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A Day at River Cottage HQ

On Sunday 25th May, Mum, Dad and I donned our wellies and headed towards the Dorset / Devon border where River Cottage HQ had flung open its gates and allowed us in to wander the grounds and peruse the stalls during the Food Fair. There were even talks on various different topics – from foraging to bread – to listen to if you wanted.

Wellies were mandatory as the day before it had rained all day. I am not exaggerating. It did not stop. And it wasn’t drizzly rain either, it was big fat drops of rain. Apparently everyone who had attended the fair on the Saturday had had to be pulled out of the field where they had parked by tractor. Fortunately it has stopped raining by the time the sun set, but that still meant that there was a lot of squelchy squishy mud around. We experienced a couple of mud slides whilst trying to park.

There was plenty to look at and taste. I tried cheese, locally made cordials, chocolate; red wine and blood chorizo and gin. Mum and Dad also tried cricket pate and caterpillar pate. I refrained. According to the gentleman whose stand it was, we will all be eating crickets and caterpillars in 20 years time because the current rate at which we consume traditional meat (beef, lamb, pork, chicken etc.) is not sustainable, so we are going to have to look for alternatives. To be honest, the thought of having to eat caterpillars is enough to make me seriously consider being vegetarian. And I don’t eat that much meat.

I also met these critters:

Piggy CollageThe piglets were adorable. I always think piglets are adorable. My cooing and babbled cries of “look at them, they are so cute” are usually met with a stern “you’re not having any.” Such spoil sports. The big pig (top right) very kindly wiped his snotty, muddy snout on my hand. It was nice to meet him too. And one of the black piglets took a fancy to a little girl’s purple welly and tried to eat it through the fencing. And to add to the comedy value, there was a picture of Hugh in the piglets pen that they took turns carrying around.

I even saw Gill and Tim, albeit in passing.

And to finish it all off we were hauled back to the car park up the hill in a massive trailer attached to a tractor.

Amidst all the frivolity, brisk chilly breeze and the mud, the main reason for my attendance was to take part in a gluten-free cookery class in the chef’s school.

Inside River Cottage Chef's School
Inside River Cottage Chef’s School

The class was run by Naomi Devlin (that’s her in the purple top, prepping for the class), who is not only a nutritionist, but also a coeliac herself. So often classes / courses / recipes etc. that cater for gluten-free are not run by people who are themselves, so what you get is a slap-dash approach because we will be grateful for whatever we can get. This was not the case here. The school itself has a homely feel (although it did feel a bit odd wandering around it in my wellies) and you can get up to four people around each work station, so you get to chat to new people while you work. Naomi is lovely and has a lot of interesting things to say (more on that later).

It was nice to see that there was a mix of people in the class, from a retired couple to two teenage boys, but what was more surprising was that the majority of people there were not gluten-free themselves. They either had family members or friends who are gluten-free and they wanted to be able to provide them with something tasty and homemade. Or in the case of the teenage boy opposite me – he was doing a catering GCSE and for his practical element wants to do a gluten-free tea party, as his grandmother is gluten-free.

Our task for the morning was to make gluten-free shortcrust pastry that we were then going to turn into potato, cheese and leek pasties.

We made our pastry and our filling and then assembled the pasties. I had enough pastry for 4 pasties but due to time constraints I only managed to make 2 (some people did make 4, I don’t know how they did it because with two minutes to go before they had to go in the oven I still needed to egg wash the top of mine. I was obviously trying to make mine too perfect, even though I did over stuff the first one).

pastiesNow, I always thought that my pastry was pretty tasty, but let me tell you, Naomi’s is so much better. These pasties were one of the best gluten-free things I have ever eaten. I munched on one as I wandered around the fair afterwards, whilst it was still warm. My mum tried a bit and I was worried I was going to have to fight her for it (she is not gluten-free). They were delicious.

While the pasties were cooking we had a little Q&A session. Here are the main things that I took away from the class (beside my pasties):

