Rural escape: Sharpen your cooking skills at River Cottage
Taking part in a cookery course or attending one of the famous Friday Night Feasts is a bit like stumbling onto the set of one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV shows
Head chef Andy Tyrrell (centre) teaching a cookery class at River Cottage HQ in Devon. Photograph: Matt Austin
The lights are on, but gently dimmed, the wood fired stove is lit and scenting the sittingroom, and in the strangely familiar kitchen, with its enormous inglenook fireplace, the fridge is stocked with drinks and snacks.
But I’m all alone, deep in the countryside on the Devon/Dorset border, as one of the first overnight guests at Park Farm, the 17th century farmhouse at the heart of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage enterprise.
It’s 20 years since the former chef and journalist ditched city life, embarked on a new role as a smallholder, food writer and TV presenter, and made his first series for Channel 4, Escape to River Cottage.
Now, River Cottage is a byword for sustainability, conservation and self-sufficiency, and along the way, the business has spawned a cookery school and events company – you can even get married there. And now the farmhouse has been renovated, to offer three bedrooms available to guests.
Park Farm, an organic farm near Axminster in Devon, is in fact the third home of River Cottage HQ. The first two were in Dorset, and the enterprise moved here in 2006, where filming continued, hence my memory-driven familiarity with the giant kitchen fireplace, where Fearnley-Whittingstall cooked up all manner of things in pots suspended over the fire and in the hole in the wall oven.
But contrary to popular belief, the broadcaster and his family never lived at Park Farm. It has always been a commercial venture, based around a working organic farm with chickens, ducks, sheep, cows and pigs, as well as a sizeable kitchen garden.
Central to its success is the cookery school, in a converted barn with distracting views through a wall of glass looking over the stunning Axe valley. Up to 20 students can be accommodated on a variety of hands-on classes in this stunning room, and I joined head chef and tutor Andy Tyrrell for a one-day class.
Most visits to River Cottage begin with a bumpy tractor transfer from the car park down to the farm. If you’re coming for one of the weekly Friday and Saturday night feasts, or Sunday lunch, you’ll be greeted with a drink and canapes in the yurt at the bottom of the hill, and if you are doing a course, your day will begin with coffee and a snack in the kitchen classroom.
But as I was staying on-site, in the farmhouse’s tastefully decorated master bedroom with dual aspect views over the pristine kitchen garden and the central courtyard, all I had to do was walk across the yard and into the kitchen, where spelt drop scones with raspberry jam or honey and yoghurt awaited.
Unlike any other cookery course I’ve attended, there was no sheaf of recipes to be followed, waiting for us on the communal work stations. Tyrrell adopts a more relaxed approach to his teaching, so during the day we at stages watched him make farmhouse bread, fillet giant locally-caught hake and turn it into into Asian baked fish en-papillote, pan-fry lamb in a merguez spice mix and serve it with a puree of English fava beans, and bake a rhubarb galette – before having a go ourselves.
There was help on hand if anyone got a bit stuck, but the relief at not having to slavishly follow recipes and leaf through pages of instructions was shared by many of my classmates. After each class, an email is sent to participants with all of the recipes, and notes on the techniques and methods involved.
“I like to keep the courses quite dynamic because I tend to find from doing these that everyone brings an idea of something they’d like to get from today. So keep asking me questions, keep me on my toes, it’s those things that make each of the classes unique, and we bring those into the [email] packs as well. They’re bespoke for each class,” Tyrrell said.
With our farmhouse yeast loaves, made with a pre-ferment, resting in the fridge, it was time for the second snack of the day, a chunk of that very bread made by the pros in the real kitchen, not the L-plates one, slathered with roasted carrot pesto and topped with pickled beetroot.
Fish was next on the agenda, and with a huge three to four kilo fish each to scale and fillet, the learning curve was steep for some. But once a slice of that pearly white flesh was wrapped up in a parchment parcel with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, coriander and diced vegetables, the effort was worth it and our lunch began to smell very tempting indeed.
After a glass of wine and a very welcome sit down over lunch in the 18th century threshing barn, where the farm’s communal table dinners are served, it was time to crack on with the rest of the menu. The galette was made with a type of rough puff pastry, and rhubarb foraged from the well stocked kitchen garden.
For our meat course, chef Tyrrell had deboned a leg of lamb and portioned it, ready to be pan-roasted in foaming butter and a North African merguez spice mix of toasted and ground cumin, coriander, caraway and fennel, with flaked chilli and paprika.
Served with a purée of dried English fava beans, roasted carrots and quinoa salad and grilled asparagus, this was the final step in the day’s programme, and by just after 5pm we were pulling up stools at the kitchen bench to enjoy the fruits of our labours, with that stunning view in sight.
River Cottage runs a variety of courses and classes to suit all interests and levels of proficiency. The one-day programme I followed costs £192, and there are also two-day (£344) and four-day (£644) options.
But you don’t have to pull on one of the school’s regulation black aprons and get stuck in to enjoy the River Cottage experience. There are lots of hands-off options too, covering a vast range of topics and experiences, and a new wellness retreat that mixes four nights on the farm with daily yoga and mindfulness and time in the cookery school.
And if it’s an audience with the man himself you’re after, you’ll have to plan your visit carefully. Fearnley-Whittingstall does not teach classes at the farm, but takes part in selected events, such as the 20 Years 20 Dishes event, an action- and food-packed birthday celebration, which takes place on June 10th, and the farm’s festivals and fairs, the next one of which takes place in August.
The farmhouse can be booked for private hire, or you can just reserve one of the bedrooms, and enjoy the calm sitting/dining room and cosy kitchen, where, if you’re lucky, Kerry woman Fay Hutchinson will be the chef on breakfast duty, serving up a feast of local pork sausages and bacon, farmyard eggs, and vegetable rosti.
Although River Cottage is hidden, deep in the countryside – you’ll get directions only with your booking confirmation – it is easily accessible. Exeter airport, with direct flights from Dublin, is a 40 minute drive, and the nearest train station is in Axminster, which is a short taxi journey of around 15 minutes.