We booked into Riverford for lunch early on in our holiday. We’ve been twice before and are totally converted to their food. Even simple dishes like mashed potatoes are somehow works of art (and believe me, I’ve experimented many, many times to inject some variation into mash!). And vegetables I’ve never been keen on – like fennel or beetroot – are somehow magically transformed.
The field kitchen at Riverford is made up of about 8 big tables in this big architectural kind of warehouse in the middle of the farm, so you share a table with people you’ve never met before. Then loads of sky high-piled plates are brought out for you to share. Going for the veggie option you get the slightly better deal here, as you get an individual dish in addition to the communal ones. There is a big box of toys and another of books at the back of the room, where you tend to get seated if you bring kids. It will quite possibly be the most middle-class dining experience of your life, and I like to play imagine people’s back-stories and cast them as characters in a novel (BB4 producer here, philosophy lecturer there). I hope I do this without staring too much, but really it is hardcore middle class, and I live in the New Forest which is an entirely different and more uniform kind of demographic (did I mention that I’m somewhat obsessed with class??). The communal table aspect I’m not such a fan of but then I am unusually socially inept, and it’s a price well worth paying for the amazing food. And it’s notable that everyone else in Riverford at any given time looks totally cool about the whole shared dining deal (possibly a South London kind of class thing I fancy, although it may well just be a draw for normal people).
We arrived about five minutes late, which is a pain I know, as the serving style of Riverford kind of necessitates everyone turns up on time. And we both like a system, so were already feeling like bad people on this front. Naturally by the time we arrived parking was at a premium and we followed a pristine 4x4 down the lane (trying hard not to pass judgement). It did, however, proceed to park slap bang in the middle of the last 2 spaces. Charlie asked them - not noticeably narkily - if they would mind shifting up a bit so we could squeeze in, which they duly did, but you could tell it was under sufferance. And guess what? Why, five minutes later we found ourselves on the same table as them! Cue mutually pained polite expressions. It is fair to say that conversation flowed even less freely than it would have done on one of our better days, and the children valiantly performed their roles as requiring our undivided attention throughout the meal. Sterling work, kids.
The Riverford experience will also eternally be memorable for me for getting a text from my brother telling me that Thatcher had died, a moment which would normally have prompted immersion in various news sources for hours, and it was difficult not to announce to fellow dinners such an unusual piece of news. I won’t detail the food as I wouldn’t do it credit, but in the interests of reportage it seems only fitting to mention Riverford’s rather incredible puddings. In fact, the mere memory of these was the main factor keeping Harry (5) and Katie (2) motivated to stick with the extended mealtime. H&K, incidentally are probably the world’s least enthusiastic consumers of vegetables, and one totally great thing which Riverford does is assure me that it’s not simply my cooking they are rejecting, since I really don’t think it’s possible to get tastier, better put-together vegetable dishes. But back to pudding porn, which has taken on notoriety in our house. Unlike the rest of the meal, you go up to the counter for the puddings, of which there are about 8, which the chefs talk you through, and lashings of custard and cream (steering into Famous Five territory). We chose fairly conservatively with sticky toffee pudding and pecan chocolate cake, which were indeed mighty fine, and I’m not sure I have ever seen Katie so quiet and precise in her eating. In fact, she ate half of Harry’s pudding too, seeing as pecan turned out to be a step too exotic for him.
After the Riverford feasting the least we could do was work it off a bit so we drove up to Exmoor and climbed to the top of Hound Tor. This involved quite a lot of scaling and balancing precariously on many various combinations of rocks, and delight at discovering several geocaching boxes. The latter, upon closer inspection, appeared to consist largely of soggy, smudged notepads, which we struggled to adequately explain to the children. Despite the fact that it was 3 degrees, and we were all wearing 2 coats and in Harry’s case two hats, by the time we reached the top of the tor Katie decided that she actually didn’t need a hat. And while she was on the subject, her scarf and gloves were pretty irritating too. When she started trying to take her coat off, I did the only thing I could think of that might appeal to someone with no obvious temperature control, i.e. encourage her back down to the tea van with the promise of an ice cream. It was probably just as well we weren’t on the school run, as my under-dressed daughter, eating an ice-cream in the near-freezing drizzle would probably have raised more than the usual eyebrows. But she wasn’t whinging so that counts as a pretty damn successful day out in my book.