If it hadn’t been for the thick winter coat of cloud shrouding this corner of the Mendip Hills, lunch would have been eaten looking out over arguably one of the finest views any UK restaurant can boast.
But the rich green fields rolling down to, and then up and away from, Blagdon Lake (from which the trout on the menu was fished) make for so much more than just a picturesque backdrop to an impeccably sourced lunch. And therein lies the thing.
Mary Mead, now aged 78, who, with her late husband Roger, started Yeo Valley, still lives by the motto: Live life like today is your last and farm like you’re going to live forever. And as your correspondent sat down to lunch with Executive Chef Paul Collins and checked out the menu in the Yeo Valley Canteen it immediately became apparent that this isn’t some glib marketing slogan. The ethos is deep set in everything that happens here. The menu is rich with produce from nearby farms. Paul is crystal clear: “Our purpose is to support British family farms.”
But Paul reveals two examples of the highs and lows of adhering strictly to this philosophy while trying to run a restaurant that’s booked out until Christmas. One local supplier called recently looking to offload the last of the year’s tomatoes. Paul was delighted to take them and tomato and basil soup sat atop the menu this week. But another local farmer phoned with less good news – the recent change in the weather meant none of the leafy greens he’d been hoping to supply were going to be ready for at least another week. It just meant Paul and his kitchen colleagues were going to have to improvise – like good chefs do.
The restaurant at Yeo Valley, which was a finalist in our People’s Favourite Award earlier this year, is the shop window, if that’s not too ‘dirty’ a word. The fields around the restaurant are home to one of the best known and most productive herd of cows around.
Lunch in the restaurant came after an extensive tour of Holt Farm – the Mead family’s farm – now home to 420 Friesians. Dozens were still out in the vivid green field. Our tour guide, who happens to double as Managing Director of Holt Farm, Garth Clark, attributes this late outdoor grazing to the extreme precision and care with which they treat the land. The farm is certified organic and, using a mixture of traditional methods – measuring the cowpats – and the latest technology – using satellite images to check exactly which part of a field needs feeding – it is taking care of its most valuable ally – the soil, which is repaying them in spades.
As Garth says: “Nature is king and we have to respect it because soil is like a bank account, if you keep taking stuff out you’ll end up running dry. No one has a right to treat soil like that.”
Garth and Paul share an incredible passion and are hell-bent on sharing it and inspiring, if not cajoling, others to support British family farms. Paul instils this philosophy in all of the restaurant staff, taking both kitchen and front of house staff on numerous supplier visits.
Few would fail to be convinced of the true value of food after lunch in the Yeo Valley Canteen and the farm tour.