Friday, 1 June 2012

Veg At The River Cottage Cookery School...

I have long been an admirer of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with his passionate approach to food and thought-provoking television programmes. As I don’t eat meat I was particularly delighted when his latest series (shown last year on British television) focused on meatless recipes and featured some marvellous dishes to encourage people to eat more veg in both traditional and new innovative recipes and place it, quite rightly, centre stage in a meal. 

So when I heard that there was now a one day cookery course centring on that series, I was keen to go and was extremely fortunate to then get the opportunity! 

The details about this particular cookery course and the other courses offered, can be found on the River Cottage website

I signed up, and then one week later they had the devastating fire which gutted the lovely old barn that housed the cookery school.  But, in true Brit fashion, within days had set up a temporary abode. We now had a cookery school set in a tent-but what a tent!

River Cottage HQ is now based at Park Farm situated just outside of the town of Axminster. And no, Hugh and his family do not actually live there themselves...

On the day we arrived it was overcast and tipping down with rain but the still the view from the car park across the Devon hills was rather magnificent.

A tractor pulling a covered trailer was our transportation down the hill from the car park to the farm itself. It lurched and zigzagged down a steep path giving us a good, though somewhat, rain drenched view of the farm and the fire-gutted old barn. I did attempt to take some photos but unsurprisingly they were a little on the blurred side! 

Once there, we were able to dry out and have a good look around the accommodation that housed the new temporary cookery school. I have to say I have rarely seen such a better kitted out tent!! The front half is the dining area complete with bar in the corner and bunting and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling...

At the rear is the cookery area with room for 20 participants plus the chef.

At the side and away from our general view were the prep, washing up and storage areas etc. 

The whole space was light and airy and a pleasure to work in.

 Whilst we awaited some latecomers, we were served tea/coffee and freshly baked cinnamon griddle scones.

 As they knew some of the participants were vegan or glutton free they had even made special ones for them.

 I was most impressed that during the day whenever ingredients arrived for us then substituted ingredients were provided without being asked, for those with extra dietary requirements. As the course host Steve explained-as long as they have advance notice they will cater for dietary needs and had clearly thought about adapting recipes beforehand and providing, without any fuss, alternative ingredients.

And so on to the cooking!

There were twenty of us on the course and our host explained that the day would centre on the basics of cooking with vegetables and would go at the pace of the slowest. 

This was probably lovely for those that needed the extra help but it did mean that for those of us who were competent cooks-if I dare put myself in this group-we understandably had less attention from the tutors...

For recipes from the Veg Series please see

We started off with making a basic vegetable stock complete with our carefully wrapped little bouquet garnis.

Note to future ensure dangling and easily burnable string is not hanging over the side close to flames from the hob...

At the same time we made some Dahl and Flat Bread. The Dahl was very simply made with red lentils and the flat bread was made with Hugh’s Basic Bread recipe which we then rolled out into thin circles dotted with spices and dry fried in a frying pan until they quickly puffed up.

We ate this as a tasty halfway snack.

I would make these simple flat breads again-beautiful texture-crusty on the outside and soft in the middle. The Dahl was nice but personally I found Hugh’s recipe a little on the bland side and I prefer my own versions which are spicier and, I think for me, more flavoursome. 

However, a few people on the course had never eaten Dahl before so for them it was spicy enough so I guess everyone has their own personal preference...

On to the next dish. Using some of the stock we prepared earlier we made a Summer Garden Soup.

Again nice, but not exactly rocket science to make. 

If it had been up to me I would have de-podded the broad beans and then added them just before the end.

 I also allowed my wild streak free rain and added a generous sprig of fennel that I had picked earlier from our walk around the vegetable garden.

Our main course was a Nettle Risotto using spelt rather than the traditional risotto rice. 

Unfortunately there was a little confusion as some of us were told we were using barley and some spelt so I’m still not sure what we used! 

Again we used the previously made stock. Using an alternative to rice meant more cooking time was required-unfortunately it took far longer than the tutor anticipated which delayed our finish time a little.

 When we did finally sit down and taste it I do have to say I was rather disappointed with the end result. Whilst I like risotto to have a little bite, this was altogether rather too chewy. 

Others, I have to say, enjoyed the risotto and enthused about how healthy it was.

The nettles added a slight green element but again needed more to give more taste. Plus, I feel, a grating of cheese on top of the final dish would have added greatly.

