Bake-Off at River Cottage HQ
The chefs had a challenge on their hands when Muddy rocked up in the kitchen, ready to bake
Not the big, crusty, creamy winter comfort food pies (as much as I love those); this feels like a good time to tell you about my latest kitchen escapades, having tottered along to River Cottage and enrolled myself on their Cakes & Sweet Pastries course. Yep, don’t sweat it people, Volume 2 of my best-selling cookery book is coming along nicely (knew you were wondering).
When the good folk of River Cottage invited me to go along to their kitchens at their rather idyllically positioned HQ near Axminster and spend the day brushing up on my baking, I was there like a cat chasing catnip. I could have chosen any one of their numerous courses, each one sounding rather tempting but, honestly, what could be better than a rainy day inhaling cake? Plus, I’d always wanted to go and have a nose around Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s famous farm.
Having spent a dreamy night at Old Park Hall, just a couple of miles away, I arrived in what felt like a forest in the middle of nowhere, the only sign of life in the driving rain a pair of great big tractor headlights. Just as I began to get ‘the fear’ that I was a) late and b) in completely the wrong place, out of a little wooden shelter stepped one of the team, who invited me to clamber on board the trailer behind the tractor, which was full of my baking buddies. Well this is a novel way to arrive, was my first thought, swiftly followed by ‘oh bumsville’ (a worse expletive, actually), as I realised I’d made a massive rookie error. Everyone around me had brought multiple cake tins and tupperware so they could take their creations home with them. I had only brought myself and my, admittedly, up for the job tum. Mr Muddy and the Mudlet may go hungry.
Down the lane we bumped towards the instantly recognisable main farmhouse, glimpsed in the valley. It’s a lovely way to kick things off, since you can’t help but chat to the person next to you, once you’ve apologised for nearly landing in their lap en route. And the location is just stunning, ‘scuse the rain, am I ever going to get any sun on my travels?!
Looking around, my classmates seemed to be a mix of friends, mothers and daughters (and mothers and sons) and a few couples. These are really popular courses that get booked up quickly and this intake felt like a lot of Christmas gift vouchers were being redeemed.
Dropped off by the tractor, it’s a hop and skip over to the kitchens where, hallelujah, coffee and freshly made breakfast crepe tasters were waiting for us. You’re given ten minutes to settle in at your station, have a cuppa and, in my case, go sheepishly in search of some cardboard boxes for transporting my haul home.
What baffles me is how courses that specify they cater to all abilities actually do manage to cater to all abilities. I had my second wave of ‘the fear’ when my next door neighbour quickly revealed that his speciality was pavlova. I wasn’t about to volunteer that mine is chocolate cornflake cakes. But our teacher for the day didn’t seem fazed by my quiet admission to him. I was glad I’d positioned myself right at the front of the class, since I’d be sticking to him like jam to a scone.
And so to the menu, which we’d been sent ahead of time to peruse. We’d be covering plenty of ground, learning basic techniques like making pastry and Victoria sponge, as well as fancy treats like choux pastry profiteroles and, in true River Cottage form, how to incorporate less conventional veggies into cakes. They pack loads in to the day, yet somehow it all feels pretty laid back; I guess that’s life on the farm for you.
The reason you can get through so much is because of the brilliant planning. There’s no waiting around for pastry to set in the fridge, or blind baking; every part of the day is useful in baking, as you’re across different stages of several recipes at once. Sounds stressful, but believe me, it’s not, quite the contrary actually.
Before you know it, you’ve mastered Vicky sponge and your shortcrust sweet pastry is doing its thing in the chiller and lunch is called. We’re not talking a finger buffet here; next door one of the chefs has prepared a colourful and seasonal veggie pasta dish, using ingredients all grown on the farm, just what you need to balance out all of the butter and sugar. It really doesn’t get much better, or tastier…oh wait, it did. Elderflower bubbly, anyone?
The afternoon session is where things really start coming together. In quick succession, I somehow produced courgette spelt cake, with a honey glaze and a rather impressive lemon pie.
And, drumroll, my greatest achievement in life to date: glossy profiteroles that looked and tasted like actual profiteroles. I’m not exaggerating, these would give M&S profiteroles a run for their money.
I left on a massive high, not even dampened by my near disaster when my lemon pie almost fell apart taking it out of the tin. My teacher, it turns out, wasn’t just a dab hand at creating bakes, he had a few ingenious Blue Peter-esque techniques for saving pies up his sleeve.
Joking aside, I learned shedloads on this course, didn’t feel like a complete numpty and actually found the whole day to be hugely therapeutic and confidence-boosting. You’re learning in a completely remote and peaceful setting and the chefs are all super friendly, encouraging and engaging. It all feels very convivial and civilised, less teachery, more fun on the farm. It was just as I’d hoped and not a soggy bottom in sight.
I arrived home like a hero back from war, the Mudlet gazing out of the window expectantly, Mr Muddy suspiciously eyeing my boxes and, once they’d gotten over the initial shock that I had baked something that was more than edible, we ate nothing but cake for the next two days. Heaven.
And now for the best bit:
If you fancy having a go at one of the lovely courses at River Cottage, here’s a special offer just for Muddy readers:
To receive an exclusive 20% discount on a cookery course at River Cottage HQ visit www.rivercottage.net and use MUDDYRC20 at the checkout. Please note, this offer is valid until 30.05.17 and cannot be used in conjunction with another promotion. Valid on all cookery courses until 31.12.17