The River Cottage is synonymous with fresh, organic ingredients, seasonal cooking and great British cuisine. Thanks to its never-ending presence on our TV screens and Hugh’s incredible array of beautiful cookbooks, we know exactly what they’re about and frankly we can’t get enough of them.
We’re slowly evolving from a nation of fast-food eaters and microwave meal consumers to masters of our own kitchens. British cuisine has taken some hard knocks over the years, always falling short in comparison to our European counterparts, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Hugh and his team of River Cottage chefs have made waves in transforming the way we see British food. Having been a fan of the RC for a long time, I was thrilled to finally get the opportunity to visit their headquarters in Devon and try out one of their cooking courses.
Their one day cooking course was an all rounder; the chance to learn how to bake bread, fillet fish, cook meat and make a dessert. Set deep into the Devon countryside, we were ferried to the cooking school by tractor and greeted with hot coffee and a warm breakfast snack, before being shown to our fully equipped kitchen stations. The surrounding countryside was idyllic, with beautiful rolling hills rising up behind the white farmhouse. Their allotments surrounded the farmhouse, where they grew an extensive array of fresh veg, fruits and herbs. Beautifully odd-shaped, organic veg was picked from the plots everyday for their cooking courses and restaurants.
Our teacher and chef was Joe who patiently and with a little humour, guided us through the day, teaching us all the tips and techniques we needed to recreate the dishes at home. He also took care to teach us about sustainability, organic produce and where to source the best ingredients.
Starting to prepare what was soon to become our artisan bread loaf, Joe talked to us about the importance of using organic, un-bleached flour and taught us about ratios and measurements. He then took us step by step through the process and visited our workstations to check on our progress throughout. Mixing, kneading and shaping the bread was great fun and by the time our crisp, browned loaf came out the oven, I felt a certain sense of pride at what I had produced. There’s something extremely satisfying about making your own bread and though some of the processes can be laborious, it’s worth the effort when you get to enjoy it warm out the oven with butter.
Next we prepared our dessert, which was a delightful orange-infused panna-cotta. The process was fairly straightforward but the results were fantastic. It had just the right consistency and a subtle, fruity citrus flavor. To go with this we whipped up a gooseberry and fennel compote, which added the right amount of sharpness and strength of flavour to combat the sweet, creamy pannacotta. A herb I had never thought of as a dessert accompaniment worked extremely well. Joe was constantly presenting us with new ways of thinking when it came to cooking and always bought us back to simplicity and quality of ingredients.
On to the meat course. We learnt how to prepare a plump pork fillet and turn it into a schnitzel. We made an aioli to go with this, which was hard work, beating the ingredients with a whisk until it was thick and although ours split, Joe made us feel better by assuring us that it even happens to him sometimes. We sliced some sugarsnap peas and fresh herbs to make a side salad.
Before we got on to the technicalities of filleting our fish, Joe taught us how to spot the real deal when it comes to fresh fish. Unfortunately most of our supermarkets fall short when it comes to providing us with sustainably caught fish and it’s causing havoc to our oceans. Best to visit your fishmonger he tells us and ask LOTS of questions. We selected our turbot from the big box, which was caught that very morning on the Devon coastline. Either Joe was an excellent teacher or I am a fishmonger in the making, as I produced some lovely fillets from the whole fish. We steamed them in foil parcels with some more fresh veg and Asian flavours. It was absolutely delicious and the freshness of the fish was evident.
We sat down at the end of the day in their quaint marquee to enjoy the delicious feast we created. Buttering our fresh bread, digging into our lightly steamed fish and then enjoying the creamy pannacotta desert we made. It was a great ending to a brilliant day and it wasn’t until I sat down when I realised how exhausting it was cooking on your feet all day.
The River Cottage experiences make great birthday gifts but an equally great treat for yourself because it’s a gift that keeps on giving. The skills and knowledge you take away with you can last a lifetime in the kitchen and it also reminds you to take things back to basics when cooking; seasonal ingredients and the freshest produce is really all you need to create amazing dishes, which is, of course, the classic River Cottage ethos.
The River Cottage are also hosting a range of gigs and a summer fair this August and It’s Rude to Stare readers can claim a 2-4-1- offer on gig nights. Just use the code: RTS241 when ordering.