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.