Preserving the Rural Idyll
It’s easy to get a bit carried away when you arrive at River Cottage. The tractor collects you and ferries you round the corner and down the hill to the hidden farmhouse, so exquisitely nestled in the Devon valley and surrounded by peacefully grazing cattle and the gentle babble of the stream that runs through the farm. It’s so much like a secret Eden that before your course has even begun you are harbouring dreams of a winter spent wrapped in a blanket made with your own sheep’s wool and fed by stores of home-cured bacon, effortlessly fluffy sourdough and a larder of interesting preserves.
This is how all courses start at RCHQ and it gets me every time. Because I have followed River Cottage since it began 20 years ago. Picture the scene, it's the early 00s and I'm sat in my 3-windowed, basement, shoe-box of a flat in central London, watching River Cottage 'Escape to River Cottage' and wishing I too could escape to rural life. I even took notes - yes, it was that level of fan-dom. Two decades on and River Cottage has been such a source of inspiration to me over the years and I’ve learnt so much from all the chefs who make RCHQ such a magical place.
And there’s more to learn today – this time from preserving guru, Rachel de Thample. She welcomes us with a ‘history of marmalade’ breakfast – all the stages of marmalade development from the ancient Greek quince and honey concoction to the Seville orange type we know today. Under her guidance we spend the morning focusing on citrus - making marmalade, lemon curd and salt-preserved blood oranges. Rachel litters her demonstrations with more ideas for preserving and we scribble notes on our already thorough recipe packs. Pickled kale stalks was, for me, one of her best off-the-cuff ideas (and, incidentally, the point I think we reached peak River Cottage-ness.)
There’s a discrete and attentive team on hand during the class who preempt your every need – turning ovens on to sterilize jars, providing whisks before you knew you needed one and arriving with lunch just as you’re starting to feel peckish. The kitchen have created a beautiful winter buffet – lamb with roast celeriac, quinoa and salsa verde; cumin roast root veg; labneh with za’atar and almonds, and a rhubarb custard tart that is the prettiest, most delicate pink you’ll ever see. I take more notes.
In the afternoon, we turn to lacto-fermentation. The chat gets a bit more technical but Rachel maintains a good balance between explaining the chemistry (or should that be biology) of it and keeping things relaxed and accessible. Her encyclopedic knowledge means she can answer all our questions and so by the end of the day we’ve made red cabbage, apple and horseradish sauerkraut and every one of us is confident about taking it home to burp and nurture it like a new family pet.
The tractor returns to take us, clutching our fizzing ‘kraut and our clanking bags of jam jars, back up the hill and back to reality. At least we know in the months to come, when we reach for our marmalade in the morning, that we have a little piece of the River Cottage idyll preserved for our own.