I didn't want it to be the last day. I would much rather have been told upon arrival "well that was your induction, staff quarters are thataway and welcome to the team!" but no such luck. I even tried suggesting that as we were now by rights practically staff, surely we could at least come to the staff BBQ that weekend? I'm sure they'll let me know about the next one...
This morning's tea accompaniment were amazing, warm, giant, ganache-y bourbon-biscuit style dreams. Olly was evidently and rightfully proud of them as I spotted him posing for a photo for another chef as I arrived. I asked the biscuits to pose for me instead:
When we were told that at some point that day there would be bubbles, we decided to get the day off to the right start and have them right then. And why on earth not? We had lots to celebrate! Our culinary toolboxes were beginning to brim with new and exciting, yet comfortable skills, our confidence was blossoming and there would be meat!
First up, breast of lamb. Whilst quaffing our champagne, Tim explained that lamb breast needs a loving quantity of cooking time due to how much the muscle works, and duly demonstrated why lamb's breast is well worked during pasture:
Thanks for that, Tim.
First things first, on order to debone meat, you need your knife to be sharp. Tim explained that, being creatures with opposing thumbs, we have two options when holding a sharpening steel to sharpen a knife:
a) grip it as you would an umbrella. Slips of the knife with this method may result in severed tendons between thumb and forefinger and therefore considerable reconstructive surgery.
b) 'cup' the handle with all digits on the same side of the grip. Slightly more awkward but only risks a deep cut, and chicks dig scars.
Our knives sharpened, and no blood spilled, we set about copying the demonstration and deboning the lamb.
It's worth saying that, by this point in the course, I had come to realise that confidence is the most important cookery ingredient. In days one and two, I would regularly check whether or not I was doing something right. But by now, I knew that it was more important for me to trust my instincts and skills and give it a go. So far it was only me eating the food I prepared!
I carefully cut along the bone to release it from the meat before cutting the resulting rib rack into three to use as a roasting trivet. The topside if the meat, away from where the bones had been removed, was scored in a cross-cross fashion and generously seasoned. On the other side we spread a mixture (individualised according to our taste) of chopped wild garlic, thyme and lemon zest. This can be freestyled, other good inclusions being rosemary, mint or anchovies. The breast was then tightly rolled and tied at each end. I'd love to say that after two demonstrations from Steve on how to tie a butcher's knot I had it cracked, and I'll probably get my Girl Guide knotting badge revoked for this, but, well, let's just say that some things take practise...
The lamb was lovingly rested on its bony trivet and snuggled with hunks of carrot with a little water before blasting in the oven at 200 degrees C for 20 minutes, after which it was loosely covered and left to it at 140 degrees until lunchtime about 3 hours later.
And now to offal! My relationship with offal is a curious, yet delicate one which has included the following tender moments:
1) Mistaking 'sweetbreads' on a menu for sweet breads.
2) During a year in Lyon, mixing up the names of a traditional Bouchon and a romantic tourist restaurant and being presented at the former with turrine after turrine of pigs feet, tripe, ear and snout. Them walking past the latter, slightly traumatised, to see couples being serenaded on violins by candlelight. While they ate steak.
3) Observing an Italian cookery teacher root around in a bag of chicken livers before we made pate, trying to find treasure and succeeding, holding aloft tiny chicken testicles before throwing them into the mix.
I have had devilled kidneys before and found them really rather tasty so was pleased we'd be making them. We used lamb kidneys that had been soaked in milk for half an hour to remove impurities. These were cut in half cross-sectionally and the white tubules removed carefully. Tim explained that in his early days he was taught that this had to be done with the upmost precision, but then he realised that kidneys spring back into shape when cooked anyway so it doesn't matter. These were liberally seasoned with pepper. Then we chopped half an onion and a rasher of home-cured bacon (more about the ridiculous ease of home-curing later) and fried these gently in vegetable oil in a warmed pan. When softened, these were moved to one side of the pan and off the heat and the kidneys added, cut side down. After two minutes these were flipped over, mixed in with the onions and lardons and a good glug of cider added, before a good glug of cream. The kidneys were left to 'rest' over heat for a couple of minutes before a dollop of English mustard was added. The only thing worse than an overcooked kidney is an undercooked kidney, so we just had enough time to assemble some sourdough toast on a plate, check that we had a homogenous mix of kidneys and sauce and pour a glass of butcher's nip before topping the toast with the kidneys and heading into the sunshine to eat.
Next up, chicken stock! We were given a chicken carcass each and told to hack it to large pieces. Wow, I clearly had some issues to deal with as my partner for the day had taken several large steps away by the time I stopped, breathless and with moistened forehead, jumbo knife still fiercely gripped in hand. The pieces were (calmly!) placed in a large pan with chunks of celery, carrot, a peppercorn and lots of water. This was brought to the boil and attentively simmered for a few hours, skimming as necessary.
Back to offal now for some pate, this time pork liver, which was roughly chopped and mixed with pork mince, sage, port, mace, paprika, salt, pepper and more port. Tim explained that the fear of undercooked pork is now unfounded. It came from a time when pigs were intensively reared, rarely were fields rotated, and parasites were resistant due to over-medicating. He ate raw pork to demonstrate, this blew my mind. However, after our pate mix was put through the mincer and he encouraged us to taste it for seasoning while still raw, I couldn't do it. The mix was put in a jar and sent off for cooking in a Bain Marie.
And now, as promised, a few words about curing. The bacon we'd used for the devilled kidneys had been home-cured, something River Cottage had fought for the permission to do for the Canteen around restrictive food hygiene standards. Curing one's own is easy. A good piece of belly pork needs to be buried in a 50/50 mix of fine salt and brown sugar, to which can be added juniper berries, bay leaves, mustard and coriander seeds and black peppercorns. After four days in the fridge the belly is becoming bacon. Drain the water and hang the meat somewhere dry, this can even be outside, but needs to have ventilation. After a week the meat is drycure bacon, after two it's pancetta and after 6-8 its more like prosciutto and needs very fine cutting. Without adequate ventilation the meat will develop a bloom - this is a acidophelis, not a problem and is shared by salami. If the meat takes on a yellow hue this can be cleaned off with vinegar. Smoked bacon is made by hot smoking after curing and rinsing rinse and takes 10-12 minutes. Hot smoking of meat was duly demonstrated by Tim, who hot smoked a pork tenderloin joint using the same method as day three's mackerel, but for a little longer. It was amazing, deliciously moist, tender and raucously smoky.
For lunch today we would be having chicken broth and had to decide in pairs how we wanted this flavoured. My partner and I decided on coriander, ginger and lemongrass, and we strained what was probably enough for three or four bowls of hot chicken stock into a clean pan and added our herbs. Eyes bigger than belly results in a precarious walk to the table with an overfull bowl of hot soup, by the way. But it was worth it:
Within moments the soup had magically disappeared so we went in to carve ourselves some of our lamb. While we were carving away, Olly appeared brandishing a platter of delicious accompaniments:
That boiled eggs, asparagus (otherwise known as 'gold'), purple sprouting broccoli, caramelised shallots and seasonal leaves. And look how good it looked on my plate:
Dessert was also lovely, if slightly uncomfortable by this point due to the sheer volume of food not only today but over the past four days. The creme brulees (which I have completely omitted to write about making on day two, such has been the whirlwind of dishes made and devoured during the course) had been bruleed just right for the perfect tap, tap, crack moment, and was served with rhubarb that had been poached with star anise. Incidentally, River Cottage is probably the only place in the world where you could spot a lonely star anise lying in the gravel on the way up the driveway and not blink about it.
After a leisurely lunch in glorious sunshine, we clubbed together to buy all the team a drink and they came to join us. Steve gave a lovely speech about how much the team appreciate imparting knowledge to a willing team and how we should all enjoy heading out into the world with our new skills, and to carry on learning and enjoying. Which I fully intend to do.
There are so many other things I could write about, like the geese who took their daily afternoon constitutional just before our lunch, Olly's hunt for edible flower options for my forthcoming birthday cake mission, the bee that stung me in the head on my last walk to the carpark and my ensuing drive home with a mini iceberg held to my head with my hoodie, but I guess you would have to have been there. I'm certainly very glad and thankful that I was.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about how much I loved the course and want to continue to enjoy finding out more about my culinary journey. I also hope you feel inspired to go and eat, explore and enjoy. Have fun!