Tastings School - Enjoying the goodlife

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Enjoying the goodlife

Ben McFarland travels to deepest darkest Dorset for a beer and food cooking demo at River Cottage HQ.

So here we are, stood sipping a morning tea in a Mongolian yurt within the pastoral palm of the famous River Cottage.

The River Cottage is famed for being the culinary home of Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, a chef renowned for his rudimentary yet retro-revolutionary approach to cooking. Also known as Hugh Fearlessly Eatsitall, the crazy-haired television presenter has roasted road-kill, he’s hunted for food in hedgerows, he’s made a tasty paté from a flambéd human placenta and, as part of an all-round ethical approach to eating, he’s fought vociferously for poultry welfare. He’s revered like a god among chickens. Ask any of them and they’ll tell you as much.

Sunk deep into a rather handsome valley, reached only by foot or by tractor, it makes for a blissfully bucolic scene. On the cusp of Devon and Dorset, softened by the dreamy drift of dandelion seeds and a contented cacophony of bleating, oinking and moo-ing from the most laidback livestock in the land, it’s home to herb gardens; some of the world’s most chilledout chickens; aformentioned Mongolian yurts; bee hives; enough fruit to send even the most fair-weather forager into a frenzy; the odd TV cameraman and plenty of nettles.

But they’re not just any old nettles. Oh no. They’re organic nettles, hand-picked by the brewers of the local Hall & Woodhouse brewery and – alongside organic First Gold hops and organic ale malt – used to brew Stinger, one of several innovative ales sold under the Badger label.

As part of an unwavering, allencompassing commitment to sourcing and using local ingredients, the team of chefs at River Cottage have embraced beer and worked closely with the region’s most innovative brewer. And not content with helping brew it and matching it to dishes, they’ve begun to cook with it too.

“From a chef’s perspective, the new take on beer is that it’s an untapped, underrated resource when used correctly,” said River Cottage’s head chef Gill Mellor. “In the kitchen, wherever there’s a call for liquid, there’s potential room for beer. It’s as versatile as any good wine and a complex component in a variety of dishes.” Today, rather than using beer to poach placenta or macerate a moose freshly mown-down on the M23, Gill’s taking beer back to basics, back to bread baking and sausage-making. “We decided on bread and sausages as we wanted to show how flexible beer can be,” adds Gill. “We were a bit new to this so we didn’t want to overcomplicate matters. Both are relatively simple and they showcase beer’s flavours really well.” It makes a lot of sense. After all, ancient Egyptians made bread with beer and if there is a finer culinary kinship than beer and sausages then I’ll eat moose placenta.

The sausage-making begins with a pig that’s lived a happy life. Sadly, it’s been slain, sliced in half and spread out on a wooden slab in front of us. At the River Cottage, they proudly use “everything but the oink.” The neck, rump, loin, chump, hock, belly, ribs and even trotters are transformed into something tasty. For the sausages, though, it’s the shoulder that’s ideal.

“The shoulder has a high ratio of fat to meat, about 15 to 20 per cent,” says Gill, as he squelches crudely chopped pink and white meat through a mincing machine, “you need it to keep it moist and flavoursome.” Once minced, the meat needs flavour. A sprinkle of salt and a handful of breadcrumbs come as standard but after that, and within reason, you can put pretty much anything in sausages.

Black pepper, white pepper, garlic, sage, old boots, seeds, shopping trolleys, mixed herbs, pretty much anything. “You need to be sparing in your ingredients,” advises Gill, “you’re looking for balance.” And then there’s the beer. “I’ve tried to push it but, for 500grams of pork, 200mls of beer is the absolute max,” warns Gill.

“When you cook the sausages, the alcohol goes but it leaves a whole host of very distinctive flavour characteristics behind so the flavour of the beer is crucial. We’re not just using it as a replacement for water.” With the entire Hall & Woodhouse bottled range at hand, there’s plenty to choose from. There’s the light and zesty Stinger; the fiery, ginger-laced Blandford Fly; the fruity Champion; a winter warmer called Poachers Choice; the tangy Tanglefoot; and Dandelion, a new, gently bittered organic ale brewed using pale malt and golden syrup. I, however, choose Fursty Ferret. It’s got superb fruity sweetness, not too bitter and, I must confess, there was something about a ferret’s fondness for trouser-foraging that made me think of sausages.

Making your own sausages without surrendering to a schoolboy smirk is impossible. Anyone who says otherwise is simply telling porkies. Staying straightfaced whilst sliding a slippery sheath made from sheep’s intestines – cleaned, scraped and dried – onto the plastic shaft of a sausage-making machine is as intricate as it is innuendo laden.

Should stoicism somehow survive that stage, it’ll definitely buckle during the bit where the sheep’s bowels bulge with squelchy swine mix. Gill’s advice, “You have to be firm but fair and don’t overpull,” is hardly helping matters. “You decide how long you want your sausage,” he adds, his hands a pink blur as, with all the dexterity of a balloon magician at a children’s party, he morphs a skinny French-bolster of seasoned pork and Badger beer into a length of perfectly neat links ready for cooking.

