“Here at Riverford our aim is to shorten the food chain and promote a connection between producers, cooks and their tables, and to restore food to its rightful position as a central part of our culture.”
Vitha Shepard, Riverford Farm.
I arrived at the Riverford Field Kitchen during the morning food prep. The blackboard was being updated with the lunch offer and some leeks were char – grilling, making me wish that lunch was not a distant figment of my imagination. Cauliflowers were getting the machete treatment during a conversation as to whether the green was edible or even tasty. I wanted to join in on the side of the affirmative camp, but saw that the green leaves were not going to make the cut and were duly relegated to the compost heap.
I was stuck by the overall quiet of the environs – small family groups were milling around, readying themselves to take a guided tour to the sound of Guy Watson’s voice, and there was a hub of activity around the kitchen
Elsewhere, peace reigned. There seemed to be a total lack of anything motor or mechanical, and I was aware that there was a frenzy of low pitched activity on the insect front. Butterflies were everywhere and the insect cohort of the workforce were well on with their days tasks. Just as it should be on an organic farm.
Enjoying a brief respite from my back injury I too took the tour around Riverford.
Guy Watson intently guided me through each field of produce explaining the crop cycle and highlighting the highs and lows of particular produce. I learned a lot during my walk – badgers are partial to squash, and weeds are not seen as a pest to annihilate with noxious chemicals. Indeed, they grew alongside some crops, with no apparent harm to the quality or quantity of the expected yield.
I was grateful for a dock leaf that I found growing alongside some nettles that had pounced, as they do, and viciously stung my arm. They soothed the redness, and I marched onwards, taking stock, listening and watching.
On return to meet Vitha Shepard at the Field Kitchen, I had a head full of questions. I had seen the fruit and veg, but was intrigued as to how 45,000 customers received an organic box each week, some as far away as London. This was not the pick your own farm of my youth, so no-one was in the fields filling their trugs with tasty wares to throw in the back of the car to cook up for tea.
So, how was it all done, and how was it done in sympathy with the environment?
Riverford proudly boasts a field to table lead time of just two days – infinitely superior to mainstream supermarkets, so the freshness is a given with this kind of box scheme.
Somewhat sceptically I wondered how it all got moved around. I had followed a convoy of Sainsbury’s lorries on the M5 and was surprised to see a Riverford lorry of the same magnitude turn off in front of me up the lane to Riverford. Food miles passed uneasily through my mind.
Vitha was swift to allay my fears.
Riverford have worked tirelessly with Exeter University to study in great depth their carbon footprint and its effect on the ethos of their business
“We want to offer a saner alternative to supermarkets without become like them.”
Nothing is air freighted. Absolutely nothing.
I asked about staples like tomatoes that appear on our tables year round. I had read Guy Watson’s take on the wasteful idea of producing second rate hot house tomatoes on site. The Exeter team unanimously concluded that it is less carbon wasteful to road freight them from Southern Spain when they cannot be picked on site.
Even the exotica that comes from their Ugandan partnership comes by sea. Vanilla is dried and so is the pineapple, using respected preserving methods of our grandparents to adhere to their strict credo.
Riveford has an additional three farms in Yorkshire, Hampshire and Peterborough that slot into the web of supply. All four work in partnership with neighbouring farmers to meet the ever growing demand for their boxes.
A farm has additionally been acquired in the Vendee region of Western France, its aim to provide earlier produce, due to the milder climate in the region. Again, lorries will bring the produce to the UK, measuring faithfully up to the stringent standards that Riverford have set themselves.
Riverford has four farm shops in the area, that expand the offer to customers to provide meat, dairy and a wide range of other locally sourced produce, affording their more local clientèle the ability to reduce the food miles on many other comestibles.
They have strong links in the local community. They are the school meal provider for the local primary school and run a Young Farmer’s Club for the pupils.
They visit the farm weekly and tend a plot of land and see the growth cycle from seed to harvest, thus raising awareness of this vital process from a very young age.
Jane Baxter who runs the Riverford Field Kitchen, and the co-editor of the award winning The Riveford Farm Cook Book (Fourth Estate 2008), does cookery demonstrations with them to see how the fruits of their very young labours get on to the table at home.
Jane Baxter’s skill is omnipresent in the Field Kitchen. A mountain of her and Guy’s cookbook are snapped up by satisfied eaters, and there are a half dozen well thumbed copies to read during lunch if you are so inclined. It is crammed with recipes and ideas for the Riveford box contents. Not satisfied with this, the weekly newsletter supplies further seasonal ideas, and there are a goodly selection of recipes on the web site. Waste, so scorned by the intelligent eater is also touched on, where ideas for using up the last remains of the weekly box. Food this good should never be wasted. I seriously doubt it is.
Lunch is a set meal affair, providing on the day of my visit chicken, and no less than five vegetable dishes. One could glibly think that this was a token gesture to the “Five a Day” mantra that most of us hear in our sleep these days. Incorrect. Each dish contained a wide selection of vegetables, providing an ample main course dish for even the most hardened of vegetarians. I think my meal gave me nearer fifteen a day, no exaggeration.
The desserts were in truth, indulgent and copious, although there was ample evidence of Riveford fruit in at least half of them.
Lunch is served up, school dinner style, with the enormous vegetable tureens and home made bread being passed from eater to eater, all of us desperately trying to be polite and not take more than our fair share. Our parents would have been proud. However, in true canteen style, seconds are very much the order of the day, and the tureens were eagerly passed around a second time.
Dessert was more a first come first served affair and there was no shortage of takers (myself included)
Whilst sipping on my organic peppermint tea, I asked Vitha why people chose to buy from Riveford.
“Oh, that’s easy to answer. We surveyed our customers and the resounding reasons are that of flavour and freshness”. There is no shortage of this at Riverford.
The operation is not a small one, but it has dovetailed itself into the local communities whilst still allowing customers further afield the delights they have on offer. Riveford, for me represents the intelligent and moral choice we wish to elicit from our weekly shop, without the confusion of what to choose from supermarket shelves that can so often mislead us. Riveford have taken on the role as our collective conscience and have made all the right decisions for us. It’s that simple.