Not so long ago, people used to talk about jacking in the day job and retraining as a plumber. These days, it seems, you could do worse than apprentice yourself to a forager or acquire the skills of an artisan food producer. Because, as any quick look at the TV schedules or bookshop shelves will tell you, we’ve become a nation fascinated by food. It’s not just about eating it, either; increasingly, we want to learn more about it, where it’s come from and what’s gone into it. And we’re hungrier than ever to get in there and have a go at finding, preparing and cooking it for ourselves — demand has never been higher for people who can show us how to snuffle out edible plants in the hedgerows, fillet a just-caught fish or transform a few basic ingredients into delicious, fresh-baked bread.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that weekends and short breaks catering to our culinary curiosity have mushroomed around the UK in recent years. Wherever you look, there’s some new temptation for the foodie traveller. Gastronomic festivals, tasting tours and innovative food trails are popping up everywhere. Every day sees another hotel offering cook-with-the-chef masterclasses, laying on special gourmet evenings or organising visits to local artisan producers. And, above all, homegrown cookery schools, catering to the demand from enthusiastic weekend chefs, are booming like never before, many offering attractive onsite accommodation or teaming up with nearby hotels to create packages.
“The stalwarts like Cordon Bleu and Leiths have been around for a long time,” says Nick Wyke, a food and drink editor/writer for The Times, “but a lot more have come on board in the past 10 years. Eighteen months ago, when I set up Looking to Cook [an online guide to the UK’s best cookery schools], we listed about 50 cookery schools. Now, it’s nudging 200 — and new ones are opening up all the time.”
The School of Artisan Food, in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, confirms there’s huge public demand out there. When it opened in autumn 2009, with the mission to create a centre of excellence for learning all aspects of artisan food production, the school offered 14 courses. Fast forward to 2013 and there are now 42 different courses running throughout the year, many of them with waiting lists.
Ask around the schools and they’ll cite the same reasons for their increased popularity: wall-to-wall TV cookery programmes and ever-increasing foreign travel, plus the growing disenchantment with the food industry, fuelled by a succession of scares and contamination scandals. There’s a noticeable trend towards courses that specialise in a particular topic, whether it’s sausages or sauces, pies or preserves. The Great British Bake Off helped spark a resurgence in home baking, and butchery courses were already flavour of the month even before the recent horsemeat debacle.
“I do believe people will think more now about preparing things from scratch rather than just picking up something from the supermarket freezer cabinet,” says TV chef Rosemary Shrager, who opens her own cookery school this summer. “And about time, too. I mean it only takes minutes to put a few hamburgers together and bung them in the freezer. Bread-making courses, too, are enjoying a huge rise at the moment, as people realise that it’s not just wheat that can causes intolerances but what commercial bread-makers put in to do the proving. And making bread yourself is so easy — just by using three or four ingredients you can end up with so many different types.”
Also catching the public imagination are foraging weekends, with ever-increasing numbers of people signing up for guided walks where they’ll learn to identify edible foods growing in the wild. “It’s just got stronger and stronger every year,” says South West-based Rachel Lambert, who set up as a wild food expert five years ago. “It started on a very, very small scale and it’s become a full-time business. People are waking up to the importance of good food and knowing where food comes from. As we tend to have lives that revolve around computers, I think there’s a real craving to enjoy the simple things of being out, walking and picking your own food.”
What’s driving the gastro-break boom is that people who are interested in food tend to have an insatiable appetite for more; there’s always something new to learn, a new food trend to pick up on, a new destination restaurant to try. “People do tend to get addicted,” agrees Nick Wyke. “When it comes to cookery schools, for instance, if you’ve been to one and had a good experience, you’re likely to go back for more.”
That’s something that London account director and dedicated foodie Jackie Scully can relate to. She’ll happily drive all the way to Devon for dinner at River Cottage and has tried her hand at everything from refining her knife skills at Billingsgate Market to learning about patisserie with Raymond Blanc’s right-hand man at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. And if she’s learned one thing (apart from mastering millefeuille and filleting fish), it’s that putting the research in before you book is key. “Cookery classes can be really expensive,” she says, “and it can be difficult to find the right ones. Some places do all the preparation work for you, when actually that’s exactly what you want to learn to do for yourself. Other courses try to cover too much and give you a little bit of everything, and you end up remembering nothing. My advice? Look for simplicity and focus every time.”
