by Silvana de Soissons•15th August 2011
All activity on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire is centred around food: its provenance, preparation, cooking and selling. From the estate’s own farm shop, the brewery, the Limehouse Café, the Stichelton dairy, the garden centre and the bakery, a one stop food lover’s haven has been created out of a family’s initiative and endeavours.
Welbeck Abbey was originally founded as a religious order in 1140, and has remained in the ownership of the Cavendish Bentinck family since 1734. Alison and William Parente, who now live in the Abbey, manage their 15 000 acre estate partly as woodland and partly as working farms, including a Home Farm.
The School of Artisan Food (SAF) was created in 2009 out of a courtyard that once house the Duke of Portland’s fire station on the estate. It is now home to a variety of student rooms, library, demonstration kitchens, a bakery, a dairy and butchery. Students are able to study towards a one year advanced diploma in artisanal food production, and this course consists of 70% practical work and 30% theory, including food history and food anthropology. There are also a number of short day courses that can be booked, ranging from baking, to patisserie, chocolate making, preserves, brewing, pie making, ice cream making and cheese making.
I was taken round the school by Joe Piliero, who is responsible for all Admissions and PR, and he joined me while I was having a coffee at the start of my Summer Preserves Course with Michelle Roper-Shaw, one of the teachers who runs seasonal courses at the school.
I did confess to Joe that I found the whole atmosphere of SAF quite “institutional” as it reminded me of my school corridors, Home Economics lessons and huge classrooms with tall ceilings and that unmistakeable smell of floor disinfectant. Joe laughed: “I know what you mean. You have to be careful of not becoming “institutionalised” when you come and work here. You get a bit carried away, you get sucked in. You might never leave!”
As in many cookery schools that I have gone to visit, the story begins with bread. Alison Parente and one of the schools co-Directors, Gareth Kennedy, discovered a skills gap in artisanal bakery when they set up the bakehouse, and decided they should offer courses run by master bakers who taught the principles of slow fermentation, organic sourcing and hand moulding. Joe and I are standing in front of the huge wood fired ovens, with logs cut from the estate piled into boxes next to the hearth.
“For every one tree that we fell we replant three” Joe tells me. In the reception room of the upstairs cookery school there is a book shop shelf where students can buy the top baking reference bibles: “The Handmade Loaf” by Dan Lepard; “Tartine” by Chad Robertson; “Bread - A baker’s book of techniques” by Jeff Hamelman; ”Bread Matters” by Andrew Whitley and “Knead to Know” by the Real Bread Campaign.
“The students who come on the diploma courses, and the short courses, get to make dough and bake breads in a proper, professional bakery. This gives them an invaluable opportunity to gain insight into the world of a commercial bakery. These breads are sold in the farmshop on the estate, and students are shown every aspect of the process.”
Joe is just 26 years old and comes, originally, from a broadcasting and journalism background. His enthusiasm and excitement is really infectious, and as he takes me round the school’s library, wall to wall cookery books behind us, he reveals that all his friends are really jealous of his job. He tells me:
“I get to see real nose to tail cookery, and not many people have that privilege in life. The first diploma students are graduating from the school this year, and it is such a thrill to have brought them all the way through it. For many it is life changing. The average age is 37. Many use the diploma as a way of changing careers, as some want to go from a corporate to a vocational job. Some are very young students who want to embark on their first career in artisanal food, whilst for others this is a step up to a new life altogether. Some of the students may have come from being made redundant, and applying to SAF enables them to invest some of their redundancy payment into doing something creative and fulfilling with their lives.”
He particularly recommends Howard McGee’s book “Food and Cooking: An encyclopaedia of kitchen science, history and culture” as a fundamental course base. “Food is interconnected with so many other disciplines and subjects. At SAF we teach the importance of science, as well as craft in food.”
We are now in the butchery and Joe tells me that students are trained to become the next generation of butchers, so they learn how to take delivery of a carcass, ensure that it is checked properly and they are shown the primary cuts as well as all the parts that most butcheries throw away. From terrines, to salamis, sausages, chorizo and pate they are shown all the elements required to create a full butcher’s display fridge. Much of the learning here is repetitive, as it is only through practice, repetition and self-motivation that the students learn the different skills.
Students also attend farmers’ markets and food festivals, learning to set up the Welbeck estate’s own stalls.
In the dairy room I can see all around me evidence of the “hygiene process”: rubber wellies on racks, huge hand washing sinks, disinfectants, aprons, hair caps and the unmistakeable smell of bleach. In the dairy the school runs professional courses for dairy farmers, and from the schoolroom comes buttermilk, crème fraiche, cream, cheddars, blue cheeses, goats cheeses, hard cheeses and even buffalo milk mozzarella and ice-cream.
Bursaries and accommodation are available at the school, which is a registered charity and a not-for-profit organisation. All the courses are priced at competitive market rates, and after paying all wages and expenses, any additional funds are put back into the school as there is no distribution of profits.
Once I left the school I drove a short distance up the road to see for myself the farm shop, the Harley Gallery and the Limehouse Café. The Welbeck estate is placed at the heart of the Sherwood Forest, the setting is very beautiful and would be the perfect destination for all food and art lovers, created and executed to a very high standard.
As Prince Charles wrote on his visit, “What is going on here is of enormous importance”. It is also exemplary for other cookery schools to come and see how it should be done.
The School of Artisan Food: www.schoolofartisanfood.org
Follow Joe on Twitter: @artisanschool