River Cottage and Old Park Hall
Em Marshall-Luck finds a comfortable stay near the River Cottage HQ
If attending a River Cottage course would incur a long drive, Old Park Hall is a conveniently close place to stay the preceding and / following night. Located just the other side of the A35 from River Cottage, and just half a mile or so from the town of Axminster, it is a beautiful, mainly Georgian, stone house with Gothic features and impressive wings nestling in the Devonshire hills. It is easy to miss – look out for the all-too-discreet OPH sign-board by the side of the road, and follow the winding drive to a gravelled forecourt, with glorious house on one side and casual gardens lawns, exuberant rose bushes, lavender beds, chimenea, rusting ancient metal bed-frames and scrolled iron-work table and chairs on the other. Ring the bell for entry, and one will be greeted by Daisy: friendly, jokey and extremely casually-attired when we turned up.
A tour of house takes in a snug (“chill-out room”); a couple of lounges – one (the grand entrance hall) complete with fully appropriate-looking grand piano; and the dining-room, with long communal canteen-type tables, and industrial touches, including old work-bench with clamp; antique bicycle and packing crates. Rooms are broadly traditional, but with modern items that then leap out jarringly, perhaps intentionally designed to startle – one of the lounges, for instance, is painted a lovely, traditional, deep blue, has a stone fireplace, a gothic pointed arched window into adjoining room with distinctively ecclesiastical flavour, and various elegant touches – orchids, mirrors and velvet chairs / sofas, but then behind the main sofa is a shocking neon pink CANDYFLOSS sign; while a blindingly-bright white neon heart illuminates an otherwise traditional and impressive staircase. The overall feeling very “communal” and young, with mainly pop music playing and “playful” touches everywhere: a relaxed, informal, young house-party type of atmosphere. A chilled ambience replaces formality and etiquette; on-trend popular culture shouts over the sophistication; modern furniture adds to antiques: one wonders whether, had the house a voice, it would object to the incongruity.
Another element that adds to the communal feel are the numerous honesty bars – a gin bar; midnight-snack bar and various other cupboards offering alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and snacks. One can also go and visit Wednesday and Winnie, the pet pigs, for a chat, if one seeks some porcine company instead of human; while the chickens provide eggs for breakfast. One is very much invited to feel at home: I’m afraid that I extended this to switching the volume of the speaker playing pop music down to silent in the room where we were dining (it went up again as soon as some decent jazz came on).
There are many very thoughtful touches – dogs are welcome, and at the front door are provided tennis balls, treats, towels to wipe muddy canine feet and dog-pick-up bags. Shoes aren’t allowed upstairs, so a large basket of slippers is provided at the bottom of the stairs. Sofas throughout the downstairs areas are spacious, plush and comfortable; board games are provided in one of the lounges, and DVDs and a computer in the snug. The owners have clearly considered very carefully any elements that guests may wish for, and have taken pains to provide these.
Our room was beautifully spacious, painted a traditional (possibly Farrow & Ball) dark green, with high ceilings and the most gorgeous large, stone mullioned window with leaded lights and with wooden shutters, looking out over the hills. There is an imposing light oak wardrobe and an old-fashioned leather-skivered-topped desk; a comfortable leather armchair; elegant chaise-longue; substantial wooden blanket chest and an old stone fireplace with fluted surround: these items feel entirely appropriate in such a stately house. Then there is the modern fabric headboard of the huge and high (and incredibly comfortable) bed, modern marble table, velvet chairs and huge lamps formed of glass flasks: these items, although not entirely at home are inoffensive enough; we baulked more at the, again, bright neon pink, flamingo collage above the fireplace. The bathroom is on the small side compared to the size of the room and, to my disappointment, didn’t contain a bath. It has a large, modern shower, white painted walls, marble floor tiles, and attractive panelling of rough-hewn wood at the end, which serves at once to conceal the pipes and cistern for the WC and provides a shelf for bathroom accessories. The basin is, unusually, and eye-catchingly, a long, wooden trough. Plenty of L:A Brucket toiletries are provided, including, pleasingly and unusually, hand cream, body lotion and conditioner – again, that sense that anything one might need or wish for had been thought of and therefore provided.
Although officially a B&B, Old Park Hall can provide dinners – we were given locally-sourced pollock and samphire, with exquisitely flavoursome garden herbs, new potatoes, baby sweetcorn and truly excellent courgettes; dessert was an immensely decadent and utterly delicious concoction of chocolate cake crumb, chocolate sauce and cream.
Breakfast the next morning was excellent, with freshly-squeezed orange juice, cereals, and a number of hot and cold special options, chosen the previous night, including full English. Husband Rupert chose the waffles, because he thought it would be the lightest option. He was completely wrong: two vast waffles, smothered in fresh berries and whipped cream left him groaning but happy. I had gone for what was probably in reality the lightest option – smoked salmon with crushed avocado, and very good it was, too.
To be honest, Old Park Hall is more of a hotel than a B&B, with beds of the size and quality that one would only expect in a top-class hotel, and the fact that so much of the house is given entirely over to guests and to their whims, needs and wishes. Whatever one would like to call, it cannot be denied that it is an extremely convenient and comfortable place to stay; quirky and whimsical, although probably more suited to those young at heart and more at home with modern culture than lovers of Old Things.
