River Cottage. What a wonderful place. I could make myself at home there quite happily. I’d wash the dishes and clean the loos in return for bed and board and perhaps the odd cookery lesson. Although I’m not sure my family would be too happy about me deserting them. Unless there was room for them too of course. And the two cats. Yes, dream on Vanesther…
I was recently the guest of River Cottage, along with a host (a herd, a pride, a smorgasbord… collective noun anyone?) of other food bloggers for a very special day of cooking, feasting, photography and foodie conversation. For once I wasn’t the only one rearranging the table and photographing my meal before the first bite.
The River Cottage ethos is very much one I aspire to, where I can. Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last decade or so, you’ll know River Cottage is synonymous with cook, broadcaster, and advocate of seasonal, ethically produced food and sustainable farming, Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall.
River Cottage HQ is located near Axminster in Devon. A working 90 acre organic smallholding, it is also the venue for all kinds of dining events, music nights, courses in cookery, gardening, foraging and butchery, home to the new Chefs’ School, and of course regularly used as a TV set.
Head gardener Will Livingstone gave us a guided tour of the kitchen garden and polytunnels, where they grow organic fruit, vegetables and herbs on 1.5 acres of the farm, providing produce for the HQ kitchen all year round. The garden is divided into four main beds: brassicas, legumes, roots and onions, and miscellaneous. In keeping with organic practices, these crops are rotated annually, reducing pests, build up of disease and nutrient depletion. There’s a beautiful mulberry in the centre, with perennial herbs, fruit and flowers in the borders, perfect for cross-pollination.
“Our main job as organic growers is to look after the soil. And it just so happens the produce tastes good too,” Will told us. “We grow 300 different varieties of fruits and vegetables here. Whereas most restaurants decide on their menu and then source the produce they need from their suppliers, it’s the other way round here. The garden dictates what’s on the menu. It’s important too that what we do here in the kitchen garden, people can achieve at home in their own gardens.”
We got to say hello to some of the livestock too, leading to some interesting discussions on the importance of a nose-to-tail approach to cooking and eating meat. Meat should be really valued, considered and celebrated as something of a luxury, and at River Cottage they ensure they enjoy ‘everything but the squeak’.
Then there was the chance to take part in an excellent food photography workshop with the suitably colourful Lucy Heath of Capture by Lucy fame, who shared heaps of great tips and gave me lots of food for thought.
One thing I’ll definitely be working on is use of colour in my food photography. Lucy’s advice is to incorporate contrasting colours and has a handy colour wheel on her website, which she suggests you print out and stick on a pin board so it’s in easy reach next time you’re taking photos. The basic idea is that opposite colours on the wheel are more complementary and will therefore help bring your photos to life. Think red tomatoes in a green dish for instance or yellow plums on a blue cloth.
But the highlight of the day for me was getting into the kitchen and learning how to bake soda bread and make our own butter, neither of which I’m rather ashamed to say as a food blogger I’ve ever made myself before.
We were under the expert tutelage of River Cottage’s group head chef, Gill Mellor, who showed us how to rustle up bread and butter in practically a matter of minutes. Just take a pot of double cream, whisk and whisk and whisk until you can whisk no more, stir and stir and stir with a spatula until the buttermilk starts seeping out of the solid, then get your hands in there and keep squeezing. And there you have it. Beautiful yellow butter.
We foraged around the farm for blackberries, which we added to our bread mixture along with our buttermilk, apple, honey, cheese and lots of fresh herbs. With baking soda as a rising agent, there was no need for proving, and within half an hour or so our wonderful loaves were out of the oven and cooling on the window sill.
It was all so remarkably easy (and tasty), I decided the following weekend to get my family making more of the same.
If you’d like to have a go too, here are the recipes:
Buttermilk is relatively easy to buy, but you can also make this bread with thin yoghurt, milk or water, or any combination of these.
Makes 2 loaves
500g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
4 tsp baking powder
300ml buttermilk, thin yoghurt, milk or water
Optional ingredients might include chopped apple, blackberries, dried fruit, grated cheese, honey or fresh herbs
A little flour (rye would be good)
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix in the buttermilk or other liquid to make a dough.
Knead briefly, divide into two then shape into rough rounds. Flatten by patting them until about 5cm high, flour the loaves all over and place on a baking tray. Now cut a cross in the top of each loaf, almost through to the bottom then stab lightly all over.
Bake for 20–25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base then allow to cool for a few minutes on a wire rack. |They are best eaten warm with butter.
Gill says: “To make brown soda bread replace the white flour with wholemeal and add a good tablespoonful of black treacle. This makes a sweeter, slightly heavier bread – excellent with a pint of Guinness and an Irish stew!”
200ml double cream
Optional: salt and fresh herbs
Whip the cream until it’s too thick to whip any more.
Keep mixing using a spatula to squeeze excess buttermilk from the butter. Get your hands in there and keep squeezing until the butter is formed. Add salt and herbs if desired.
You can wash the butter in iced water if you wish to prolong the life of the butter. Left unwashed, the butter will last up to five days in the fridge.
Recipes reproduced courtesy of River Cottage.
Huge thanks to the Foodies 100 team for organising such a brilliant day, to Lucy Heath for sharing her wealth of photographic knowledge and of course to everyone at River Cottage HQ for all the inspiration and for thoroughly spoiling us with our delicious breakfast, lunch and chocolates!
To find out what other bloggers made of their visit to River Cottage, take a look here.