The drive down to Axminster is shrouded in fog. The further we move away from London, the less we can see. We pass Stonehenge knowing that it’s there, lurking in the mist, but it might as well be in China for all we can make out. Given that we’re heading for the famous River Cottage HQ – a farmhouse that has become synonymous with the farm to table approach to cooking, set in Devonshire hills that roll in from the sea – we’re starting to fear that we might miss the glorious views.
The murk stays with us right up until we arrive in the carpark. We can just about make out a tractor and and long wooden cabin, but beyond that all is white. One of us jokes that we hadn’t realised that River Cottage was on the edge of the Earth. We step into the office to meet the team, and then the miraculous happens. As we begin the descent into the valley, the sun cranks into full gear and the mist burns away before our eyes. It’s like a veil dropping, and there – sat gleaming, as if ready for a glossy magazine cover shoot – is the cottage itself.
So begins a day of cooking, photo snapping, eating and table-bound camaraderie. We’re here to meet the executive chef, Gelf Alderson – the man who is tasked with taking that famed farm to table philosophy and putting it into the River Cottage restaurants that dot the country. He’s part recipe magician, part campaigner, part businessman and part forager, and we take the chance to chat to him about all of those things, mostly while eating the exquisite food he knocks together while he rabbits away. It’s a hard life, isn’t it?
Let’s get straight into it with farm to table philosophy. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall played a huge part in how the general public became aware of that concept, didn’t he?
He was certainly one of the forerunners. I like to wind him up a little bit that I remember watching him when I was still at school [laughs]. So, he’s been going as long as I’ve been cooking. I’ve been cooking for 21 years, and he was right at that stage of doing Cook On The Wild Side when I was leaving school. He was certainly an inspiration to my generation of chefs, and a real eye-opener as well because nobody had really exposed modern farming methods, either. Agriculture was, and still is, quite cloak and dagger and they’re still not very open about what they do, but he was one of the first people who really dug into it and said, “This is all a bit rubbish – we need to stop doing this and we need to start moving into better ways.” It’s all about supporting proper farmers that treat the land, the animals and their crops in a respectful way. He still does that to this day. He still likes to get his megaphone out and shout at the supermarkets.
You haven’t been here since the very beginning or your career then, presumably?
No. River Cottage is 20 this year. I was only 17 back then and this place [the River Cottage HQ] didn’t exist. Hugh started very small – he only had an acre just outside Bridport, the original River Cottage – and then he moved here to Park Farm 12 years ago. I’ve been here for six-and-a-half of those.
Going back to the beginnings of your career – at 17 you started in the kitchen?
At 16, actually. Straight out of school and straight into the kitchen.
Where was that?
A hotel up in Worcester. I did my apprenticeship on day release.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a bit like prison, to be honest. We used to work five-and-a-half days a week and then go to collage for one day, and then have half a day off. Back then, catering was still an 80-hour week. It was pretty hard graft but I managed to work in some pretty good kitchens under some pretty good chefs, and I learnt how to do things the right way. I was quite lucky in that the kitchens I worked in were very similar to here. They were buying whole-carcass animals; they were doing their own butchery. They were making everything from scratch which gave me a really good grounding – a lot of chefs don’t get that these days.
A lot of stuff’s brought in: the bread’s brought in, the meat turns up ready-packaged in individual plastic packaging, and you don’t really get that insight into what makes a quality ingredient. I had that from when I was a child. My dad grew veg and we were forever outside picking and going to health-food shops to get different grains and cereals, so I had a good grounding from childhood through to the beginning of my career.
Was your dad in the kitchen as well?
No, no. He was a groundsman and a librarian. My mum stayed at home when we were kids. We were pretty poor. It wasn’t like we had a luxury lifestyle. We were definitely only just above the breadline. But she cooked everyday and made bread from scratch everyday. She was a great baker – cakes, biscuits, all that stuff – and I started cooking with her before I went to school. My hands were forever ruining her bread. The bowl of risen bread dough is just a huge temptation for a child to stick their hands in it and knock the crap out of it [laughs]. So I started annoying someone who was cooking when I was quite young and then continued to do that throughout most of my career [laughs].
