Friday, 29 April 2011

The pizza is NOT your lunch!

Day two rolled around and the apprentice chefs rolled in. Fairly literally after all the food on day one! We got off to a good start with lavender scones today to accompany our morning tea.

Today, we were told, we would be making different types of bread and pizza. The pizza, however, would not be our lunch. Repeat, NOT OUR LUNCH.

We were taken through the day by the wonderful Gideon Hitchin, master of breads, who started by teaching us that different breads can be made from what begins essentially as the same dough, made with different proportions of wet to dry ingredients.

Our first was a standard white loaf, with 2% salt and a generous 1% yeast with 60% water. Contrary to popular belief, water temperature is not that important, and you can make bread dough with chilled water and leave it to prove in the fridge if wanted; this will simply take longer. This does not work to the other end of the spectrum however and a properly made loaf should take no less than two and a half hours from start to finish. A floured surface is also not essential as a dough with the right water quantity should become pliable and not sticky.

After making our dough, using 300g of strong white flour (aiming for a nice small loaf), we kneaded for a few minutes by smearing the dough away from us and rolling it back several times, before folding the dough inwards on itself and working it into a ball which was left to prove for an hour and a half.

Then we moved on to ciabatta. This had the same basis but his time 80% water, making it almost like a porridge. We mixed the dough in a bowl before emptying it onto the worktop (again, unfloured) and worked the dough as in the video. Great fun!

'The Thing' was moved onto a floured area of the worktop after being worked for five minutes and deftly moved into a bowl, to be left quietly for an hour or so.

While we were working on 'The Thing', the lovely Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (with his newly cropped hairdo) popped in to say hello. Everyone was given the opportunity to have a chat and get their copy of 'River Cottage Every Day' signed whilst we enjoyed Baker's Nip (note the theme from yesterday) - a little apple brandy with some smoked pollock pate on toast. For some reason my conversational skills stretched to talking about the horse box I was stuck behind on the way to Park Farm that morning.

After kneading our loaf bread dough again (mine had grown a bubble!) before re-resting it, we made shortbread.

Sadly, I do not have pattissiere hands. Creaming butter and sugar was fine but trying to delicately encourage this into breadcrumbs on a pile of soft flour simply did not work for me, although Gideon kindly added flour to try to de-lumpify my mixture before scattering chopped roasted hazlenuts, pressing the mixture and putting it in the oven.

Then we went out to make pizza. A mobile pizza oven was awaiting along with a vat of dough and lots of pizza toppings including chorizo, freshly-made black pudding, mozzarella, tomato sauce, rosemary and garlic or chilli oil, caramelised onions, basil, the list goes on. We were once again reminded that THIS WAS NOT LUNCH and that we would need to make and share our pizzas so that nobody would have to wait to eat, and away we went. After rolling and topping, we got to try our hand at loading the pizzas into the 400 degree heat and took it in turns to unload pizzas 90 seconds later, cut them up and share them out. It wasn't long before the sound of satisfied pizza groans and smell of sizzling cheese and chorizo lured Hugh over to us again and he might possibly have stolen a few slices of pizza. There is photographic evidence out there!

I may possibly have made not one, but two pizzas, and I may also possibly paid no attention to the THIS IS NOT YOUR LUNCH instruction and wiped out the best part of both pizzas all by myself along with a good few slices of other pizzas on offer.

Possibly. In my defence I have developed an addiction to wood-baked pizzas thanks to Franco Manca in Brixton so this was tame behaviour.

Sadly we had to be dragged away from the pizza oven to remove our cooked shortbread from the oven and finish our loaves. This involved squashing the dough before folding it into three and tucking it in on itself and then rolling it into shape with a seam underneath. To seed the loaf, the topside was dipped on a plate of water before dipping on a second plate of poppy or sunflower seeds.

The loaves were snugly tucked to rest on a floured cloth ready to go into the oven after a short few minutes while we got to work on the ciabatta. See how lovely they looked?

There came a little later a nerve-wracking moment where we each needed to slash the surface of our loaves to allow them to expand. Too tame a slashing and the loaf could be deflated and would need further resting, to vigorous a slashing would cut too deeply into the loaf. I am pleased to report that I have a good slashing motion.

The ciabatta dough had by now doubled in size inside the bowl we were asked to very carefully loosen it from the sides of the bowl before lifting sections and folding over into the centre, oiling it a little and leaving it to rest again.

And then came lunch! Olly, one of the newer recruits to River Cottage HQ (although you'd never guess as he seems right at home) had made a lovely ballotine of overnight slow-roasted lamb shoulder. The day before he had called over whoever of us might have been in the kitchen to ask our opinion of what was needed to make it just right. This was served with a shallot and tomato puree and was beautiful. To accompany our shortbread Olly had also made lemon posset.

After lunch, all we needed to do was use a brain surgeon's skill to empty our ciabatta dough onto a semolina-dusted work surface and cut it into sections, dust it with more semolina and bake it for 12 minutes.

Hilariously, while we had been eating, the loaf timer had gone off in the kitchen and been reset, and everyone's loaf had gently caramelised. But I can attest to its looking pretty. The ciabatta, however, was an all-round winner.

Tomorrow, we were told, would be fish!


A warm welcome to Park Farm!

As soon as Will and Kate got engaged, I was in there like flint booking those magical three days off work. Plans for the extended break chopped and changed until a week camping around Cornwall was settled on.

Unfortunately, one thing lead to another and circumstances arose where this was no longer an option and I had a wonderfully long break stretching in front of me and nothing to fill it with. This in itself is a blissful thing but to me, it would be infinitely more blissful to fill it with food, new experiences, fun and friends.

So, I decided to book the course I had been eyeing up for some time at River Cottage HQ.