Our final dish was pudding! We made a Rhubarb and Ginger Steamed Pudding. Rhubarb was caramelised with ginger, butter and sugar.

We then made a sponge mixture which was poured into individual bowls in which the rhubarb mixture had been first placed and then covered with greaseproof paper and placed in a bain-marie in the oven. 

Mine promptly tried to escape with the sponge mixture pouring out of the top like an erupting volcano-and no- I didn’t take a photo of that!

 However despite my pessimism, when the puddings were cooked, released from their greaseproof paper coverings and basins and then inverted on to a bowl the end result was absolutely delicious!

 The rhubarb had a lovely caramelised flavour with a generous hit of ginger and the sponge was meltingly airy and soft. With some added cream it was sublimely delicious and definitely one to make again...and again...

I’m afraid my photo does not do it justice.

Just a few words about the fantastic River Cottage Team that looked after us for the day. 

We were ‘meeted and greeted’ by our genial and very hospitable host Steve.

 We had Robin in the morning as our chef tutor and Tim Maddams (pictured in the first photo) joined us for the afternoon session. Tim, in particular, is a real character. He is one of the Head Chefs and frequently appears on Hugh’s television programmes. Very approachable and helpful despite suffering from lack of sleep following the birth a few days earlier of his new baby daughter, Flora.

 I did though, have to stifle my giggles, when he started to talk about the ‘journey’ a carrot makes from plot to plate, meeting other vegetables and intermingles with them-why does everything nowadays have to make a ‘journey’?? 

 We also had an informative outside tour of the vegetables by head gardener Chris and I was particularly intrigued by the use of short lengths of guttering to grow micro herbs in! We saw the poor burned out barn which had housed the old cookery school and met the chickens and very friendly pigs which I fear will feature later on in the year in one of the more meat orientated cookery courses. 

As the day drew to an end we raised the question to Tim our afternoon tutor that we had not made the vegetable hummus which had been mentioned that we would be making by Robin in the morning session. I had also been personally looking forward to this after having had the rather yummy and delicious Tri of Hummus at the restaurant the day before. Tim, it appeared, had not been told this and therefore had not planned to teach us this dish.

 Realising our disappointment he quickly disappeared ‘out back’ to the prep area and not long after, the hard working crew who had looked after us so well all day, including doing all our washing up, managed to quickly rustle up the ingredients to make our Carrot Hummus. 

So with a little tahini, honey, garlic and of course, carrot we made this wonderful hummus. 

Really, really lovely and another definite one to make again with carrot and other vegetables. 

I might even be really brave and make it with my ‘bĂȘte noir’- beetroot...

Finally we could take off our aprons and prepare to sit down and eat in our rather ‘posh’ tent!

To conclude, attending The River Cottage Cookery Course was very enjoyable indeed.

 The weather may have been rather wet and miserable outside but inside the staff and team were extremely welcoming and enthusiastic. 

Given the fairly recent destruction of the cookery school earlier this year, the temporary accommodation under canvas is truly wonderful.

 The cooking space and the new hob and ovens are great and the dining area is rustic and relaxing and with a great view-and probably even better when it is sunny!

 In terms of difficulty, the cooking itelf is very easy.

 Personally I would have preferred much more of a culinary challenge and would have liked to have cooked more of the recipes from the ‘Veg Every Day’ recipe book.

However on the plus side each participant at the end of the day was given a free copy of that book which has a scrawl in the front which I take to be Hugh’s signature!

 The cook book is truly fantastic and has many recipes which I have already started to use with great success so one to highly recommend. 

I drove back home to Wales very happy and contented!


  1. Sounds like an amazing experience! I have been to a couple of cookery classes in the UK, and (like you) I have found them to be a bit too basic - and thus somewhat unrewarding. In our country we always seem to go for the Lowest Common Denominator rather than pushing the boundaries and creating a challenge for the more ambitious.
    Full marks to the team for having the flexibility to put on the carrot hummus dish at short notice!

    1. Hi Mark,

      Yes I do like to be stretched if I go on a course-I want to learn! Some courses I’ve been on, have been well thought out and are geared to different levels with an assistant helping those who need more help whilst the others keep up with the head tutor. Whilst it is great that so many more people are keen to learn to cook I just wish they had learnt the basics beforehand so we could then concentrate on the more complicated dishes and learn hands on rather than just reading it from the recipe.

      Sorry-I’ll get off my soap box now...

