From Farm to Feast
Guy Watson & Jane Baxter Fourth Estate, 2008, ISBN 9780007265053
AT THE HEART of Riverford Farm is a fantastic, voluminous, kitchen-dining hall overlooking the fields of one of the most successful organic farms in England. Like some kind of post-modern university refectory it blends airy modernity with the warmth and beauty of wood. This is the celebrated Field Kitchen, a unique restaurant started by Guy Watson and furnished with delicious food by accomplished chef Jane Baxter.
Watson is part of the Riverford dynasty that has been supplying Schumacher College with vegetables since its inception almost twenty years ago. Other organic suppliers have come and gone, but Riverford has gone from strength to strength and now supplies organic dairy produce as well as an extensive list of vegetables and fruit. The business has expanded into three shops in the area, and the vegetable box scheme started by Watson now spreads across the whole of southern England supported by a franchise system.
Only four years since the Field Kitchen was opened by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Riverford has now produced an excellent cookbook to share not only recipes, but insights into life on an organic farm. This is a wholesome book offering entertaining bedtime reading as well as seasonal recipes to engage with in the kitchen. It isn’t a vegetarian recipe book per se, but is themed around the vegetables and fruit grown on the farm.
At Schumacher College, Wayne Schroeder, our Catering Manager, has practically abandoned using any other cookbook (including mine!) since this one came out. He loves delving into it to create his weekly menu plan and finds the experience and variety Baxter brings through her recipes to be “an amazing gift”. He also points out that there is a wonderful connective quality about the book that will deepen your relationship with the vegetables you are preparing – because you have read about how and when they are grown, and their storage and preparation. These insights allow you to enter the world of the organic farmer and experience the trials and tribulations of the grower’s life. For many cooks, sadly, this connection with the seasons and the garden has been lost – vegetables arrive mud-free, vacuum-packed from all over the world and have lost their personal and local context.
The alphabetical layout of the book by vegetable or fruit makes Riverford Farm Cook Book very easy to use. Each item is introduced and set in context by Watson and then followed up with recipes by Baxter. There are also amusing and thoughtful commentaries by Watson pondering on the state of the world from an organic farmer’s perspective, with his own quirky take on things. For example, ‘Food Miles: Why Local is Not Always Best’ engages us with some of the paradoxes we need to think about as we endeavour to localise our food supply. Watson states that if we must eat tomatoes outside the months when they can be produced in the UK without heat, it is undoubtedly more benign to truck them from southern Europe, where little or no heat is required and the emissions from transport will be less than 300g of CO2 per kilo – as opposed to 2–3 kilos of CO2 emitted by sourcing them at such times from northern Europe where heating is required to grow them. Other themes touched on include ‘An Ode to Dirt’, ‘Supermarkets: A Lifetime of Loathing’, and ‘Has Cooking Become a Spectator Activity?’
These musings reflect the ethical underpinning of the Riverford enterprise. It is a family-run business now firmly in the hands of its second generation, involving all five of the children of John Watson, the founder, each taking responsibility for a different area: Guy, the vegetables and restaurant; Ben, the shops; Oliver and Louise, the dairy farm; and Rachel, the marketing. They are the same bunch of kids – now middle-aged – who once sat down with all the farm workers on their dad’s expanding farm to delicious farm lunches cooked by their mum. They were brought up with a strong sense of ethics that embraced animal welfare, social democracy and ecology.
Reading this book, I feel deeply reassured about the success and expansion of the Riverford Farm enterprise in our local area and beyond. Whilst some grumble that Riverford Farm is too successful, and mutter that it is at the expense of smaller growers and businesses, I ask myself, how can there not be huge success when an enterprise is fuelled by such broad family enthusiasm and commitment? I also remind myself that Riverford Farm has joined with some sixteen other organic producers to form the Organic Producers Co-operative which now supplies the expanding box scheme.
Guy Watson declares himself to be part of a family “obsessed” by food. He says he is dedicated to “shortening the food chain and promoting the connection between producers, cooks and their tables”. This is the best way of restoring food to its rightful position as a central part of our culture – and it is what the Riverford Farm Cook Book, complete with delicious recipes and evocative field-to-table photography, sets out to do. Having eaten several times at the Field Kitchen, I can recommend Baxter’s abundant, juicy cooking without hesitation and it is a great joy to be let into some of her secrets through this book. How did she make those delicious braised carrots and turnips with honey, that scrumptious sorrel and onion tart, that caramel apple pavlova, to mention but a few favourites? All (or almost all) is revealed…
Julia Ponsonby is a member of staff at Schumacher College and is the author of Gaia’s Kitchen: Vegetarian Recipes for Family and Community.