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.
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.