A fabulous food writing weekend in the Dorset countryside with delicious magazine editor Karen Barnes.
What is your idea of the perfect weekend? I’m not sure I could ever really answer that question properly – there are so many possibilities, but a weekend in a beautiful Georgian farmhouse, eating delicious food and learning about food writing from the editor of delicious magazine with 7 other enthusiastic foodies has to come close. So when I read that All Hallows Farmhouse, a luxury B&B nestled deep in the Dorset countryside, was hosting a food writing weekend with Karen Barnes, I knew I had to go – it sounded like such a brilliant idea.
Or at least, it sounded like a brilliant idea when I booked myself onto the course back in May. By October I was having a serious case of cold feet – it probably didn’t help that I had recently watched The Devil Wears Prada, but with my overactive imagination in overdrive, I began to worry that Karen Barnes would be some kind of scary, critical ogre, who would tell me I couldn’t write for toffee and leave me in tears. Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Going on this course did also necessitate getting up at the crack of dawn, and driving on strange country roads in the dark (not my most favourite activity). But having managed to negotiate the narrow single track lanes of Dorset and amazingly not get lost, despite being a total dinosaur and not believing in SatNav (it’s a control freak thing), I eventually arrived and was greeted by the lovely Lisa Osman, who together with her equally lovely husband Stuart, owns All Hallows. The house is so beautiful, just being allowed to hang out there for two days would have made a pretty good weekend. Lisa’s attention to detail is incredible and I did spend virtually the whole weekend kicking myself for not booking earlier in the year, so I could have stayed overnight in the farmhouse too. (They have 3 B&B rooms, all already gone by the time I booked back in May!)
After having met my fellow coursemates and Karen in the elegant dining room, where I stupidly refused Lisa’s offer of pancakes (what was I thinking?), we all set up camp in the beautifully laid out school room, adjacent to the gorgeous farmhouse kitchen and its enormous green Aga. (So much house/kitchen/cooker envy going on there.)
Our days consisted of lessons in every aspect of food writing, from pondering why we wanted to write about food in the first place, to finding our voice, structuring a piece effectively, editing our work, discussing what we did and didn’t like about published food writers, recipe writing, blogging, writing reviews and pitching to magazines. Thinking back, I am amazed how much Karen managed to pack in without her lessons ever seeming rushed or time pressured.
What I hadn’t quite realised when I booked, was that the course would be a very practical one, and by that I mean we would actually have to write something – and not just 1 piece, we clocked up a total of 5 writing exercises over the course of the 2 days. Karen set us tasks such as ‘write about a food experience’ and ‘write a pitch for a travel feature’ – and then proceeded to set us pretty tight deadlines.
If you think writing a short piece in 30 minutes and then reading it out to a group of strangers is daunting, then you should try doing it when the editor of one of your most favourite foodie magazines is in the room – seriously nerve-wracking stuff. Fortunately Karen is about as far removed from The Devil Wears Prada editor caricature as you could imagine, she is warm and funny and instantly put us all at ease with her generous comments about our hurried scribblings and occasional kindly worded constructive criticism. Don’t get me wrong, it was still incredibly nerve-wracking every time, but it did at least get easier as the weekend went on and there was definitely never any reason for tears!
In fact, throughout the course Karen was the most brilliant teacher – obviously extremely knowledgeable about the subject, but she also has that rare skill of making a complex subject easy to understand and enjoyable – our classroom was full of laughter during the weekend. She was also great at putting us at ease and creating a really lovely friendly classroom dynamic.
Though actually this was not a terribly difficult task, given the group was such a warm and friendly one. Everyone was keen to learn and contribute and very encouraging of each other. It was quite a diverse group, which I think made the course particularly good. There were people of all ages and backgrounds, with only a passion for good food in common. Our different backgrounds and perspectives, not to mention wildly different opinions on what makes good writing and very different writing styles, created a brilliantly creative atmosphere and ensured plenty of lively debate.
During the course we had two different practical sessions, which helped bring about a change of pace. One was by Lisa herself, who demonstrated how to make mascarpone…who knew it was so easy? (Well, you know, apart from generations of Italians.) All you need to do is heat a pint of double cream to 85C, then add a good pinch of tartaric acid and sieve through 4 layers cheesecloth. So simple! This practical session was the basis of our first writing exercise, where we had to write a short piece about what we had just seen.
On the Sunday we had a second short practical session where Ross Tapley from Dorset Herbals showed us how to make an authentic chai latte. This was the stimulus for another writing exercise where we had to write a piece with the number 10 in the title. Quite apart from the fun of learning about how to make a chai latte from scratch, I was really fascinated to hear Ross talking about the various health benefits of all the spices, not to mention how you can tell if your spices are poisonous or not. Always useful!
Throughout the 2 days our course was punctuated by a stream of delicious meals and snacks emanating from that fabulous green aga. Particular highlights included a delicious lemon and rosemary risotto, an amazing clove studded ham and a wonderful souffled omelette roulade…oh and some pretty epic sausage rolls. Quite how Lisa managed to produce so many delicious dishes for 9 demanding foodies, all without looking the slightest bit flustered, I really do not know.
Regular breaks allowed us the opportunity to stretch our legs and wander in the garden (unless you are like me, in which case you used all your breaks to check on your latest written exercise just one last time!). The garden of All Hallows is just as beautiful as the interior (I did get out there once – thought I better take some photos for this blog post) and Lisa also keeps chickens (which I somehow failed to meet, so no photos of those).
Lunches were sociable affairs, held in the dining room, and allowed us to get to know each other better. Dinner was not included as part of the food writing weekend, but was available as an optional extra, and I was very glad I had booked it – that amazing clove studded ham and Lisa’s incredible roast potatoes, eaten in the company of passionate foodies, while sitting by a roaring log fire, was a thing not to be missed. And I’ve never had such a lively debate about the various merits of adding salt and pepper to food before! Actually it was a total joy to spend time with such like-minded people. We may have all been from different backgrounds, but we were all equally passionate about good food. I sometimes feel like a total weirdo when I go off on one about a particularly delicious meal or ingredient – it’s nice to know there are others out there like me!
I mentioned earlier that I was sad not to be booked into All Hallows overnight. I was sad, but at least it gave me a chance to try out some more of those delightful single track roads (!) and the opportunity to discover The Castleman in Chettle, which is utterly charming – unpretentious and a bit old school (but definitely in a good way), it’s not the most modern hotel you will ever visit, but the welcome was warm, my room was enormous (and spotless!) and the bed was like going to sleep in a marshmallow. The attention to detail was also impeccable and nothing was too much trouble.
But back to All Hallows, and I wish I could say that time seemed to stand still on the course, but unfortunately it actually seemed to go at a galloping pace and before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye already. I really didn’t want to. I could have happily stayed there for a week.
And so, after lingering in the farmhouse kitchen for as long as possible, it was with a somewhat heavy heart and a slightly overstuffed tummy that I retraced my tire tracks back through the winding Dorset lanes and back out onto the M27, my head full of wonderful memories and buzzing with information and ideas, and back to Sussex and two rather excited children, who treated me with the sort of excitement they usually reserve for Santa (I don’t go away often).
Fancy attending the next Food Writing Weekend at All Hallows? Lisa is planning another similar course in 2017 and suggests you contact her to register your interest and receive details as soon as the course is finalised. Lisa also hosts a variety of other courses – from Food Photography to Aga Cooking and more, and at other times Stuart and Lisa offer their house as a luxury B&B. It is an utterly enchanting place and I can’t recommend it highly enough, so do check out All Hallows’ website for more information.