A Winter Feast at River Cottage #RiverCottageChristmas

It's really hard to pinpoint what is so special about River Cottage HQ on the Dorset/Devon border near Axminster. But there is definitely something about the place which gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

River Cottage HQ Axminster

It could be the passion for awesome and imaginative food made with quality, seasonal, locally and ethically sourced ingredients demonstrated by everyone working there.

It could be the stunning surroundings - a quaint cottage, cosy yurt, babbling brook complete with ducks, rolling hills and fields and gorgeous gardens.

yurt at River Cottage HQ Axminster #RiverCottageChristmas

It could be the decor - I am a sucker for the vintage shabby chic look and the mis-matched chairs, posies in jam jars, enamel shizzle and log burners and ranges make me feel like I'm actually on my favourite Pinterest board.

decor at River Cottage HQ Axminster #RiverCottageChristmas

Whatever it is, I love it.

I have a small confession. I am not an avid follower of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV programmes. He shouldn't take this personally. I have 7 children so mostly any viewing time is dedicated to kids programmes or stuff we can all watch together and my obsession for food-related programming is largely shouted down in favour of slapstick comedy stuff or science-based documentaries.

Still, you'd have to have been living under a rock to have not heard of River Cottage thanks to the enthusiasm and charisma of Hugh who has earned a huge and loyal following through the River Cottage TV series and books plus his campaigns like Hugh's Fish Fight and the recent programme, Saving Africa's elephants:Hugh and The Ivory War which I did get to watch and throughly enjoyed. Hugh is just so....real and his enthusiasm for whatever project he is working on is inspirational.

So -I was extremely excited as I joined a group of bloggers on the bumpy tractor/trailer ride down to River Cottage HQ, Park Farm one afternoon last week.

Blogger event Winter Feast at River Cottage HQ #RiverCottageChristmas

After a quick dash round to get some photographs before darkness set in we gathered for a talk about brining meat and making your own bresaola (air dried, salted meat). I have to say I heard mention of maths and proportions and my brain went into panic mode but fear not, I have been promised the recipes which will obviously feature on this site as soon as possible!

I cannot wait to make my own marinaded, salted and dried muntjac. I plan to nonchalantly bring it out at Christmas to earn lots of smug cow hostess points with my food-loving friends.

courses at River Cottage HQ - brined meat #RiverCottageChristmas

As for brining. I previously thought it was a bit of a pretentious waste of time until I tried the finished product - a brined then roasted chicken was bursting with flavour thanks to a session sitting in salty water, gin, lemons, limes, garlic and rosemary. Yes. Gin. what's not to love about any recipe which includes gin?

A few samples got my mouth watering ready for the Winter Feast we had been promised and as the weather got wilder and windier outside we warmed ourselves with a tasty and smooth apple liqueur.

Apple Liqueur to start a Winter Feast at River Cottage #RiverCottageChristmas

Winter Feast canapés at River Cottage #RiverCottageChristmas

Canapés only made me more ready for the main event but the chef had another treat before we started our three courses. Crispy rabbit (which was a little like Chinese style aromatic crispy duck) on a bed of pureed cauliflower and Romanesco, that weird spirally version of  broccoli.

Crispy rabbit. Winter Feast at River Cottage #RiverCottageChristmas
Crispy rabbit with puree of cauliflower and Romansco

There aren't enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe the next three courses.

Celeriac ravioli with wild mushrooms and leaves. Delicate and light with foraged mushrooms.

Celeriac Ravioli starter for Winter Feast at River Cottage
Celeriac Ravioli with wild mushrooms.

River Cottage cider-brined ham with carrot puree, fried Savoy cabbage and braised beans. The ham was tender and tasty with a hint of stickiness. If I needed any convincing about the benefits of brining, that ham sealed the deal.

Cider brined ham at River Cottage Winter Feast #RiverCottageChristmas
Cider-brined ham with carrot puree and fried Savoy cabbage.

