Riverford Field Kitchen
Wanna live life on the veg? Muddy books in for Meat-free Monday at Riverford Field Kitchen and discovers: who shares wins.
The road to Riverford takes you past the babbling River Dart and rolling Devon farmland, filled with chestnut-brown cows, crops and hedgerows. It’s all very bucolic, but just a few minutes’ drive from the Buckfastleigh turning on the A38 Devon Expressway.
This is from the same people who do the Riverford veg box scheme – organic, farm-to-fork fare created from vegetables grown on the famous Riverford Farm at Buckfastleigh in the South Hams. Founder Guy Watson set it up on organic principles 30 years ago, well before sustainability became mainstream – so no nasties here – and it has recently turned into a co-op, ploughing the same sharing ethos of the restaurant into his business.
I’m here for lunch on ‘Meat-free Monday’ – had I come on any other day, organically reared meat would be on the menu, or on Fish Friday it would be sustainably line-caught fishies from Helston in Cornwall.
This isn’t going to be your normal Muddy review, because this isn’t your normal restaurant, where you sit at your own table, muse over the menu and get what you’ve ordered. This is a sharing menu, where you sit at a shared table of six or maybe even eight complete strangers and share from platters, doing your best to overcome any latent OCD or buttoned-upness.
Meet my table – Mr Muddy; a Danish couple on holiday and a pair from Plymouth with a three-month old babe in arms. We started by tiptoeing politely round each other but me asking to photograph everything before anyone could eat it was something of a conversation starter *how to make yourself unpopular*. We ended up nattering about everything from the failings of UK paternity leave to where to eat in Copenhagen (not Noma, advised our knowledgeable Danish contingent, but Amass and Kadeu). All very sociable.
Earthy and natural, with bunches of strawberry popping-corn and wildflowers strewn along the walls, and chalkboards telling you today’s lunch – it changes every day depending on what’s cropping – along with rows of Riverford cookbooks for sale, wellies for borrowing and jars tumbling with sunflowers and love-in-a-mist. The staff are all friendly, and wearing t-shirts with the Riverford slogan ‘Live life on the veg’ – it all feels very relaxed and fun.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Look at that menu. You’ve got to admit that’s a lotta lunch – six dishes, starting with sourdough bread and a bottle of water to share. A friend had told me I needn’t be worried about there not being enough food (“what if someone greedy eats it all before I can get to it??) as they come round and top up the plates if they need to. And they don’t need to.
First to the table are three big plates: one of oily Padron peppers: one of halved purple artichokes with a side bowl of creamy vinaigrette, and a plate of chargrilled peas. The waitress explains what everything is and how to eat it: we’re warned the peppers are a bit of a lottery as the heat really varies, some are mild, some might blow your head off. You pull the peas through your teeth like edamame leaving the skins, and likewise the artichoke heart leaves. Pile the leftovers into an empty plate and she’ll take it away when we’re finished.
It’s immersive and a bit of an ice-breaker as we’re all having to eat with our hands and getting covered in delicious oily spiciness, and discussing the flavours, and how much hard work it is to get much from an artichoke leaf. You realise what you miss when you have a small portion is seeing the veg in all its glorious abundance – aren’t the artichokes a picture? Makes me wish I was good at still life.
Next up is grilled courgette with roasted broccoli covered in a herb pesto, with fennel and baby gem lettuce. It’s amazing how flavourful green veg can be when it’s roasted instead of boiled, smothered in oil, salty and charred. With it came a plate of crunchy purple beets, mixed with pieces of nectarine and a pomegranate molasses, draped in onions, pink and sweet from being marinated. It’s a tongue-tickling mix of flavour, textures and temperature: warm roasts, cold salads, soft and crunchy, invigorating and soothing all at the same time.
After all the greenery, it was a relief to have some carbs – crispy deep fried sweetcorn fritters with a smoky harissa – which we decided was spicy but not too spicy – and an aubergine-based baba ganoush. This was definitely the table’s favourite, along with the rainbow carrots. We agreed the one word to sum it up would be ‘fulfilling’. Someone else who’d never tried artichoke or purple carrots before said it was an ‘adventure’ .
The food theatre continues for dessert as you’re invited up to the kitchen counter to be presented your choice of six scrummy-looking dishes, including sticky toffee pudding, panacotta, fruit crumble and chocolate cake. It’s all very egalitarian and un-British as it’s not a queue – you’re told to shout out what you want once you’ve decided. You can have one or two choices, most people sensibly go large.
I had a tangy citrus panacotta with sweet gooseberries and a chocolate sponge so light it seemed to evaporate in my mouth. Smothered in cream because I’m greedy.
Mr Muddy plumped for a delicious tahini tart with a layer of chocolate – so good – and an oat-topped crumble. Smothered in custard because he’s greedy too.
Well, that depends: how veg-friendly are your kids? Now mine are bod-conscious teens they’d be up for this veg feast no problem, but in the school-dinner years, we’d have had a showdown about the lack of choice, lack of chips and lack of Diet Coke. They’d love the desserts though, and you’ll like the fact kids under three are free and 3-14 years are half price.
OUT AND ABOUT
We sat on the terrace with a home-made lemonade and lavender drink while waiting to be called to our tables, surrounded by herbs and wildflowers – and just up the path is a poly tunnel, bursting with tomatoes and nasturtium, artfully arranged with planted olive oil containers and terracotta pots.
You can take a farm tour to learn about Riverford’s inventive history and taste some of the crops, or take yourself off for a self-guided tour with a map. Buckfast Abbey is just a few miles down the road, or in the other directions there is Totnes with its artisan shops, riverfront pubs and cafs and English Heritage castle.
Or you can learn how to grow and cook their dishes on one of their regular courses. The next one is a Chilli Growing and Cooking Masterclass on Weds 4 September.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
A different eating experience and don’t worry about there not being enough to go round – I’ve not been this full since Christmas.
Good for: vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians; five-a-day fiends; the climate-conscious; groups and extended families; adventurous eaters.
Not for: the anti-social; veg-phobes (on Meat-free Mondays at least).
The damage: Lunch £25 per person; supper £29 per person. Booking is essential and food is served at set times: Lunch Mon – Sat 12.30pm/Sunday 12pm or 3pm; Supper Mon – Sat 7pm.
Riverford Field Kitchen, Buckfastleigh TQ11 0JU Tel: 01803 227391