There are some opportunities in life that are just surreal. Being invited to River Cottage for the day is on my list of “how did I get here” moments, and as the days melted away before the date arrived, I still couldn’t quite believe it was going to happen.
When it finally rolled around, I arrived at a rubble-carpeted car park, gathered my bits and pieces for the day ahead and clambered ungracefully aboard the trailer of a very large tractor, as I headed down the winding country drive to River Cottage HQ with other members of the Foodies100.
After alighting from the tractor, we were met by a member of the River Cottage team and led down a winding pathway en masse. It was blissful. Green grass as far as my eye [lens] could see, and a landscape that made me physically stop and stare at the horizon. Countryside paradise. We were greeted warmly and led to the cosiest yurt complete with hay bales as seats, and thick sheepskins to sink our bottoms into. After a run down of the day ahead, we were left to enjoy coffee, tea and some very tasty little omelettes with salsa.
Inside the main building we discovered a wildflower strewn dining room. Twine and lace twisted jam jars held Summer memories in floral form, each one of them prettier than the next. Pops of colour skipped across the ceiling as triangular bunting connected the beams of the dining room, and I wandered around, taking in all of the little details that are woven beautifully into the tapestry of River Cottage.
My first session was bread and butter making with Head Chef Gill Meller. I felt sorry for him as soon as I saw him as he looked like a lovely man who didn’t deserve my lack of bread baking expertise being paraded in front of him.
Thankfully, Gill is an expert at instructing others in his art and I actually managed to make bread and butter without any injury or being sent out of class in shame. I also now have one fantastically muscled arm thanks to the butter making. Quite seriously though, I am so amazed that I was able to bake my own bread. I don’t think there’s anyone I know that I haven’t told. I even put it on Instagram
I was so proud.
During the class, Gill took us out to forage for blackberries to mix into our bread, and herbs and wildflowers to add to our butter. I could not have been happier if I’d have met Hugh himself. Okay, so that’s a lie, but it was just amazing.
I loved that Gill demonstrated how to complete each step – observing Chefs prepare ingredients is mesmerising. They are so fast, so precise. I tried to chop like that once, it didn’t end well.
The cooking school is gorgeously furnished and extremely well equipped. We each had our own refrigerator and an oven between two, and the shelves were stacked high with spotless boards, bowls and instruments for the culinary arts.
After our session we headed out for a little food styling and another look around for those of us who were curious to explore every inch that we could. When we were told “access all areas”, we headed to the kitchen as fast as it looked respectable to do so – although most of us hung around at the doorway like we were at the headmaster’s office, waiting to be told off. It was like forbidden territory and so completely captivating watching them work.
A little wander found one of the rooms in which the filming takes place for River Cottage, with the most gorgeous aga that made me immediately homesick for Wales.
Later into the afternoon, following a meal that made my insides light up with complete delight, we headed out to the garden to be shown around by Will Livingstone, head gardner. As Will talked we learned about organic gardening, companion plants – and I managed to get answers to questions I’d had burning in my head for weeks about seed propagation…and how strawberries got their name.
We met what were possibly the happiest chickens in the world, and some gorgeous pigs who received extra attention from everyone [and possibly caused some of us to reconsider vegetarianism] after we learned of their fate later that day [to market, to market…].
We picked golden raspberries as after-lunch treasures and gazed at the clouds of sweetpeas that engulfed parts of the garden walls, until it was time to go inside for a final session together and head home.
It was a truly memorable and completely unforgettable experience to spend the day at River Cottage HQ. It was my first visit – but it certainly won’t be my last [sorry Gill]. Thank you for a wonderful day.