“An evening with BBC TV’s Matt Pritchard” said the email from Riverford Field Kitchen. Seemed a bit odd to be chasing this local boy down the M5 to Devon but, having eaten there many times, we jumped at the chance to sample Riverford’s legendary veg. in the hands of the vivacious vegan.
Riverford’s organic vegetable box empire was founded by Guy Singh-Watson who famously stuck two metaphorical fingers up to a supermarket when their buyer told him “Look sonny, when we whistle, you jump.” Riverford is now a household name with a £60m turnover, yet still maintains its ethical, sustainable principles which lately extend to staff ownership; 76% of the business has been handed over to its 650 employees.
If you are going for lunch, make sure you set aside time to visit the farm shop, run by brother Ben Watson (open 10am – 5pm), it’s about half a mile from the farm towards Totnes. There you can pick up quality organic veg. and dairy products at reasonable prices and at Christmas time they make what must be the best mince pies on the planet. Another tip we’ll offer is, don’t be tempted to have breakfast that day, M. NotLeafy has a large appetite but has been seriously challenged more than once.
Diners, lunch or evening, have the option of the guided farm tour which we also recommend, it has to be booked in advance. A group of us were escorted onto the back of a tractor trailer and shown through their greenhouses and fields explaining what they do and why. The striking thing was being encouraged to pick and eat from the plants as we toured. The group consensus was, how come these raw vegetables taste so damn good? A baby globe artichoke; halved, without sauce, without dressing, is it the guide’s passion? A bag of their raw salad leaves confirmed it, they really do taste that good au naturel.
The Kitchen is a modern, barn-like space with a semi-circular roof that curves down from the high, windowed wall on the Northeast side, letting in plenty of light without frying the occupants in summer. Lights are strung high up across the beams on trendy wires and tree branches hang impossibly in mid-air. Everything is engineered for maximum sustainability, even waste fridge heat is used. Normally, you eat from a set menu and sit on mismatched chairs at long tables right next to your fellow diners. The food is brought on large sharing platters; veggies and vegans get a different starter and “main” dish but, for everybody, the vegetables are top of the bill.
There is something special about the atmosphere of feast-style dining, with the food all coming out at once, the anticipation is multiplied by the group vibe. This is especially heightened when the desserts are announced. They are fulsome affairs here, each table is called to go to the pass and be served. You can have half portions of two desserts from a choice of about six, including an infamous sticky toffee pudding – the school dinner pud of your wildest dreams.
We’ve never been in the evening before, nor to a special event, so approached wondering what would be different. The Field Kitchen turn-off from the main road has only a small sign, which is fitting, but in the dying Spring twilight we’re glad we already know where it is; also glad we know it’s a good mile drive through a small hamlet to the car park .
An enticing five course menu was sitting on the table and, since M. Notleafy was driving, we started with juice of the day, an unusual combo that looked strange but the flavours all combined harmoniously into a unique taste. It would make a great ice lolly.
Dinner was announced by one of the servers who explained some of the vegan ingredients such as seitan, useful for the surprising number of non-vegans who had come along. Otherwise things proceeded as normal and the first dish was brought out, a savoury sweet-smoked hummus with Riverford’s strikingly crunchy radishes. The Seitan chorizo was served with a slice of potato which was fried or roasted in oil and its texture was spot on, as was the chorizo spicing. Mme. made a mental note to quiz Matt on the technique, as her own first attempt had been rather dense and lumpen.
Starter dispatched, the radish tops on everyone’s plates were collected by the serving staff, (M. NotLeafy tried eating some out of curiosity but found it merely edible) and the next course quickly followed, a generous set of Vietnamese rice paper rolls and sticky tofu bao buns. The rolls were filled with crunchy vegetables, & noodles and were a refreshing, crunchy mint, coriander and basil palate cleanser. There wasn’t enough of the hot chilli & ginger sauce for M. NotLeafy but then there never is. Mme. was starting to feel full already.
