On Monday we spent the afternoon at River Cottage, having a tour of the farm, cooking and sitting down for tea with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
A few surprised friends have asked how the whole thing came about, so I thought I'd recap the story from the beginning. Back in October last year I spotted a River Cottage competition on Twitter. The competition was promoting Hugh's new book and the #Fruitshare initiative.
We are fans of River Cottage and rather fancied the idea of a trip to the West Country. As luck would have it we also happened to have the perfect fruit related photo to enter. I'd taken it a few weeks earlier at our local Apple Day event that I was helping to organise.
I'd posed Theo on top of a pile of apples and used a huge amount of persuasion to coax him to look up towards the camera. It wasn't an easy shot to get and took quite a bit of time to achieve. It also helped that I knew the image I was aiming for. My elderly neighbour Harry took this photo of me trying to take the picture (I was at it long enough to become a spectacle for the neighbours) and when you see the final shot it shows that angle is everything!
So anyway, we submitted the photo and waited. And waited.... and waited. Finally several weeks after the closing date, this happened. River Cottage announced us as winners and shared the picture I had taken...
So we got in touch with Hugh's PA and started trying to arrange a date. We knew we were going to be busy at the start of the year so we asked to delay till late summer and to cut a very long story short, that's how we ended up at River Cottage on Monday....
We traveled down the night before and stayed at a hotel about 15 minutes away. Then in the morning we did a quick visit to Lyme Regis which was lovely, but incredibly crowded, especially for a term-time weekday in September.
From there it was on to RCHQ! The entrance to River Cottage from the road is quite weirdly unimpressive as you come in high up and then, after you have parked the car, you go down a farm track (by foot) to the main buildings.
We were met by the lovely Steven Lamb who is head of branding. Steven took us on a tour of the farm, telling us the history (we thought we knew it, but we so didn't!) of the three sites RCHQ has occupied and how this most recent location was actually left fallow for two decades after its previous owner died and the family couldn't decide what to do with it.
This twenty year break from farming meant the site was granted almost instant organic status when it became River Cottage HQ and now is farmed at a very low intensity. In fact the whole place was much less developed than I was expecting. We saw four pigs and a couple of other animals at a distance. A not enormous kitchen garden, one polytunnel, some areas of open meadow and some small plots of farmed land (the size you might have in your garden) that are used for teaching.
It's easy to forget what both Hugh and River Cottage's main business is. Hugh has never really been a chef. He's a food writer and broadcaster and RCHQ exists mainly as a cookery school and events venue more than as a farm. Steven told us they have 25,000 members of the public through the doors every year on courses, for weddings and to eat at one of their dining events. It seems a mind boggling amount for a relatively small place.
Next on the list Steven took us to the main buildings where Hugh was filming. As we passed by a window he popped his head out and said Hello. We had shown Theo a few episodes of River Cottage before we went down to Devon and so when we jabbed him in the ribs and asked "Who's this?" he responded with "Mr Fernley-Whittingstall!" (you'll go far boy!)
Leaving Hugh alone for a minute (and desperately resisting the urge to take a great photo of him hanging out of the window) we went over to meet chef Gill Meller who had laid out a table outside for us to make pizzas with their stone oven. As long-time homemade pizza devotees and wannabe stone oven owners this was right up our street.
Jim worked the dough while we both chatted to Gill. The Esse stone oven was insanely good. It promises pizzas in 2 minutes, but ours took less than that. As Jim managed the production line we stood around in the sunshine eating pizza with our fingers. (Beetroot as a pizza topping is a revelation by the way!) I was starting to like this place a lot. It was the very opposite of what I'd feared it might be and the people were so bloody nice.
As we ate our pizzas Hugh appeared (again) ready for our tea. If I'm entirely honest this was the part of the day I had been looking forward to least. Celebrities have a terrible habit of disappointing. I had feared Hugh might be very busy and consequently spend the time with us clock watching, looking distracted and like he rather be anywhere other than stuck with some prizewinners. But I was very wrong.
We sat in the garden on benches with Gill, Hugh and his PA Jess, like a group of old friends enjoying one of the last days of the summer. Hugh hoovered up the last of Jim's pizzas with almost indecent enthusiasm whilst Gill brought out salty caramel millionaire's shortbread (as utterly amazing as it sounds!) and plum tray bake.
Jim had brought Hugh a bottle of the champagne cider we made with the apples last year as a gift and he seemed genuinely appreciative of it and interested in the story of the community land we made it on.
At one point one of the chefs appeared to get some books signed for course participants and spotting the photo on the book, Theo (oblivious to the real star in our presence) pointed to the cover and exclaimed "Mr Fernley Whittingstall!" As we all laughed, Hugh turned to Theo and said "Where is he, have you seen this man anywhere?"
Theo knew the answer immediately and pointed back to the window we had seen him at earlier "Over there!" he said. More laughter from everyone and then the penny dropped and suddenly he realised "It's you!!" he exclaimed.