River Cottage is synonymous with homegrown produce, the first word in sustainability and epitomises the Good Life existence. After dedicating the warmer months to learning to grow my own fruit and vegetables on my tiny London balcony, a visit to this self-sufficient idyll was due to be the highlight of our visit to the Jurassic Coast. It’s hidden from view on initial arrival, but as we took the muddy footpath down from the car park, we saw River Cottage in the distance, twinkling with fairy lights, glamping tentes pitched in the adjoining fields, a faint hum of magic wafting on the sunset.
We were here for the Friday Feast, a showcase of the best the grounds and local area had to offer. Before social distancing measures, we would’ve been sat at long tables, sharing platters amongst the guests, a community of visitors. Instead, we were sat as households, and due to wet weather we were inside. On our initial arrival, I could see couples on the veranda, blankets on laps, visits from the hopeful house cats. It felt like the rural farm-like experience we’d coughed up £65 a head for, but then we were taken into the barn. The setting for our meal felt like a National Trust visitor’s tea room – glaring overhead lights eliminated any ambience, we had no window nearby so couldn’t even see the beautiful setting we were missing out on, and the estate’s glampers were frequently coming in and out of the barn to order drinks or cut through to the toilets. As settings go, we could’ve been anywhere.
We were there for the food though, so the anticipation of a great meal kept any creeping disappointment at bay. We were given a glass of Kingston Black cider brandy to start, a tart and smooth spirit blended with vintage cider apples, it reminded me of the bottle of honey mead I once bought on a whim from Whitby Abbey. I followed up with a glass of River Cottage’s own elderflower sparkling wine which was a lightly floral palette cleanser as the starting dishes came out.
First was the obligatory sourdough with salted butter served with a bowl of carrot and cumin hummus. The latter was a little watery and the texture was more grainy that your run-of-the-mill chickpea situation, but I am a cumin fiend so I scooped it up quite happily. The following two dishes were canapé sized, quite one-biters to round off the course. The roasted onion rarebit was more bread than cheese which isn’t my favourite ratio, but it just seemed unnecessary anyway after we’d had a heap of sourdough. I preferred the smoked mackerel paté, sourced from nearby Lyme Bay, still delicious even though I’m not a huge lover of fennel which flavoured the cracker it was served on.
My favourite dish of the evening was the chargrilled cauliflower which was exactly what I’d hoped from River Cottage – a medley of flavours, textures and techniques which really brought out the variety of produce grown on-site. Served with a creamy labneh, I could choose between scooping up a forkful with a mix of crunchy pumpkin seed dukkah, vinegary pickled beets, a tangy and sharp cucumber salsa or the light heat of nasturtium leaves.
The main course was lamb shoulder, roasted onion and garlic puree and roasted onions. It came on one plate to share, which was pretty disappointing given the serving size and the expectation of a ‘feast’. Although the lamb was tender and the roasted onions were caramelised and juicy, it wasn’t an exciting dish at all. The garlic wasn’t apparent in the puree and it just felt…nice. Not a word I was hoping to use as the primary adjective in such a highly regarded restaurant. It wasn’t helped by the accompanying sauces, a sort-of complementary lemon mayonnaise and a completely inappropriate salsa verde, which although fine on its own did literally nothing to lift the dish.
I was very much looking forward to two of the three side dishes as they are something that I’ll almost always order off a menu if I see them: a potato salad and a tomato salad. The former came with pickled chard stems, which I presumed would give the acidity I usually add myself with capers, and a lemon and parsley dressing. But the potatoes were totally over-boiled, still retaining too much water and diluting any flavour from the other ingredients. I imagined the tomato salad to be the heritage tomatoes of my dreams, ripe and plump and juicy, an image I’d conjured after following River Cottage’s Head Gardener on Instagram. Yes, the tomatoes were certainly varied, but for some reason they had been covered in oil and I can only presume they had been prepared very far in advance as they were sat in their own juices losing any semblance of texture. With access to ingredients this fresh, I’m unsure why they hadn’t just been lightly seasoned and allowed nature to do the hard work instead.
As dessert started to bring the evening to a close, I was still in the realm of everything being ‘fine’, but still far from impressed. A meeting with the aforementioned house cats, including the one-eyed Lisa, was proving to be the highlight. The final dishes of the evening did, thankfully, send us off a little happier. An almond cake, pillow soft and served with fresh berries and a quenelle of cream, followed by what was labelled as chocolate ganache but was actually a couple of rich chocolate truffles. Second only to the cauliflower dish was the excellent pieces of honeycomb which fizzed and melted on my tongue, getting stuck in my teeth and making my head zing with sharp sugar. I’m glad I finished with this as it literally sweetened my whole experience.
And ‘experience’ is exactly what was lacking at River Cottage that evening. At £65 a head I was paying for not just food, but ambience, ingredients and detail unexpected at a standard restaurant. Each dish came out with no embellishment, we weren’t told the origin of the ingredients or if they were grown on site – they really could have come from anywhere. Without site of the beautiful setting from where we sat, with the foot traffic of other guests disturbing us, and the lack of heart in the dishes we ate, we left feeling a little short-changed.
The idea of River Cottage is still one I aspire to, but whether they can bring that at scale, and especially during the challenging times of a global pandemic, I’m just not sure. I hope the heart of the place is just temporarily missing and will beat again in a new normal in the future.
The essential bits
Find it at: River Cottage HQ, Trinity Hill Rd, Axminster EX13 8TB
Food: 2x Friday Feast menus (paid for at booking)
Drinks: 2x cider brandys (complementary), 1x elderflower sparkling wine, 2x River Cottage IPAs
TOTAL PRICE: £156 inc. service