The bao buns were very alluring. Soft, pillowy and light, they didn’t collapse in a sigh when you bit in. A nice firm crisped chunk of tofu in a classic sticky sauce with crunchy garnish made for pefect vegan street food. That Monty Python hand in the left of the picture says it all really.
There was no time to take a breath though, immediately the roasted PSB & Romesco arrived with the asparagus, courgette & tomato salad. Riverford’s PSB is always dreamy, more so combined with the Romesco, a full-bodied flavour shockwave of tomato, pepper, garlic and zingyness. Well-griddled asparagus and courgette gave the salad good body but crunchy baked chick peas and the silky tahini dressing made absolutely sure. The people on our table weren’t speaking much while this course was in progress.
There was a well earned lull after the cold courses, time to glug some wine; Sharpham Dart Valley Reserve , a long time favourite of ours and its peachy notes went well with all the food (not dessert).
Now for the hot mains. The smell of the celeriac dish as it came to the table was really savoury, almost meaty. It was brilliantly cooked, just-right firmness, no fibrousness and that mushroom lentil and walnut sauce was as rich and tasty as it smelled. Despite its beige appearance it was a real crowd-pleaser and definitely comfort food. We’ll try and emulate it when the days start growing shorter but it wasn’t out of place on a warm Easter evening. Mme. avoided the kale but it was perfectly fine, some bite to it but not chewy and it didn’t taste of rust. Again, the quality of Riverford’s veg shone through. The bed of wild garlic puree was powerful but also smooth and mellow.
Just before the desserts came out there was a Q&A session. The audience seemed very interested in Matt’s Dirty Sanchez exploits. We shan’t repeat here his answers to questions like “what hurt the most?” as they are not suitable for family reading, anyway they wouldn’t be as funny without his delivery. There was the inevitable “why did you become vegan?” and ” can you get a decent vegan cheese?” but one good question was what his ultimate ambition is – and his reply was that he wants to open his own restaurant in his home town, Cardiff. We cheered – and we weren’t alone.
Desserts were magnificent; not just a choice of two but three! The best vegan doughnuts we’ve had, light and indistinguishable from those made the traditional way. They were stuffed liberally with a red-fleshed apple puree that did its job and splurged all over your face and hands when you bit into it. The cinnamon in it was a bit too subtle but it was no less delicious for that. Riverford chef Bob Andrew (who helped Matt devise the dishes) explained that they were made using deodorised coconut oil which they found to work much like butter without making everything taste “tropical”. They have even been using it to make rough puff pastry.
Also out on the sharing plates were aquafaba meringues topped with stewed rhubarb and a soft coconut cream, which all disappeared in a single bite. Posh crunchie was made special by a pinch of rock salt on the chocolate, not to mention a flawless crunchy honeycomb that didn’t glue your teeth together. We finished with a coffee, and yes, the milk was non-dairy.
We’d sum it up as a cracking good gobful and a really enjoyable evening. Matt said he’d been in the kitchen since 9am and he was “f*cked”. The effort showed in the carefully crafted, tasty, imaginative and definitely not leafy vegan dishes which we enjoyed to the max.
This was a great taster for the Dirty Vegan cookbook (we now have a signed copy) and, if Matt wants to realise his ambition of opening a restaurant in his home town, we’re convinced The ‘Diff, would support him all the way (Roath would be an ideal area, hint hint). We certainly would and, to use the phrase we heard so much that evening, we’re not even vegan.
Want to go there?
Matt won’t be in the kitchen but you can enjoy Riverford’s veg-centric cooking. They only cook for the number of people that are coming, so advance booking is essential, state your dietary preferences.
Booking is required; please check availability online.
Online booking: https://fieldkitchen.riverford.co.uk/book-online/
Open every day for lunch and most evenings for supper.
Monday to Saturday: Arrive 12.30 for 13:00
Sunday Arrive 12:00 for 12.30 or 15.30 for 16:00
Most evenings Arrive 19:00 for 19.30