Riverford Christmas Fair 2013, or, the story of Mr Carrot & the Scary Bear

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

As I think I’ve mentioned before just a few times (ahem), I’m a happy Riverford customer, and have been a happy veg box recipient since we moved in to our house over a year ago.

I’ve been enjoying the company’s more confident and consistent move into social media this year, and Facebook was how I found out about the London-based Christmas fair. I nabbed a couple of tickets (£6 each for us, Pickleface was free and there was a fundraising element for Shelter from the Storm, too) and last weekend we took the circuitous route out to Camden.

The whole event was extremely, joyfully, appropriately Riverford. Even the venue – Cecil Sharp House, home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society – felt the part. Activities included the big man himself, Guy Watson (who is a very smiley chap, and very easy to chat to) and Kirsty Hale doing cookery demos which filled the hall with delicious scents; there were also the typical stalls and samples and children’s activities in the garden.



The vegetable puppet making / decorating went down an absolute storm with Ramona, who after creating a Mike Wazowski sprout, a mushroom with a full floret of broccoli hair and the fourteen-eyed demon broccoli, finally also created the friendly Mr. Carrot, complete with pipe cleaner tail. He apparently acted as an early warning signal to alert us to the presence of a Scary Bear in the vicinity, so I spent quite a lot of the afternoon doing Mr. Carrot voices in between snaffling tasty morsels. Here he is, with his creator. Sadly Mr. Carrot eventually lost all his facial features in a tragic accident we no longer speak about.

She also enjoyed choosing her favourite fruit or veg to have painted on her face, and opted for tomatoes. I’m slightly kicking myself that I didn’t sit for a crop of blueberries myself as Kate aka “Chickpea”, who was doing the artwork, was rather brilliant. The team playing with the kids outside were awesome – Ramona was so excited when she got to play the role of a tiger helping to pull up the World’s Heaviest Turnip (it made sense at the time) and was staggered that they actually remembered her name when it was time to say goodbye. “But how did that man know my name mummy?!” “Maybe he remembered it because your name is incredibly cool?” “Oh, yes.”

For adults, there was food. Lots of it to try, and universally delicious. Samples included some gorgeous cheeses including the astonishingly good Cropwell Bishop Stilton – I’m a bit hit and miss with blue cheese but it was smooth and just strong enough without being what I call, in my grown up way, “feety” (insert maturity / cheese pun here). Absolutely gorgeous with a cranberry and port chutney. I’ve raved about Riverford mince pies before – even though they lost out to Bettys by a whisker, they’re still extremely good. We also bought a generous roll stuffed with slices of spiced beef, which Ramona quickly dispatched, and sweet braised red cabbage, which I hoovered up. A cauliflower, chickpea and coconut milk spicy soup took the chill off, and I managed to sip down a generous sample of a lovely red.

One of our real star discoveries of the day was Montezuma chocolate, which, being a hardcore Green & Blacks fan, I’ve never tried before. The milk chocolate with lime and chilli was an absolute revelation – fruity, creamy and with that surprising burst of heat at the end. I’m including it in practically everyone’s Christmas presents this year (if I don’t eat it first) and have already got my mum hooked on it. Sadly, I tried Montezuma’s Apple Crumble milk chocolate this week and found it sadly lacking (nice chocolate, a little bit of crunch but no discernible apple flavour), but it serves me right for cheating on my lime-scented lover with a flashy biscuity mistress.

All in all a lovely, family-friendly, foodie day. I look forward to next year’s!

The Great British Mince Pie-Off: Bettys vs Riverford

Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.32I never used to eat mince pies. Dense, squidgy, oversweet… in the great list of Christmas desserts I was uninterested in, they ranked just below Christmas pudding (which I’m still so-so about) and just above Stilton (which I’ve totally come round to in my old age). And then my sister moved to Leeds and we developed more than a passing acquaintance with Bettys… and I finally found out what a really, really good mince pie tastes like.

I found myself tweeting about this the other day, and Bettys – doing some excellent monitoring, as I would expect from the team that complements the brilliant Yorkshire Tea feeds – picked this up immediately and followed me. On following back, it turned out I was their 600th follower, and they very kindly offered me some mince pies to review. How on earth could I say no?

The mince pies duly arrived – 12 gleaming beauties in an elegant little box (usually £9.50 and delivered around the UK) – and I managed to eat at least five of them while still giving the vague impression that I was sharing them with other people.

photo 1

And then my Riverford box arrived, and the little weekly insert – one of the highlights of the whole procedure, these proud yet melancholy missives from Guy Watson, with the slightly mud-streaked recipes on the back – was so convincingly effusive about Watson’s brother’s mince pies that I began to wonder if there could possibly be a challenger to the Bettys crown. Plus, in order to be a truly honest review, I felt I needed something to compare them to. Riverford’s pies are award-winning and the company is beset by offers to mass-produce, which are declined so that they continue to be made by hand; one of the chosen testimonials celebrated their ‘wonkiness’ and how they were the best bet for faking it if you didn’t have time to bake!  I was sold and hit the button to buy a £4.95 box of six.

And now… the verdict.


Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.04What makes these mince pies such Christmas classics? Well, for one, they constantly tread the perfect line between elegant and twee: pretty but not fussy, generously deep but not oversized. I also love that they’re not sealed, so there isn’t an overwhelming mouthful of butter to plough through.

But my very favourite thing about them is their filling; it’s quite a soft mixture – a delicately spiced liquid studded with fruit rather than a dense raisin sludge.

Finished with a little icing sugar and a star-shaped shortcrust topping, these are outstandingly moreish, and thoroughly delicious.


photo 2Even at first glance, these are quite clearly a different beast. Almost oversized, flat and fully sealed in quite thick pastry dusted with granulated sugar, they really do look pleasingly hand made.

The filling is rich, densely packed and slightly more heavily spiced. The pastry can only be described as unctuous, being so outstandingly buttery as to be a little overwhelming, especially as they are very large… but I still managed to put away two in a sitting!

Definitely needing a big glass of water or a soothing cuppa, these are incredibly indulgent, and very, very good.

And the winner is…

For me, Bettys just has the edge. It really does come down to personal preference, and the hint of refinement in Bettys’ pies means north takes the crown over south (something this London-born woman doesn’t say that often).

It’s just as well I’m heading to Yorkshire over the Christmas holidays, really.