Belfast Telegraph

I took a two-day cookery course at River Cottage... so what did I learn?

Determined to improve on your culinary prowess this year? Ella Walker ventures to the famed location to do just that

We have to eat to survive, that's a given. But despite the fact we need to eat three meals a day, many people believe they can't cook or are too afraid to in case they mess it up.

Put that terror of pink chicken aside though and we're all fully capable of picking up a new culinary skill - or just improving our technique.

Sometimes, however, you need more than poring over cookbooks and getting hunger pangs at insta food pics to inspire. Hence why I signed up for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Two Day Cookery Course in Axminster - home to the telly chef and campaigner's River Cottage series and his kitchen gardens and farm.

Don't expect Fearnley-Whittingstall to be pottering around or taking classes, he's got a team for that, but you can explore the cottage itself before settling in for a weekend of eating, cooking and cramming your brain full of kitchen hacks and tips.

Day 1:

After scoffing warm chocolate chip macaroons the River Cottage staff have just pulled from the oven, we - a crowd of 20, including couples, solo foodies and even families with teenagers - pick a work station and get a quick talk through the kitchen and equipment.

Things like what colour chopping board is for what - blue for fish, green for veg - and how to not slice ourselves to pieces with their (very) sharp knives.

River Cottage sous chef Connor Reed is in charge of us for the full two days and deftly demonstrates every recipe from start to finish before pretty much letting us loose to do it ourselves. At first it's mildly alarming, but he's on hand if you have any questions. He's just not into mollycoddling, you're trusted to get on with it - and to not burn the place down. It's a system that works; you pay attention to him, repeat the steps and are then suitably amazed when the dish comes out like his.

By elevenses we've already snapped the head off a mackerel and pulled out its guts, and dissected a whole orange-spotted plaice, carefully removing four translucent fillets ("Take them home and roast for seven minutes in a hot oven, with some cherry tomatoes on the vine," instructs Reed).

There's a rhythm to what we're doing, we're not just hacking happily at fish after fish for no reason: the mackerel is for lunch. We pick handfuls of taut, shiny courgettes from the kitchen garden to turn into a slow cooked sauce that our fish (fried and stuffed with homemade salsa verde) will bed down on, and scatterings of nasturtium leaves to daintily place on top.

Meanwhile, we have pudding - panna cotta flavoured with lemon verbena and blackcurrant leaves - setting in the fridge for tomorrow.

After lunch (there's wine, don't worry) Reed leads us on a roam around the River Cottage grounds. We visit the pigs ("Don't get too attached...") and get tangled up amongst the tomato vines in a poly tunnel strung with red, yellow and purple fruits (disclaimer: I did the course in the height of summer, but they run throughout the year, hence the fresh tomatoes and courgettes on my visit).

By this point we're flagging on our feet - there's a lot of standing up involved in cooking all day it turns out. But bowlfuls of freshly roasted tomato sauce with handmade gnocchi, dotted with basil, await.

Gnocchi, which I once thought so mysterious, is just a mash of cold potato, egg, flower and cheese (preferably a sharp, not too crumbly one). Constructing the dumplings is essentially a grown-up version of playing with Play-Doh. Reed has a knack for somehow just knocking all the doubt and fear out of you.

Day 2:

A platter of honey, blueberry drop scones and a strong cup of tea just about bat away the exhaustion of yesterday and we're off.

It's bread day in the tent (well, beautiful, glass walled kitchen), which means pillowy, olive oil-drenched focaccia and sourdough (prepped and kneaded the day before, achy forearms galore). There's a frantic dough dash every half hour as timers ring out and Reed yells: "Go fold!" whether you're in the middle of barbecuing marinated pork shoulder steaks or not.

Between folding our dough (to garner a good rise when it finally goes in the oven), we roast carrots to a mush and lace it with tahini and cumin to smear on flatbreads, which we then use to envelope those pork steaks (which proves to be a sweaty exercise in not overcooking meat on the barbie).

The bread making is almost all-consuming, but we manage to braise some beef ribs on the hob and roll out ruff puff pastry rhubarb and frangipane tarts, before tipping our sourdough loaves out of their ceramic pans and knocking on the bottoms. Pray for the hollow sound that means it's actually risen and cooked through.

Sure, it's something of an illusion that you could make all of this at home within the same time frame - we're got a team of people doing our washing up for starters and the ingredients are mostly measured out for you too.

But then, no one needs this amount of food in 48 hours - on the final evening we leave laden with cardboard food containers, and vacuum-packed fish fillets, enough for packed lunches for a week.

You'll be shattered and full, but arrive home bragging about your mackerel-based talents, and intent on turning every carrot you encounter into hummus.

  • Two Days At River Cottage cookery courses cost £430 per person and are hosted year-round. Visit www.rivercottage.net to book

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