The Nottinghamshire-based school has been around since 2009, championing artisan food skills and the benefits of 'real food'. An ambitious 20-year project will bring more food producers on board, joining existing cheesemakers, brewers and rum distillers. There's no better place to brush up on all sorts of skills, from baking to barbecue and lots more
Meet Kevan Roberts. He’s head of baking at The School of Artisan Food. A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of meeting Kevan and absorbing just a few crumbs of his vast store of breadmaking knowledge. Along with a few other journalists, I’d been invited to get a taste of what’s going on at the School (quite a lot, as it happens), and took part in a whistlestop Grissini, Focaccia and Ciabatta course with Kevan – a brilliant teacher with decades of baking experience.
“This is going to get quite violent at times. And also sticky,” Kevan quipped as he encouraged us to – literally – roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. He taught us two ways of building gluten structure in our loaves: one involving a certain level of controlled violence (the ‘lift and slap’ method, for the ciabatta), and the other time and patience (the ‘fold and turn’ method, for the focaccia). He also explained how to use a poolish (a type of pre-ferment whose roots lie in 19th-century Poland, Kevan explained) to make grissini.
Here’s a video of Kevan in action on those grissini, courtesy of The School of Artisan Food – and a shot of what the finished article looked like. (Yes, we were encouraged to make them look artisanal!)
As we worked, between those bouts of ferocity and contemplative calm, Kevan expertly broke down the breadmaking process. He demystified terms such as gluten hydration, explained about the protein strengths of various types of flour, and told us and how yeast and salt interact in bread dough (“Salt absolutely kills yeast,” in case you’re wondering, which is why a sprinkle of flour to keep them apart is vital at the mixing stage). The class was over too quickly, so it seemed ironic that Kevan spent a lot of time talking about the importance of time – of making time and taking time – to transform just water, flour and salt into beautifully risen loaves through what he calls “the power of fermentation”.
At The School of Artisan Food, bread is more than just something to hold the insides of a sandwich together. It can be life-changing. Ian Waterland, the School’s MD, is also a part-time baking teacher. Ian’s first career was in health and social care, supporting people experiencing mental health difficulties. Career change prompted Ian to complete the year-long Advanced Diploma in Artisan Baking at The School of Artisan Food – and he now employs the full complement of his skills in running the one-day Therapeutic Baking and half-day Mindful Bread courses.
The estimable Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, who’s written three books on the topic of baking and has worked at Flour Power and Daylesford Organic among other places, also teaches a range of courses – French baking, sourdough bread and Italian breadmaking among them. Whatever loaf you love, there’s a course for that here.
Over lunch, we meet Alison Swan Parente, who founded the School of Artisan Food, which operates as a charity, in 2009. A human dynamo, Alison spent decades working with challenging adolescents in the NHS before starting the School. She was awarded an MBE for her work in the educational and charitable sectors in 2017.
Two things became clear as Alison spoke: she is absolutely dedicated to teaching people about what she terms ‘real food’. The other is that she believes the importance of good food reaches far beyond the dinner plate. “Food is the first line of defence for public health,” she posits. The School’s aims are to save traditional food-making skills – and to share real food with as many people as possible. That includes everyone from professional cooks and GPs to cooking-curious newbies and YMCA groups.
Far from resting on its laurels, the School, part of the massive 15,000-acre Welbeck Estate on the edge of Sherwood Forest, is going through a growth spurt. The Estate is the former country seat of the dukes of Portland; it is home to 12th-century Welbeck Abbey and once laid claim to the country’s largest (22 acres) walled kitchen garden. In World War I the Estate was used as an army hospital and from the 1950s until 2005 it became a Ministry of Defence training college.
Following the departure of the MOD in 2005, the Estate’s buildings are being transformed into working spaces for food-focused businesses. The now-famous Stichelton blue cheese, made here since 2006, got things rolling. Since 2011, brewster Claire Monk has overseen a range of excellent English ales at Welbeck Abbey Brewery (tours can be booked in advance). DropWorks Rum Distillery is housed in a building once used to cut the local limestone from the quarries near the estate. Only six months old, it’s the largest rum distillery in Europe.
Founder Lewis Hayes explains that DropWorks is all about “looking forward – we have no tradition to adhere to”. The distillery is state-of-the-art and the eye-catching bottle designs are not what you could ever call fusty; but make no mistake – these rums, though still young, are high-quality artisanal spirits. As well as the usual molasses from which rum is distilled, DropWorks is experimenting with cane honey imported from Colombia and a range of yeasts (including a rare wild-yeast strain) and ageng the spirit in various types of seasoned oak casks from Bordeaux and beyond. A DropWorks distillery tour is a proper crash course in British rum.
Barbecue fan? Get firepit-fit with one of the courses run by tutor Sally-Ann Hunt. A former retail banker (career change is clearly a thing here), Sally-Ann found her métier in meat. This is a woman who single-handedly breaks down huge carcasses before anointing the meat with thoughtfully conceived marinades, then slowly coaxing huge depths of flavour from them over a wood fire.
During my stay, I was treated to a special meal cooked by Sally-Ann. I can count on the fingers of one hand when I’ve had meat cooked to this level (and I’ve had more than my fair share of hot dinners over the years). Her vegetable-based barbecue is unbeatable too. Sally-Ann teaches the one-day Fire & Smoke BBQ course and the Monthly BBQ Club as well as a course on home-smoking and curing among others. That’s your summer cooking sorted.
To make a mini-holiday of it, there’s a range of self-catering accommodation right on the Estate, from stylish cottages that have been converted from a cowshed, to ultra-glamorous Cuckney House, a Grade II listed, 15-bedroom 18th-century manor house that just opened to the public this autumn. There’s a brilliant farm shop selling artisan food from the Estate, a great café using Estate produce, an excellent art gallery…
Through an ambitious 20-year plan called The Welbeck Project, more buildings on the Estate are being restored and repurposed, so the web of interdependent artisanal food businesses will continue to grow. I might just have to move into the place.