Then as a finale, honeycomb creme brûlée with apple puree and apple crisps. Brûlée is my fave desert but I didn't think the apple would add anything. I was wrong. Two textures of puree with seasonal flavours like cloves and a sweet ring of dried apple made a lovely pud perfect.

Honeycomb creme brûlée with pureed apple #RiverCottageChristmas
Honeycomb creme brûlée with pureed apple.
Now I am a died-in-the-wool carnivore but for the first time EVER I heard the description of a vegetarian option and had food envy.

I was so keen to try the parsnip and potato rosti which accompanied the veggie main I cheekily asked if there was a spare one knocking about. Check out the photobombing from Amy from The Devonshire Woman who looks very sad that I have a rosti and she doesn't. I did offer to share in that "please don't say yes" kinda way.

madmumof7 at River Cottage Winter Feast #RiverCottageChristmas

So many people have expressed their envy at my visit to River Cottage - the ethos of the place seems to appeal to all sorts of people. 

The good news is, whether you are an amateur cook, full on foodie or a self-sufficient smallholder, there's a course for you at River Cottage HQ. 

You can choose a course lasting from between one to four days and learn to cook game, fish, bread, wild food or vegetables to name just a few options. 

You can go foraging on the seashore, in hedgerows or for mushrooms. Try shoreline fishing, cheesemaking, curing and smoking food or have a go at beer making. There are two gluten free cookery courses and lots of seasonal courses like preserve making in the spring or summer. There's a beekeeping course and sessions for people who want to grow their own food or run a full-blown smallholding.

I especially like the look of the dining experiences (like the wonderful Winter Feast). There are lots of different experiences on offer - check out the website for current bookable courses and events. You can even see in the New Year at River Cottage HQ or buy a gift voucher as a present. They do emailable electronic vouchers if you need a fast but fabulous last minute gift! 

The chefs are all very knowledgeable and friendly and their passion for good food shines through their teaching and their cooking. I learned loads and had a fair few laughs along the way and could hardly wait to get home and put what I'd learned to the test. Not 'til after dinner though obvs!

chefs at River Cottage #RiverCottageChristmas
There are products like aprons, bags and tea towels available to buy on the website if you have a super-fan to buy for this Christmas and of course there are are a huge range of books from Hugh/River Cottage available from retailers on the high street and online. There are books to suit all tastes and levels of cooking competence including the new book -River Cottage: A to Z (more on that in a week or two. Watch this space!)

Looking ahead, there's the River Cottage Spring Fair 2017 in May which offers a really cheap way of visiting the farm. Billed as a weekend celebrating growing, cooking and eating, adult tickets cost £17.50 and under 12's go free!

The River Cottage HQ is located in a beautiful area so would be lovely to visit as part of a long weekend or early holiday. You could enjoy the Spring Fair and spend time fossil hunting at Lyme Regis or walking in the beautiful countryside.

One of the reasons I love blogging is because I love sharing stuff and experiences that I enjoy. I started this post wondering what makes River Cottage so special. I still don't know but it's worth a visit to see if you get the same warm and fuzzy feeling I do when I spend time there. 

As an aside, during my visit to River Cottage HQ I stayed at one of the many wonderful local B & B's in the area which was found and booked by lovely fellow blogger (and my River Cottage trip roommate) Emma from The Cheshire Wife.

Weycroft Mill House B&B near River Cottage HQ Axminster

Weycroft Mill House B&B totally blew away my negative preconceptions of B&B's. I was impressed with all the unexpected extra touches like a posh coffee pod machine in my room, a fridge with free bottled water and fresh milk for tea and coffee and an amazing farmhouse breakfast included in the price. I received no incentive to endorse the B&B - I just wanted to share a great find.

Disclaimer: I enjoyed a Winter Feast experience at River Cottage HQ free for the purposes of this review. Views and opinions remain honest and my own.

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