A day at the River Cottage

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I’d set my alarm for six o’clock so as not to miss the train. Of course I wake up at five thirty-two full of childish energy.

The train to Axminster leaves London Waterloo at 7.10 giving me ample time to stock up on Marks and Spencer toffee and pick up a cup of tea. Also in my bag are carrot sticks, a tin of almonds, leftover apple tart, half a Lindt bunny, two camping bottles filled with water and some herbal tea bags. If the train gets stranded out of reach from food and water I’ll be fine.

Despite my rather Mary Poppins bag of food and reading material (two books and last months issue of BBC good Food magazine) I know for a fact that my day will leave little time for page flicking. Today I am headed to the River cottage; farm, kitchen, cooking school, home to brilliant chefs and what one could call the heart-land of Hugh Fernley Whittingstall. This is the man who taught us to eat food without fussing it about, inspired supermarkets (some at least) to care about the provenance of their produce and who’s been instrumental to restaurants and home cooks alike celebrating vegetables not just as the companion but as the star of the plate.  

I owe a large part of my eating philosophy to Hugh having watched his original channel 4 shows religiously as a child. I actually used to play self-sufficiency in my family South London garden although of course the game wasn’t actually called that.

Our garden had a gooseberry bush, a crab apple tree, occasional wild strawberries and a jungle of a herb garden. I’d put my ‘country dress’ on and march around the lawn with a watering can and my sister’s dolly basket collecting sour fruit and presenting them to my nanny with a coy ‘this is what we shall have for supper’ face. Usually they ended up as jellies or jams – my mother is a very good preserver and taught us to never throw food away. She too is largely the reason why I will save broccoli stalks and potato peels with great determination. I have even been known to pull rejects from friends’ bins and take them home, re-writing their destiny from rubbish to soup, quiche or something warm and spiced containing pulses.

These days zero waste is quite ‘on trend’ but the River Cottage have been pioneers of this way of eating from the early days. Yes, today I’m hoping to improve my knife skills, learn a new recipe and of course eat. But I’m also on the look out for stocks, saved fish skins, and ways to perhaps push ingredients further than the norm.

I arrive a little late having come from London but am rejuvenated by my rickety farm truck ride down from the top of the hill. The cooking school is warm and smells like something roasting with rosemary. Steve hands me a warm mug of French press coffee and an apron and I shuffle to the back of the small, eager crowd surrounding our four key characters of the day; a Gurnard (fondly referred to as Bernard), a leggy squid, a plaice and Andy – our teacher for the day and a head chef at the River Cottage.

Andy is talking us through our subjects and guiding us through the layout for the day. Learn, cook, eat, learn, cook, eat. My fellow students seem very happy with this, eager to get on with lesson one; how to fillet a gurnard. Andy demonstrates this for us with both detail and humour telling us to “channel our inner sashimi master” before it is our turn. We pick our fish and head to our work stations. It’s four to a work station but there is ample space, a set of knives, an oven each and a hob between two. I have been blessed with a lovely group of fishy scholars and the chatter flows breezily. The filleting goes well and Andy is on hand for anyone who needs a little extra help, making his way round each of our stations.

We skin half our fillets (keeping the skin on piece for later) and transfer all our skins onto a plate that is swiftly whisked away to the kitchen. I notice the subtle bubbling of a deep fat fryer in the corner… I’m hopeful. Bones are thrown into a well-loved stock pot that heads to the kitchen too. 

Andy instructs us to divide our fillets into pieces.  Some are dipped into flour, beaten egg and an oaty bread crumb mix – fish goujons for supper. One small fillet is coated or cured in salt. This is going into the smoker! The last piece is to be cooked en papillote (in paper). There is a short demonstration of this where Andy explains the wonderful flavour infusing properties of this cooking method before we have a go. Roughly twelve minutes later the room is filled with puffs of sweet tamari, sesame and spring onion as we each burst open our papilottes of Gurnard with Asian flavours and garden vegetables. The first course is up and for the first time this morning the room is silent apart from the occasional ‘oh’ and ‘mmmmm’.

Next up – the plaice. But not before a quick interruption from the main kitchen. Tumblers of Somerset cider apple brandy are handed around along with ( joy! ) – deep fried fish skins back from the kitchen and given new life in a chilli deep fried crumb. They go down perfectly with the brandy. Despite having just eaten, Andy manages to whet our appetite demonstrating a classic way to prepare plaice. Baked on the bone and served with a beurre noisette. He teaches us a wonderful trick for removing the skin that has the class watching in awe, all eyes in ‘must take mental note’ squint. We cook our own plaice with a cider, leek and cream sauce that has everyone quite mute again.

Finally, we meet our squid. Andy shows us how to clean and prepare it. Half our squids go into a large communal roasting tray where Andy is adding fragrant ingredients; lemon and orange peel, thyme, fennel seed and celery. This is to be a rich flavourful stew Andy explains as he cooks off an entire bottle of red wine (after all there are twenty of us). The wine goes in with the chopped squid, celery, citrus and spices along with a can of organic chopped tomatoes before it is left in the oven to cook slowly. We turn our attention to our deep fried squid – eyes light up once again and the words ‘wild garlic mayonnaise’ have many half jumping off their feet. We work in pairs to whip our mayo as much bicep strength is needed to whisk it into submission. The result is entirely worth it and is silky, tangy, creamy and better than anything you can buy in a jar.

By now it is three o’clock. One might think the troops would be flagging but the mood is high and orders go out for chilled rosé and pale ale. This is a lot more fun than school.

The squid stew is ready and we form a queue in military like fashion, spoons at the ready. The squid is soft and the sauce is deep with flavour. Another delicious dish and another one to show off to friends. We make one last dish of Mediterranean fish stew with crispy skinned gurnard atop. Andy shows us the trick to perfectly crispy skin and we top it with parsley from the garden. Lunch number three, or was it four(?) is perfect.

Full of fish and ready for something refreshing, we wipe down our work stations only to be rewarded with scoops of yogurt sorbet and a freshly baked shortbread. By now I am heavily debating moving in but instead I wrap up my smoked gurnard fillets and fish goujons to take home and head back up the hill to meet my taxi to the station.

My belly is full, my fish skills are marvelous and my heart is warm for the River Cottage and the wonderful team behind it.

Alexandra Dudley