River Cottage fish skills day and reader offer
THINK of a playground for grownups with an interest in proper cooking and sustainable food production, and you'll have some idea of what it's like to spend a day at the River Cottage Cookery School. It's like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for foodies.
My wife, Sally, and I recently visited River Cottage HQ, near Lyme Regis, for a fish skills day, and the fun started as soon as we got out of the car. Along with 18 other aspiring kings and queens of the kitchen, we were bundled onto a trailer for the bumpy ride down the long lane which leads to the paradise that television chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls home and office.
Nestled in the bottom of a wood-fringed valley, the River Cottage base more than lives up to expectations; big shaggy cows graze the meadows, chickens and ducks spuddle about on either side of what almost passes for a track, vegetables and salad leaves grow in poly-tunnels and cheffy-looking people potter around between stone outbuildings and posh marquees. Ringing phones, email avalanches and all the other distractions of a busy life seemed a very long way away by the time we tottered down the rickety metal steps of the trailer.
In the cosy confines of a warm marquee, the day began with a briefing on what chefs Andrew and Gelf had planned for us. This introduction included the very welcome assurance that you don't need great kitchen skills to take part in a River Cottage skills day. That was a relief.
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Working in pairs in what's best described as a much less intimidating incarnation of the Masterchef kitchen, we donned our aprons and gathered around the demonstration area for our first assignment. Moments later, fish were flying as the whole class took to the lawn to break the ice with some vigorous de-scaling. After a couple minutes of whiting abuse, we scuttled back inside to hear how to turn our naked victim into a fishy feast.
Gelf made filleting the fish look alarmingly easy and assured us that we'd have no problem taking two fillets off our whiting with minimal wastage as long as we heeded his advice and let the knife follow the bone structure of the fish. We were then assured that (fingers aside) clumsy filleting was nothing to fear because we would be using the remainder of the whiting, along with celery, onion, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, parsley and peppercorns, to create a flavoursome stock to boost another dish.
I do a lot of fishing, and think I'm pretty nifty with a filleting knife, so I decided to sit out of the first exercise and shoot some photos instead. While I snapped away, Sally made light work of the whiting to end up with a marvellous brace of fillets. An impressive and nerve-wracking spectacle to behold and a testament to Gelf's excellent instruction - especially if you've seen my wife peel a potato.
The stock was soon simmering away and I was eager to get my hands fishy. The next masterclass was filleting some fiddly little sardines to make an escabeche - a mouth-watering Spanish dish that would see the oily little morsels pan-fried and drenched in spice-laced cider vinegar and wine. In the interest of marital harmony, and to put an end to the backseat filleting, we decided we'd both do this one and wing it with the camera.
With the escabeche wrapped up and the kitchen really hotting-up, it was back to the whiting fillets. These were sliced wafer-thin to produce a Latin American ceviche, using lemon juice to marinate, and effectively cook, the fish along with equally thin slivers of red onion and celery, plus chilli, paprika, cayenne pepper, brown sugar and salt. A few minutes' frantic chopping and stirring while attempting to remember chef's demonstration, and the colourful concoction was set aside to "cook" while we trundled back for another demo.
This time is was curried mussels; the most delicious dish of the day. Cooking completed and mussels in hand, we all headed back to the dining area to enjoy the fruits of our toils - along with a well-deserved glass of wine and some banter with the rest of the group.
The break whizzed by, and we were soon being briefed on our third and final filleting task. This time it was a notoriously difficult flatfish in the shape of the freshest brill I have ever touched. Thanks again to the excellent advice and guidance of our host chefs, Sally and I (neither of us was going to swap the knife for the camera now) turned our brill into a quartet of firm white fillets. Those fillets were joined by carrot, leek, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil in neat fish parcels that we would enjoy later.
The class concluded with a culinary lap of honour: clam and oyster risotto. The stock from the whiting trimmings made a return, providing hydration to plump the pearl barley and for poaching the huge, juicy clams. My oyster was a stubborn critter but soon yielded to an elegant display of brute force and ignorance. Seared in a pan of melted butter, it was the perfect cherry to top this sumptuous dish.
The evening meal that followed was an absolute delight, and the conversation across the table was a far cry from the reserved introductions of the morning. Everyone was bursting with excitement and pride from what they had achieved, and there was certainly a great sense of "did we really do that?".
All too quickly, the weary and well-fed band of overgrown cookery students was tramping back up the steps for the tractor ride back to the real world. But, judging by the chatter, everyone was taking a piece of River Cottage with them, and was looking forward to sharing it with friends and family in a tasty display of their newly acquired skills.
The team at River Cottage are offering readers a 15 per cent discount on a Seashore Foraging Day with Jon Wright on Wednesday 10th April.
Jon, author of the fifth River Cottage handbook, Edible Seashore, will take you foraging along the Jurassic coastline before you return to River Cottage HQ to turn whatever you find into a delicious feast.
Places are limited. Call 01297 630323 and quote Blackmore Vale Magazine offer.