A River Cottage Christmas – by Lauren Heath

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Recently I was over the moon to be invited to join a host of other foodie, family and lifestyle bloggers at River Cottage HQ, to experience their facilities and offering. The event was being hosted blogger groups Foodies100 and HIBS100.

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Me..’over the moon’!

I have been to HQ before for one of the annual Summer Fairs but it has been some years now. Most of you would know of River Cottage I’m sure, and the fantastic Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who has lovingly developed the farm, his book collection as well as using his knowledge and power for good.

If you don’t know much about River Cottage and Hugh, here’s a little snippet:

‘River Cottage HQ, found on the Devon and Dorset border, is home to everything they do and is the base for their Cookery and Chefs’ School, unique dining experiences and memorable events.

There are four Canteens, the award-winning restaurants and delis based in the South West where they combine their philosophy with the finest producers in Axminster, Bristol, Plymouth and – most recently – Winchester.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a multi-award-winning writer and broadcaster widely known for his uncompromising commitment to seasonal, ethically produced food.

He has earned a huge following through his River Cottage TV series and books, as well as campaigns such as Hugh’s Fish Fight and the most recent- Saving Africa’s Elephants: Hugh and the Ivory War

Hugh’s early smallholding experiences were shown in the Channel 4 River Cottage series and led to the publication of The River Cottage Cookbook (2001) which won the Glenfiddich Trophy and the André Simon Food Book of the Year award (and was republished in an expanded 10-year-anniversary edition in 2011). Ten more books have followed, including the acclaimed River Cottage Meat Book and the hugely successful River Cottage Veg Everyday and the most recent A-Z of Ingredients.’

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The famous River Cottage HQ Kitchen used for filming

So on a very damp Tuesday afternoon, I ventured out to Axminster, along with Tara of Tara’s Busy Kitchen and Stephanie of Exploring Exeter.

As we arrived in the unassuming car park, we gathered in the wooden hut along with other bloggers who had already arrived and waited patiently for more to trickle in with the final count being 55 I believe. We were all like children knowing we would inevitably have a tractor ride down to the farm – we weren’t disappointed, although what a bouncy journey!

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Tractor riding and posing (L-R  Steph of Exploring Exeter, Me, Tara of Tara’s Busy Kitchen & Claire of Flip Flops or Wellies

After being welcomed into the twinkling barn with drinks and delightful drop scones, topped with yogurt and honey, we settled in for a demo. This demo was all about enhancing your Christmas meats including making your own ham, how to brine a chicken or turkey and how to make venison bresaola. All three sounded so simple and I will certainly be looking to give one or two a go! Of course the tasters were delicious.

After indulging in said tasters, the group split into two with half networking and talking all things blog and social media in the famous River Cottage HQ main house where lots of filming has taken place and the other half piling into the yurt, warmed by the beautiful log burner in order to take on a Guess What’s in the Box challenge. The challenge involved putting your hand in said box and feeling around and guessing what the items were, with some being unexpectedly sticky such as candied ginger and a bit daunting at first.

Now for the main event! We gathered inside the barn again, now transformed for our dinner. I say dinner, it was a grazing fest – we were fed for almost three and a half hours. It started off with a lovely warming apple liqueur, along with canapes of Devon mussels with cider apples and diced red onion, leg of pork croquettes with a bechamel sauce inside, as well as bruschetta of goats cheese, beetroot, cider vinegar and fennel. Every morsel a delight.

We were then treated to a pre-starter of pulled rabbit, and romanesco puree followed by a starter of celeriac ravioli with wild mushrooms and leaves. The main was River Cottage cider brined ham, carrot puree, fried savoy cabbage and braised beans. Full yet? Maybe a little…but then what followed was the most beautiful honeycomb creme brulee with apple puree and apple crisps – it was heavenly, every morsel eaten with my eyes shut, I wish I could have had more!

Everything was absolutely gorgeous, flavoursome and texturally well thought out but then what would you expect of such high calibre chefs and environment.

During courses we were welcomed by chef Sam Lomas (below far left) to wander round and even be nosy in the kitchen. The chefs kindly showed us the cookery school, where they hold the usual courses including fish, meat and baking to the more unusual of beekeeping, wild food cookery and even foraging courses.

Did you know you could get married here? Well you do now…and in the lovely veg patch I believe!  It’s a really charming environment with charming staff to boot.

Around 10pm or so it was time to go, our carriage (I mean tractor) awaited to return us to our cars. We left with quite a smile on our faces, bellies very full. It certainly was a culinary experience.

So if you are struggling to think of that ideal gift for a friend or loved one, think of #RiverCottageChristmas or any time of the year for that matter – remember cookery skills are for life, and not just for Christmas!

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For further info on courses, restaurants and events visit the River Cottage website.

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