Three hours south of London is the famous River Cottage. CARA BOATSWAIN hops aboard a tractor and brushes up on her gluten-free baking.
England isn’t short on famous buildings, both real and fictional. However when it comes to cooking and cottages, there’s only one that springs to mind, the River Cottage. Located on sixty picturesque acres just outside Axminster (about 3 hours south of London) it is the headquarters of British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Fearnley-Whittingstall has achieved a cult following as a result of his passion for using local, seasonal produce and his nose-to-tail approach to cooking. He has appeared extensively on television, published numerous cookbooks and is the owner of four award-winning restaurants. At the River Cottage HQ, it is possible to experience Hugh’s ethos through events and cooking classes. The best news of all is that he hasn’t forgotten the gluten-free.
This is how I find myself climbing aboard a tractor on a wet summers morning. I’m attending a one-day gluten-free cooking class at the River Cottage HQ led by nutritionist, coeliac and gluten-free expert Naomi Devlin.
As we wait for the tractor to depart it’s a great opportunity to get to know the others participating in the class. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly women. Some are new to gluten-free living while others are old hands looking to expand their repertoire. The one thing we all have in common is a deep love for Hugh and what the River Cottage represents.
It’s a relatively short ride down to HQ and before I know it we’re alighting and heading into the purpose built cooking school. Here we meet our instructor Naomi, who runs through the schedule for the day while we devour gluten-free French toast with bacon from the farm. We were told to arrive at 9am on the dot and it’s soon clear why, there’s a lot to get through.
Naomi tells us that today we’ll be making sourdough sandwich bread, sourdough sea salt crackers, chocolate chip cookies, shortcrust pastry, mini Bakewell tarts and if time permits, socca, an unleavened bread made from chickpea flour. Fortunately, Naomi and the kitchen team came prepared, with the sourdough starter already made. However fresh bread, starter or otherwise, takes time. A flurry of activity follows as we don our aprons and name tags, keen to get cooking.
Our first task is to take the sourdough starter and prepare a sponge that will eventually become our dough. With four hours needed to proof, it’s clear why Naomi must keeping us moving.
With her background in nutrition and having coeliac disease herself, Naomi is a wealth of information. Not only does she share recipes and how to prepare them, but we also learn about different gluten-free flours, how to prepare gluten-free grains and make them easier for the body to digest. One such tip is to soak quinoa overnight. Then, drain and boil in water in a 1:1 ratio and it’s ready in just ten minutes. With a little planning, it is possible to really shave time of weeknight meal prep.
Before we know it, it’s lunch time. I had been looking forward to enjoying our meal in the beautiful grounds of the farm, but with the grey skies and intermittent drizzle our meal is served in the cooking school.
On the menu is a rich, seafood stew made from locally sourced seafood that was delivered to the cottage that morning and a panna cotta made with local seaweed. Yes, it sounds odd but from the empty plates and contented faces of my cooking comrades it was clear it was enjoyed by all.
After the meal, we had time to explore the property and get to know the HQ cats Porridge and Marmaduke. While rambling through the grounds, I met Head Gardener Will Livingstone, who has been tending to the crops at the River Cottage since 2008. We discuss the recent expansion of the River Cottage to Australia (located on a farm in Tilba on the South Coast of NSW) and Will tells me he can’t wait to visit our shores.
Back in the kitchen and we’re turning our sourdough sponge into a dough, rolling out shortcrust pastry for Bakewell tarts and watching Naomi demonstrate how to make socca. Sadly, there wasn’t time for us to make any ourselves, but we did get to feast on Naomi’s, which she had fried in a generous amount of duck fat.
Licking our lips, we realised it was time to remove our flour-covered aprons and head back to the tractor, taking our days efforts in paper bags along for the ride. With a full belly and a stash of chocolate chip cookies, I was ready for the long trip back to London.