River Cottage Cookery School Review
Despite blogging about food for the past 18 months and considering myself a ‘proper foodie’, I’m ashamed to admit that I lack a lot of skills in the kitchen… Sure, I can make a pretty mean cheese on toast when I have to and I’ve just about mastered the art of the jacket potato, but if you asked me to prepare a three course meal from scratch I wouldn’t know where to start. Cooking has never really been ‘my thing’ but the growing number of recipe books on my kitchen shelves has led me to believe that I need to up my culinary game. So, you can imagine my delight when Red Letter Days invited me along to River Cottage HQ to take part in one of their Cookery School Courses.
River Cottage HQ
Since you’re reading a feature here on The Devon Foodie it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of River Cottage before. The brainchild of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage is not only a much loved national television show, but it’s also a working farm and cookery school that specialises in local, seasonal produce with a nose-to-tail approach.
River Cottage HQ is nestled in the picturesque countryside of the Devon-Dorset border and the farm proved to be everything I had imagined it to be upon arrival. There’s your typical country cottage, complete with colourful bunting and kitchen garden, and on your walk down to the farm you’ll be met with inquisitive sheep, an apiary and striking views of the surrounding countryside. It’s safe to say that the River Cottage brand really does live up to the hype.
The Course Itself
When we first stepped inside the modern cookery school building, we were greeted with tea & coffee, as well as freshly made drop scones drizzled in honey and topped with flaked almonds. These were so delicious that I’m salivating just thinking about them and we got to nibble away as our front of house guide (Steve) talked us through the format of the day ahead. Andy Tyrell – Senior Sous Chef – was our tutor for the day and he promised to walk us through the basics of bread making, as well as showing us how to make our own special fish & venison dishes. For exact course specifications, you can check out the website.
Our first task of the day was making our own sourdough breads. Usually, I would just buy my bread from the local farm shop, but I’ll admit that there is a certain allure to making my own from scratch (especially as it’s so much easier than I envisaged it to be). My partner and I got a little bit competitive when it came to kneading and shaping our loaves, but it’s safe to say that even if his finished product looked better than mine, both of our loaves tasted fantastic in the end.
Andy was incredibly helpful when it came to talking us through each of the bread making steps and he provided us with some great tips, such as the benefits of poolish and how to shape our loaves to give them the best appearance once they left our ovens. Afterward we were shown how to make our own sweet pastry and we rolled out our dough ready to use later..
The Fish Dish
Next I got to put my only real kitchen skills to the test as we descaled and filleted our own Grey Mullet and put together a healthy fish dish. Having taken a Fish Preparation Cooking Lesson at Exeter Cookery School I actually managed to produce two incredibly neat fillets for my plate – even if I managed to cut myself in the process!
Apparently, our Grey Mullet had been caught that same day by local fisherman at Lyme Regis and we fried our fillets before serving them with Purple Sprouted Broccoli in an anchovy and garlic butter. I loved this dish so much that I made it for my family the next day, along with slices of the homemade bread I’d made on the course.
A Sneak Peak of the Farm
After we’d eaten our fish lunch we got to nosey around River Cottage itself and pose in front of the television show sets (see awkward photo below). The kitchen garden was a lovely place for a stroll and the HQ’s two resident cats were incredibly friendly. I’d love to visit again in summer and see what the farm is like when everything is in full swing.
Showstopping Venison & Frangipane Tarts
During the latter part of the afternoon we focussed on creating a Venison dish with roasted beetroot, onions and orange. Once again, the venison had been sourced locally from a game dealer in Bridport and we got a quick lesson in deer anatomy as Andy prepared our individual cuts of meat. We then watched a demo of how to prepare the dish and were sent away to recreate the plate ourselves – which I found surprisingly easy despite the finished dish tasting quite spectacular.
Finally, we reprised the sweet dough we made earlier from the fridge and set about making our own Frangipane Tarts with apples, prune and almonds. Once again, my partner and I were hugely competitive about whose tarts would turn out the best – but this time I think mine had the edge… He got it into his head that frangipane tasted too much like marzipan for his liking and so he dosed his mixture with enough brandy to go over the legal driving limit! Therefore he produced a far inferior batch of tarts (I can say this safe in the knowledge he won’t be reading this post!).
Should YOU visit River Cottage HQ?
In a word: Yes. I had a huge amount of fun during my visit and I’ve left feeling a million times more confident about my culinary abilities. There really is a course for everyone, regardless of your skill level and I also think it’s a lovely way to spend time with friends and family. A cookery class would make a wonderful gift to someone (not to mention a fantastic hint for your other half) and whoever visits is guaranteed to leave feeling more confident in the kitchen.