You said something just now about “knowing what makes a quality ingredient”…
Yes. That comes from dealing with it from its raw state, all the time. Especially when you talk about meat. I’ll talk about veg in a minute, but with meat you only get to know what makes a quality animal if you see that animal (A) when they’re alive, and (B) when they’re one piece when they’re dead. So you get to see the fat cover and the marbling through the muscle.
If it comes in from a butcher trimmed already, you don’t get to see any of that quality. You don’t get to see how long it has been hung for, for example, which is all really important. If you don’t know that process, how can you then go to a butcher and explain what you need from them? They’ll just give you what they want to give you. Butchers aren’t cooks. Butchers are butchers.
I have a great relationship with the producers that we have here and in the restaurants, because I can go to them and say, “This is exactly what I want from you: I want this animal raised to a certain age, I want it to have a certain fat cover, and then I want you to cut the muscle in a certain way at a certain point in the carcass.” If you haven’t been exposed to that you have to make an effort to actually go and do it yourself. And I did that – I went to work at a master butchers called FC Warrens, just to hone my knowledge of the animal, and also to talk to them about which bits they can’t sell.
Everybody wants the steak or the chops – the cut that’s easy to cook. It takes no skill to cook a piece of meat that’s already tender. And the bits that they couldn’t use… a lot of them are trendy now, such as the shin and the belly. Chefs like myself have gone to butchers and said, “Well, what can’t you sell? Give it to me at a good price and I’ll get it on my restaurant menu and make it popular.” Belly pork is a prime example. It’s now the most expensive cut on a pig, whereas before it was the loin. Without that knowledge, and without that interaction with your producer, you’ll never get the right ingredient. Chefs walk blindly into what they’re cooking half the time.
And with veg?
With veg as well… with mass-produced vegetables, they’re cross-bred to be successful, not to be tasty. The growers I use here, I go to those guys and say, “Can you grow me X?” I don’t just want a carrot, I want this variety of carrot or this variety of tomato; this selection of that, this variety of pea. And if you’re not doing that, they’ll just grow the peas that are successful because that’s good for them. Of course we want them to be successful as well, but what I want is flavour. And that’s the relationship that I’ve had here for six-and-a-half years.
It’s just strengthening those bonds between us and the farmer. I always say that it’s not down to us how good the dish is. We get stuff hot. The dish is already good when it arrives in that box from your grower. If you know your trade, once you get that bit right, your bit is actually reasonably easy. You just treat the ingredients with respect, get them a little bit hot, maybe make them a bit more tender, season them nicely and that’s your dish. Here at River Cottage we’ve always been ingredients-led, and that’s the way our cooking stays to this day. We get good ingredients and we treat them with respect.
We’re sat here with this incredible view. What a tough place to work, Gelf!
[Laughs] It has its moments. Joking aside, we’re a busy place so it is hard work. The guys work really hard in the kitchen. We have big dinners every Friday and Saturday night, so there are a couple of big shifts a week. It’s by no means a walk in the park. But if you’re gonna spend time at work, you might as well spend it here. I’d rather do 60 hours a week here than 60 hours in a basement.
I go and work in other kitchens occasionally, and it’s funny… for the dinner we recently did at The Savoy, I was literally underground for two days. When you did step outside, you were straight into central London. I love spending my time here. I love being able to potter about and meet my ingredients.
That’s something I noticed when I came in today. I saw you out there foraging.
Yeah – that’s part of what we do and what we need to do. Wild food takes no input. Environmentally, it’s pretty sound. Something that grows wild always has better flavour than something that’s been cultivated. It’s just that natural hardiness – it has to grow without any kind of help. It just boosts that flavour up. And the hedgerows around here – we’re organic and we don’t spray – are packed full of great stuff, whether it’s wild garlic or flowers.
