Ever since the first series of River Cottage aired on our screens in 1997, I have admired Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ethos and passion for local, seasonal and organic food and how he firmly established Dorset on Britain’s culinary map, by championing the artisan suppliers and unearthing the county’s rich larder of produce across several series of enthralling programmes.
River Cottage morphed from the original riverside cottage with smallholding into a full-blown farm (Park Farm) in a secret valley on the Dorset/Devon border in 2006, allowing Hugh and the River Cottage team to develop and expand the business to include seasonal events, bespoke and private days out, and a thriving cookery school offering workshops and exciting courses. However, the approach and ethos to how they grow their own food, rear the animals and utilise the produce remains resolutely the same.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join their popular Experience Day Course at the Cookery School – what a treat!
Arriving in the hilltop car park seemingly miles from anywhere only heightens the excitement and anticipation of spending the day at River Cottage HQ. Park Farm remains enticingly hidden out of view but the stunning views across the Axe Valley kept the excited River Cottage groupies (including six Australian’s who had flown over for the ‘Experience’) absorbed as we waited for the unique tractor transport that takes you down the very bumpy track into the valley for your first glimpse of the famous whitewashed farmhouse. On arrival, the farm complex doesn’t disappoint, it remains charmingly rustic and unspoilt, and the contemporary kitchens in the converted barns blend in seamlessly.
The Experience Day Course provides a fascinating insight into the ethos of River Cottage and the chance to cook some dishes with instruction from top chefs. The day started with coffee and a delicious brunch rustled up by chef Andy Tyrrell, who welcomed us to HQ and passionately explained the ethos of River Cottage and the importance of seasonal and ethical produce and the delights of home-grown and home-cooked food. Before being let loose at the stoves, Head Gardener Will Livingstone took us on an enthralling tour of the (TV) kitchen garden, the polytunnels and the real working farm, where we learnt about crop rotation and that everything grown and reared on the farm is organic and used in the cookery school, with extra produce sourced from neighbouring organic farms in the Axe Valley.
Having fed the pigs and harvested edible treats such as raspberries, apples, tomatoes and squashes, it was back in the kitchen to learn how to make the perfect loaf of bread. This was huge fun and I had doubts about my loaf but chef Andy is a brilliant teacher and I surprised myself with the result..! Next, we prepared the dough for our superb pizza lunch, topped with fresh home-grown ingredients and cooked in the alfresco wood-fired oven – one of the best pizza I have tasted and perfect with a glass of organic wine from the bar.
The day rounded off with a wonderful three-course dinner in the farmhouse itself – 20 enthusiastic foodies and avid River Cottage fans sat at a long table tucking into the squash, apple and chilli soup, the gnocchi, and the raspberry and frangipane tarts we had part-prepared during the afternoon and expertly finished off by Andy and his team. However, Andy’s beautifully barbecued River Cottage beef, served with colourful beets pulled from the kitchen garden, really stole the show. A truly enlightening and memorable day at River Cottage HQ….!
David Hancock of Inn Places.
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