As any long-term readers of the blog will know, I've been influenced by River Cottage since the original television series back in 1999 (I was a student at the time and yes, I know that dates me.) You'll also know I strongly believe that, however skilled we think we are in the kitchen, we can always improve our knowledge. So, I was particularly excited recently to receive an invitation from the River Cottage team to attend a wild food cookery course at their Devon HQ - the perfect opportunity to learn some new things and enjoy some good food at the spiritual home of seasonal eating.
After a very pleasant night at the Talbot Arms in Uplyme (which deserves a brief plug, as much for their warm welcome as their enthusiastic replay of the winning Lions tour game) I took the short drive north to Park Farm, a.k.a. River Cottage HQ, on a beautifully bright Sunday morning. Anyone who, like me, dreams of downshifting to the West Country will be in jealous awe of the home that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the team have made for themselves here. With stunning views stretching for miles across the Axe valley, the location alone will have you mentally drafting your resignation letter. The 17th Century farm house is instantly recognisable to fans of the more recent TV series and doubles as the perfect venue for the various cookery and self-sufficiency courses now run under the RC banner.
After a quick coffee and introduction to the course from Connor, our host for the day, it was down to business. We were led through some basic knife skills and, quicker than you can say 'smoking twelve bore', were stood at a trestle table, each clutching a very dead rabbit. So, one obvious point to make is that this is definitely a "wild food" course, not only foraging. If you don't want to get to grips, literally, with dead things of one kind or another, you might want to choose an alternative option from the many on offer (a bread making session was running in the adjacent barn...). But with a commendable lack of squeamishness, everyone in the group set to work skinning and jointing their hapless classroom assistant. At this point, I should confess, I was momentarily distracted by a passing buzzard (no, really) and found myself winning the prize for first knife injury of the day. My trophies were a snazzy blue plaster and a resigned expression from Connor, suggesting he was not expecting me to be the last.
Back to our well-equipped kitchen work stations and, with a bit more chopping, some herbs and accompanying vegetables, the jointed rabbits were ready for braising in what would become genuinely one of the tastiest rabbit dishes I've had in recent years; testament to the transformational qualities of slow cooking. (Check out the receipe below and I really, REALLY recommend you try this one.)
The rabbit dish was going to take up to three hours to cook so there was plenty of time for the next part of the course - a stroll around Park Farm and a foraging lesson. What struck me here was the depth of our tutor's knowledge. I like to think of myself as pretty well versed in the art of finding wild food but Connor was in a different league when it came to spotting and identifying the various edible greens on the farm. Among others, we sampled wild sorrel from the field, dandelions from the hedgerow, goose foot from the vegetable patch and watermint from the stream. A truly fascinating ramble which also took us into the famous polytunnels and outhouses of the farm, being introduced to its other residents. If I'm ever reincarnated as a pig, I want to live at Park Farm and will cheerfully be made into River Cottage chorizo.
On a baking hot day, it was a relief to be back indoors and onto the fish course. Filleting and stuffing a mackerel (with our foraged herbs made in a bespoke salsa verde) made the perfect early lunch and set us up nicely for the afternoon session. Throughout the day Connor was happy to answer all of our questions in good humour, however basic or tricky they might have been. There was too much to report on each dish and activity individually, but the full 'menu' for the day (broadly in order) was:
- Knife skills (cutting and sharpening)
- Braised rabbit (including skinning and jointing)
- Herb stuffed mackerel (filleting and pin-boning)
- Cockles and mussels with chorizo, Sea Purslane and samphire
- Smoked rabbit loin (hot smoking)
- Watermint sorbet (palette cleansing revelation)
- Meadowsweet pannacotta (a real highlight for me and proof that "wild food cookery" can be as simple as finding a stunning new flavour for a traditional dish.)
