Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hugh's the daddy!

Watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his team on River Cottage Spring this week had an extra frisson of excitement because I knew in a couple of days we’d be communing with those chickens, listening to the eager but gentle buzzing of the Park Farm bees and most importantly tucking in to some delicious seasonal victuals round one of the reclaimed timber tables in honour of the collective belated birthdays of D and MC’s.

For some curious reason this annual fest has taken on a French, duck or French and Duck theme. I guess it started in May 2003, we are celebrating D’s birthday in France with their Nicky and Regis in their fabulous Normandy manor house Le Manoir de L'Aufragere near Fourmetot. We had many delicious memorable meals on this trip but one that struck a chord was the first time we had duck carpaccio and inadvertently this became a theme for feasts to come. The next year, D said she fancied some sort of French theme to her birthday in Cambridge and to ensure authenticity N and I snuck over to France, drove down to Boulogne in Baby Blue (known as “l’objet de culte” when en France!) and stocked up on a plethora of French goodies in Boulogne sur Mer (for once we didn’t go as far as Abbeville). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to partake in the oozy French cheeses, the plump Magret duck breasts and the rest of the French spread but it was still a surprise for D and MC. In subsequent years, to commemorate a special , D and I dined in a duck restaurant in Lille and inspired the duck-tacular meal that I prepared for D and MC on their way back from Morocco.

Last year we went to the Fat Duck (surely the theme is screaming by now) and this year we decided to indulge in a River Cottage experience. Maybe we didn’t eat any duck but there were some lovely contented ducks waddling around the farm and before we’d left for our long journey to Dorset D and MC had presented me with a very attractive little black and white rubber duck that for some reason had reminded them of me!

We dropped our bags in our well chosen guest house, strapped on our obligatory ‘sensible shoes’ for cavorting around a farmhouse and headed for Park Farm. This is not just like going out for a meal in a restaurant; this is a whole food related extravaganza.

We stand at the top of the valley admiring the splendid view and waiting our carriage (actually a tractor pulling a trailer filled with about 25 expectant revellers).

When we arrive we are escorted into the yurt by our friendly host of the evening (Pete – thank you to D for remembering - is that bad, I can recall the names of the cheeses, even the one I didn't eat but names of people - shocking!) and furnished with a very fine English sparkling wine. Obviously we daren’t call it Champagne but it was very passable. As we quaff this and pass round a few nibbles we are introduced to the farm and invited to go and explore before dinner. And these are not your usual nibbles, no we are offered cubes of brawn with beetroot hummus and flatbread. D and MC go off to compare their allotment progress with Hugh’s various sprouting vegetables.

There are lettuces plump for picking that we may find on our plates tonight and others just shyly poking their green leaves above the rich soil. I spotted the bees in their new home during our ‘tractor pull’, we saw in last week’s show that Hugh had wanted to relocate them a little further from the main buildings, maybe some of his guests were a little bee-phobic. As Hugh is almost synonymous to the plights of sad, cooped up chickens is was a pleasure to meet his extremely happy chicken scratching around in the last few rays of the days. And I heard a rumour that we were going to consume some of their yummy happy eggs later so it seemed extra apt to thank them for their hard work.

After our nose around we are corralled into the barn for our five course dinner. The barn is decked out like an oversized farmhouse kitchen with a big dresser filled with rustic dishes and cookbooks at one end and a bar and little shop at the other. Okay, maybe it’s not like every farmhouse kitchen!

The ceiling lights are made from recycled wine bottles and formerly floorboards tables and laid with mismatched cutlery. We have been assigned a seat at the one of the two long tables, each seating thirty. We have to sit in our designated spot as we’ve been asked about our dislikes, allergies and strong food aversions – did anyone mention tomatoes or goats’ cheese?

Our chef for the evening – Nonnie, introduces us to the menu and explain the provenance of the delights that will be laid before us. Our starter is the delight we saw a few weeks on River Cottage Spring, the just-laid egg, freshly picked asparagus spears and cheat’s hollandaise. And the ‘cheat’s hollandaise’ comes with instructions. First you decapitate your egg, then pop a little pat of butter on top of the yolk, top up with a little cider vinegar and then dunk the spears into the eggy mixture. It does taste rather wonderful!

Next we have chicken and air-dried ham croquettes with a salad sprinkled with a few marigolds and spring onion flowers. The air-dried ham is cured on the farm and I am guessing the chicken is home-grown also. The leaves were from some lettuce crossed with an elephant but had a fresh taste.

A main course was a piece of stunning spanking fresh from Plymouth line-caught sea bass served with sautéed fennel with an orange and lemon ceviche and crushed newly dug-up new potatoes seasoned with fennel top fronds.

D had sea bass at lunch and even that that was good, this was outstanding. It certainly was the finest piece of sea bass if not fish I’ve ever had, the flavour was truly sublime and you could really believe that they was only very recently snaking their silver finned bodies around The Hoe. Those white meaty flakes were very moreish but the non-fish eaters either side of us weren't left out, they tucked into a generous hunk of pork belly which looked pretty damn good also.

The cheese course was a little wedge of Blue Vinney and a sheep’s cheese called Little Riding accompanied by some excellent home-made digestives and some soon to be seen in the Guardian apricot jam. I am not partial to a blue cheese but the Little Riding, apricot jam and digestive combination was rather fabulous. We have some unusual tayberry wine alongside the cheese.

The River Cottage staff had been busy harvesting the elderflower from the hedgerows to concoct us some rather wonderful elderflower sorbet with some early marinated strawberries. I’ve managed to smuggle a little silver heart-shaped candle holder and accompanying silver candle to our very accommodating hosts and they surprise D and MC with the added illumination. Fortunately this is not the sort of place where they suggest a few choruses of “happy birthday”, this was subtle but suitably celebratory. Luckily as it turned out as I think there were several birthday being honoured tonight so we might have been singing until dawn!

Our taxi had insisted we were on the first trailer out of there so we didn’t linger after the coffee and cocoa dusted chocolates and bid a fond farewell to the River Cottage. We had a spectacularly seasonal meal in conducive albeit slightly too crowded company, it wasn’t as theatrical and showy as last year’s Fat Duck but the main star of the evening was definitely the food. It wasn’t fancy, clever or perplexing, but they were 'keeping it real' and it was really delicious and the staff really make you feel looked after. Three gardening forks for The River Cottage dinner, we are already pondering a pig-in-a-day for our next trip down Dorset way so we might be able to mingle with the ducks and chickens on another day. And we're also considering next year's dual-birthday event, maybe French, possibly duck-themed or even after Heston and Hugh another chef beginning with 'H'.


Anonymous said...

Darling J, as always a sublime birthday celebration. Thank you very much. Not wishing to disappoint, I have indeed remembered that the genial host was called Pete.
Much love, D xx

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