Heritage British Cookery at The School of Artisan Food:(invited press review)
Driving into the grounds of The School of Artisan Food on the Welbeck Estate in North Nottinghamshire is to take a step back into history in more ways than one. Not only is the School based in the old stables of the Estate which dates back to 1870 but it also specialises in teaching traditional methods of cooking. These have captured the attention of food lovers eager to learn the secrets of sourdough, fermentation, pickling and other heritage methods of food production that have become increasingly popular as an antidote to mass-produced food filled with additives. The School offers an impressive range of courses from baking to butchery, cheese making to chocolate. There are half-day to three day long courses and diplomas.
On a visit to the area to follow the Pilgrim Trail and the forthcoming Mayflower 400 celebrations that kick off in November 2019 throughout the region, I was invited to attend a day-long course of heritage British cookery at the School of Artisan Food. I was thrilled because spending time immersed in cooking and history ticks many boxes for me.
Many of the small group of fellow students on the Gamekeepers Favourites course had been gifted the day for Christmas or a birthday. It really does make a wonderful present. Not only was the day great fun but skills are learnt, recipes can be taken home and incorporated into one’s repertoire. I will be showing off with the smoked salmon cheesecake for years to come.
The atmosphere at the School was very warm and welcoming despite the frost on the ground outside. On arrival, we were invited upstairs to a sun-filled refectory with an open plan kitchen where School students were starting to prep our lunch. I rather regretted having eaten such a filling breakfast as an enticing selection was on offer for those who had not yet partaken. A large glass jar filled with granola, a basket of buns, bread and baked goodies was all most tempting.
The packed tables soon divided into different classes and I went down to the butchery to begin the course. Our two teachers – Chris Moorby and Rich Summers – were terrific. They not only were deeply knowledgeable but were also engaging, very entertaining and kept up a patter that made the hours speed by.
Having taught a game cooking course the day before – one I very much hope to return for one day – they had lots of offcuts left over. In the spirit of no wastage and respect for the animals that we are eating, our course focused on how to turn these leftovers into delicious dishes.
As I was in the area researching the background to those who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and set up Plymouth Colony on their arrival in the New World, I was particularly interested in the first dish of the course – Hand Raised Poacher’s Pie. Raised pies date back to Medieval times when a thick pie crust was created to preserve meat. At that time the pies were referred to as coffins – presumably due to their shape rather than what might happen if you ate one. A surviving cookbook from the reign of King Richard ll references the coffin. Called The Forme of Cury, the cookbook was written in 1390 in Middle English by the king’s chefs and includes some 190 recipes from the Royal household. Around the end of the 15th century we were told, the raised pie was used as fast food for the nobility who wanted something to eat whilst out hunting. The casing needed to be robust to survive a day in the saddle. At that time the pastry was used as a casing to protect meat. It was highly salted as a preservative and was itself inedible. This is a pastry that has stood the test of time and an excellent thing to learn on a heritage British cookery class.
Unlike shortcrust or puff pastry, hot water pastry sets firmly. Although I am a reasonably confident home cook, I have never made my own pastry and rather doubted how I would perform on this task. I need not have worried, as we were given such good guidance that even I managed to make something to be proud of. It started off simply, weighing and mixing strong bread flour, salt and lard melted in boiling water. The boiling water and melted lard gelatinises the starches. The dough was worked lightly so as not to overwork the proteins which would create a springy pastry, not what you want when trying to raise the dough later.
While the dough rested in the fridge, we got on with making a range of other dishes – hot smoked sausages, venison pastrami, cured game terrine and smoked salmon cheesecake. I must admit that when we were being taught about the technicalities of smoking equipment, I thought that the enthusiasm shown by some of the group was too niche for me. When I tasted the salmon that came out of the smoker, however, I was hooked. It was quite simply the most outstanding smoked salmon I have ever tasted – unlike anything one can buy in the shops. Cut into thick slices it had a remarkable depth of flavour and colour. The venison sausages that we made and were hot smoked were terrific too.
When our dough had cooled to room temperature the real fun began. I hadn’t realised how meditative and calming it can be to work with pastry. We rolled out our dough into a flat patty and were then each given a wooden dolly (a cylinder with a handle on the top) which we pressed down into the middle so that the dough began to rise up the sides.