Are you planting stuff that you know you’ll want to use, or is it the other way around: it’s naturally there so therefore you’re going to use it?
The only thing that I’ve seeded here is a small patch of wild garlic close to the kitchen, because the other wild garlic is quite a trek [laughs]. But no, the stuff naturally grows. These fields are packed full of wild sorrel because we raise sheep in them, and wild sorrel tends to grow in sheep fields. In the hedgerows themselves the primroses are just there. The fennel is wildly seeded. The borage – we have planted some, but it pops up as and when. The only bits we cultivate are the obvious bits in the beds, under the polytunnels. But the rest is wild.
The dandelions, which you can see now flowering outside the window – we’ll use some of their leaves in salads, although, my mum used to tell me they’d make you wet yourself. I don’t think there’s any proof [laughs]. There’s a sloe tree just out there, some wood sorrel in that hedgerow down there, some wild horseradish over there, there’s burdocks… all kinds of stuff. If you know what you’re looking for you don’t have to go out and buy it.
Is this knowledge that you’ve picked up since you’ve been here? I know you said that your dad was very into this kind of stuff, but an understanding of what you’re foraging for is clearly something you have to nurture…
Yeah [laughs]… don’t blindly forage! It’s very dangerous! We’re lucky here because we’ve got John Wright who works alongside us. He’s an absolutely amazing forager. He has only poisoned himself once, which is the mark of a good forager [laughs].
There are certain things you can forage for without too much of a risk, like wild garlic. If it smells like wild garlic, it’s wild garlic. I’ve learnt loads since I started working here. I had a base knowledge of it before, but my knowledge has increased a hundredfold just by being surrounded by it, and people like John Wright or Hugh or Gill Mellor.
The other chefs in the kitchen are all keen foragers. Conor [a chef bobbing about in the background] will be down on the seafront today picking sea thyme and sea beets, all of which grow down in the estuary here. So there are a few things that if you take a bit of interest in, you can successfully forage. Just make sure you check out what you’re doing. I won’t ever talk about mushrooms [laughs]. There are a couple that you can identify really easily, but other than that you really need to be very careful with mushrooms. Leave them to the experts.
So, no hallucinogenic dishes on the River Cottage menu, then?
Only by accident [laughs]. Those mushrooms do grow on the farm, actually, but they all seem to disappear. I don’t know where they go [laughs].
That’s a joke, by the way, readers!
Yeah, that’s very much a joke [laughs]. They are very much an illegal substance! But to get back on track… this field hasn’t been ploughed since the Second World War, so the mycelium culture is very strong here. We grow a lot of parasols, a lot of field mushrooms, some blewits… we have a really strong wild culture because it has never been sprayed and it has not been ploughed for decades. It’s a really good piece of land for having that wild edge to it.
And all of this is what we’re talking about when we talk about the farm to table philosophy, right? You can ask the question, “What’s that philosophy all about?”, but it’s really all there in those three words.
It is straight from the farm, but farms can be good and farms can be bad. It’s all about the quality of the farmer. Not all non-organic farming is bad – some people are farming with good methods but choose not to be certified. For us, organic is just that mark of excellence. If you’re certified organic, you’re pretty insured that it’s going to be of a quality.
Is not importing is part of the farm to table philosophy?
We do have to import food. There’s no getting away from that. We don’t have enough land to feed the amount of people we have in this country. But it’s where that food is coming from that’s important. I had this real problem when quinoa burst onto the scene, for example. It was all being imported from South America where it was the base crop for the poorer people. So, what we were doing with our trendy superfood was starving a population of indigenous people by taking the only food they could afford and exporting it into the West. So I wouldn’t touch quinoa until it was British-grown.
And it’s grown not far from here, isn’t it?
