Tomatoes and runner beans were often the spoils of my grandparents’ greenhouse, served-up in an eclectic mix of dishes; a result of my grandmother’s Polish heritage clashing with the availability of ingredients on Slough high street. Salted sliced tomatoes, Pierogi, and a can of Lilt not an uncommon sight. In pursuit of the freshest possible produce, we’d head to pick-your-own farms, gorging ourselves on ‘free’ strawberries straight out of the ground. I still feel a tinge of guilt for that.
Standing in the middle of the Riverford Field Kitchen staff canteen, I feel the eyes of the employees on me. Maybe they know my past as a strawberry thief? Have I been on a producer blacklist since the age of six? More likely I’ve just interrupted their lunch – a perk of working for the veg box household name. Rows of workers tuck into hearty meals of fresh veggies while I stand in the corner like a tourist who’s just stumbled into a happy pub full of locals.
My intentions were not to pillage the fields (this time), but to visit the on-site restaurant, Riverford Field Kitchen. The concept is veg-first dishes served up on platters. Diners book in advance for lunch or supper, and are assigned spots on communal tables. The menu is (reassuringly) dictated by the produce grown in the field kitchen garden by head gardener Penny Hemming.
The restaurant sits in the middle of the site, a giant wedge of glass and wood. Inside, rows of communal tables, walls adorned with wild flowers and foliage from the grounds. The dining experience is a communal free-for-all. Groups split into pairs, tables of eight-or-so getting to know each other in an awkward dance of plate passing etiquette that only the British could achieve. Our table’s timid portions would work out to be a blessing, as platters piled-high with colourful veggies appear at a relentless pace.
Plates of freshly baked wild garlic focaccia are soon followed by Jerusalem artichokes with a potent rosemary aioli. An attractive dish of ‘seven spiced carrots’ with cauliflower couscous, pickled red onions and gremolata are as far away from overboiled and under-seasoned ‘greens’ as you can get.
A spring salad of radishes, robust spears of asparagus and ribbons of cucumber arrives heaped on a plate. Nothing here is overworked. In fact, the bread is probably the most engineered foodstuff on offer. There’s nothing ‘three ways’, deep fried, or blackened with squid ink here – a refreshing change. Every dish is something you could, in theory, recreate at home if you had the right ingredients. Which, I suppose, is exactly the plan here, given the wider Riverford business – but it all feels as natural as the produce itself, rather than a PR exercise. Each crunch of carrot or mouthful of cauliflower couscous offers an exciting mix of texture and vibrant flavour, showcasing the best of Riverford veg. (As well as their UK operation, they have a Riverford farm in France and work with other organic farms in Europe to satisfy our insatiable appetite for more exotic items all year round).
With so much veg, it was almost a surprise to see pork belly being prepped in the kitchen. Meat here isn’t off the table entirely, and I, for one, am glad. Out of the oven comes a beautiful sight, and the largest piece of pork crackling I’ve ever seen, the sea of crunch protecting the juicy meat. The fat underneath has long melted onto the onions below, softening and infusingsweetness from the meat juices. Apples have been roasted and blended whole to create a thick sauce that kicks the sweetness up yet another gear.
To round things off, each table is beckoned up to the kitchen for a game of, ‘How many differentdesserts can I get away with?’ Cheesecakes, sticky toffee puddings, pavlovas, and tarts, to name but a few of those on offer. I watch as trickles of cream roll down the mounds of pavlova in front of me and wondered if I’d be able to finish my pud. (I could, obviously.)
Riverford Field Kitchen, Wash Farm Bungalow, Buckfastleigh, TQ11 0JU; 01803 227391