Did you know the River Cottage offer a range of events, dining experiences and cookery classes? Last week I was invited to the River Cottage to sample some of these wonderful events – naturally I jumped at the chance!
I have always been a huge fan of the River Cottage TV programmes and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s passionate, yet ethical approach to cooking, so when I was invited by the River Cottage and Foodies100 to come and visit the River Cottage for myself…I jumped at the chance. In fact ‘jumped’ really doesn’t do my reaction justice…bounced, danced and screamed would be more accurate. 🙂
I was invited as part of a group of 50 specially selected foodie bloggers (I like to think we were hand-picked for our wonderfulness, but I think there may have been a hat involved…) to come and sample a typical River Cottage Event.
I had no idea before I conducted my extensive pre-trip research (OK half an hour on their website the night before), that the River Cottage did events. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they do loads of different dining experiences and courses. Their courses include things like butchery, foraging, gardening and bread making, as well as some lovely Christmas options, such a Christmas baking and cheese making. Their dining events range from Sunday lunch to a farmhouse dinner and of course lots of wonderful Christmas and midwinter feasts. The River Cottage can also be booked for weddings and private events.
Most of these events stress that Hugh won’t be there, but if you are desperate to meet him there is a section on the website dedicated to Hugh’s Events – these are some rather exciting looking exclusive events where you are guaranteed to meet Hugh.
Sadly we didn’t meet Hugh, but we were treated to a whole host of River Cottage wonderfulness. The whole River Cottage experience begins with an exciting, if slightly nail-biting tractor ride from the car park down the hill to the River Cottage, which is just as beautiful as it looks on TV.
Spilling out from the tractor, we were greeted with festive welcome drinks and a chance to snoop around and discover the delights of the River Cottage including the iconic farmhouse, the beautiful barn where we had our cookery demonstration and River Cottage dining experience, and this rather gorgeous little yurt.
Our first activity was a taster session of one of the River Cottage’s Christmas Courses: Christmas Curing and Smoking. Seated in the delightful converted barn, decorated with beautiful autumnal produce, we listened attentively as one of the River Cottage chefs, Andy, explained the purpose of brining (to preserve meat) and the advantages of brining your own meat rather than allowing a factory to do it for you (better quality, more interesting flavour and no chemical nasties). He followed this introduction with a series of demonstrations.
First he showed us how to brine a ham using a wonderful sounding concoction of cider, black treacle, bay leaves, cloves and orange zest, as well as the necessary water and salt, which are the key components of brining. We were also shown how to make our own bresaola, which is a delicious tasting air-dried, salted beef.
But the highlight of the demonstration for me was when Andy showed us how to brine a chicken…using gin! This has to be tried and if I am happy with the result, it will most certainly appear on Easy Peasy Foodie in the near future. (Note: I have now tried this…it was amazing – seriously worth it – and you can find the recipe for my Gin Brined Chicken (or Turkey) here.) The gin brine can also be used to brine a turkey…how amazing does that sound for Christmas Day?
Andy was keen to point out that brining will keep the meat moister than slapping on butter or olive oil just before you cook the chicken or turkey, and brining allows you to infuse the meat with wonderful flavours…like gin, juniper berries and lime.
I must say, before watching this demonstration I was a bit sceptical about brining, it sounded like a lot of faff. But after watching and listening to Andy I am really convinced it’s worth it and actually it sounds like a complete doddle – submerge your chicken or turkey in water, salt and flavourings. Leave for 24 hours for a chicken, or 48 hours for a turkey and then cook as normal – easy peasy! And really, really worth it – the flavour and texture of the gin-brined chicken was absolutely out of this world!
Next up we were treated to a couple of blogger networking activities. Not the sort of thing you’d usually get as part of a cookery course or dining experience, but very much the sort of thing that could be built into a bespoke corporate event at the River Cottage, where they offer team building and client entertainment events that can be built to your exact specifications.
Finally we were treated to, in my opinion, the best bit of the evening: a River Cottage Dining Experience. Our dinner began with a delicious Kingston Black Apple Aperitif and canapés, which included mussels cooked in apple juice, pork croquettes and little toasts topped with goat’s cheese, beetroot and honey.
While we were still munching on our canapés, another of the River Cottage chefs, Sam, came out to talk us through the menu. Being a total foodie, this was a particular highlight…I really enjoyed learning about all the thought, care and attention that had gone into our meal and that it was local and seasonal (well obviously!). In fact the chefs always only decide on the menus on the morning of the River Cottage Events, so that they can ensure they are using produce at its best. Sam finished off by inviting us to pop into the kitchen to see the chefs hard at work – what a brilliant opportunity to be nosy and see how a high quality professional kitchen works!
Every aspect of our meal was delicious and the attention to detail was incredible. Our menu looked like this:
There were also veggie options and the River Cottage team will happily cater for any dietary requirements, you just need to let them know when booking.
I can honestly say I loved it all and could really taste the quality of the produce. I really liked the unusual flavour combinations, which all worked really well. I also appreciated the unfussy presentation. It was pretty without being overly cheffy or pretentious. Although there is no question that the food and cooking is very high quality, and the service is absolutely impeccable, there is also a wonderful rustic quality to dining at the River Cottage which really appealed to me.
The River Cottage is a licensed venue and there is of course an extensive wine and drinks menu – from which I could have happily ordered all sorts of wonderful sounding wines. I was pleased to see there were local English wines available too. Wanting to keep a clear head for all the Facebooking, Tweeting and Instagraming, not to mention the all-important blogger networking (well OK just chatting to a really nice bunch of like-minded people, really – can you call that networking?), I decided against ordering a glass of wine for myself, but the lovely Emma Amoscato from Free From Farmhouse let me have a taste of her bottle of Lyme Bay Shoreline, a delicious Devon white that is just bursting with honey, grapefruit and floral flavours. I will definitely be seeking out that one again in the future.
One thing I particularly liked about the River Cottage dining experience is that there are lots of little courses, rather than fewer larger ones. Spread out over a long evening of feasting, this meant I was constantly eating delicious food, yet I never felt like I’d eaten too much – a good thing as it meant I was able to indulge in a couple of lovely River Cottage petits fours at the end of the evening to go with the wonderful coffee that seemed to appear as if by magic. (A coffee which I later regretted when at gone midnight I was still buzzing…but I just can’t resist a coffee to round off a good meal).
After coffee there was just enough time for a small peruse in the shop area of the barn, where I bought a bottle of the River Cottage’s very own English Pale Ale for my lovely hubby (who was on childcare duties whilst I was away – I figured he’d need a beer!), before catching the tractor up the hill and back to reality.
Thank you River Cottage and Foodies100 for a truly magical evening. I am already plotting when I can come and visit the River Cottage again!
Tempted? Why not pop over to the River Cottage website to find out more about their courses and dining events?
And if you need a local B&B, I can really recommend the place I stayed – Weycroft Mill House, a ten minute drive away in nearby Axminster. Prices start from £55 per night.
Disclosure: I was invited to spend an afternoon and evening at the River Cottage as a guest of River Cottage and Foodies 100. I was not required to write a favourable review, but after such an amazing experience it would have been hard not to!