  2. I was rather surprised to read that the class "would go at the pace of the slowest". I imagine a number of participants were quite bored.
    Would love to try the vegetable stock but could not find the recipe.
    Glad you ended your day very happy and contented!

    1. Hi Norma,

      Hmm, yes I was surprised too...

      I’ve got the recipe for the stock so will try to include it in a post in the very near future!

  3. Well, how interesting. I really don't know what the things you made were except maybe the flat bread, which is something like fried dough here which everyone loves and is sold at fairs (we made it sometimes when I was a kid at home though). Still, I think the experience you had was quite lovely. I never get to go and do anything interesting like that.

    1. Hi Becky,

      Did a quick Google of Fried Dough but see that is deep fried where as this is dry cooked so a little different. I’ll definitely make it again as it simply uses a standard yeast bread dough just with the addition of spices which will be fun to play around with different combinations!

  4. I've yet to attend a cooking class but, given the right subject matter, I think I would. Surely your heart sank when first you heard of the fire but that tent! I've been in banquet halls that weren't so well appointed. And carrot hummus? I've never heard of it but will be searching the web for a recipe. Thanks for the nudge in that direction. :)

    1. Hi John,

      The River Cottage Team rose magnificently to the challenge after the devastating fire and it is to be truly applauded what they have managed to achieve. The ovens and hobs were wonderful to use considering their situation in a tent!

      The Carrot Hummus and The Tri of Hummus I had the day before in their restaurant was very, very nice indeed. Enclosed is the link to part of the recipe

  5. Your tent cookery school looks rather fun. I confess that even I, as a not especially brilliant cook, would have found it irksome to go at a slow pace. I really appreciate your posts as a meat free zone; I always feel I could tuck into the food you show us. I will be going outside shortly to talk to the broad beans and encourage them to grow faster...I suddenly need to eat broad beans. I'm glad you enjoyed the course.

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Thanks so much for your cheerful comments! Do speak encouragingly to your broad beans-mine have little pods about an inch long so far-and like you I can’t wait to eat them-broad beans are such a treat!!
      I’ll be up in your neck of the woods next month on my cookery course at The Artisan School of Cookery-can’t wait!

  6. Hmmm, lovely looking dishes, especially the flat bread and dahl... didn't know that you don't take meat... I am heading towards that direction, but the fish is still rather irresistible for the time being...

    1. Hi Lrong,

      Yes I do love my veggies and haven’t eaten meat for most of my life now. I do though, like you, enjoy fish!!

  7. If I had a posh tent like that I'd be only too happy to go camping. What a great day out. And despite the rain I can see what a beautiful part of the country it is. I would have podded those broadbeans too. The tough grey skin just isn't that tasty. And that is strange about the risotto. I have never seen spelt grains so I can't imagine spelt as a substitute. Barley grains look like brown rice and I think would taste good cooked like a risotto but they would take an age to cook or they would be hard - perhaps this is what happened? I'm glad you had a lovely day and great for you that it was vegetarian cooking xx

    1. Hi Charlie,

      The ‘posh tent’ was fab though I have to say it would take a lot nowadays to get me to sleep again under canvas...I still have memories of waking up in a tent with the sound of rain thundering on the sides of the tent and smelling all the damp clothing waiting to be worn that day...

    2. To be true, I'm just not that into camping. I've had many a soggy tent experience and as much as die-hards tell you camping is 'wonderful', I've always found it miserable (except if I was on this cooking course of course) xx

  8. Posh is definitely the right term to describe the tent. I have been part of many cooking classes. Sometimes I think they do the simplest of recipes...thinking that most of us are not capable of doing anything else. I think they should offer two levels of classes. Just because we are not a trained chef...we are good and capable cooks.

    1. Hi Karen,

      I’m with you on that!! Or have more ‘assistants’ who can give more time and attention to those that need it. We were a large group of 20 so with just one tutor it was inevitable that some parts of the room saw more of him than another.

  9. I've only ever been to one cooking course - but it was 3 hours a week for 10 weeks (Indian food at the Hounslow Adult Education) and it was absolutely fabulous. I too would have got a bit frustrated to go to one which was as basic as this sounded but having said that it sounds like a lovely day and you can't beat a good tent in my book! Now I want to make carrot humous.

    1. Hi Liz,

      Despite some disappointment with the level of the cooking required it was an enjoyable day and I am glad I finally got to visit River Cottage HQ. The vegetable hummus was very, very tasty-especially with some Dukka sprinkled over the top!

