Last week I went to Jacobs & Field in Headington for an evening of eating hosted by Riverford Organics. For those of you who haven't heard of either, Jacobs & Field is a lovely little deli/cafe in Headington, about 15 minutes by bike out of Oxford, and Riverford Organics are one of the biggest suppliers of organic vegetable boxes in the country. They deliver fruit and veg (around 47,000 boxes a week) from their various farms around the country to your door, and their Devon Farm is home to the award-winning Field Kitchen restaurant, where chef Jane Baxter dishes up all sorts of exciting creations using the vegetables as the main ingredient. When I first signed up to the veg box scheme I got a free copy of her cookbook, and I love its simple approach to making the best of good-quality fruit and veg. The Jacobs & Field evening, organised by Jake Swinhoe, who supplies boxes to Oxford, was a chance to sample this sort of cooking, using the best of Riverford's produce, in an informal setting.
I thought the idea behind this was great - everyone was seated rather haphazardly at an array of tables (the restaurant was definitely filled beyond capacity, and I felt a bit sorry for the waiting staff who had to pass our plates to other diners so they could reach us) often meaning you'd be sat with people you've never met before, which I think is a great idea - there's nothing like good food to get conversation going, and there's none of that pressure you get in a hushed, expensive dining room to sit silently in reverence of the food and the chef. I also enjoyed the complimentary mint and elderflower presses were were given on arrival - they reminded me a bit of the lemon and mint drink I had in Damascus that I've raved about so much.
We started off with a bowl of fat, juicy, marinated and stuffed olives before moving on to the starter: pea soup with lemon oil and "halloumi croutons", and bruschetta of broad beans and ricotta. The halloumi croutons were really just pieces of halloumi in the soup, but they worked very well: peas always need something slightly salty to bring out their sweetness (think pea and ham), and the cheese also had a nice chewy creaminess to it to contrast with the soup. The bruschetta was rather too toasted to attempt to manipulate with cutlery, but the fat, sweet broad beans were perfect with the ricotta cheese. Broad beans can sometimes taste quite bitter, especially later in the season, but these were delightfully soft against the crunchiness of the bread.
The main course was practically overflowing on the plate, a rustic style of presentation that I like for its generosity (as you will know if you read this blog at all, I am greedy). We had slices of cured meats (chorizo, parma-style ham and a fennel salami), a potato salad with watercress pesto, grilled courgettes with cherry tomatoes and spinach, and - my favourite - fennel gratin. This was amazing: beautiful soft yet still crunchy pieces of fennel in a cheesy, creamy sauce, their fresh aniseed flavour preventing the combination from cloying. They went incredibly well with the salty ham and the delicious pieces of sourdough bread we were given - this was proper sourdough, the kind that reminds you why it's called sour dough. I used it to soak up the gratin sauce. This was a good idea.
Next came the cheese course. I don't think we were told what type of cheese it was, but it came on a little cracker with a delicious dollop of chutney/relish. Finally, for dessert, we had Eton mess and gooseberries in honey saffron custard. I can't comment on the Eton mess, because I hate it - it's my least favourite dessert, mainly because I don't like whipped cream, but also because it's ubiquitous on the menus of so many formal dinners I've been to despite being possibly the laziest, most unglamorous pudding in the world. I have strong feelings about it - though no offence to Riverford, because I can see how it's a good dessert to show off their fantastic strawberries. The gooseberries were delicious: the dessert was rather like a creme brulee without the crunchy topping, the saffron custard delightfully thick and rich, the tartness of the juicy gooseberries a welcome contrast. It would have been nice to have a bit of texture in there, though - a crunchy topping, or some nuts, or a biscuit to accompany it. But again, that's my greed talking.
It was nice to see a meal in which vegetables and fruit played a starring role, rather than a big lump of meat. We had ham and salami, but it was included, I think, to bring out the beauty of the vegetable accompaniments rather than the other way round. Everything was really delicious (my favourite being that wonderful fennel gratin) and yet quite simple in conception and presentation. I've definitely been inspired to do some more cooking with Riverford produce, and also to pay further visits to Jacobs & Field - if you haven't been and are looking for something to do in Oxford, I suggest you go up there and sample some of their cooking. Their sandwiches (I was greedily eyeing the chalkboard menu while waiting for the starter) look incredible, their sourdough bread is sublime, and it generally seems like a bit of a paradise for a keen food-lover (I'm not going to use the word 'foodie', because I absolutely loathe it).
Also, a big thank you to Jake, Riverford and Jacobs & Field for organising this - I can't wait to go to the next one.