River Cottage Canteen

Now that I’ve reached the age where I’ve come to terms with life turning inexorably from carefree abandon into a sort of slow accumulation of lint, I find myself experiencing strange new feelings. Walking into the tools section of the DIY store imbues me with a thrilling promise of untapped power. Night brings dreams of abundant kitchen gardens, and almost any programme about farming makes me want to sit by the TV and stroke the screen. So when my wife interrupts the Antiques Roadshow one Sunday to suggest that we go to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen I carefully lay down the Farrow and Ball paint swatch I have been studying and agree we should go forthwith.

Axminster on a Saturday night is a dark and lonely place. Lime green Citroen Saxos cruise through the streets like sharks, bassbins blazing. Through the darkness little huddles of middle class survivors scurry, heads down across the town square on their way to the The Canteen, a beacon of light shining out from the row of empty shops. I was already well aware that there’s little reality in HFW’s beguiling yarn of happy smiley country folk (none of them play banjos for a start), but weekend life for the inhabitants of dying Axminster seems far away from the TV idyll. Inside, we walk through the daytime café and pass the kitchen where mutton-chopped chef Tim is chuntering around behind the heating lamps. Familiar to those who have seen the TV show, the rear dining area is a large sort of shed, filled with earnest Bodenites eager to experience their little slice of middle class nirvana. Huge photos of muddy vegetables and happy children line the walls like stained glass windows in this temple to the good life. It’s all a bit Nazi.

I feel a wave of anarchism come over me, I hate the beatific faces of the kids in the photos. I hate the menus in little ikky kiddie writing and the innocent smoothie style blurb, it all seems so forced. And I’m wondering why we’ve travelled all this way to go to a restaurant run by a guy who hardly ever sets foot in the place. But, apart from being bourgeois enough to be charmed by the ramshackle service, I guess I’m not the target audience.

To begin with our waitress proffers an amuse-bouche of blinis with slivers of raw mackerel and horseradish cream. I’m generally not a fan of mackerel’s oily fishreek, but fresh, like this is, it’s actually really good. The mains of hoggett and 5hr roast pork belly are tasty, although nothing above what you would expect to find in any half decent pub these days. It is the puddings that are most disappointing; straight out of the fridge, the date cake is a stodgy clag, and the vanilla yoghurt panna cotta seems equally premade and lifeless. I get very little feeling of genuine care and flair in the food, which is a shame because the one thing I had hoped for was to taste simple ingredients elevated to a higher standard with chefly love and attention. On balance I expect HFW would argue that he’s trying to run a reasonably priced place and that what can you expect, it’s a canteen, not a Michelin-starred eatery.

If this all sounds too negative, I must say that it wasn’t all bad. It was a pleasant enough evening in a buzzy venue. We had fun. And as mentioned, the service was charmingly amateur. I actually enjoyed myself and my wife was as happy as Nigel Slater with an enormous pack of butter. But on reflection I was left with an uneasy feeling. Everyone who makes the effort to trek down to The Canteen is helping HFW cash in on the best wheeze imaginable – browbeat your middle class fans into paroxysms of guilt about not eating enough sustainable food…and then get them to pay restaurant prices for the cheapest and most lowly cuts of meat and fish available. And the customers love him for doing it – they are grateful. Hugh, who gets paid to make a TV show to advertise a restaurant that he rarely visits, is laughing all the way to the bank.

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About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

15 thoughts on “River Cottage Canteen

  1. Gaw
    March 24, 2011 at 08:19

    Good to see you putting on the proverbial comfy slippers with such grace.

    I have to say, the River Cottage agro-industrial complex has become a bit of a monster. It’s surely still a good thing though. I’ve also just realised (after many years of familiarity) that the name of HFW’s cottage and brand is amazingly similar to that of the River Cafe restaurant – his first employer I believe. What are the chances of that?

  2. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    March 24, 2011 at 08:26

    What a reassuring post, Worm. I mean, I like Huge Furry – I like Jamie, The Hairy Bikers, and all those geezers – but let’s not be easily conned. In the very first episode, the opening shot of Huge bombing along a narrow lane, not looking where he was going, in an open topped banger, announcing he was embarking on something to change his life, you got the impression it was going to be more financial than spiritual. Still, good recipes, and some interesting ideas…

    The thing about Tim – I remember something said around the time of Gary Rhodes; how can a top class chef possibly be as skinny?

  3. jgslang@gmail.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 08:27

    Interesting, if sadly predictable (the caff, that is, not the animadversions thereon). As they probably still say in marketing, HFW is selling the sizzle and not the steak.

  4. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    March 24, 2011 at 08:35

    ”…as happy as Nigel Slater with an enormous pack of butter.”

    made I laugh (as they might say in axminister).

