Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Life in the Country

Autumn had barely begun to wrap itself around the land the last time I decamped from city life in favour of a green spell in Dorset. The pastures shone rich and full of life, the trees still proudly bore their leaves, and the hedgerows showed only the beginnings of their bejewelling in shades of crimson and magenta. Veg patches, allotments and orchards were replete with the spoils of summer growth. Mackerel, pollock and bream, seeking shelter in the milder coastal waters, were in abundance. Spring lamb were now fully grown, and ready for slaughter. There could not have been a better time to experience life at Park Farm, a place better known to most as the River Cottage.

Whilst the television show paints a fairly accurate picture of what goes on at the River Cottage, it's hard not to wonder if the lifestyle and activities that are portrayed are actually constructed purely for entertainment and viewer ratings. The cynics amongst us must surely question Hugh's picture-perfect rural existence, which complete with Barbour jackets, Land Rovers, and an Aga, is just as well accessorised as Jamie Oliver's urban-utopia ever was in the Naked Chef series.

But there's no expertly-crafted aspirational lifestyle reconstruction here. The River Cottage HQ isn't a 2-D set made out of plywood in a studio in West London. Nor was it dreamt up in a brainstorm by a bunch of Execs, peering over a flip chart in a meeting room. It really is a working farm, where traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables, and rare-breed animals are tended to and looked after by people who care about what they're doing, whether there's a TV series being filmed or not.

The River Cottage is many things. It's a mass market entertainment product, on a mainstream TV channel in a prime time slot. It's a promotional vehicle for a lucrative publishing enterprise. It's an ever-expanding product range. It is, without doubt, a fully functioning brand, with a growing portfolio of assets. But it's also a hub for the local community, a social enterprise, and a valiant attempt at experimenting with new ways of getting by. At the heart of it all, there's much more than a balance sheet and a shareholder meeting. There's a group of passionate individuals who not only believe the patter that they're peddling, they live and breath it. And that's what really defines the River Cottage; the collective desire to experience and share a way of life.

It doesn't take long to get an idea of what this life at Park Farm entails. Undoubtedly, seasonality, sustainability and environmental responsibility are key values, but more importantly, there's a sense of openness; that all are welcome to chip in and get involved – staff and punters alike. Attending a dinner or course there, as I was lucky enough to do on one of my days off, is more like hanging out with old friends than it is a formal dining or learning experience. You have a laugh and enjoy yourself, primarily because you see that's exactly what the staff are doing too.

On occasion, a sense of (only just) organised chaos slips into place at Park Farm, whether it be in the timings of day courses being treated with industrial standard elasticity, or the sous chef running platters of half-cooked food from the main kitchen in the barn, to the private dining room in the farmhouse opposite in the middle of a dinner for 85, or the cows happily grazing in the sheep's field, with the sheep looking on with what can only be described as vacant jealousy. Despite the sense that any concrete rules have been put aside in favour of loose guidelines, in it's own way, everything always seems to play out to perfection.

In amongst butchering hoggets from the farm, to preparing razor clams and seaweed that had been foraged from the Dorset coastline, to thinking up new recipes on the spot for the slew of freshly-picked fruit and veg that the gardeners would offload to the kitchen on a daily basis, there was always a sense that experimentation is universally encouraged at the River Cottage. Indeed, it wouldn't exist at all if Hugh hadn't gambled on ditching his city life in favour of a radically different existence in the country.

In my short spell working there, I often felt refreshed by how little the River Cottage seemed to be bound by the usual conventions of business. After all, the River Cottage as a business would not exist if it had not evolved out of a lifestyle decision; a desire to try something different. Intrinsically, the lines have been blurred between home, farm, restaurant, TV show, brand, and lifestyle. In one way or another it's all of those things, it just depends on how you choose to experience it.

On my final day working at Park Farm, a trailer full of beef arrived at the kitchen doorway. It was one of Hugh's Devon Blonde cows, fresh from the abattoir. I don't think I've ever seen so much meat in one place in my life. Most of it was to be used for dinners and events at Park Farm, aside from the sirloins, which Hugh had baggsied for his own personal kitchen, but not before we'd had a taste, however. Head Chef Gill sliced off a couple of the biggest steaks I'd ever layed eyes upon. This was to be my Thanks and Farewell staff dinner.

Once the beef had been dealt with, and we'd skewered a suckling pig, ready for spit roast the following day, we downed tools and tucked into our steaks, which Sous Chef Neil had expertly cooked - just the way I had asked for it – halfway between rare and medium rare. As we discussed the weeks that had just passed, I couldn't help but be impressed by what has been created here at an old farm in a valley, on the Dorset-Devon border. The River Cottage shows just how good life can be when someone follows their dream... It's enough to spur me on to follow mine.

Some more of the pictures I took during my stage at the River Cottage can be found here.

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