It cannot be denied, Mondays do not provoke in me an enthusiasm to jump out of bed or an eagerness to get to work. I am a regular sufferer of the Sunday blues and they generally stay with me until I finish work the following day. But this Monday was different.
I was lucky enough to be going on an ‘Away Day’ with work to Riverford Field Kitchen, a place I’ve driven past plenty of times and always wished I could sample its delights. And on this day, I did…
Of course we had to do a bit of work and spent the first two hours in one of the meeting rooms. Even in this office-like space, we were reminded that we weren’t at an average meeting venue just by looking around us. On the walls hang framed photographs of the produce grown here and the cute postcards on the boardroom table give you handy hints like ‘You can eat kohlrabi like an apple’ – something that I wasn’t aware of.
After exercising our brains with a few hours of highly intellectual activity (mainly cutting and sticking in a Blue Peter style to create ‘mood boards’ – something us Marketeers love to do!), we exercised our bodies with a self-guided tour of the farm.
We were given iPods with a pre-recorded monologue, designed to talk you through the different areas of the farm as you walk around. Unfortunately two iPods between seven of us made sharing the headphones something of a challenge. It may have been an Away Day but I had no intention of bonding with my colleagues that closely! So we ditched the monologue and instead tried to guess what each line of growing veg was for ourselves. With three chefs in the team we stood a reasonable chance, although some of the crops were only at the beginning of their growing lives and just looked like…well…green plants! Of the produce we could identify, naturally at Riverford there was a huge variety, from artichokes, to redcurrants and gooseberries.
The views in this part of Devon are stunning. Driving South from Exeter always gives me such a good feeling: like I’m escaping, going on an adventure and almost stepping back in time. Or perhaps it’s just taking a step out of the hustle and bustle of every day life. Whatever it is, just taking a few deep breaths of the country air and absorbing as much of the scenery as possible never fails to uplift me.
At Riverford, hidden somewhere outside of Buckfastleigh, the hills roll gently downwards into a valley, where the farm nestles quite comfortably. We enjoyed the gentle circular ramble and ended up, most conveniently, back at the restaurant. Having worked up an appetite we were invited to be seated on long wooden benches, thankfully with cushioned bases to save us boney-bottomed ones from the terrible fate of ‘numb bum syndrome’. Other customers filled the benches around us and there was quite a mix of people, from retired couples to a large party of parents and young children.
First up was our drinks order. As much as I’d have loved to sip on an Ashridge cider, I thought ordering alcohol whilst supposed to be officially working might be pushing it a bit, so instead I enjoyed an apple and pear juice from Heron Valley. It was refreshing without having that tang which makes you pull embarrassing faces. Sadly my liquid refreshment didn’t quite last until the end of the drink as a great big fly decided to do a Kamikaze nose dive into my glass, so inconsiderate!
Whilst we all eyed the menu hungrily, the chefs were cooking up our feast at the far end of the restaurant. The Riverford lunch comprises of one meat and several vegetable and salad dishes. These are presented to each table on sharing platters and the idea is that you take what you want then pass to the others on your table. Positioned at the far end, at first I was concerned that there would be nothing left by the time the plates reached me (I was getting ready to start a food fight), but I soon saw that the volume served to each table means there is more than enough to go round.
The main on today’s menu was belly pork with pak choi. I have to say I’m not usually a big fan of belly pork as I still have those flashbacks to childhood: being made to eat everything on the plate before I could leave the table and having to chomp through that thick piece of squidgy fat on the meat, chewing for what seemed like an eternity before reluctantly swallowing the slimy lump. This pork, however, had no fat apart from a small piece of crunchy crackling, and the meat was so tender it hardly required any chewing at all!
Accompanying this delicious dish was a beetroot and orange salad, the flavours of which were so fine and fresh, we looked at each other and practically in sequence all uttered ‘wow’. In fact, that was the word of the day with the carrots and kohlrabi drizzled with mustard and honey provoking the same reaction. I was pleased to see asparagus making an appearance on the menu, being in season at this time of year and the tarragon it was flavoured with complimented rather than overpowered the taste.
Each dish looked so appetising, I did try to take a moderate amount of each but my plate was most definitely beginning to be piled high. One final dollop of creamy, smooth mashed potato and that was it. Silence descended upon our team for the first time that day as we each savoured the different combinations. And as if this plate of seasonal, local, fresh food wasn’t enjoyable enough, yes you’ve guessed it – there was a choice of desserts.
Each table was called up to the kitchen area one at a time to dribble over the selection of sweets, as the chefs explained exactly what each option was. And I’m not just talking two or three choices here, there were at least six, which would be enough to make anyone indecisive! Luckily, our Away Day was clearly having an effect, as we worked as a team and chose different desserts, then shared them around the table. The sweet delights included classic sticky toffee pudding and strawberry Pavlova, but my favourite was the baked chocolate mousse. Silky soft with a cocoa kick, it was delicious but very indulgent and I managed just a few spoonfuls before passing it down the table. A little goes a long way, apparently…
Once we’d finished there was hardly a crumb left on any of the plates and I think it’s safe to say we’d all consumed more than any of us would usually eat on a workday lunchtime. There were two immediate results from this midday treat: The first was that we all felt the overwhelming desire for a nap; The second was that all we could talk about for the rest of the afternoon was how excellent the food was. So it was just as well that we had less than an hour left in the meeting room before waddling back to the car park and squeezing our full-to-capacity bodies back into the people carrier. Riverford certainly gets the thumbs up from me.
All in all, not a bad day’s work…