December was a busy month at River Cottage, with lunches and dinner often full and plenty of Christmas events. The menus included some festive twists, such as a chestnut and bacon garnish on a warming winter soup with garden vegetables, while guests taking place on courses enjoyed Christmas Bread Making and a festive themed Smoking & Curing course.
It’s always a significant moment in the kitchen when we are rewarded with the meat from one of our own cows, and we had the pleasure of two in December. One of those, a thirteen-year-old cross Angus Jersey, was a real rarity. From the tender and juicy meat, to the pockets of goodness and depth of flavour from the fat, the beef was truly delicious and just melted in your mouth. The nutty, grass-like flavour you instantly tasted made it clear from the first bite that the animal enjoyed the very best diet and lived a slow and relaxed life over those 13 years here at River Cottage. The cow was diligently butchered in the kitchen and every ounce saved, from the delicious rib cut right down to the rendered fat and trim – ready for those roast potatoes throughout the year!
As part of my apprenticeship, I spend two days each month in the cookery school here at River Cottage with my fellow apprentices. Over these two days we tackle various different types of cooking, from breads to poultry, and our dishes are assessed and we receive feedback on how we’re performing. At the beginning of January, we were assessed on a range of fish dishes, before moving on to poultry to be assessed later in February.
For me, this method is a fantastic platform to learn new dishes and techniques. Furthermore, the ingredients provided for the training are second to none, a bounty of fresh fish, meat, and produce from the farm and surrounding areas. Our fish dishes, for example, allowed us to work with the most fantastically fresh Turbot landed by the Lyme Bay Fish Shack, just a stone’s throw away from River Cottage HQ. The poultry we were provided was a delicious slow-grown duck that had been hung for 12 days and dry plucked, which had the most immaculately rich and flavoursome meat. We also had free-range chickens, which had been raised slowly in small groups eating a foraged diet of luscious Devon grass, again hung for 12 days providing a depth of flavour.
With these fantastic ingredients, we cover all methods of cooking. It’s not uncommon to butcher and break down an entire bird so we can cover techniques such as pan frying, poaching, baking and roasting. I feel privileged to be given ingredients this fantastic to learn with, it inspires me to make the most of every morsel. And it is question of respect to the animal and indeed our guests, to select the option that has been raised in the best possible conditions for its purpose.
I cannot speak highly enough about the apprenticeship programme here at River Cottage, and with enrollment open, I would strongly recommend anyone reading this with a passion for food and ingredients to consider applying. I hope you have enjoyed this insight into the winter months of December and January, and I look forward to posting my next entry in early March. Charles
Read more about the River Cottage apprenticeship scheme HERE