Ever wondered what an organic chef does all day? I spent a shift cooking with head chef James Dodd and his team in the Riverford Field Kitchen this week, preparing food for one of our special customer supper clubs. This is a bit of an insight into what happens behind the scenes when we’re preparing and cooking our incredible veg for 60 people.
My shift starts with a quick walk through the polytunnel to see if there are any ingredients that we can use. The Field Kitchen have their own undercover plot for growing any unusual or indispensable produce; things like lime basil, coriander and even vampire chillies! At the moment though everything is looking rather bare. We’re in the middle of the hungry gap and a lot of produce is coming from our French farm in the Vendée as well as our friends in Portugal and Spain. Having said that, there are still plenty of herbs about which we can use and the thriving seedlings are a welcome promise of things to come.
On the rest of the farm it’s business as usual. People are out in the fields picking cardoons and one of our fieldworkers, Raphs, is in the tractor rotavating land ready for planting. When I arrive in the kitchen, James and junior sous chef Craig are already at work discussing the evening’s menu and making adjustments in view of what crops are coming in.
James structures these events so that they run a bit like a vegetarian tasting menu. We start with bread, then six veg-centric dishes served two at a time. This is followed by a palate cleanser (which I’m slightly sceptical about the general concept of) and dessert.
I’m put to work making the courgette cake with lemon icing. It’s always very easy to underestimate how long it takes to make a cake when you’re multiplying the recipe by six. It now means that I have to, among other things, weigh out 1.5kg of butter, 1.2kg of flour and separate 24 eggs. That’s a lot of cake!
The other dishes take an equally long time. The sesame fried asparagus requires each spear to be blanched before being coated in flour, egg and finally breadcrumbs and sesame seeds. It takes both Craig and I the best part of half an hour to get them all done and that’s before we’ve even turned on the fryer. There’s a lot to do, but luckily some of the waiting staff have come in and are happy to help. It’s brilliant to work in a kitchen that takes such care over the food that’s served; absolutely everything is made from scratch here. It’s a fantastic place to learn about how to make the most of your veg and to get plenty of ideas about what to do with your box each week. These chefs are veg maestros.
JJust as I get the cake in the oven after struggling with the ginormous mixer (which is almost as tall as I am), the rest of the front of house team arrive and start setting up the dining room ready for our guests. Rosie, who’s organised the event, has arrived with beautifully written place names tied around sprigs of fresh dill, and Penny our head gardener has decorated each table with wild flowers from the farm. Suddenly everything is coming together and the pace in the kitchen picks up. I’m frantically set to work making icing, preparing kale and laying things out ready for service.
The next time I look up the restaurant is almost full and James is busy stretching and baking the flatbreads for our first course. Eventually everyone settles and there’s a growing atmosphere of expectancy in the room. Rachel Watson, Guy’s sister, stands up to say a few words. She speaks about growing up on the farm, as Millie and Jo bustle around pouring prosecco and cider for guests, and about how much she enjoys meeting our customers at these special events. Craig follows her and talks about the menu we’ve prepared. I can’t help but feel a little nervous; I hope everyone likes what we’ve made.
The dishes flow perfectly through service and before I know it we’re serving the palate cleanser which, I have to say, surprises me completely. The frozen fennel and tangy sherbet are beautifully fresh and totally unlike anything I’ve ever tried. This is what I love about the Field Kitchen, getting to try completely new ideas which use such familiar ingredients.
Finally it’s time to serve the cake. My panic about runny icing is unfounded and it all comes off quite nicely. I cross my fingers and hope that everyone enjoys it. The recipe balances moist courgette with zingy lemon and the whole affair somehow manages to be both comforting and refreshing at once.
Eventually after chatting to our guests, sweeping, cleaning down and setting up for lunch the next day, I can head home to bed, feeling very satisfied and completely inspired.
Courgette and lemon cake
This recipe is adapted from the Riverford Companion Spring and Summer veg cook book.
75ml whole milk
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
250g unsalted butter, plus a little extra for greasing the tin
250g soft light brown sugar
4 eggs, separated
½ tsp amaretto
200g gluten-free self-raising flour
75g ground almonds
250g grated courgettes
For the icing:
300g icing sugar
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
30g unsalted butter
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 – Preheat oven to 180˚C/Gas 4. Lightly grease a 23cm spring-form cake tin with a little butter and line it with baking parchment.
2 – In a small pan over a low heat, warm the milk with the lemon zest for a couple of minutes, then set aside to cool.
3 – Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale, light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Gently fold in the almond extract, flour and ground almonds, then fold in the courgettes and cooled milk.
4 – Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they form stiff peaks. Add a large spoon of the egg white to the courgette mixture and stir it in, then gently fold in the rest, retaining as much air as possible.
5 – Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about an hour, or until just firm to the touch; the cake should spring back when you press the middle lightly. Cool the cake in the tin for 15 minutes then turn it on to a wire rack to cool completely.
6 – To make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a bowl and stir in the lemon zest. Melt the butter and, working quickly, whisk together adding a splash of hot water, until you have a thick but spreadable icing. Use a palette knife to spread it over the cake. Leave the icing to set for about half an hour before cutting into portions and serving.