• Bread: French-born chef/baker Richard Bertinet opened The Bertinet Kitchen, in Bath, in 2005 and was named BBC Food Champion of the Year in 2010. They run a range of courses here, but it’s the bread-making days that are the biggest draw (book well in advance). Several local hotels offer special rates when you sign up for a course. Gourmet one-night weekend breaks at the Bath Priory, for example, start from £640 for two, including a Saturday class. www.thebertinetkitchen.com
• Meat: The White Swan Inn, in Pickering, North Yorkshire, recently teamed up with The Ginger Pig butchery to launch new breaks for carnivorous foodies. After a meaty Saturday morning breakfast, Ginger Pig founder Tim Wilson takes guests on a tour of nearby Grange Farm (where all their cattle, sheep and pigs are reared). This is followed by a butchery lesson and sausage-making taster, before heading back to the hotel for a meaty dinner. From £890 per couple, including two nights’ dinner, B&B and a Ginger Pig cookery book to take home. www.white-swan.co.uk
• Fish: Suffolk-based Food Safari’s Seafood in a Day experience starts with a trip on the River Ore to lift lobster pots, then it’s back to shore to visit to the oysterbeds and smokehouse of Pinney’s of Orford, including a lunch showcasing their wares, before learning how to shuck oysters and carve smoked salmon. The company has teamed up with boutique B&B The Old Rectory to take care of the accommodation side. From £620 per couple for a two-night break. www.foodsafari.co.uk
• Dairy: One-day cheese-making courses at Hartington’s of Bakewell, in the Peak District, are taught by Chris Ashby, who also acts as cheese tutor at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage. You learn the techniques and theory behind making soft cheese, then create three of your own: a Camembert-style cheese, lemon cheese and mozzarella. Lunch includes a tutored cheese tasting. From £135. A short drive away, The Peacock at Rowsley has stylish doubles from £155 a night.www.thepeacockatrowsley.com www.hartingtons.com
• Dessert: The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire runs one-day Artisan Ice-Cream Making courses taught by Kitty Travers of La Grotta Ices, who supplies top London restaurants. Learn how to make custard-based ice creams, granitas, parfaits and sorbets, with a delicious tasting session at the end. Book a course from £135, and nearby Clumber Park Hotel will offer special rates, from £78 per room. www.clumberparkhotel.com www.schoolofartisanfood.org
• Aga cookery: At home on the range Eckington Manor Cookery School, in Worcestershire, specialises in Aga cookery, with a choice of one-, two- or three-day course, teaching the necessary skills and techniques. Opened in 2007, the school is housed in a purpose-built Dutch barn, surrounded by a 260-acre farm, which supplies naturally reared meat, fruit and veg, herbs and honey for use on the courses. One-day Aga courses cost £175; B&B in the boutique hotel-style bedrooms across the courtyard starts from £130 per room a night. www.eckingtonmanorcookeryschool.co.uk
• Celeb-led – Meet the chef: Celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager (veteran of TV shows such as The Supersizers and This Morning) has marked herself down for lots of personal sessions at her new cookery school in Tunbridge Wells. Launching this summer, it offers a mix of classic subjects, with an emphasis on hands-on involvement, acquiring a solid grounding in key techniques. Most day courses cost £245 if taught by Rosemary (£160 if led by her executive chef). Double rooms at the nearby Tunbridge Wells Hotel start from £119 a night. www.rosemaryshrager.com www.thetunbridgewellshotel.com
• Smoking – Get addicted: The owners of Smoky Jo’s cookery school in Cumbria previously had a smokehouse business, supplying Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols, as well as Prince Charles. What they don’t know about DIY smoking (they created a smokehouse from an old filing cabinet) isn’t worth knowing. Book a two-day course and you also get to catch your own trout, make sausages and learn how to debone, plus prepare and slice a side of salmon. Two-day courses cost £214, and onsite B&B accommodation costs £150 for two nights in a double room. www.smokyjos.co.uk
• Smallholding – The good life: If you want to start rearing your own animals, this is the place to go. TV presenter Kate Humble set up Humble by Nature, a working farm in Monmouthshire, two years ago and it now offers a range of rural skills and working-with-animals courses. Oink Cluck Baaa! is a practical introduction to smallholding that instructs you how to keep hens, pigs and sheep. The one-day weekend courses cost £95 per person, and if you want to make a longer break of it, The Piggery cottage (sleeping four) costs from £395 a week. www.humblebynature.com
• Family-friendly: Cooking with kids: Opened just over three years ago by Fiona Burrell, former principal of Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School lays on all sorts of courses, including some for kids (they not only teach nine- to 12-year olds how to cook but also stress the importance of clearing up after yourself!). One-day courses cost £60 per child. If parents want to join in too, one-day family courses cost £130 for an adult and child. As far as accommodation goes, the school is the heart of Edinburgh, so you can take your pick from the city’s hotels. www.entcs.co.uk
Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue