River Cottage HQ, Dorset: Day 1
RIVER COTTAGE HQ - 4 DAY COOKERY COURSE, DORSET: DAY 1
Last month I undertook my first ever cookery course. It wasn’t just any cookery course but four days at River Cottage HQ in Dorset learning about meat, fish, vegetables, bread and pastry.
I must admit, I was feeling a little nervous when I caught the train from London to Axminster, as I didn’t know what would be in store for me over the four days and what new things I would have to prepare and cook. Yet at the same time, I was also incredibly excited as I knew I was getting to spend four days in a kitchen learning lots of new skills that I could take to my own kitchen back home.
Over the next four days, I will be running a diary of my time at River Cottage detailing what I prepared and cooked, what I was good at and what I failed miserably with and everything I learnt during the course.
Day 1: Arriving at River Cottage and Vegetable Day
On a Monday morning at 9.30am, I was dropped off at River Cottage HQ car park and joined a small crowd of people congregated by the tractor pick-up point. That’s right – tractor pick-up point! We were to be driven down to River Cottage HQ every morning by tractor and trailer, which I thought was such a fun idea. After seeing the trail down to the farm, I realised it was pretty much the only safe way to get down the very steep hill other than walking!
It felt a bit like the first day of school again introducing myself to the crowd of other cooks and I definitely felt a mixture of nerves and excitement. We were greeted by one of the River Cottage staff who signed us in before we hopped into the trailer and were taken down the hill.
It was really exciting to see the farmhouse at the bottom, which I recognised so well from watching many of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programmes on TV. We were taken into one of the cookery school kitchens which was situated at the back of the farmhouse and was a big room with numerous kitchen stations, shelves of pans and kitchenware and lovely big windows looking onto the countryside. We were welcomed with some homemade scrambled eggs on sourdough with edible flowers from the garden and tea, coffee and homemade cordials.
After settling in and getting to know some of the course members, we were introduced to our chef Joe, who would be teaching us over the four days. He was immediately friendly and personable and put me at ease from the off. We were told to pick a cookery bench for the course duration and I chose a bench at the far end of the room. Each bench had two hobs and four fridges and was shared between two people per side and my cooking bench partner was a lovely young lady called Serena, who became a great cookery companion by the end of the four days!
Day 1 was Vegetable Day and we were told that we would be making a Badger Bean Houmous with some Merguez Spiced Carrots, Polenta Chips with a Tomato Sauce, a Courgette Souffle and a Cucumber Pickle. We donned our aprons and first off, popped our badger beans onto boil. I had never heard of a badger bean before but they looked a little like a chickpea and we were using those for our houmous as River Cottage only uses British produce. The beans had been soaked overnight and we were going to be boiling and draining them three times until they were softened.
With our beans on for their first boil, we were then shown how to make our polenta. I’d never really cooked with polenta before so I was pleased we were learning how to use it. We gathered around the front kitchen bench and Joe showed us how to cook it adding chilli, cheese and rosemary to the mixture and I thought it was surprisingly easy to make. We headed back to our own benches and cooked our polenta before covering in cling fling and chilling in the fridge.
We were then taken out into the garden and introduced to Will, River Cottage’s Head Gardener, who showed us around the herb, fruit and vegetable gardens and the animals including chickens, pigs and cows. The gardens really are a sight to see at River Cottage and have been put together so thoughtfully, using every inch of space available, with a wonderful Mulberry Bush in the middle. After an hour of being out around the gardens and farm, we returned to the kitchen and were given a lovely sparkling apple champagne as a welcome drink, which we enjoyed whilst learning how to make our tomato sauce, houmous and carrots.
Firstly, we took our polenta out of the fridge and cut it into 1 inch sized chunks before placing in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp up. I am quite good at making sauces and often make my own tomato sauce at home but the quality of the tomatoes made the sauce accompanying the polenta really standout and the simplicity of the sauce really was something to be admired. Simply made from olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, basil and sugar.
For the houmous we drained our beans for the final time and blitzed them down with olive oil, tahini, lemon, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper before popping onto a plate in the fridge. For our carrots, we took a small handful of baby carrots and tossed them in some olive oil and meguez spices, before pan-frying for a few minutes so they were slightly soft but still had a nice crunch. And there was our lunch! Badger Bean Houmous with Merguez Spiced Carrots and Polenta Chips with Tomato Sauce. And what a satisfying lunch it was too!
After a little sit down, which was needed after spending all morning on our feet, we set to work on the afternoon’s cooking. Halving our cucumber and scooping the seeds out, we chopped it into chunks and finely sliced half an onion and set aside. We added sugar and vinegar and salt to a pan and brought to the boil before adding our cucumber and onion and placed it into a sealable bag in the fridge to pickle overnight.
Our last cooking of the day was a soufflé, which as we all know can be a difficult task to get right! This was a courgette, chard and sorrel soufflé with cheese and a béchamel sauce and Joe made it look so easy, so I was hoping I could get mine right! I learnt it was very much about the folding and not overworking the egg whites along with not overcooking it so it was still wobbly in the centre. My soufflé was delicious but it was definitely not as tall or as brown on top as I would have liked. Adding the béchamel sauce was something which was new to me and it made for a nicely runny soufflé. I have made a lot of béchamel sauces over the years and they generally turn out well but I learnt from watching Joe that I haven’t cooked out the flour enough in the past and I also often use a whisk, which I was told I didn’t need to if you get the stirring right and cook out any lumps.
The first day at River Cottage had been relatively easy cooking wise but I’d learnt some new skills – cooking polenta, pickling vegetables, cooking dried pulses, making a soufflé and how to make a simpler yet delicious tomato sauce. It had been really fun to see the gardens and the farm and how they grow their fruit and vegetables and I’d learnt a lot about the farm itself. Most of our food waste during cooking was used to make compost, they make their own electricity from their own wind farm and River Cottage don’t waste anything, which didn’t surprise me knowing how sustainable they are, but was still impressive to see. I left feeling very excitable about Day 2 – Meat Day!