I grew up in the industrial city of Birmingham. Apologies for treading the path of stereotypes, but my school was rife with violence, my local area heavy with racial tension, and the town centre crammed with corporate chain stores. I was, like many busy city dwellers, unaware of where my food came from, and unappreciative of the work that went into creating it.
I moved to Devon after graduating from university, enticed by the lush green hills and holiday vibe, just like everyone else who moves down here from further north. Also like everyone else, I loved meandering into a less stressful and slower pace of life.
Exeter has two vegetarian restaurants (Herbies and The Plant), and various independent stores stocking local foods and vegan-friendly products, but my first place of discovery and inspiration came from Shillingford Organics.
Run by Martyn Bragg and his lively team, this impressive 350 acre organic farm based outside Alphington has literally sustained me- by feeding me- since I moved to Devon. The small veg box Shillingford drops at a nearby collection point for me every Thursday was my first step towards connecting what I ate as a human being to the land. I hurried to WWOOF at Shillingford as soon as I realised that the farm is accessible by public transport (the A bus from town, followed by a short walk), and I was deeply touched by what I found there.
Although I’ve always been a keen green with fingers and thumb to match, moving around in student accommodation for three years did not give me much opportunity to learn about sowing, growing and cycles of growth. In Reading, where I studied, gardens for the less well-to-do were like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: reserved for the imagination only. So when I moved to Exeter and acquired a house with a green space, I gathered all the information and enthusiasm I needed from the folk and their projects at Shillingford Organics. Over the years I have been further educated and motivated by Riverford Organic Vegetables, OrganicARTS, Embercombe, West Town Farm, Darts Farm, Emma’s Bread and Luscombe Drinks – to name just a few other local green initiatives for the palate. Recently added to this list are Harvest and Love Local Food, and I can’t wait to see what they do for Devon.
Last Tuesday the in-laws were in town, and they wanted to visit Riverford Organic to tour the farm and dine at their much-talked-about restaurant The Field Kitchen. Research beforehand had filled us with promises of a ‘feast of freshly picked seasonal produce’, and the statement couldn’t have been more true- The Field Kitchen is situated next to an abundant, enticing herb ‘garden’; the perfect way to whet the appetite for what we were about to experience. As we waited, we were able to name some of the herbs on show, experience them by smelling them, and even witness the cooks harvesting them for our upcoming meals.
This was followed by a rich dining experience in a beautiful indoor space that was clearly created to blend eating with the surrounding natural environment. We were given three courses of superbly inventive dishes using foods grown on Riverford farm – and they catered for the vegans without blinking twice too, providing a fruit salad of fruits and berries (also identified and sampled en route to the restaurant) with a rich berry sauce for dessert.
Whether you love the dining experience or not, whether you struggle to get through your weekly veg box or are well-versed in cooking culinary treats using chard and chives and the occasional unidentified vegetable, I suggest heading down to a supper at The Field Kitchen – I can guarantee that your experience will be a unique and flavoursome one for all the senses. Who knew that home grown veg could be arranged in such a creative, multi-dimensional way?
On Friday Barton Farm in Shillingford Abbot (part of Shillingford Organics) had an open evening to ‘celebrate local food’. The rainy day had finally eased, and I arrived to the sound of eaters communicating with growers over a BBQ of locally-sourced meat, roasted veg, home-made breads, and home-grown salads.
Martyn did a tour of the farm to demonstrate some of the organic principles used in Shillingford Organics growing, including a scything demo, a talk covering polytunnels and the new ‘pods’ that have been built on site to provide accommodation for WWOOFers, and talks about organic growing practices such as the no-dig method, companion growing, and natural pest control. The tour included a tractor ride in a trailer, and my family left The Barton vibrant and beaming – having also won a Luscombe apple and pear juice in the raffle.. I will never go back to drinking apple juice from concentrate.
OrganicARTS is an initiative based at West Town Farm in Ide. West Town Farm supplies organic meat boxes to Exeter and the surrounding areas, while OrganicARTS blends organic growing with education and the arts by hosting creative workshops and art exhibitions, promoting community gardening, hosting the occasional barn dance and encouraging model clay cow making.
They were at Shillingford on Friday with some of their defiant clay cows on display, and they’re hoping to make 1,000 altogether as part of their Year of Clay, so if you’d like to contribute to the project I suggest you get a ‘moove’ on and drop into Ide with your best pottery hat on, and all the children you can rally.
These recent events have reminded me of why I moved to the South West of England, and how grateful I am that the organic movement is so strongly celebrated here.
There is also a beautiful network of greens working together in response to the UK’s many food issues: by celebrating the environment on a local level, we work towards creating a global movement that will have a positive impact on the lives of the future generations who will inherit the Earth.
Living in Devon reminds me that it’s important to have fun along the way, too, whether it’s related to cooking up inventive dishes, or engaging in the age-old sport of ‘wellie wanging’.. The evening at The Barton was rounded off with some energetic wellie wanging, but I must admit that my own 4.2 metre wang left much to be desired. What can I say? I was born in the city, but I’ll always be a Devonshire Dumpling at heart. Made using organic flour, of course.