  10. Yay, I just bought the River Cottage Veg tv series on iTunes the other day and we've just finished watching it - so much fun and so nice to see so many delicious vegetables, but it really annoys me how people keep making such a distinction in food, like these meat-lovers being interviewed and saying "oh yeah, I've never had vegetarian food"... come on, it breeds this belief that every single meal has to consist of flesh of some sort.

    Loved seeing the photos - I didn't realise the fire which burnt the barn had been so recent.

    1. Hi Charles,

      Those recipes were fantastic in the series and I was so hoping to do much more of them..I’m really enjoying doing some of them from the cookbook at the moment. The fire at the barn made national news back in February this year. I had only just signed up the week before so waited with bated breath to see what would happen. And ‘sods law’ they brought in a ‘fire sale’ after that (great sense of humour on somebody’s part) and the course would have been £50 cheaper had I bought it then!! Saying that they now have a 60% off sale at the moment for all courses/events in June so the Veg course is a real bargain now!!

  11. Hi, Green Dragonette. I'm so happy to be here! You must have spent an unforgettable day there in spite of a partial disappointment. I do envy you! I have one River Cottage book and I really like it a lot (I have prepared several recipes and all of them were great), so if I lived a bit closer I would certainly get interested in their classes, although probably rather meat- or fish-oriented ;-) . Thank you for visiting my blog! I'm glad I have discovered yours!

    1. Hi Sissi,

      Thank you very much indeed for visiting-I am so much enjoying reading your blog too-lovely, lovely recipes!

  12. That sounds like an amazing day, it looked fantastic. I'd love to go to one, I'm not that far away.

    1. Well, they do have a sale on at the moment if you are tempted...

  13. Wow, I'm so jealous! I love the river cottage philosophy, and their approach to food, and their delciious recipes of course! I wish i had the chance to do sth like that. Everythign looks amazing and delicious, thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Hi Shu Han,

      You are so right! The River Cottage Team were lovely to be with for the day-their passion for good food and to get more people cooking and being aware of where/how the food gets from plot to plate is very genuine indeed.

  14. A thorough report on your experience at River Cottage, thanks so much for sharing! You're an experienced enough to cook creatively, I can imagine how this might be too basic for you. I find sorting out cooking classes that emphasize teaching recipes from the ones that teach technique helps me to find ones that are more challenging and engaging. Am glad to read the tip about finding the RC veg series online!

    1. Do hope you like some of the recipes from the River Cottage-I’m certainly enjoying them...just about to do my version of some asparagus hummus for this evening!!

  15. Sounds like a fabulous day!

  16. I've never been to a cooking school, so I must say I really enjoyed reading of your experience at RC Cooking School, but like you I would have been well disappointed in the pace and the recipes too, I would have found them just too basic.

    PS As much as I like the outdoors, and I completely appreciate why you ended up cooking up in a tent, I wouldn't have liked that either - I like have a nosy around kitchens, and I would have missed that.

    1. Hi Shaheen,

      Must admit I do enjoy going on cookery courses to learn, meet the chefs and to enjoy the whole experience. A good day out with fellow foodies can be great fun! And I do agree with you having a nosey around kitchens is interesting....

  17. Well if only I'd had a tent like that on camping trips, I might be rather fonder of camping than I am! The day does sound fun, it's always good to cook with other people I find. but like you I would have expected something a little more challenging and interesting. AND how do people get through their lives without having eaten dahl?????

    I would highly recommend Demuth's vegetarian cookery school in Bath if ever you get the chance.

    1. Hi Choclette,

      And not only had some people not eaten Dahl but some had never handled bread dough before...

      Yes with you on highly recommending cookery courses with Rachel at Demuth’ Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath. I think I’ve done probably almost all of the classes there over the years-great, great fun!!

  18. I want that tent how brilliant was that chandelier, of course you need an army of people to put it up and take it down but a wonderful replacement untill the barn is rebuilt. The food sounds really tasty and I look forward to trying some. I would have been with the beginner cooks, as I am not great at it. However, I can understand how it would be frustating as the excelent cook that you are. I think you should definitly make the beetroot humus, beetroots are gorgeous!

    1. I did fully intend to make the beetroot version and even looked at the beets when I went shopping this week...I just couldn’t make myself pick them up...I will try-promise!!


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