River Cottage Canteen tasting menu & a new kitchen bible - River Cottage A to Z

You may be forgiven for thinking I am slightly obsessed with River Cottage but since visiting the HQ near Axminster I have become an enthusiastic fan of the straightforward concept of good food, done well and ethically and locally sourced whenever possible.

I was inspired by the team at the beautiful farmhouse I visited last year and again recently. Then last week I ate for the first time at one of the River Cottage Canteens and was delighted to see the passion for ingredients seems to be as strong in the Canteen chefs as the team at River Cottage HQ.

I was in Winchester to learn more about the veritable tome that is River Cottage A to Z which contains 350 recipes and information about more than 330 ingredients.

I wondered if Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be as down to earth as he seems on TV - I was delighted when he rocked up, pint in hand to chat about the book which, at times, he clutched to his breast like a baby. He was indeed a normal bloke.

But that's what I find I like about him and every member of his team I have ever met. They are as passionate about ingredients and food as a parent is about their baby. It makes perfect sense to use seasonal food, and adapt meals to use what you have. That's why I have never taken a list to the supermarket or made anything more than a vague meal plan. I always pick out what's best value and quality within my budget and work the meal round that.

Obviously River Cottage Canteens have to work on a rather bigger scale than my kitchen but the principle remains.

Here's the official blurb about the book:"With more than three hundred entries covering vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, meat, fish, fungi, foraged foods, pulses, grains, dairy, oils and vinegars, the River Cottage A to Z is a compendium of all the ingredients the resourceful modern cook might want to use in their kitchen.

Each ingredient is accompanied by a delicious, simple recipe or two: there are new twists on old favourites, such as cockle and chard rarebit, North African shepherd’s pie, pigeon breasts with sloe gin gravy, or damson ripple parfait, as well as inspiring ideas for less familiar ingredients, like dahl with crispy seaweed or rowan toffee. And there are recipes for all seasons: wild garlic fritters in spring; cherry, thyme and marzipan muffins for summer; an autumnal salad of venison, apple, celeriac and hazelnuts; a hearty winter warmer of ale-braised ox cheeks with parsnips.
With more than 350 recipes, and brimming with advice, this is an essential guide to cooking, eating and living well. More than anything, the River Cottage A to Z is a celebration of the amazing spectrum of produce that surrounds us – all brought to life by Simon Wheeler’s atmospheric photography and Michael Frith’s evocative watercolour illustrations."
Now I mention I visited the Canteen in Winchester and obviously it would be neglectful of me not to mention what I ate there.

I sat with lovely bloggers Vic from Verily Victoria Vocalises, Louise from A Strong Coffee and Jane from The Hedgecombers plus a couple of nice foodies who had won a competition with Riverford Organics. Their prize was a seat on a table with us. And we were quite rowdy loudly enthusiastic. They didn't seem at all put out and soon joined us in photographing all the food!

So -we were sampling a sharing tasting A to Z lunch menu with all fruits and vegetables supplied by Riverford Organics.

Firstly there was a cute cup of cauliflower and nigella soup featuring seeds from nigella the flowering plant not parts of the famous cook!

Then we enjoyed delicata and butternut squash, shallot and mushroom tart and Wash Farm cardoon bruschetta with honey and thyme. I'd never eaten cardoon which is also known as artichoke thistle but loved it, especially with the honey.

Next - and this was my favourite dish of the day - we ate Pouting fish fingers with herby mayo and lemon cured herring. Pouting (what a cute name) is a cod-like fish which lent itself well to the crunchy goujons. I could have eaten it all over again.

We were all getting full by this point but next on the list was the main event really. EPA-braised Hampshire Angus beef cheek with parsnips, rabbit ragu served on greens with kohlrabi wedges (like slightly hard roast potatoes) and Quicke's cheddar, celeriac and apple salad. I'm not a cheese fan so gave that last one a miss. There was also a bonus dish of saffron spelt.

At this point Louise had to dash for her school run. Since I was her sharing partner that left me to tackle dessert for two alone.

The platter arrived with an enamel tin (be still my enamel-loving heart) filled with apple and chestnut crumble plus two large hunks of Rye chocolate cake and a gorgeous bay leaf syllabub. There were also some easy stewed plums not mentioned on the menu.

Dear reader I ploughed through and almost managed to finish but reluctantly surrendered at the point I felt like Monty Python's greedy Mr Creosote who exploded after being coaxed into eating a wafer thin mint. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, we can never be friends.

I left the canteen and beautiful Winchester and headed home filled to the brim and, once again, inspired by the River Cottage team.

River Cottage A to Z is definitely on my Christmas list. I might need to reinforce my shelf if Santa brings it as it is a very big book! If you would like to add it to your list you can find more about it, and buy it by heading to the River Cottage website or browsing your favourite book stores and websites.

Disclaimer: I was invited to lunch at River Cottage Canteen in Winchester to learn about River Cottage A to Z. Views and opinions remain honest and my own.

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