A couple of weeks ago, I had the exciting opportunity to visit River Cottage for the day, with over 50 other Foodies100 bloggers. I travelled down to Axminster after work the night before and stayed in a lovely little B&B called Kerrington House. I say little, my ‘room’ was enormous, more of an apartment really, with a separate living room and kitchen. I wished I was staying there for longer!
In the morning I headed over to River Cottage and met all of the other bloggers in the top car park, where we learned we would be driven down to the farm by tractor! This was of course a fun experience, with everyone bumping and rocking around in the trailer, I just wondered if they also do this for the weddings they host at the venue!
If anyone reading doesn’t know about River Cottage, let me give you a bit of background. It was originally established by celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, after his early smallholding experiences were documented in the Channel 4 River Cottage TV series, which led to over 10 cookbooks and subsequent TV programmes. Hugh established River Cottage HQ in Dorset in 2004, and the operation is now based at Park Farm near Axminster in Devon, where we were visiting.
We were greeted with warm drinks and some delicious cordials before being separated into three groups for the day’s activities. The first of these for my group was the garden and grounds tour, which I was particularly chuffed about as the weather was gorgeous and the perfect light for photos (and there was a cat, which is always going to make me happy!!)
They really do grow everything you can possibly imagine at River Cottage and I just love the model behind it – the gardeners keep everything growing and in check, and the chefs can just pop out and pick what they need for their recipes. I think I need to have a word with hubby about setting something similar up in our garden 😉
As well as fruits, vegetables and herbs, the flowers were all so beautiful too! Jim apologised for the fact that many of them were nearing the end of their lives now that we’re approaching Autumn, but I actually think nature is at its most stunning around this time.
I didn’t actually realise that River Cottage also holds livestock – chickens, pigs and cows. The latter of which we would be tucking into for our lunch, but more on that later.
We then moved on to our next activity, but I would have been quite happy wandering the gardens for the rest of the day, taking photo after photo (I definitely drained my camera a bit too much during this part of the day!) But fortunately this activity was just as fun – we were making our own bread and butter!
We were taught by the very charming Head Chef, Gill Meller. I’ve since seen that he has a beautiful new Instagram account, definitely take a look, here.
We started off making the butter. It was the first time I’d ever made it and to be completely honest, I didn’t realise quite how easy it was. I remember being in primary school and someone bringing in an old butter churner, a memory which has always stayed with me. Obviously technology has moved on since then (you would hope!) and a whisk (preferably electric!) and a spatula is all you need. Here’s the recipe, as provided by River Cottage.
200ml double cream
Pinch salt, optional
Whip the cream until you form butter, add salt if you wish to make salted butter.
Keep mixing using a spatula to squeeze excess butter milk from the butter.
You can wash the butter in iced water if you wish to prolong the life of the butter. Left unwashed, the butter will last up to five days in the fridge.
Gill said that we could pick some edible flowers and herbs from the garden to put into our butter. Some of the other bloggers decided against it, saying that their children would look at them like they were mad if they served them butter with flowers in! But I was quite happy to make mine look pretty, and I was keen to try it with herbs to see how it would affect the overall flavour of the butter, so I headed out to the garden.
I was really happy with how it turned out, and it made it all the way back to London in one piece for Tim and I to try at the weekend – and it was lovely! I’m definitely going to experiment with other herbs and salts from now on.
Next we moved on to the soda bread. I’ve made bread at home many times and I really enjoy it, I find it quite therapeutic. On this occasion, we were using the buttermilk we created earlier – I was a bit worried I didn’t have enough, but it worked out ok. We used ingredients from the garden for this recipe too, picking blackberries from the bushes outside the kitchen. I also added chopped apple and honey. I was sharing an oven with Lisa of Lovely Appetite and in a GBBO-esque moment of horror, realised after cooking that the oven was pre-heated but not actually turned on! Luckily we were able to keep them in there longer while we ate lunch, but sadly it meant I didn’t have time to get a good photo of it. It was very tasty though. And here’s the recipe, if you’d like to give it a go:
Soda bread recipe
Soda bread is so easy to make. No kneading, no proving – just mix the ingredients together, shape into rough rounds and throw in the oven. Buttermilk is relatively easy to buy, but you can also make this bread with thin yoghurt, milk or water, or any combination of these.