There’s some grown not far from here but we work with Hodmedod’s, which is mainly based over in East Anglia. They’re a really great company. They started in 2012 and I’ve been working with them ever since, so we now get British lentils, British peas, British kidney beans… we’ve eradicated the need to import any pulses in our businesses now. Everything’s British-grown as far as pulses go. Every ingredient that we use is really thought about, no matter how small it seems in the grand scale of things. From salt right through to meat, everything has that thought process behind it, and it’s my job to think about that.
I’m sure we’re not perfect, but we really strive to make sure that it’s not just the quality we’re looking at but the whole ethical journey of that food. Are we taking it away from someone who needs it more than us, and if we are, where can we find a British-grown, next-door equivalent?
So the sourcing of the ingredients is just part of your job. You’re Executive Chef of River Cottage… what else does that entail?
Not sleeping very much [laughs]. I’m kind of the safeguard for what we do at River Cottage on a daily basis.
I thought that was John Wright, the foraging master!
Well, yeah… he safeguards me from poisoning myself [laughs].
Obviously, Hugh doesn’t have time to be here from day to day, but I ensure that we stick to that kind of ethical food, producing ingredients-led dishes. Sometimes I have to reign the chefs back a bit when they get a bit too technical and remind them that what we do is all about flavour and not necessarily about getting the tweezers out and doing the itsy-bitsy stuff.
I’m also here to keep us current. I hate the phrase: not exactly “on trend” but we do need to move with the times. We can’t just stand still and say, “Well, we’re River Cottage, we’ve been here for 20 years, people will always want to come and see us”. We’re offering new things through out cookery courses, keeping that interesting. We’ve moved it into fermenting and gut health – the wellbeing side of things.
I’m tasked with taking the food that we do on the farm back out to the restaurants. So I spend a lot of time running around getting here into there. And then I go out and do dinners. I’m doing one for 400 at London Zoo in May; I’ve just done The Savoy; we’re going to cook at The Old Bailey. And I do stuff like this [the interview you’re reading] with companies like you, Real Kombucha. I recruit likeminded chefs to come and work for us. I have a large amount of paperwork to do, so there is a slightly boring side to my life! Staff welfare has never been forefront in our industry, so we’re trying to change that. We try to make sure our staff don’t work more than 48 hours a week, which is pretty good for our industry, and we make them take two days off a week. I’m on the phone a lot when they want a shoulder or a they want an ear to bend…
So, it’s not actually just coming up with amazing dishes.
That’s probably about 25% of my job. That’s the easy part. I come here and I’m surrounded by amazing ingredients. It doesn’t take long to figure out what to do with them. Writing the recipe is usually a lot harder because I’ll throw something together and think it’s amazing and then forget what I’ve put in it [laughs]. But a big part of it is getting the recipe into a format that can be delivered on a daily basis, because our restaurants are busy – they’ll do 300 covers on a Saturday – so it can’t be too technical. That’s a slightly challenging part of it.
What would be the one thing that underpins all River Cottage recipes?
Ingredients, really. That’s the real focus. Without the ingredients we’re nothing. There is technique going on, but it’s definitely all about the ingredients. We’re quite a complex food business. We don’t have an ethnicity to us – we’re not North African; we’re not specifically British. In all the books there’s cooking with spice and there’s cooking very traditionally. We cook however we can to make the ingredients sing. We’re not really pigeonholed into one area of cooking, which is nice.
You mentioned that part of your job is to have your finger on the pulse. You’ve talked briefly about gut health, but what else is the Next Big Thing?
Er… [laughs]. I’m not sure! We’ve gone through quite a number of rapid transformations. Cooking outdoors has been really trendy. [Gestures towards the courtyard] You can see we’ve got Big Green Eggs all over the place today. We’ve got a wood-fire cookery area out there…
Can I just stay here, Gelf? Would that be OK?
You can! We’ve got rooms in the farmhouse!
