We spent a day in the wilds of Devon, whipping up a storm at River Cottage HQ…
Approaching River Cottage HQ on a deliciously clear, cold morning, I am excited to spend the day in such an iconic scene. The white farmhouse is recognisable from Hugh’s cookbooks and television programmes and the surrounding countryside is simply beautiful.
A group of us have been met at the top of a long track by a tractor, ready to chauffeur us down to the cookery school to spend a day whipping up some sustainable food. It’s a mixture of excitement and (and some nerves) that bubbles away as we chatter among ourselves and rumble along the track.
At the end of the track is a mouth-watering snack for us to enjoy for breakfast and then we are led to our home for the day – a glorious room with huge glass-fronted doors that the overlook hedgerow, fields and out across the tumbling valley towards a lake. Such a view really connects the kitchen to the natural landscape, our environment, and it’s a source of entertainment throughout the day with cows roaming and wildlife busy distracting us. We’re told that sometimes students have even witnessed lambs being born in the fields on previous courses.
We dive straight into this wholesome and nourishing state by making a classic loaf of bread. I should say at this point that everything at River Cottage is organic. Provenance and quality are paramount and looking out through those windows, it’s easy to believe that everything we need for exquisite food is within a two-mile radius. The flour we are using is stone-milled and the bread recipe is straightforward – I’m shocked at how little you need to make a loaf of bread: just flour, salt, water and yeast.
We are all pleasantly engrossed with kneading our dough. If you’ve never made bread, you need to try it simply for the feeling you get. It is very satisfying stretching and folding back dough, rhythmically, and as someone who tends to rush from one thing to the next, it’s a pleasant way to stop, contemplate and relax. We all carefully shape our dough and leave to prove.
While the bread is doing it’s thing, we move onto the next course – fish. I must admit to being a bit anxious about this course. I have never tackled a whole fish. Today it is a lemon sole. The whole team at River Cottage is keen on the sustainable front and the only way to get really sustainable fish is to rely on a local fisherman. As such, the kitchen never knows what fish has been caught until that morning. We didn’t know what was coming out and neither did the chef. Turns out it was this imposter of a fish – as a lemon sole is neither a sole nor lemon flavoured. It’s actually a member of the plaice family and it’s flesh somewhere between the two, being firmer than plaice, but not as meaty as a Dover. This fish really does have some identity issues, as the Belgians love to salt and dry it, and confuse the poor sole even further by declaring this ‘Scottish sole’.
We humour it by cooking it with lemons. The demonstration is clear and precise, taking us through the descaling process, and gutting it. We are cooking it with the skin on and we make a bed of sliced lemons in parchment – en papillote – and lay the fish on top before layering with butter and fresh vegetables. Our lovely little parcels are lovingly popped into the oven to turn into lunch.
While that’s cooking we move onto preparing our shin of beef. We will be making a Provencal Daube and as it’s nearly the end of November, the flavours are getting pleasingly Christmassy – I’m talking cloves and oranges. This dish is basically a good hearty, cook-it-long-and-slow stew (see recipe below). We make a start on it and when we’ve finished prepping it’s time to tuck into the fish.
We stay in the room we’re cooking in, and take a seat at the long bench right beside the window and there’s silence as we all take the first mouthfuls. I’m must say, I’m impressed with all of us – it’s delicious. The day is beautifully mapped out, so that each time we need to leave a dish to cook or prove or rest, it’s time to sample something delicious that we’ve previously put on. So, the bread, for example, punctuates the morning (and fills the room with a heavenly freshly-made-bread smell). It’s not just cooking that we’re learning about, the staff here are full of passion about sustainable eating and we learn so much; everything from buying the right ingredients to what questions you can ask your fishmonger or butcher.
I know what you’re waiting for now: what’s for pudding? River Cottage HQ does not let us down, and finish the day in a magical way. Not only is it beetroot chocolate brownie for pudding, but also as we’re stirring and mixing the ingredients together, the rich smell of chocolate permeating the air, the sunset is performing. We all stop to look up and witness the stunning colours and changing light over the countryside.
River Cottage HQ is a really special place. It’s a guarantee that you’ll come away feeling inspired to get in the kitchen, as you should with a cookery course, but there’s something else too. I came away feeling calmer, more connected to the land and a little wiser. Will I be back? Absolutely; and I’ve earmarked this experience as a great gift for this Christmas, as you can buy a voucher that can go towards any of the upcoming courses.
These are just a few of the courses taking place in January and February next year. Visit the website to see the full calendar.
For a flavour of what we experienced on the one-day cookery course, try these two recipes at home:
A Provencal Daube
1.5kg shin of beef (or skirt or other good stewing beef)
2 tablespoons olive oil
250g piece of pancetta or whole unsmoked streaky bacon cut into 2cm chunks
100g pork or bacon rind cut into 2cm squares
500ml white wine
Approx. 500ml water or light beef stock
4 garlic cloves, bashed with the side of a knife
2 bay leaves
A couple of sprigs of thyme
2–3 strips of finely pared orange zest
2 carrots cut into big chunks
3 celery sticks, cut into 5cm lengths
500g tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cut the shin into larger-than-you-would-think, not-too-boringly-square pieces, trimming off some, but not all, of the fat as you go.
- Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Fry the bacon and the pork or bacon rind until lightly browned (but not crisp). Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a large casserole. In the same oil, brown the beef, in 2–3 batches, and then transfer to the casserole.
- Deglaze the frying pan with a little of the wine, then add the rest of the wine, heat until it boils and pour over the meat. Heat up the water or stock in the same way and pour that over too – enough to cover the meat by a good 2cm.
- Cut the onion in half and stick each half with 2 cloves, then add to the casserole along with the garlic, herbs, orange zest, carrots, celery and tomatoes. Season, going easy on the salt for the time being (remember that the pancetta will give up salt to the pot). Bring to a very gentle simmer and maintain it, either on the hob over a very low heat or in the oven at 120°C/Gas Mark 1/2, for about 4 hours, until the meat is completely tender. At this point the stew can be cooled and kept in the fridge for a day or two, which, as ever, would be no bad thing.
- To serve the stew, make sure it is thoroughly hot – if it has been left to cool – and check the seasoning. Remove the onion (unless any of your guests fancies half an onion). Ladle the stew into deep plates or wide bowls, with plenty of the juice (which in this stew is meant to be thin and copious, rather than thick and reduced).
Chocolate and Beetroot Brownies
275g good, dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into pieces
275g unsalted butter, cut into cubes, plus more for greasing
275g caster sugar
3 free-range eggs
150g self-raising flour (we used wholemeal self-raising)
250g beetroot, boiled until al dente then peeled and grated
1.Preheat oven to 160C/320F/Gas Mark 3.
- Grease a baking tin of approximately 20x30x3cm and line the bottom with baking parchment.
- Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt over a bain marie. Allow to cool slightly.
- Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until combined. Pour in the melted chocolate and butter and stir until smooth and creamy. Gently fold in the flour then stir in the beetroot – be careful not to overmix or it will make the brownies tough. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth over the top with a spatula.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes approximately. A knife inserted into the middle should come out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Be careful not to overcook them or they will lose their delicious fudgy texture.
- Remove the tin from the oven and leave on a wire rack to cool before cutting into squares.