of the hill and the sun sets of the Devon-Dorset border.
Fresh off the trailer, we were invited to start off our evening with a glass of Cider Brandy and a selection of rustic canapés in the comfort of The River Cottage Yurt (which was apparently sourced from Mongolia). The yurt is decked out in comfortable sheepskins and twinkling lights – making it the perfect retreat for both midsummer nights and colder Autumn evenings.
After canapés, we were given a brief talk on the importance of ethics at River Cottage; during which we were assured that the vast majority of what we would eat that evening was locally sourced and if it hadn’t been, there was a good reason for it to be on the menu.
We were then given the opportunity to take a look around River Cottage HQ itself, including the Kitchen Gardens, the polytunnels and the cookery school. Apparently, they’ve got lots of wildlife on the farm and we spied plenty of lively sheep and two very well-fed cats. Although, funnily enough we couldn’t actually see any pigs on the evening. This started to make a lot more sense when we were later informed that the big green egg was being used to smoke a lovely joint of pork for the evening meal…
After looking around for a while – and maybe posing at the kitchen set – we took our seats in the River Cottage barn. The barn has been beautifully converted into a large-yet-cosy space and on the evening of our arrival it was decked out in dried flower wreaths, fairy lights and two long dining tables. On one side of the barn, there’s a well-stocked bar of local drinks, and on the other you’ll find the kitchen, where two heavy doors are flung open during service and guests are encouraged to step inside and take a look at what the kitchen team is up to.
There’s a seating plan on the wall (due to dietary requirements) and dinner is eaten at a communal tables with fellow guests, who you’ll get to know over the course of the evening. Our dinner took the form of a four-course meal, which lasted approximately three and a half hours, and we began this by taking our seats and enjoying a rather unusual starter of fresh bread with pork dripping, sweet pickled gurkins and hummus.
The garden and land team liaise closely with the kitchen team to grow, nurture and harvest the produce for River Cottage events. Anything additional that is needed for evening meals is sourced from various neighbouring suppliers who share in their ethical and sustainable stance (including Trill Farm, Pipers Farm and Haye Farm). River Cottage menus are therefore always inspired by what has been caught, foraged or collected from the nearby land on the day/week of your visit. There’s no set menu announced in advance – you simply let them know your dietary requirements ahead of time and wait to see what’s served up!
Other highlights of our Summer Nights meal included: A main dish of smoked pork (smoked that evening in the Big Green Egg) with summer greens, and potatoes, a dessert of homemade meringue with granola and stewed summer fruits, and an unusual selection of petit fours, such as a bizarre but delicious beetroot shoelace (think sherbet covered strawberry laces, only a little bit earthier).
Lasting Impressions from River Cottage
Each time I have visited River Cottage HQ I have left pining for pure, unadulterated country life. I leave with aspirations of growing my own vegetable and baking my own bread. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for their ‘nose-to-tail’, sustainable ethos – or perhaps it’s the effortless charm of the place – but something about this farm has me smitten.
Both times I have eaten at HQ, I found the food to be rustic but delicious. It is far from a fine dining experience and if you’re after exquisite presentation or edible foams you’ll no doubt be disappointed. But I hardly think these things matter when your chef for the evening is on hand to introduce each course and explain the provenance of the ingredients.
Likewise, it’s fair to say that the communal dining experience of River Cottage is not for everyone and if you value your privacy when spending £70pp you may wish to spend your change elsewhere. However, that being said, we were extremely fortunate to have been seated next to two lovely couples during our Summer Nights evening and we personally felt that meeting new people and enjoying new conversation was part of the overall experience.
So, if you’re undecided about whether or not to try a River Cottage dining experience, I recommend taking a look at the wide variety of events they have on offer. There’s everything from Farmhouse Lunches to Saturday Night Feasts. It’s an experience you’ll no doubt remember for a long time and I certainly think everyone should try it at least once.
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