Gill Mellor has just written an amazing book full of outdoor cookery techniques. We’ve also seen a lot of people wanting to go gluten free, so we run three or four courses on gluten free cookery, run by Naomi Devlin, and we released the River Cottage Gluten Free book a few years back.
The health thing includes eradicating some staple ingredients, focusing on sugar and wheat and stuff like that, so we’ve seen a big rise in replacement cookery. And fermentation is obviously becoming a big thing. Preserving has come back with a force. I think that came on the back of the Great British Bake-Off. People started to bake at home and then went, “What else can I do at home? Ooooo, I can make jam”. I think that kind of triggered this interest in fermenting – things like kombucha. The Great British Bake-Off has some great things to answer for, actually. Rachel De Thample is currently writing our fermentation handbook, which will be published next year.
We’re also thinking a lot about waste. Hugh’s got a plastics programme coming out soon. Again, we’re not perfect on plastics, but it’s interesting… we’ve completely eradicated polystyrene from our business now, so when suppliers turn up with something in a polystyrene box we just give it back and say, “No thank you – please don’t bring that back here again”. It’s amazing what happens when you tell people you don’t want their packaging and they’ve then got to find something to do with it. It triggers a conversation, and they go, “Hang on a minute – let’s talk about this”. Our fish suppliers told us that if a fish weighs over 10 kilos they have to put it in polystyrene, and I said, “Well, that’s a load of rubbish!” So now we’re looking a lot more at non-single-use plastics.
Our veg supplies come in plastic crates that are collapsable, but they also come with a £20 deposit. If we lose one, it costs us that amount. So we’re incentivised not to lose it, and the suppliers are incentivised to pick them back up. It’s a really good system to have. Our butcher only vac-packs in quantities of 30, rather than individuals. Every business should do that. The first thing a chef does is take it out of its plastic packet and put it into something else. Vac-packing is something we’re really clamping down on. So it’s not all about food, the stuff we do. It’s putting pressure on big organisations to do better things.
Moving back to the foundations of River Cottage, I guess one of the questions many people have when they go to a restaurant that is heavily associated with a celebrity chef is just how much that person has actually been involved with the dish you’re eating. Take Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for instance…
Well, all the menus have to be signed off by Hugh. I create them all and send them off to Hugh, then we’ll talk through the dishes and I’ll cook them for him. He’s got an amazing palate, so he’ll be like, “This needs X or Y”. It’s a process in which he’s involved in each step. That’s the important thing. Obviously he doesn’t cook them! He doesn’t do a 15-hour shift on a Saturday [laughs]. I think he’s done his time. Part of my job is to know his mind and his methods, so it’s not like every dish I create is thrown back at me with, “What are you doing?!” Most of the things we create get signed off and go into the restaurants.
So, he will have been drinking these glasses of Real Kombucha, then?
He has! And he makes his own. He dropped his scobies off here recently, actually. We had a big 20-year bash for which we brewed our own kombucha and did three different kinds.
Was it good?
It wasn’t bad, actually. We didn’t get it all that fizzy but it was pretty tasty. It’s an interesting thing to make – we hadn’t tried before. We read up a bit, Hugh gave us his scobies and we ran from there. You get some pretty interesting flavours out of it, depending what your scobies are like. I’ve had some pretty bad kombuchas in my time, I’m not gonna lie [laughs]. There are different palates for different things. Some kombuchas are… unique, shall we say?
So, what’s on the horizon for River Cottage, other than the hundred TV programmes that Hugh seems to be making?
[Laughs] This year we’re celebrating 20 years, so we’ve got lots of different events. We’ve just finished renovating the rooms in the farmhouse, so they become available to the public very soon. We’ve had some people there trialing it out, so this’ll be the first time you can actually come and stay at River Cottage and rent the whole house out. That’s something new for us – it’s quite a big thing to have people onsite 24 hours a day. We’ve got books keeping us busy, too. It’s a pretty busy year.
For more information on Gelf Alderson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the farm to table food philosophy and River Cottage, head to www.rivercottage.net.