We hand raised the dough up the sides of the dolly which was satisfying indeed. We were advised to ensure that our bottoms were thin so as to avoid that great disgrace of a soggy bottom. While we were instructed to be able to see daylight through the bottom of the dough, perhaps I saw too much because at the end of the process my pastry case was decidedly floppy. Some of the others in the group made beautifully firm pastry cases and I tried not to be competitive – except with my husband whose pastry case was definitely better than mine.
We filled the pies with a delicious series of layers. First came breadcrumbs made from dried sourdough mixed with fried in butter with finely chopped onion. Next a layer of chopped game then thinly sliced, cooked venison. A few spoons of cranberry sauce was followed by very thin slices of cheddar. Apparently, Stilton works well too.
We crimped the pastry lids into place – two methods of crimping were taught – egg washed our pies and popped them into the oven to bake.
I like to think of the Mayflower pilgrims making hot water pastry filled with game meats as they would surely have had access to venison when they settled in Plymouth Colony. However, in those early days in 1620 they did not have wheat flour and nor did they have butter to make the pastry. Perhaps their game pies had to wait until supplies of flour were sent from England and they had a ready source of butter from their cows. Livestock – including cattle – is only recorded from 1623 in Plymouth Colony. For more details about how to make raised pies yourself see this feature on the School of Artisan Food website.
While they were living in England, hunting of deer was restricted to the nobility so although many of the pilgrims lived in Sherwood Forest – the land belonged to the King. However, once in Plymouth Colony, there were no such restrictions and they had access to deer, rabbits and birds all of which would have been put in the pot. They almost certainly ate venison for their first Thanksgiving celebration meal as William Bradford (Pilgrim historian and Governor of Plymouth Colony) noted this in his journal.
We might not have had a Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the day at The School of Artisan Food but we did have a buffet tasting of all we had made. Every single item was delicious. We all felt rather proud of ourselves and astounded at just how much we had managed to produce in around six hours.
It was a tiring day but deeply satisfying. Driving away with a box brim full of the dishes we had made, I couldn’t wait to get home to show off my hot water pastry. The pie tasted fantastic and cut into wedges, the layers created a most attractive appearance. There is nothing like a good pie to impress and now I know how.
The School of Artisan Food is an inspiring place. The list of courses is enticing and I began to think about how a career change would look after a six-month Advanced Diploma in Artisan Baking. Perhaps I had better perfect my hand raising pastry technique first. The School of Food, a registered charity, teaches sustainability which is crucial for the wellbeing of the environment. Its commitment to the use of traditional, heritage methods of food production enhances and nurtures the artisan food community from which we benefit wherever small food businesses are established. A few years ago, a micro-bakery opened in my neighbourhood. It has transformed the way my family eats – fabulous sourdoughs are now our daily bread. A day course at The School of Artisan Food will have me baking my own sourdough loaves. I think the Mayflower pilgrims would have approved.
Meanwhile, I’m leaving you with one of the heritage British recipes we learnt at the School of Artisan Food, which I hope you’ll enjoy trying at home.
This is a delicious and impressive recipe for a light lunch or a starter course. Use the best quality smoked salmon you can find.
- 100 grams oat biscuits
- 50 grams butter melted
- 200 grams smoked salmon or smoked trout
- 100 grams cream cheese full fat is recommended
- 25 grams sloe gin optional
Either use a strip of acetate paper as a mould or use a cookie cutter. If using acetate, fold into a circle and tape the two ends together to make a circle. Make two circles.
Place oat biscuits into a sandwich bag and bash into crumbs with a rolling pin. Alternatively, pulse in a food processor.
Melt the butter and then add to crumbed biscuits into the butter. Mix well.
Press the butter/crumb mixture into the bottom of the hoops. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to firm up.
Place the smoked salmon into a food processor and blend.
Add the cream cheese and blend for a few seconds. The mixture should retain a coarse texture.
Add the sloe gin if using.
If need be, add a small amount of milk to soften the mixture.
Carefully spoon the mixture onto the biscuit base and smooth the surface. Decorate with peppercorns, bay leaves or sprigs of dill.
Refrigerate to set firmly for at least two hours.
We visited The School of Artisan Food to learn more about Heritage British Cookery as part of our coverage of Mayflower400. For more information about Mayflower 400 celebrations, in general, please see the Mayflower400 website
Disclosure: We were guests of The School of Artisan Food. All content is editorially given.
For an alternative cookery school in London we recommend The Avenue Cookery School