In my dreams I am a domestic goddess – earthy and elemental, absorbed by integrity in all my daily efforts. But reality often finds me distracted, prone to overwhelming tiredness and haphazard convictions. It is therefore a wonderful surprise to me that I can now bake bread well and at the very least provide this staple for my family without a trip to Tesco. And I have that lovely posh hippy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to thank.
'As the bread was baking, Gideon fried our doughnuts and served them dusted with cinnamon and sugar with a pot of fresh vanilla custard and rhubarb compôte for dunking.'
I never dreamed of attempting to bake bread - all the recipes I'd seen put me off. But recently a fellow mum suggested we do a cookery course together for some kids-free fun, and I remembered that River Cottage has a cookery school. When we discovered they were doing a book two places and get a night’s free accommodation deal on the bread-baking course, we booked without hesitation - though privately I had my doubts that I would ever bake at home when it's so easy to buy a loaf.
With the satnav on Axminster and a table booked for the River Cottage Canteen and Deli for the evening, Karen and I waved a cheery goodbye to our young kids and their brave-faced fathers and cruised down from Manchester, accompanied by nice tunes and free-flowing conversation. Our B&B, Kerrington House, had the plump-feather-duvet plushness that marks the higher end of bed and breakfast, with a modern bathroom with good towels and robes, and a decanter of port and chocolates besides the usual tea and coffee (not bad for a free room!).
Karen had brought Hunter wellies and looked quite the part the next day as about 16 of us loaded into the River Cottage tractor-pulled trailer to be driven to the farmhouse and cookery school, with woollen blankets provided for our knees and cushioned seats covered in a rustic hessian. In the beautifully restored farmhouse, we gathered in the kitchen from which Hugh presents his cookery show for tea and warm drop scones with preserve. The décor was what I consider a very English speciality: reclaimed and a bit scruffy yet inherently elegant, with an eye for design that is usually only inherited (along with the money needed to achieve it…).
The cookery school itself is in an old barn stunningly converted for the purpose, in a perfect marriage of function and form, with thick green bottles cut from the bottom to become lightshades, white-painted brick walls fitted with butchers’ hooks hanging photos capturing the River Cottage life, wildflowers artlessly placed in old milk bottles, and big stainless-steel benches atop a floor made from ends of wood like some huge chopping board. As a bit of an old hippy myself but one firmly rooted in the modern world of object lust, the space spoke to me as a way to have beauty and integrity, and I felt a rush of inspiration, a desire to be more passionate and authentic.
Gideon, our relaxed yet directive teacher, showed us how to make a basic dough, then moved on to ciabatta, foccacia, pizza and doughnuts. As dough was rising, we rolled out pizzas to be cooked in the original wood oven, with home-smoked pancetta, rosemary and garlic oil, capers and monkfish brought out to use as toppings. Everyone customised their own pizza, and bottles of organic cider were popped as we munched.
Amazingly, this was not lunch but merely a snack, and after knocking back our dough we assembled in the dining room to a wonderful lunch of Hugh’s beef brisket, dauphinoise and cabbage, with more booze if we wished. Cheeks flushed, the group moved into that amiable zone where reserve was replaced by the warm glow of camaraderie. Later, as the bread was baking, Gideon fried our doughnuts and served them dusted with cinnamon and sugar with a pot of fresh vanilla custard and rhubarb compôte for dunking.
Part of the course included a copy of the River Cottage Handbook, Bread by Daniel Stevens. Already, my copy is well-thumbed and tellingly splotched, although I now know how to make a loaf by heart. My daughter always has a thick slice of fresh bread with butter when she gets home from school, mapping my progress as a baker with gratifying remarks such as, ‘Mummy, you should open a shop and sell your bread’ … although this probably has more to do with her love of playing shop than anything.
A cookery course at River Cottage could easily form part of a family holiday in Devon or Dorset, whether for parents taking a day out to learn new skills or for those wanting to do something a little bit different with their kids – the bread-making course is not suitable for younger children, but many teenagers do the course with their parents and have a ball. The Build and Bake day course, advertised for supervised children aged 10 and up and involving digging for clay then making a wood-fired oven from it in which to bake your own bread, is especially popular.
Read about family holidays and breaks in Devon, including family-friendly places to stay and eat, and recommendations for things to do with kids.