Last week I ventured out on a cold and foggy Sunday morning to attend a one-day seasonal cookery course at Vale House Kitchen. For about half of the drive to Timsbury, on the edge of Bath, I was convinced I was going the wrong way; the lack of signposts made every turn down the ever-narrowing lanes a leap of faith. The village finally materialised, it’s winding lanes and Bath stone houses looming out of the fog. Here sits Vale House, a bucolic paradise surrounded by apple trees, greenhouses and a veg patch, as well as free-ranging chickens and pigs.
The cookery school itself is located in a beautifully converted outbuilding. I was greeted at the door by hosts Bod and Annie, whose passion for food and the countryside is as infectious and ever-present as their welcoming smiles. Balanced on Annie’s hip was their eighteen-month-old son, who would later gorge on beetroot like it was going out of fashion, and who, Bod exclaimed gleefully, ‘also eats partridge!’ We were then introduced to our tutor, Tim Maddams. I only just stopped myself blurting out something embarrassing about how I’d seen him on TV, and instead focused on the drop scones he was expertly flipping on the stove. We ate these topped with scoops of wobbly homemade raspberry jam, whilst we listened to Tim enthuse about his seasonal cookery philosophy.
We then proceeded to make a staggering range of food: focaccia studded with roasted beetroot, chestnuts and rosemary, fresh pasta with sage, cavolo nero, chilli and pancetta (from Vale House’s own pigs) and squash ketchup, made by boiling chunks of squash in cider vinegar and spices. Tim explained all the ingredients, methods and techniques in a simple, clear way, making the whole cooking process an utter joy. The lack of emphasis on measurements encouraged us to use our instincts, judging by look, feel and taste more than the constraints of a recipe. This spontaneous, relaxed approach made the day even more enjoyable, as did Tim’s humour and enthusiasm for cooking.
Bod then proceeded to bring in several pheasants, with their feathers, heads and feet still attached. We all eyed them with slight trepidation, then watched as Tim briskly made a slit in the skin, pulled the feathers back and, with a few deft flicks of his knife, cut the meat from the carcass. When Tim handed me a beautiful hen with the instructions to ‘give it a go’, I have to admit I felt a little nervous. I laid my hand on its soft feathers, took a deep breath and made an incision in the skin with the point of my knife. The feathers and skin are pulled back as one to expose the breast, the skin parting from the flesh with surprising ease. The sectioning out of the meat is trickier, but I managed to end up with a reasonable amount. These were made into pheasant fajitas, the ultimate English-Mexican fusion, spiced with coriander seed and smoked paprika, and eaten with flour tortillas that we whipped up out of just flour, oil and water.
The course rekindled a passion for simple cookery, where time is taken to carefully select ingredients and build up layers of flavour. My encounter with the pheasant was a humbling experience, and one that, as a meat eater, I felt was an important one. If I’m going to eat meat, I need to be able to face where it comes from. Vale House Kitchen communicates an approach to food that is concentrates on the local, the seasonal, the available and the plentiful. The pleasure to be had from eating seasonally and staying in tune with the natural rhythm of the seasons, as well as confidence to explore this in the kitchen, stayed with me long after I left Vale House.
For more information about Vale House and the courses offered, click here.