'Four Days at Park Farm' is billed as an opportunity to learn more about seasonal food and to become equipped with the skills needed to handle it - be it with a knife, with a fish, with beautifully bosom-like bread dough or with flowers and herbs foraged from the hedgerow.

It was with a great deal of anticipation and a little trepidation that I set forth on Easter Monday from the lovely house of two wonderful friends I was staying with for the winding coastal route to Axminster. I was a little surprised to see a busy car park when I arrived, having assumed that the week wouldn't be the best of times for most people to take a cookery course, which conversation told me had been a common enough thought to have fully booked the course.

We were taken to Park Farm, River Cottage HQ, in a converted trailer behind a tractor and welcomed with tea and a warm hot cross bun and an invitation to look around the gardens. All manner of things were in various stages of coming to life, from strawberries and peas to mustard leaves and cucumbers. After a look around we were led into the classroom, a beautifully airy space lit with recycled wine bottle lampshades with enough workstations for everyone to work in pairs. I paired up with Lorna, a lady considering a return to the UK after 20 years in the Far East via the Provence (no I can't work it out either!)

River Cottage HQ, or Park Farm, is a beautiful, tranquil stretch of 56 acres of organically-certified land won after a 20-year cold war between brother farmers ended in abandonment and sale. The site is part of a stewardship scheme to ensure a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship between land and owners - meaning that it is largely self-sufficient, with solar panels, wind turbines, reed-bed sewage converters and turbo composted kitchen waste. Chicken and sheep mind their own business but the ducks have their daily constitutional (and photoshoot) and life joyfully ticks on in a harmonious whirlwind of tended vegetables, nibbled herbs and leaves and careful use of as much of the raw, incoming, local material as is possible.

We were immediately made to feel like an extension of the River Cottage family by Steve Lamb and it was explained that the premise of the week was to equip us with the tools needed to boost our cookery confidence, go forth and experiment in the kitchen. Part of this was to be a jeopardy situation, in that we would be making our own late lunch each day, so the only problem about anything going wrong would be our going home hungry!

And with that, we were off. Literally. We went out for a look in the field and were introduced to sorrel before being tasked with finding some of our own and having a munch. Look for the pointy bottoms of the leaf. Nice, citrussy! Then we were taken to the bottom of the field and asked to pick some nettle tops for the tart we were to make later. The top four leaves are usually the best to go for, and if you wear two pairs of latex gloves and pinch the stalk to remove the leaves this will work fine.

First job was to make some pastry for our asparagus and cold-smoked pollock tart. The pollock had been caught fresh and locally the afternoon before being smoked in a small smoke box outside the classroom. Cold smoking means the source of smoke is kept away from the food being smoked and the temperature does not rise above 40°C.
To make the pastry, 300g flour was thrown together with 150g softened butter and 70ml water to make a dough which was duly wrapped and labelled with each person's name before chilling. Then we made some salsa verde ready for later in the week. Everybody's salsa verde was different based on the proportions of parsley, basil, mint, capers, anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mine was lovely. Obviously.

And then it was time for foragers nip! This was to be a welcome theme for the week, a wee pause in proceedings to enjoy something delicious to nibble with a sip of 5-year-old apple brandy (which, we were told, took 'many attempts to get just right'...). The delicious something to nibble on day one was pork rillettes made from overnight slow-roasted pork belly with cornichons and capers on toasted sourdough bread. Incidentally River Cottage has had its sourdough starter since its inception, and this came from a local baker before then. We also had some lovely homemade fudge.

Back to the kitchen and it was time to make our tart mixture. Mark Diacono was an overexcited child in the presence of fresh asparagus, explaining that this gold was to be revered and eaten as soon as is humanly possible once out of the ground. Which he duly demonstrated. Apparently snapping off the woody ends risks losing too much of this gold and that a more efficient way to trim them to size is to tap a sharp knife upwards along the bottom of the stalk until it wants to cut through. The asparagus was blanched for a minute and a half before being cooled in iced water. To an egg, cream and milk mixture was added chopped parsley and nettle tops.

Then we rolled out the pastry for our tins (keeping the surface well floured and using a knob of excess dough to shape the dough to the tin), pricked the bottom and sides, leaving excess pastry still attached. We then double-lined this with clingfilm, filled this to the top with dried haricot beans or pulses (apparently flour works best but is much less resource-friendly as it can' be re-used), wrapped up the baking beans and blind baked the cases for half an hour. After this, the baking beans were removed and the cases were egg washed twice or five minutes each until golden, before the cases were trimmed to size, the eg mixture poured in before the flaked smoked pollock and drained chilled asparagus.

Once that was in the oven, we got on with the risotto. We were using Sharphams pearl spelt risotto rice, which is reminiscent of sugar puffs! We gently fried off some chopped onion, garlic and peeled celery in olive oil before adding the rice. Each pair had a gently simmering pot of beautifully scented pork stock (that rillettes pig was made good use of!) on the hob alongside. Once the risotto rice had warmed through on a high heat we added a good glug of 10-year-old apple brandy and flambéed the lot. Cue disaster one. Let's just say it was bright in that kitchen, with quite a breeze, making it difficult to see pan flames, and that stock is liquid. Which feeds an alcohol fire. And that pearl spelt does not make popcorn, but it has a good try.

Half an hour or so of risotto love later we were ready for lunch. The risotto was finished with some chopped wild garlic (for flavour), butter (for homogeny), a squeeze of lemon (to perk it up), goats cheese (for richness) and olive oil (for gloss).

We ate on the decking as the weather was glorious and had risotto for starters followed by as much of our tart as we could physically manage served with a salad of seasonal leaves such as mustard and some orientals with edible flowers thrown in for good measure. This was rounded off with some beetroot brownies.

Thank goodness for that trailer back up the hill to the carpark! A lovely end to a fantastic first day.