If you think of the humble vegetable as the ‘walk-on part’ of a meal, then a trip to Riverford’s Organic Farm near Buckfastleigh in Devon will change your mind.
Here vegetables are very much the stars of the show. In fact spend an afternoon touring the farm and eating in the Field Kitchen Restaurant and it’s unlikely you’ll look at a vegetable in the same way again.
Riverford is one of the largest fruit and vegetable box delivery schemes in the UK. Its founder, farmer Guy Watson, started his family business delivering 30 boxes to friends and family in 1993. The company now delivers more than 47,000 boxes per week. That’s a lot of vegetables. But as my visit revealed, although this is a slickly-run large-scale business, it hasn’t compromised its ethical beliefs or even its local farm feel.
I visited the farm with my family and a group of friends while on holiday in Devon. We went on one of the guided walking tours offered throughout the year. I’ll admit, I was concerned that a lengthy discussion on the benefits of organic farming might be lost on the rather exuberant three- and four-year-olds in our party.
Lucky then that Darren, our tour guide, was both entertaining and informative. With our bouncing, whinging, rampaging young folk in tow he managed to answer grown-up questions about modern organic farming, while simultaneously involving the smaller members of the group with poking, sniffing and tasting games. The excitement peaked with a ride around the farm on the tractor and trailer.
This is definitely a hands-on place where visitors of all ages are encouraged to touch, smell and taste the vegetables. In the vast poly tunnels we played hunt-the- red-tomatoes and find-the-longest-cucumber, not to mention the “take-that-chilli-out-of-your-mouth” game. The children were having a ball.
As Darren pointed out, too many children only ever see vegetables lined up in the supermarket these days. Here they get to pick them straight from the plant. It was certainly the closest I have ever seen my daughter get to a stick of celery.
In between summer rain showers we learned that the farm grows 105 different varieties of produce here from globe artichokes to runner beans, rhubarb to kohl rabi. We learned about the challenges faced by the unpredictable Devonshire climate – a crop might be ruined or delayed due to inclement weather but the boxes still have to be filled. Therefore the contents of the boxes vary weekly according to what is ready to be harvested, and customers are e-mailed in advance with recipe ideas to use the up-coming ingredients, as well as with general news from the farm.
Darren explained how being organic is central to the farm’s existence. The aim is to work with nature, rather than trying to dominate it. Farming organically prevents pollution from chemical fertilisers and pesticides, is better for the health of the environment and the people working on the farm. They farm in a way that will sustain and encourage wildlife and nurture the soil.
In order to meet demand across the UK, and not over-farm the land, Riverford has joined forces with ‘sister farms’ in other parts of the country to supply their local areas, thus keeping down food miles where possible. The Devon farm has developed a co-operative with many other local farmers in the area, sharing skills, equipment and knowledge and aiding opportunities for crop rotation to give the soil a chance to recover.
Even if we don’t have the time or inclination to involve ourselves with the politics (environmental or otherwise) behind the organic movement there is no denying that organic produce tastes great. As I stood there in that field and bit into a sweet, aromatic red tomato, I was transported back to my childhood, standing in my grandad’s rickety old greenhouse where a tomato tasted... well, like a proper tomato.
The people at Riverford certainly prove their pudding in the on-site restaurant, The Field Kitchen. Surrounded by the fields of produce, the restaurant is located in a light and airy glass and wood building. One set menu with multiple dishes is served to the communal bench tables and the atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and informal – almost like going round to a friend’s for lunch.
The lunch was out of this world. Using whatever the fields are producing that day, the chef, Jane Baxter, produced vegetable dishes that blew my mind. The food included a dish of delectable braised carrots and beetroot with orange, a spinach gratin, perfectly crispy roast potatoes with red onion, thyme and rosemary, and a delicious roast duck on kohl rabi, celery and hazelnuts. If any of this sounds unusual to you, I can assure you this was one of the best eating experiences I’ve ever had. This was the local landscape and season on a plate, and it was delicious.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, there was pudding. A choice of ten heaven-sent dishes from nectarine crumble, gooseberry fool and raspberry roulade to my choice of apricot and almond tart, all washed down with organic juices and wine.
You can enjoy a visit to Riverford’s farm on many levels – for starters the food is fantastic. It’s also a beautiful part of the country for a self-guided walk. Alternatively taking a guided tour provides a fascinating education on the practicalities and politics of producing food, or if you’re aged four then it’s a great muddy playground complete with tractor rides. But for me, enjoyment came from meeting food producers like these who take such pride in producing exceptional and ethical food. It was me who was humble – not the vegetables.
Visiting Riverford at Wash Farm in Buckfastleigh, Devon
Tours take place from February to December on some weekdays (call ahead) and every day during the school holidays. Tours start at 11am and some days at 4.30pm. Tours last between one and two hours.
Guided tours are £5 per person and £4 for children aged three to 12. This includes a trailer ride.
Guided tours are free to box customers on Saturdays.
Self-guided tours are free. You can walk around at your own pace with an audio guide (mp3 player) and a map, which you can pick up from The Field Kitchen on arrival. There are two walks – a half-hour walk or a longer one of an hour and 15 minutes. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a lead.
A two-course lunch costs £17.50 per person or £8.75 per child aged three to 12. Lunch is served daily.
To book call the restaurant on 01803 762074 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on the Riverford Organic Vegetable Box Scheme or anything else about Riverford Organic click here or call 0845 600 2311.