  • Gluten proteins can attach themselves to wet wood and therefore be transferred to other foods. If you are the only gluten-free person in a house-full of non-gluten-free people and you share the same chopping boards and rolling-pin, you could be contaminating your food with gluten unknowingly. Rolling gluten-free pastry out between two sheets of baking parchment not only stops it sticking to the rolling-pin, but if you share a rolling-pin it also prevents cross-contamination. If you are wheat intolerant then it is not so much of an issue, but if you are particularly sensitive to gluten then this is definitely something you need to be aware of. I had no idea. The same applies to pastry brushes. We used our fingers to brush the tops of the pasties with egg, because we know where our fingers have been (just remember to wash them before and after, especially if you have been digging in the garden).
  • The best kind of bread for a gluten-free tummy is homemade gluten-free sour dough. Bakers yeast is a fairly aggressive form of yeast whereas using the yeasts naturally present in brown rice flour (for example) to make a sour dough starter, and subsequently a sour dough loaf, produces bread that is much easier to digest. When you have a sensitive gut, it makes sense to put things that are easy to digest into it. The naturally occurring bacteria also help to keep the yeasts under control. In case you were wondering what the worst kind of bread to eat isΒ  – anything mass manufactured, especially Genius bread, which as Naomi said, is all smoke and mirrors. There is nothing nutritional in it at all, just a lump of starches and more chemicals that you can shake a pipette at. Avoid it at all costs.
  • I have often felt a little guilty in the past when posting recipes that require 20 million different types of flours. I know it is a pain to not only source them all, but also weigh them all out. I try to avoid using ready blended gluten-free flours (such as gluten-free plain flour) as they tend to be a mix of pure starches with a healthy dose of xanthan gum (the exception here would maybe be Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Gluten Free Flour as it is a mix of bean and grain flours with only a small percentage being starch, however it is difficult to find in the UK) and as mentioned on my gluten-free flours page, there is no one flour that will exactly replicate wheat flour. Each gluten-free flour has a different quality – it may help to bind, it may provide a certain texture or it may provide something nutritional such as protein. The pastry we made in the class contains 5 different flours and it was music to my ears to hear Naomi explain why she had used the flours she had and that her recipe for gluten-free puff pastry contains 10 different flours. Yep, 10. To find someone who thinks the same way as me was not only inspirational, but it also helped me to validate what I am doing here in my little part of the universe and I will no longer feel guilty for creating and sharing recipes that contain a number of different flours.

I was so impressed with Naomi, her recipe and insightful knowledge that I have booked to go on the day course in July, where we will cover things like cookies and muffins and bread. Plus we will come home with lots of goodies and hopefully plenty of ideas. I am very excited.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and interesting day. Squelchy mud and hay in my eye aside.

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8 thoughts on “A Day at River Cottage HQ”

  1. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing what you learned. The Husband will be banned from using my wooden chopping boards for making his toast on. And I only use the rolling pin for GF pastry, so that’s OK. I agree that most GF breads are rubbish; anything where half the ingredients list is chemicals cannot be good, and they either start out stale already or get stale in a flash. Thanks also for the tip about Bob’s Red Mill flours, I can get them here. I know sourdough’s kinder to the tummy, but I do so love the smell and taste of yeasted bread…

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    1. We have two wooden chopping boards that are out all the time – one is a bread board and the other is supposed to be for veggies etc. but it invariably ends up covered in toast crumbs too! I frequently stand in the middle of the kitchen whinging about the fact I have nowhere to prepare my food without getting it covered in crumbs. And then there is the trail of crumbs left in the butter . . .

      I tried to make a sour dough loaf at the weekend but I think I ‘over cooked’ the starter as the bread was very acidic and not very pleasant (and managed to weld itself completely to the tin). I will try again though.

      I often torment myself my looking at the Bob’s Red Mill website and all the different flours they do. They are quite difficult to find here, even on the internet. I use a few different ones and some sites will have one but not the others so I end up getting them from all over the place. How I wish the official website did international shipping (although I bet the export tax would be ridiculous). I’ve contemplated getting on a plane with an empty suitcase and coming back with it completely full of packets of flour but 1) that is a bit extreme and 2) I will probably get stopped by customs and have to spend hours persuading them that they really are bags of flour and that I am not trying to smuggle drugs!

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      1. I’ve discovered a company here called Springhill Farm, who produce GF bread flour mixes. I tried one on the principle that I can’t dismiss anything without trying it, and was staggered at what an amazing loaf it produced. The flour is a mix of maize and potato starches, flaxseed flour, psyllium and pea starch. I added in my usual culprits: sunflower and pumpkin seeds, linseed, sesame and poppy seeds and millet. It’s really, really nice, and it makes a BIG loaf. If you’re interested, have a look: http://www.springhillfarm.com.au. And I have the butter solution. I buy the spreadable stuff in tubs. Low salt for me, regular for him, I write our names on the lid and we have both on the go at the same time. He gets his own jam for the same reason.

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      2. I’ve just had a little look at Springhill Farm – their products look tasty!

        I am beginning to think I am going to have to go down the separate butter etc. route.

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