Anna and I are Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fans — big time. We can watch a whole series (or more) of River Cottage on 4od in one sitting. It’s embarrassing. We often refer to the man behind River Cottage on a first name basis, as though we share saucepans with him:
“What shall we have for dinner tonight?”
“How about Hugh’s nettle gnocchi?”
“How do you reckon I should cook this saddle of venison?”
“I don’t know, check with Hugh.”
So you can imagine the heart palpitations and buckets of anxious sweat when Anna told me that the River Cottage team tweeted for bands to play at their River Cottage Canteen in Axminster. Anna responded in a flash, and a date was set. Having followed the progress of the River Cottage project from the beginning, a trip to the River Cottage Canteen promised to be a kind of pilgrimage for us.
Suz, the general manager of the River Cottage Canteen, did nothing to stifle our fervour when she informed us that the Canteen’s head chef Tim Maddams planned to challenge people’s reliance on meat-as-a-meal with a seasonal and local Veggie Feast. We were to provide the soundtrack to this evening of vegetable delights.
While Anna and I are both carnivores, that’s never stopped us from serious vegetable adoration; and, as two minds set to sustainability, we’re always eager to try new and exciting veggie dishes to cut down on more carbon-intensive meaty meals. So, our liaison with the River Cottage Canteen seemed to promise not only the fulfillment of a musical dream for us, but also a culinary one.
The experience did not disappoint. We were greeted warmly, and no sooner than we unloaded our gear did we peep through the service station to the kitchen and spot the man of the evening himself, Tim Maddams — mutton chops and all! Anna and I both froze: we were totally star struck!
Suz saw the hunger in our faces before we even played. She laid out a snack for us, in the form of the best pork pie I’ve ever had (though Herons! all agree that pork pies would be equally good, if not better, without jelly), a surprisingly savoury and tangy red cabbage salad, and a crispy spinach and nettle tart — kind of like a hedgerow pizza.
Our audience were very sympathetic to a bunch of strangers interrupting their meal with music. We made several friends after the set, over shared bottles of River Cottage’s own Stinger, a real ale brewed with nettles that surely would have made it to my list of Top Five Beers, had I known about it last year.
The Veggie Feast consisted of four courses, and we were lucky enough to partake of two of them. The first was a nettle soup, served with a chive cream, a drip of hemp oil, all topped with a perfectly poached egg. If any of you doubt the culinary potential of nettles, I advise you to get your foraging gloves on and go picking! This soup was a vivid spring green colour, with a nutty and floral aroma that is the trademark beauty of the prickly nettle. Not a Heron! missed meat in this dish, believe you me.
Second came a pattie of deep-fried goat’s cheese, served with hazelnut and parsley pesto (PHOAR, as my mate Aoife would say) accompanied by April’s A-list celebrity vegetable — asparagus. The tender spears of asparagus were marinated and grilled, and they burst with flavour in your mouth. All together, it was like harnessing the flavour of spring and serving it up so well you could cry. There’s no photo because we scoffed it pretty much as soon as the plate hit the table.
I’ve heard some people say that a meal isn’t a meal without meat; they often say that without meat, they simply don’t feel full, or like there’s something missing. I think that’s foolishness. Anna made a good point: “Have these people never eaten risotto? I’d like to see them eat a whole plate of creamy wild mushroom risotto — and then eat a steak!”*
At the end of the meal (and our performance), Tim asked the crowd to raise their hands if their dinner left them missing meat. Only a handful of people felt that their inner carnivore couldn’t be quieted with the well-prepared treasures of the vegetable kingdom.
I think that Tim proved an important point: while I wouldn’t want to go through life never again enjoying a bacon sandwich or a roast chicken, it’s not just possible but pleasurable to eat regular meat-free meals without feeling like there’s something missing.
The River Cottage Canteen’s Vegetable Feast inspired Anna and I so much, that the very next day we went out with our neighbour and her three little girls, foraging along the riverside here in Stroud. We gathered a whole cloth shopping bag full of young nettles, and another of wild garlic (leaves, stems, flowers and bulbs), and brought them all back to our kitchen.
A few weeks ago, Anna and I were given the gift of Darina Allen‘s Forgotten Skills Of Cooking by our dear friend Aoife Mc, the culinary blog whiz behind I Can Has Cook. We used one of these Forgotten Skills to make wild garlic pesto; it’s a skill I don’t plan on forgetting any time soon!
Meanwhile, Anna and the kids blanched the nettles, mixed them with three egg yolks, parmesan and ricotta cheeses, seasoned them and worked them into a dough. The dough needs about an hour in the fridge to set firm; then, with two spoons, Anna and I turned this cheesy prickly dough into one of my favourite Italian dishes: gnocchi.
The little dumplings of gnocchi can be laid out on a large dish (baking dishes do the trick) dusted with flour, while a pot of lightly salted water is brought to the boil. The gnocchi need to be boiled about six at a time (don’t crowd them), for about two to three minutes, or until they begin floating at the surface. We ate them with butter, grated parmesan and a twist of ground black pepper.
*Our drummer James could probably do this.