One of the best things about being a blogger is the opportunities it affords you. Some catch you blind-side. Others are sought after – and when there’s food involved – drooled over. River Cottage was the latter. Last year I watched on social media as a trip for a group of bloggers with Foodies100 created such amazing images.
When the opportunity arose in 2016 my hand was straight up in the air, and I was shouting “Miss, Miss, Me, Me” as loudly as could be heard over email.
The email arrived, a trip to River Cottage with a group of the most wonderful bloggers. The date was in my diary for six months. I have the greatest empathy with my children counting down to Christmas day.I couldn’t stop myself arriving early. Based in Axminster, River Cottage opens its doors regularly for a wide range of classes and experiences, although I am sure a group of 60-odd people who are happy to let their food go cold whilst taking photographs does offer a bit of unique.
Sara-Jayne and I arranged to stay at the nearby Spiller’s Farm. I cannot recommend the hospitality and comfort enough. We met up with the lovely Louise who I’ve known on social media for some time, and I can now boast seeing her last thing at night and first thing in the morning.
A short taxi ride away we assembled in a wooden hut. It seemed we were awaiting our transport to the actual River Cottage. The welcome of River Cottage is apparent from the start, with a wood burning stove offering a warm, spiced apple drink.
A bumpy trip in the trailer of a tractor saw us taking in the fantastic landscape which surrounds the cottage, and then there’s the glimpse of the actual cottage. It’s really real.After some much-needed coffee, my giddiness in check, we were set free to explore.
In spite of the excitement there is a tranquillity which prevails. A calming feel to the River Cottage Gardens before a walk into the cottage offered a feel of relaxation, before setting down to the business of the day. A bit of learning in the River Cottage Cookery School.Whilst I have no doubt there was a deliberate choice to go easy on us, the introduction of brining and the inclusion of science and maths did bring me further back to earth. My eager smiles soon turned to a confused brow, but nonetheless I am absolutely convinced by my need to provide a venison bresaola this Christmas.
My unquestioning naivety was brought into check. The baking of a cake at home will never last as long as shop bought. And that, for some reason, we’re ok with preservatives in meat creating longevity, without appreciating how.
Andy was the fantastic tutor and careful advocate of good food choices. Explaining the benefits of preserving through food sources comprehensive, and the ability to do it, whilst improving taste beyond belief, achievable.
I’m completely bought into the idea of 100% cider when it comes to choices for the liquid needed to brine. Although gin with turkey also seems a worthy choice.Andy explained the ability to choose the right piece of pork for brining. In my world it’s the bit between the elbow and the wrist, because I don’t translate well. I’m pretty sure the word ‘hock’ was spoken, I’m just intending to pop to the butchers with my mime act.
And then it comes down to the right place to brine, initially in a perspex or earthware container (not aluminium). And then you’re quids in if you have a north-facing, stone built pantry, but a fridge will do just as well.
For the purpose of not misinforming you, I’m not going to reveal the secrets of brining (because I didn’t write them down) but I am going to reveal the secrets of flavouring – which seems to be “throw everything that you love in, as long as you use salt to ratio”.
Whilst the pork seemed a little aspirational (my fridge suits our family, but maybe not with a hock in it), the chicken and turkey brining was a lot more achievable, and tasted delicious.I loved the bresaola demonstration for the ‘yes’ I can do this element – watch this space as I will be back with my successful imitation.And then, after a bit of time getting to know other bloggers it was time to enjoy what River Cottage is known for -food and drink.
The weather had turned and as we walked back to the school I saw drinks which I assumed where whisky and felt disappointment (I hate whisky), on finding out it brandy I was uplifted (I have never tried brandy- let’s not talk about my stereotypes). I regret not bringing a bottle home. It was a delicious, warming start to the evening.Dinner saw us seated to plan. Something I was ridiculously wary of (spot the unsocial being). I was lucky to be sat with the friendliest people including Eb from Easy Peasy Foodie, Emma from Free From Farm House, and the wonderfully dressed, fellow twin mum and stalker material- Clare from Grubby Little Faces.We were welcomed to the meal by Sam, who warmly greeted us and described each course with such detail. What I loved about the description was finding out the creativity which goes into each meal- caused by only deciding courses based on what is available from the garden each morning.
More amazingly, Sam invited everyone into the kitchen to appreciate the elements which go into creating each course.I was fortunate to witness the assembly of the whipped goats cheese with baby beetroot and marinated cider vinegar on toasts.
We enjoyed the Goats Cheese as a canape along with a Pork and Leek Croquette with a tomato and date chutney, and Exmouth mussels cooked in cider, accompanied by chopped onions.
If you know me well, you’ll know that mussels used to be my treat at home- until the children decided they love mussels too. I realised after this canape how good mussels should taste and will be trying to find more local suppliers.
Emma and I chose to accompany our meal with white wine, and decided to stick with the theme of local. And it was a great accompaniment.As a starter we were treated to ravioli with wild mushrooms cooked with sage, served with a celeriac puree and leaves. I was probably most nervous about enjoying this course. I love ravioli, pasta is my favourite food, but we’ve had little success with celeriac at home, fortunately (and unsurprisingly), it was absolutely delicious. And this made me happy.For our main course we were spoilt with pork reared on the River Cottage farm, made into a cider brined pork, mixed with mustard and herbs and glazed with honey and mustard. This was accompanied with a carrot puree and a chunk of savoy cabbage, served with Haricot beans with tomato and fennel. If the tutorial hadn’t convinced you to try brining, enjoying the meat as it fell apart onto your fork would have made anyone a convert.Then there was desert, the room fell silent as Sam described the course as a Creme Brulee infused with honeycomb, accompanied by an apple crisp, apple puree, stewed apple, and treacle made with rye flour. Expectations were raised and expectations were exceeded.And then there was coffee, and biscuits and the most delicious chocolate orange bites.The enthusiasm and positivity from everyone at River Cottage made the whole trip perfect, you felt like you were being wrapped in invisible blankets such was the care provided.
Visiting the River Cottage HQ is more than worth any opportunity. There is so much on offer within the Cookery and Chefs’ School, as well as dining experiences and events.
There’s also four Canteens in the South West – Axminster, Bristol, Plymouth and Winchester, and I’ve definitely added a visit to the restaurant onto my list of hopes (alongside treating my mum to a course at River Cottage).