Now the bread. Big of hand and stern of instruction, Dan Stevens is the River Cottage’s bread-winner when it comes to baking. He’s even written a book about it.

He tells us what to do, presumably on a knead to know basis. Take 60 parts of beer for every 100 parts of flour. Add dried yeast and salt. Add beer. I choose Poacher’s Choice, a fabulously full-on after-dinner ale packed with liquorice, spice and damson flavours. “Bread is really good food for sweet and nutty flavours,” notes Dan. “On its own, it can be a little sour.” Then add any bits and bobs that take your fancy – onions, honey, cheddar, chopped rosemary, mixed seeds, prunes, hazelnuts, you name it. “My rule is anything that’s bigger than a raisin gets added to the kneaded dough at the end,” says Dan. “If it’s smaller, put it in earlier.” Then take the dough. Slap it about a bit.

Show it who’s boss. Spread it out long and thin and rein it back in with all the speed and strength of a croupier on steroids.

Your hands will soon be manacled by a thick goo and feel like they’re about to drop off. Push on through with shorter strokes (stop sniggering at the back) until the stickiness is lessened. Add a smidgeon of oil, olive not motor, if you want more moisture, fold it over itself a few times, shape it into a slightly bulbous beret-form and then leave it to gently ferment in a warm place. After 20 minutes, deflate the dough by sticking your fingers in it like a heavy-handed piano player, leave it to rise once more before shaping it into the desired shape – be it baguette, ciabatta or tin loaf.

Then bake, slice and serve either side of some seriously succulent sausages alongside a bottle of Badger’s beer.

Repeat until you need to lie down in the Mongolian yurt.

The Badger Pork and Ale Sausage Makes about 10 sausages INGREDIENTS: 1 metre hog casings, butcher’s banger size 500g pork shoulder (roughly 20% fat), cut into large cubes 100g fresh white bread crumbs 5g fine salt Up to 200ml of chilled ale This is a basic ale sausage recipe to which a range of different herbs and spices can be added.

Wash the salt off the casings or runners and leave them to soak overnight in cold water. Do not run cold water through them, however, or you’ll end up with watery sausages.

Put the pork shoulder through the mincer on a coarse plate (7- 8mm).

Put the bread crumbs into a clean polythene bag; add the salt and any spices and herbs of your choice. Give the whole thing a good shake to mix it thoroughly. Add to the pork and mix thoroughly by hand. Add the ale and mix well.

Keeping the mixture as cold as possible prolongs its shelf life, and it will also go through the filler more easily.

Fill your sausage stuffer and fill up your prepared casings. Twist and form your sausages and hang the strings in the fridge for a few hours to dry.

A Badger Ale Bread Loaf INGREDIENTS: 500g flour 5g powdered dried yeast 10g fine salt 300ml ale Optional: a couple of handfuls of extras.

Which could include – grains. seeds, nuts, dried fruit or cheeses First, create the dough. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add smaller extras if you are using them (save larger ones for after kneading).

Add the ale, and with one hand mix to a rough dough. Add the fat if you are using it and mix it all together. Adjust the consistency if you need to, with a little more flour or water (or your chosen ale), to make a soft, sticky dough.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and clean your hands. Knead until you cannot improve on a membrane formed by stretching the dough with your fingers. If you are using larger extras, like nuts and fruit, stretch the dough out on the worktop, scatter over the ingredients, and fold, roll and knead briefly, to disperse.

Shape the dough into a round. Oil or flour the surface of the dough and place it in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Place the bowl in a plastic bag and leave to ferment and rise until doubled in size.

Deflate the dough by tipping it onto the work surface, and pressing all over with your hands. Then form into a round. If you like, leave to rise again up to four times.

Now, prepare for baking. Switch the oven to its highest setting, put your baking stone or baking tray in position and remove any unwanted shelves. Put the roasting tin in the bottom, if you are using it for steam (in which case, put some water to boil in the kettle). Get your water spray bottle ready, if you are using it, your serrated knife and an oven cloth.

Divide the dough into as many pieces as you wish (two large loaves, or three small, or a dozen rolls). Shape into rounds and leave to rest, covered, for 10 or 15 mins.

Transfer the loaves to well-floured wooden boards, linen cloths, tea towels or proving baskets. Cover with a plastic bag, and leave to prove. Check often, giving gentle squeezes, until it is ‘bursting to be baked’.

Transfer the loaves for baking to the hot tray (removed from the oven). Slash the tops with the serrated knife. Before you bake the bread, spray all over with water if you wish. Bring the boiling kettle to the oven, if you are using it. Put the tray in the oven, or slide each loaf onto the stone, pour a good slosh of boiling water into the roasting tin, if you are using it, and close the door as quick as you can. You can turn the heat down after about 10 minutes if the loaves are browning well – anywhere above 150°C. Otherwise, keep the heat up.

Bake until the loaves feel hollow when you tap them – 10 to 20 minutes in all for rolls, 20 to 45 minutes for loaves.