Recently we visited River Cottage HQ, on the Devon and Dorset border, for a day of outdoor activities and fantastic food – to continue our 20 year anniversary celebrations.
With a well-known field-to-fork ethos, River Cottage has helped to change the eating habits of the nation, improving welfare and sustainability for animals.
Setting the scene for the day, we hopped on a tractor for a lift down the hill to the River Cottage, the base for the farm and Cookery School. With a lot of mucky activities ahead of us, putting on a pair of #MuckProof boots first was essential.
Sharing our passion for local, seasonal produce, River Cottage kicked off the morning with a pick-and-nibble tour of their farm. Then we potted our very own strawberry plants in the polytunnels.
After getting mucky in our wellingtons, exploring the land and digging through the gardens with River Cottage’s gardeners we took part in a woodfired cooking demo, which utilised the herbs we had found in the garden.
From high temperature grilling to low-and-slow cooking on embers, we learnt that the options for woodfired cooking are endless. We’ve even included a delicious River Cottage lamb recipe from the demo below.
To finish up a wonderful day of food, foraging and fun we enjoyed a feast using the fresh, seasonal ingredients from the farm, in their stunning farmhouse dining room.
River Cottage’s Pit-baked breast of lamb recipe
Lamb has an earthy, almost herbaceous flavour that is accentuated by the natural flavours you get from cooking below ground. In this recipe, a breast of lamb is laid on a smouldering bed of rosemary and fennel tops, then draped with large chard leaves to protect it from the soil. The earth oven essentially steam-cooks food, so it doesn’t create the dark, caramelised flavour notes you get with roasting. With this in mind, I sometimes like to brown the meat over the fire before I put it in the pit. This gives the best of both worlds, and also kick-starts the cooking process.
A whole breast of lamb or hogget, about 2 kg
2 tbsp olive oil
A few handfuls of rosemary stems, fennel tops, parsley or other woddy herbs, such as thyme
A few handfuls of large chard or vine leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp Dijon mustard
Large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 tbsp capers, finely chopped
You will also need
6 fire bricks or equivalent large stones
A large square of hessian
Take the lamb out of the fridge several hours before you intend to cook it and allow it to come up to room temperature.
Season the lamb breast all over and lay it out flat on a clean chopping board, with the flesh side facing up. Brush all over with the mustard and sprinkle over the parsley and capers. Roll the breast up tightly, starting at a pointed end, and tie in 3 or 4 places with string.
Light a large fire next to the spot where you intend to dig your pit. Put your fire bricks or stones into the fire to heat up. It will take between 1½ and 2½ hours of consistent heating before they are ready, so you'll need to keep feeding the fire.
Meanwhile, dig a tidy hole with clean sides and a flat base, about 60–70cm long, 40–50cm wide and 50cm deep. Soak a large piece of hessian, roughly 2 metres square, in a bucket of fresh water for a few minutes.
Rub the meat all over with olive oil then place it on a grill set over the fire for 4–5 minutes on each side, until it’s taken on a golden, caramelised colour.
Use your heavy-duty tongs or a spade to lift half the hot stones out of the fire and place them in the base of the pit.
Lay a few thin sticks over the stones, then create a bed of your chosen herbs on top and place the lamb in position. Working quickly, cover with more herbs and drape the chard or spinach leaves over the lamb. Arrange the remaining stones around and over the joint.
Wring out the hessian and fold it over a couple of times, then carefully lay it over the stones, tucking it in neatly around the edges. Everything will be steamy and smoky, but don’t worry about that.
Gently fill the hole, scattering earth over the hessian. Once the earth is level with the ground, rearrange the sods of turf you initially removed over the surface and press them into place. Leave the meat to cook for about 3 hours.
Carefully lift off the turf and dig the earth away – try to get as much of it out as possible, so you are left with a relatively soil-free piece of hessian in place. Gather this up as carefully as you can and lift it out of the pit, avoiding any soil falling down onto the lamb below.
