Rachel de Thample is a magician. An ingredient maverick who continually and passionately explores the boundaries of process, flavours and taste. On a frosty morning this week, when RCHQ had slipped below tåhe valley mist, I joined her and the team in our 18th century barn for a run through of her forthcoming Seasonal Fermentation day.
Over freshly brewed coffee and a pile of buckwheat and kefir blinis, Rachel introduced us to the basic elements of fermenting starting with her honey fermented clementine marmalade. This echoed the Ancient Greek and Roman tradition of covering quince in honey, a very early type of preserve. To tweak it seasonally clementine can be replaced with rhubarb, cherries, cranberries or even rosehips, a delicious example of which Rachel made in the autumn and brought for us to try.
Fermentation is about time, temperature and your own taste buds. ‘It’s about using ratios and percentages rather than specific recipes, leaving you free to go into your garden, pick what you fancy and experiment,’ Rachel said, encouraging us to have less reliance on recipes. How liberating! We made up our own batches of ‘krautchi’, combining the thinly sliced, salt massaged cabbage of sauerkraut with the garlic and chilli spices of kimchi. In another jar we layered apple rings with fresh ginger and thyme and covered them in a salty brine. In a week or so they will be ready to accompany a Sunday treat of roast pork or perk up a cheeseboard.
There were more incredible tasters throughout the day including sourdough cardamom buns with cranberries and rose petals (we fought over them), elderberry and earl grey kombucha (Rachel introduced us to a SCOBY and vinegar Mother) and an entire board of lacto-fermented pickled vegetables and fruit including apples, limes, carrots and chilli. The combination of parsnip and quince was an unusual but popular hit.
Rachel was incredibly generous with her expertise, inspiration and mind-blowing selection of samples from her laboratory style kitchen. I skipped home, clutching several jars of my ferments and the beginnings of a ginger beer (or ginger ‘bug’ as they are known) with simple steps to follow over the next few days. It reminds me of the time I was trusted with a goldfish but that’s a story for another time …
TWENTY FOUR HOUR PARTY PEOPLE
There has been intense debate amongst the team at RCHQ today. Whilst our first official Food Fair was held in 2014 we have been throwing all sorts of events, big and small, for the last 20 years. Trying to remember just how many and what they were has created much discussion. There have been fairs, festivals, parties, dinners and sports days, always centred around food and drink but often with music, entertainment and tradition woven through too.
It is one of the things I think we do very well and as a long standing member of the team I have been involved in more than my fair share of them. Like the Spring Into Summer Fair from our 2008 TV series “River Cottage Spring” celebrating all the wonderful produce you would expect at that time of year. I can still remember the effervescent elderflower champagne (brewed and bottled by our expert forager John Wright) and nestled in big tin tubs of ice, waiting to be uncorked by Hugh and the team and served to our guests. I may have tried more than my fair share of the bubbly.
The Strawberry Fair the following year was an even bigger success, captured on “River Cottage: Summer’s Here”, with strawberry plants growing all over the farm in readiness for the event. There was a welcome return for our high octane Produce Exchange tent where guests arrived with something home grown or made, ready to swap with each other. I was bowled over by the variety of produce and the passion from those who were taking part. We stacked up hand baked sourdoughs, delicious cakes neatly wrapped in brown paper, jewel like jars of preserves made using treasured family recipes, seeds lovingly harvested and a tree. An actual tree.
We have celebrated bonfire nights, both on and off camera, survived a gale blowing through our Christmas market, basked in the mellow fruitfulness of an Autumn Fair, devoted an event to pumpkins and chillies and cooked feasts for members parties. It was devastating when we lost our beautiful 18th century threshing barn, the venue of our cookery school and restaurant, in a fire in early 2012. Thanks to the vision and commitment of the team, we set up a temporary space in one of the fields and threw a big party to celebrate getting back up and running. When we moved back into our rescued and renovated barn we threw another party, to signal the return and commemorate our 10 year anniversary at Park Farm.
So as you can see, we do love a knees up. It’s how we will be approaching our Food Fair this May, with extra special plans to focus on River Cottage over the last 20 years. I have also specifically requested the return of the Produce Exchange (see picture above with me in the background trying to work out a barter) and maybe even the renowned cider circle. I’ll keep you updated.