You certainly won't go hungry on this course. If anything, there is too much food to eat and I certainly regretted starting my morning with a full English. It seemed a shame to leave some of the food uneaten and although bags were readily provided for anyone able to take their excess home, I think the day might benefit from preparing one dish to be taken home, rather than aiming to eat everything there and then. Without doubt though, this is a hands-on, comprehensive and fun course with plenty of opportunity to get involved and no waiting around. RC have obviously thought carefully about the day's content and aimed to pack it with a broad range of skills and dishes. Obviously, the exact content changes throughout the year and I particularly liked how several of the dishes had been adapted to suit ingredients that happened to be to hand on the day. For example, the samphire was a fitting late addition to the cockle dish, simply because it was abundant that week - it's exactly what seasonal cookery should be about.
As with any course, just as important as the content is the attitude and approach of those teaching it. What has always struck me about RC is that it manages to attract staff who, without exception, are universally 'on message' when it comes to the seasonal, ethical focus on our food. I have yet to meet anyone working either at HQ or in any of the Canteens who is not a wholehearted supporter of the cause and an exemplary ambassador for the brand. The same was true on this visit (both to HQ and the Axminster Canteen the night before). This is not just about an efficient training program (though no doubt that exists) but an ethos that clearly permeates everything about the business.
The 'project' has morphed in recent years. This seems to have been a very conscious move away from Hugh (who along with Jamie and Delia, needs only his first name) as a personality. Not only is this a shrewd business move, it's also entirely appropriate if the message is truly about spreading the word as widely as possible rather than celebrity of an individual. Having followed it for some two decades now, I've witnessed River Cottage's various stages of evolution and I'm delighted to say that it continues to thrive as a fantastic example to us all. As a budding food writer, if I can achieve a fraction of what the team have managed at River Cottage, and now Park Farm, I will be a happy man.
If you're tempted to try your own River Cottage cookery course, you can book your own HERE. If you use the discount code WELLSEASONED before 31 December you'll get £50 off any course. Tell them I sent you and that I'm planning to come back very soon. Possibly as a pig.
Coq au cidre (actually Lapin au Cidre)
Traditionally coq au vin is made with a cock bird and red wine, and very fine it is too. This adaptation using rabbit and cider is, I think, every bit its equal. You can cook it in the oven (at 160°C/Gas mark 3) once you’ve added the cider, if that’s more convenient.
Rabbit legs, about 1.6kg, jointed into 8 pieces
50g butter, softened
3–4 tbsp olive oil
150g pancetta or unsmoked streaky bacon, cut into small cubes
10 eschallots or large shallots, peeled
8 garlic cloves, chopped
A good handful of thyme
4 tbsp brandy (ideally apple brandy)
3 bay leaves
700ml dry cider
200g small dark-gilled mushrooms
25g plain flour
A handful of parsley, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Have the rabbit joints ready to cook. Heat half the butter and 3 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and brown the rabbit in batches on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper; don’t crowd the pan. Transfer all the rabbit joints to a flameproof casserole that will accommodate them in a single layer.
Add the pancetta to the frying pan and fry until lightly browned, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the rabbit. Add a little more oil to the pan if it is dry and cook the shallots gently, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes until soft but not brown. Add the garlic and thyme, cook for 2–3 minutes, then add the brandy.
Tip the contents of the frying pan over the chicken in the casserole and add the bay leaves. Pour in the cider, cover and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and cook for another 15 minutes. Check that the rabbit is tender and the juices run clear when the thickest part is pierced with a knife. If not, cook for another 10 minutes and check again. Transfer the rabbit, bacon, onions and mushrooms to a warmed serving dish and cover with foil to keep warm.
Bring the cidery liquid to the boil and reduce it by about a third. Meanwhile, mix the flour and remaining softened butter to a paste. Add about half of it, in pieces, to the liquid, whisking all the time. Keep whisking the bubbling liquid to cook the flour and thicken the sauce, adding more of the paste if needed, to thicken it further. Pour the sauce over the rabbit and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.