Food experiences come in all shapes and sizes and I’m greedy enough to want to try them all. But I’m never happier then when I can get back to the real nuts and bolts of food and talk to the people who are farming it, growing it or cooking it. So a recent road trip down to River Cottage with some friends was a dream come true.
Tucked away in a corner of the Devon/Dorset border you can’t fail to fall in love at first sight. It is such an idyllic setting. Parking at the top of a hill, you look down on to River Cottage and it is just as you’ve seen on the TV. A tractor takes you down the track and drives you down to the ‘cottage’ – a series of farm buildings which house a cookery school, kitchens, event barn and of course the cottage itself. Well, a tractor takes you down if you don’t get lost in the countryside because you’re a bunch of giddy kippers who didn’t read the address correctly. But, hey that rainy windswept walk was just part of the adventure!
To get us in the mood for Christmas (and dinner!) chef Andy Tyrrell was on hand to tell us the best ways with our Christmas meats. Due to a few wrong turns on the dark country roads, I missed his method for a cider brined ham, arriving just in time to hear him say how delicious it was *insert grumpy face*.
I am, however, relieved that I arrived in time to see him making venison bresaola. Ordinarily, bresaola is an air dried cured beef, cut wafer thin. Andy took it to a whole new level by using venison instead. The slightly gamey flavour is really accentuated after the drying process and a five day red wine bath certainly did no harm either!
As well as the venison, the gin brine for a turkey (or chicken) was a fun idea. I must admit that I am a bit meh when it comes to cooking a turkey for Christmas, not least because I think it isn’t as flavourful as chicken. But brining locks in the flavours both of the meat and the additions such as gin and juniper, and crucially it ensures that your bird is lovely and juicy when cooked. With just a few minutes planning a day or two before you cook, you are rewarded with a very tasty bird.
Andy’s ideas have really inspired me, and I have some venison on order. As soon as it arrives I will do a couple of ‘how to’ videos – so watch this space. Brucie bonus- I get venison bresaola for Christmas!
A trip to River Cottage is always going to involve quite a lot of eating, so after sampling Andy’s Christmas meats, and spending some time in the cottage and the yurt, it was time to sit and enjoy dinner.
There were a lot of us there, and the barn where Andy had done his demo’s was turned around into a beautiful dining hall with two longs tables so everyone could get to know each other.
If I had gone home eating nothing but the canapes from the night I would have been happy!
Chef Sam Lomas (who has risen through the ranks since his River Cottage apprenticeship three years ago) came out to tell us about the dishes we were about to enjoy, and it would seem that the best was still to come.
To start we enjoyed celeriac ravioli with wild mushrooms foraged in the New Forest and sage. Never in a million years would I have thought to put celeriac in ravioli. Velvety smooth. Also I think I need to start a new hashtag as I love mushroom dishes when I eat out. So look out for #Ihavethisthingaboutmushrooms!
Next was cider brined ham (yipee, I didn’t miss it after all!). The pork was from an Oxford Sandy and Black pig which was picked off the bone, mixed with mustard and herbs, glazed and rolled. It came served with sweet pureed carrots, pan fried baby savoy cabbage and the most morish sauce/gravy. Oh and on the side, a bowl of smoky haricot beans to share.
I had to go for a walk round between courses to make sure I could fit in pudding, and I am so glad that I did. Apples are the fruit of autumn for me, and this dessert celebrated British apples magnificently. There were apple crisps, a puree and a crumble made with treacle and rye. Nestled in the core of all this apple goodness was a honeycomb crème brûlée. I’m not going to lie, I got every last scrape of crème brûlée out of that espresso cup. It was unbelievable, I’m not even sure how they did it but it seems to be melted honeycomb in the creme and the flavour was so intense.
Of course there were petit fours served after that feast and I someone managed to squeeze in a couple of intensely orangey truffles before having to be hoisted back on to the tractor up the hill to the car!
You could not knock the smile off my face the whole time I was at River Cottage and for days afterwards; it was such a thrill to talk to people who devote their lives to great food. Of course before I went I was secretly hoping to bump into Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but it was such a great evening that he barely crossed my mind. Sorry Hugh! It really made me want to get stuck in and try new (to me) methods like air drying and rediscover great local producers. It has put a fire in my belly!
I know in my heart that I will return to River Cottage some day, and hopefully I will bring my husband to one of the dining events. It’s such a hub of activity: as well as regular dinners there are classes covering everything from Christmas curing to seashore foraging. I really fancy getting an insight into butchery with their ‘pig in a day’ course (maybe Santa is reading this!).
For now I am planning some tasty treats for my Boxing Day buffet and looking ahead to my next road trip with Jane and Rachel aka HodgePodgeDays and Vintage Folly– the perfect foodie road trip companions! Click the links and check out their takes on the day, but be warned, we have car selfies in there too!