Makes 2 loaves
500g plain white flour, plus extra for dusting
4 tsp baking powder
300ml buttermilk, thin yoghurt, milk or water
A little flour (rye would be good)
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix in the buttermilk or other liquid to make a dough.
Knead briefly, divide into two then shape into rough rounds. Flatten by patting them until about 5cm high, flour the loaves all over and place on a baking tray. Now cut a cross in the top of each loaf, almost through to the bottom then stab lightly all over.
Bake for 20–25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base then allow to cool for a few minutes on a wire rack. |They are best eaten warm with butter.
P.S. If you have time, try making your own buttermilk, which will also give you fresh butter to spread on your bread. Cream will eventually turn to butter when beaten, but it takes a while. Using a food mixer, beat 1 litre of double cream until it thickens, then stiffens, then eventually (and very suddenly) separates. When it does, pour it through a fine sieve into a bowl. The liquid in the bowl is buttermilk. The residue in the sieve is butter. Squeeze and squidge the butter together, then hold it under cold running water and squeeze it a bit more to rinse off any buttermilk.
To make brown soda bread replace the white flour with wholemeal and add a good tablespoonful of black treacle. This makes a sweeter, slightly heavier bread – excellent with a pint of Guinness and an Irish stew!
By this point our tummies were definitely rumbling and we were treated to a wonderful two course lunch, as follows:
Slow cooked Park Farm Dexter beef ravioli
Roasted garden vegetable ragu
Goat’s cheese and walnut pesto with rocket and agretti
Sweetcorn roasted with rapeseed oil and garlic
Honey roasted damsons
Soft fennel blossom meringues
Orange, salted caramel and coffee ice-cream
As I mentioned earlier, the beef was from River Cottage’s own livestock. I know from my past visits to other farms and butchers that the ‘field to fork’ process is very important, making sure that the animal has the best possible quality of life and that its cuts all go to the best possible use without waste, so it felt like quite a privilege to be eating it. I was a big fan of the ragu – it was such a feast for the senses, packed with gorgeous fresh vegetables and herbs straight from the garden.
Dessert had some mixed opinions around the table (largely around the fennel meringue, as it’s not to everyone’s tastes) but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It cleverly combined a wide range of flavours and skills, which I appreciated.
So a big thank you to the River Cottage chefs!
But the day wasn’t going to end there. Our group had one last activity with the truly inspiring Lucy of Capture by Lucy, all about food photography. She was such a lovely, bubbly person and full of fantastic hints and tips! I must admit, the area I feel is weakest on the blog is food photography at home. I’m confident with taking (hopefully) good photos in restaurants or at events, but I often feel rather uninspired with taking them at home. The lighting always stresses me out and I never feel like I do the food justice. Lucy certainly gave me a ton of ideas. She made me realise that the amazing food photography I often see on blogs isn’t easy to do. That might not sound like rocket science, but I realised that to truly create great photos, it needs to be treated like a proper photoshoot. Not taking photos of food right before serving it, up against the pressure of hungry family and friends! I need to start sourcing more props from places like charity shops and think more creatively about the overall setting. I was also pleased to learn that she shoots outside in natural light. I always wondered if it was a bit OTT to stage something outdoors but apparently it’s the norm! I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot!
So a huge thank you to the team at Foodies100 and River Cottage for such a wonderful day! If you’d like to read any of my fellow attendees’ posts, you can find them in the linky here.
And for those of you interested in paying a visit to River Cottage, you can check out their website here. I’ve been looking at some of their courses which look brilliant, including Beekeeping, Hedgerow Foraging and Meat Curing & Smoking. I’m sure I’ll be back one day soon with Tim, as I know he’d love it too! Or my Mum. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t be excited to go to River Cottage must be mad!