No, that’s not me – that’s one of the students from the Vegetarian Cookery School, hanging out with a basket of goodies at Castle Farm last Sunday. I like the picture because to me it sums up what makes the Southwest of England one of the ultimate foodie destinations in the UK. Like her basket, the Southwest is bursting with high quality produce, grown with care and love in beautiful surrounds, resulting in food and experiences that make everybody smile.
The day was billed “Seasonal Sumptuous Sunday“, but to me it’d be better called “Flavours of Bath” or something similar (ideas?) because the ultimate appeal of this course is that it offers an insider’s view of the Bath area food scene, a rich, vibrant oasis teaming with top notch produce and magnetic personalities.
Take Castle Farm, for instance. We started here in the morning where Jo, the enthusiastic owner and grower, gave us a tour before letting us loose to explore and, more importantly, fill our baskets with yummy vegetables.
The organic farm is a bit of a jumble, and Jo unabashedly pointed out the duds as well as the thrivers. Lovage, horseradish, spinach, chard, raspberries, parsley, and edible flowers thrived, while the runner beans looked sad and the rocket was barren. But the plums were superb and the pumpkin patch was a thriving jungle: the strikes and gutters of organic farming. I loved it.
Jo’s farm isn’t open to the public – her main clientele seems to be chefs and restaurants – so I felt very lucky to get a peak inside. Of course, the best part was picking a bunch of our own produce, such as this epic pumpkin…
…loads of salad leaves…
…the mother load of raspberries and edible flowers…
…the result was, well, a cornucopia of food.
We took our haul back to the cookery school and spent the afternoon in cooking mode. Helen Lawrence, chef at the cookery school, artistically laid out all of our goods, while Rachel told us about the food we’d be cooking:
- Fruit smoothies
- Spinach Malfatti with Herb, Lemon and Pinenut Sauce
- Roasted Pumkin, Walnut and Pickled Ewes Cheese Salad (recipe)
- Stuffed Field Mushrooms with Parsley Pistou
- Roasted Pink Fir Potatoes with Harissa
- Courgette Fritters with Salda Cruda
- Ginger Rhubarb Cheesecake with THyme Honeycombe
That’s a long list, maybe even daunting. But herein lies what I love about the cookery school: it’s all about participation and collaboration. And when you’ve got seven eager eaters around to chop, mash, mince, peel, dice, boil, toast, steam and puree, along with excellent tutelage from the cookery school’s Helen Lawrence, you can get a lot done.
People take cookery classes for different reasons. Some go to learn about their favourite cuisines; some go to learn a specific skill like pasta making or bread baking; some go to conquer their fear of the kitchen; and some go simply to meet and cook with other people who love food and cooking. I go to learn about new ingredients and techniques that add a bit of pizzazz to my own cooking (jazz hands, anyone?).
Enter harissa and salsa cruda, two add-ons to already wonderful dishes that opened my eyes to the shear pleasure of sauces and salsas.
First, the harissa, a North African chilli paste that many shops sell in jars or tubes as a red paste. I’ve always enjoyed harissa, but never saw its potential until I had it last Sunday at the cookery school. Rather than a uniform, homogenous paste, our harissa was bursting with fresh herbs and the aroma of freshly toasted cumin and coriander seeds. Ground with a mortar and pestle, it had a wonderful texture, and added a fresh, spicy kick to our roasted pink fir potatoes.
The other highlight was the salsa cruda, which I was too busy eating to take a photo of – I think this may have been the winning recipe for me, perhaps due to the inclusion of tomatillos, one of my favourite foods that I thought I’d left behind in Austin.
The salsa cruda was ingenious: tomatillos, tomatoes, hot chillies, spring onions, coriander, lemon juice, and a bit of apple juice concentrate to sweeten the deal – not the kind of “salsa” you’d get in Austin, but something just as fresh, spicy and delicious. It was perfect with, well, everything, including the courgette fritters that they were paired with, but also the fresh herb and wild flower salad. The fresh, spicy-sweet salsa was the perfect thing for a hot summer’s day and helped round out our seemingly epic feast.
What else did I learn? You can never have too many fresh herbs. Walnuts are delicious when toasted with smoked paprika. Homewood Cheeses‘ pickled ewes cheese is a thing of beauty, as are mushrooms stuffed with mushrooms, sloe vodka with tonic and freshly grated horseradish. Pink fir potatoes might be my favourite potato variety ever. Even professional veg growers struggle with garden pests and poor yields. And Bath – and the greater Southwest – is a foodie’s wet dream.
I love where I live.