Finally went to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen in Axminster. The evening started with a sharpener in the Axminster Inn. It’s a no-frills, friendly local serving Palmers beer. I went for the IPA. Starters at the canteen included salted whiting fritters. These were crispy on the outside, had plenty of coriander and a touch of chilli but weirdly included two huge lettuce hearts. Not being a rabbit I wasn’t quite sure of the rationale for this. We also enjoyed an asparagus salad - a tad al dente, but overall, a good start.
Lemon sole followed. Beautifully fresh and perfectly cooked but an overzealous sprinkling of capers made the sauce a little too salty. Plain vegetables: new potatoes and greens (York cabbage, I thought) tasted as they should. In fact you could have eaten without anything else.
Meat-wise there was rump of beef at £18. I think that was one of the highest priced items on the menu. I’m presuming this wasn't rump steak, rather the slightly tougher cut, lower down. It was perfectly cooked medium-rare, sliced and served with mash and greens and a red wine sauce. It wasn’t as tender as steak but I wouldn’t say it was tough; rather it took a little longer to chew, which is fine as we weren’t in a hurry. And it tasted like beef.
River Cottage ingredients are infinitely superior (usually local) and you can actually watch the chefs cook them; rather than ping ‘em with the microwave.
A panna cotta as dessert and a couple of coffees pushed the final bill up to £88 but it did include a fab Fleurie at £28, as a treat. You can, though, get two or three courses at £20-£25. And this is what it’s all about. A bog standard pub knocking out starter, main and dessert with bought-in pre-cooked ingredients from the Big Van that rolls up outside three times a week, will set you back pretty much the same amount.
However River Cottage ingredients are infinitely superior (usually local) and you can actually watch the chefs cook them; rather than ping ‘em with the microwave. If HFW can get bottoms on seats day in, day out, why can’t local pubs do the same? One reason is that we, the humble consumers, don't actually care much for local produce, organic beef, free-range pork and freshly caught fish. We don’t question the provenance of the food and we rarely complain when the server asks that trite question: “Everything alright?”
We should, as they say, get a grip, and demand more from our local pubs and restaurants. Be curious: ask why the cod is sludgy grey (probably because it’s been frozen), why the chips aren’t crispy, crunchy or where the pork comes from. You will, probably, have to fork out a bit more for better food. But it’s worth it.
Devon folk are lucky folk, though. As well as Axminster there is a River Cottage Canteen in Plymouth and also in Bristol (and another due shortlyish in Winchester). I will certainly revisit and would recommend you give them a try.