Remove the herbs and use the tongs to lift the meat out onto a large board. Leave the lamb to rest for 20 minutes before carving.
Whilst this cooks prepare the Baba ganoush and red wine sauce.
4 medium sized aubergines
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp of tahini
10 garlic cloves
10 coriander seeds
10 cumin seeds
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of chopped coriander
3 sprigs of mint picked and chopped
Fine sea salt
Cracked black pepper
Frist you need to burn the aubergines on a chargrill until the skin is flaking off.
Place the burnt aubergines in a tray and cover to allow them to steam through as they cool. If the aubergines aren’t completely soft, finish them off in the oven or wrapped in foil on the BBQ.
Cut the aubergines in half-length ways and scrape out all the flesh, going as close to the skin as possible. Once the flesh is removed, chop roughly using a large knife.
At 160c roast the garlic cloves in their skin until soft caramelised.
Using a pestle and mortar grind the spices to a fine powder, now add the garlic, tahini and olive oil and mix into a paste.
In a mixing bowl mix together the aubergines, tahini paste, fresh herbs, lemon and season to taste using salt and plenty pepper!
This will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Red wine sauce – Stock
To make any classical ‘jus’ or red wine sauce you will first need a good meat stock, you can buy this from a good butchers but honestly the effort is minimal but it just requires a little bit of planning. So to make a simple meat stock you will need:
A large sauce pan, the bigger the better
2 kg Meat bones, you can get these from any butcher always ask for them chopped down a little to improve maximum yield
2 medium onion
1 large carrot
1 head of garlic
1 stick of celery
2 bay leaves
10 black pepper corns
10 coriander seeds
10 fennel seeds
1 star anise
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
Roast the bones in the oven at around 180c for 30-45 minutes, turn the bones regularly until they are nicely browned.
Meanwhile, cut all the veg into chunks and caramelise in the saucepan with a little oil until heavily browned, don’t worry if some of the veg burns a little, this will help achieve a richer stock.
Add the roasted bones and all the herbs and spices to the pan. Try to arrange them so you can get as much in the pan as possible. Cover the contents with cold water and put on to boil.
As the stock boils skim off any fat and scum using a ladle or large spoon, this is important to achieve a clear stock. Turn the temperature down and gently simmer the stock for at least 4 hours but preferably for 12 hours. Be sure to keep topping the stock up with cold water and keep skimming from time to time.
Once you have simmered the stock for a length of time you need to strain it with a colander or slotted spoon. Now you have made a delicious meat stock! This can be used to make rich casserole, pie fillings or be used as the base to a sauce.
Red wine sauce
This is a great sauce to accompany any lamb dish! If you can, try to use the meat trimmings related to the intended dish, however any good trimmings will give great flavour.
2 ltr fresh meat stock
200g meat trimmings
1 onion rough dice
1 carrot rough dice
1 celery stick rough dice
5 cloves of garlic crushed
500ml of drinking quality red wine
5 sprigs of thyme
5 coriander seeds
10 fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp fine diced preserved lemon pith
1 tbsp capers
Gently sweat down all the vegetables, herbs and spices in a little oil in a heavy based sauce pan, once nicely softened turn up the heat to achieve some caramelisation, don’t be frightened give the veg and the base of the pan a heavy colour, this will achieve a richer sauce!
Now add all the wine and reduce down to almost nothing. Next add the stock and bring it to the boil, skim off any scum which surfaces (this is just any fat in the stock and the oil you have used to cook the vegetables).
Turn the sauce down to a low heat so it isn’t rapidly boiling but simmering enough for it to reduce.
Whilst the sauce is reducing, roast the meat trimmings in a moderate oven (180c), until it’s crisp but not burned. Add the roast trimming to the sauce and continue to reduce until a rich intense flavour is achieved.
Strain the sauce through a fine sieve and finish with preserved lemon and chopped capers you are ready to go!
To serve put a spoonful of baba ghanoush on the plate, top with the lamb and drizzle with the delicious red wine sauce.
This sauce will keep in the fridge for 5 days and also freezes down rather well.