  5. Worm
    March 24, 2011 at 09:46

    Gaw- your aptly described ‘agro-industrial complex’ is all the more ironic considering the marxist ideology HFW espouses. His cook books are great though, His new Every Day book is one of my all time favourites, I’ve cooked and enjoyed just about recipe in it. I’ve had some of my best ever meals at the River Cafe – which is what I was hoping the canteen would be like.

    Ian – yes Tim is suspiciously skinny! I did actually note the other day that Nigel Slater is currently looking very trim – how does he manage it with all the unctuous comfort food he’s always naughtily rustling up?

    • Gaw
      March 24, 2011 at 09:58

      He can write pretty well too. I’ve got one of his books (forget which) and it has some great descriptions of shooting.

  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 09:56

    Worm, beware the ides of Hugh, the whisper on the street is that the Peterhead fishermen have a contract out on him, anyone in his vicinity may cop the aftershock of himself receiving the business end of a well aimed whelk, somewhere twixt beak and buttock.
    Having lived in the experimental bay of home cooked stuff ever since the days of Elizabeth David I can sum up as follows..fresh provender cooked without the adornment of sauce or square plate, result..happiness, screw the ex metrocentric, tanning parlourised chattering twerps in their Aga bedecked kitchens.

    PS, were you drawn to Axminster not because of Hugh but through Axminster Tools subliminal ad campaign.

  7. Brit
    March 24, 2011 at 10:43

    You’ve nailed HFW’s shtick there. I sensed a nice underlying tension in the post, as if you could at any moment to a Michael Douglas Falling Down in River Cottage’s ass…

  8. b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 10:54

    This is really an amazingly good review in pretty much every possible way, from the line about Nigel Slater and butter to the honest ambivalence present throughout – not only a delight to read, but plenty to think about afterwards, too.

    What mainstream publication would dare print a review of such a high-profile place that isn’t either a PR-fed encomium or a recreational slag-off, c.f. AA Gill’s whole career?

    It probably helps that the persona you establish within the first paragraph ‘speaks to me’ with such intimate understanding of my own inner life. And now I’d better get back to reading Geoffrey Grigson on unloved weeds before brewing up my own beeswax-lavender-oil-and-turps furniture polish ….

  9. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 11:09

    Great post. Glad I am not alone with my strange DIY store feelings. I find wandering around B&Q incredibly calming . I also occasionally find myself singing along to the in-store music. Probably be dancing in the aisles before too long. As for HFW, I have always found his programmes pleasant enough and he is right to highlight the issue of fish discard. However, I don’t find him particularly likeable. There is something a wee bit sneery and know-it-all about him.

  10. b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 11:16

    ‘A wee bit sneery and know-it-all’ – this is true, but I try not to hold it against HFW, as it isn’t his fault that his parents sent him to school where they did.

    As for HFW more generally – out of the dozens of cookbooks we own, his ‘Family Cookbook’ is one of the two or three most frequently used, and certainly the most food-spattered and fingerprint-enhanced – this, despite the general air of ‘first catch your adorable floppy-haired blond moppet’ relating to those alarming photographs.

  11. Worm
    March 24, 2011 at 11:19

    Thanks Barendina! Co-incidentally my current bedside reading is Richard Mabeys book on unloved weeds…Grigson’s Englishman’s Flora is definately on my want list!

    Toby – perhaps it’s just the permanently flared nostrils that make him look sneery?

    edit: just stumbled across THIS – a new festival called ‘Harvest’ run by Blur’s Alex James – is this the absolute vomit inducing zenith of everything smugly HFW-esque?

    • b.smedley@dsl.pipex.com'
      March 24, 2011 at 12:21

      My current reading is Richard Mabey’s book on unloved Richard Mabey, i.e. ‘Nature Cure’ – beautiful writing in places, but fundamentally unreviewable, at least at present, as what can one do but be glad that he’s still writing?

      As for that other occasional depressive, Geoffrey Grigson, though – he’s still vastly under-rated – isn’t there anyone out there with a bit of free time who could write the biography that would put him back on the cultural map?

  12. info@shopcurious.com'
    March 24, 2011 at 22:13

    Had me laughing out loud Worm, especially the vision of you stroking the TV screen. Re: the date cake, ‘a stodgy clag’ is not an expression I’ve heard before – please can you translate…

  13. wormstir@gmail.com'
    March 25, 2011 at 08:36

    susan, imagine trying to eat a large block of that green ‘Oasis’ flower arranging stuff and you get the idea….according to the dictionary, clag is the build up and blockage of soot around diesel engines, so generally to be avoided in culinary situations! 😀

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