From Old Park Hall, it is only just over five minutes’ drive to River Cottage. We piled in to the car park at the top of the hill and sheltered against the bracing wind in the wooden shelter (complete with wood-burner, presumably for even colder months), whence a tractor took us down the bumpy track in a trailer to the cottage itself: a large, croft-like, white-washed farmhouse at the valley bottom and thus surrounded by hills, with the cookery school housed in attractive modern wooden buildings at the back. A cottage garden and orchard provide many ingredients, as do their pigs and chickens (whom one could also visit). All was efficiently run – we had been ticked onto the tractor, and were ticked off at the other end, given name tags, and welcomed by Alice, who was to look after us during the course. Our tutor was River Cottage’s Head Chef, Gelf Alderson: an affable, extraordinarily competent and talented chef and teacher, with a relaxed and informal teaching style.
A large room provided 18 workstations, each with its own fridge, apron, knife set, rolling pins and cleaning materials, while ovens were shared between pairs. Coffee, tea and water were offered at first, and were then available throughout the course; alcoholic drinks could be purchased and enjoyed at any time, and were welcome for this course attendee, at least, during lunch. The building itself pleasingly mixes the necessary modern elements – NEFF ovens and industrial piping for instance, with traditional: sieves, saucepans, trays, quiche dishes and such like are all stacked on wooden shelving somewhat (and delightfully) redolent of an eighteenth-century pantry. Running the far length of the room is a window, with long, high bench seating looking out over the hills; I cleverly stationed myself opposite this window, thus gaining fabulous views. The roof and beams are all wood, and the colour scheme is grey and wood, with a demonstration table at one end of the room, with white tiles behind and clever storage facilities. The whole was impressively attractive whilst remaining very practical.
It was Perfect Pies and Pastries that I had enrolled on, and the first item was demonstrated but not practised by us – a hot-water pastry for a pork pie; then it was on to short-crust pastry – which, for a quiche, as in this case, needs to be baked in the oven no fewer than four times; so whilst our attempts at this were baking for its first time, we moved onto “Ruff” – rough puff pastry; which is incredibly and surprisingly simple to make. While the Ruff was chilling, we made lunch – chorizo scotch eggs, to accompany which bowls of fresh salad from the garden and an incredibly moreish aioli were provided. A delicious and sociable lunch was then had, with attendees seated on the high bench looking out over those lovely hills.
After lunch we tended to more bakings and sealings of our short-crust before finally reaching the fillings. I had thought that I was over-indulgent on the cheese and dairy products in my home cooking, yet even I was surprised by the amount of cheese we were instructed to put into our quiches – the pastry dish being filled to the brim with cheese even before any eggs / cream were poured in! After filling our quiches and getting them in the oven for the final time, we moved on to suet puddings. Finally, we rolled out our ruff and filled it with sausage meat and put our sausage rolls in our ovens. At the end of the course there was half an hour available for us to spend as wished. Some milled, some chatted to Gelf or fellow course attendees, those who were slower than others finished off cooking their items, or some (me included) wandered: we had been invited to explore any of the grounds and buildings that we wished, with the sole exception of upstairs in the cottage itself: a really welcoming, open touch. I looked around the gardens a little, and visited the room housing the foraging workshop next door, the kitchens, and the little shop area.
On the whole, it was a superb course. Every item had been fully demonstrated by Gelf, who was more than happy to answer questions about any aspect whatsoever (including how he managed to stay so slim whilst cooking such incredibly rich and fattening food!); when it came to our turn, we found that all our ingredients had already been provided weighed and in the right quantities, and, with the exception of the quiche, all the fillings had been pre-made and appeared as if by magic in our fridges. The group was a good size – as each workstation housed four people a good fellow-feeling quickly sprung up among us all and, although naturally a loner in such situations, I felt very much at home and comfortable within such a friendly group. Plenty of food was on offer to enjoy during the course, and / or to take home afterwards – in addition to the delicious lunch and our own quiches, suet puddings and sausage rolls, we were invited to partake of Gelf’s demonstration items, a few side dishes that also magically appeared from the main kitchens, and a roly-poly pudding that Gelf had made with off-cuts.
The only criticism I (and fellow attendees) had was that we were rather left to our own devices when making our own items – although Gelf wandered round the room in case anyone had problems, no-one actually checked that we were replicating the demonstrations accurately, and I, for one, found myself on occasions helping others who were less confident than me, or who couldn’t remember what had been demonstrated.
I had never really considered doing a cookery course before, but I’m a bit of a convert now – on top of gaining confidence and learning how to do things properly, there are also the numerous tips that one wouldn’t get elsewhere, and the opportunity to ask questions of a top chef. If the opportunity arose to return to River Cottage for another such course I’d jump at it: outstanding instruction; lovely surroundings; a thoroughly convivial experience; and the chance to learn new skills and discover exceptional tips and tricks to raise one’s cooking to a higher level.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic