Long-forgotten baking techniques are seeing a new lease of life thanks to The School of Artisan Food, based up in North Nottinghamshire. The School is a not-for-profit organisation that teaches anyone, from the enthusiastic foodie to the professional baker, the art of artisan food production. After it was shortlisted for awards by the Great Food Club and the Great British Food Magazine, we popped over to the Welbeck Estate, eager to learn more about the movement that’s taking the culinary world by storm...
It might have a fancy name and swish grounds, but The School of Artisan Food caters for more than just the big dogs. Team member Lesley Ellerby tells me when we meet: “There’s literally something for everyone here. It’s not just about coming along to have a nice day; you leave with proper skills. Hopefully we’ll inspire people to think about food in a different light, and to consider where their food comes from.”
Baking is the school’s specialism, but its introductory courses in areas like ice-cream-making and butchery give hobbyists the chance to gain confidence and learn new recipes. Lesley explains that the short courses are shaped around industry trends: “Right now, that’s foraging and wild cookery, preserves and fermentation.”
Over the last few years, the school has seen an increase in people who want to learn how to make proper bread. I reckon they have the nation’s beloved Bake Off to thank for that. “Television has played a big part in driving the artisan food movement,” agrees Lesley. “Now people have a big interest in where their food comes from, what goes into it and how far it’s travelled.”
As we talk, we arrive at a dining area with a rustic farmhouse vibe. Here, students can dig into lunch prepared by the onsite catering staff. The blackboard on the wall displays yesterday’s menu: Lamb moussaka. Rocket and parmesan salad. Chickpea and olive salad. Garlic bread.
“We call them school dinners,” Lesley says. As I think back to the congealed pasta of my school days, she adds with a laugh, “It’s obviously a bit more than that.”
These understated school dinners are clever; they help you to understand why artisan food is the better option. Forcing me to reimagine cookie-cutter meals makes me appreciate fresh, locally-sourced food. This is the heart of the artisan movement: attention to detail, slow cooking and local produce.
The school neighbours a brewery, a farm shop, a bakehouse and a chocolatier, which makes sourcing local ingredients a doddle. Meat is usually taken from the farms, and when game season arrives, venison for the butchery courses comes from the herd of fallow deer that roam the grounds. When there’s a need for a tipple, the Welbeck Abbey brewery is just across the way.
For its vegetables, the school is happy to venture slightly further afield. It’s partnered with Rhubarb Farm: a not-for-profit social enterprise in Mansfield that works with ex-offenders, people with learning difficulties and people who have returned from rehab. “They’re essentially a massive allotment,” Lesley explains. “They get these people out into the real world, growing vegetables. Quite often, we’ll put in an order. It’s all very seasonal, very local and very delicious. The colours that come in are fantastic.”
I’m whisked away to the teaching room next door. Here’s where the technical magic happens: a long kitchen kitted out with everything from the small Rofco ovens found in micro-bakeries, to huge deck ovens that can fit 100 sourdough loaves in at once.
I’m in luck: fourteen bakers are hard at work making sourdough bread. This is the largest class size you’ll find at the school. Everyone looks impressively calm as they move from surface to surface, filling scales with flour. They’re on week three of the Professional Baking Skills course with Wayne Caddy, one of the UK’s master bakers.
Wayne agrees to talk me through the artisan movement as he washes utensils. I eat much more bread than I make, so I ask him for an explanation of artisan baking that makes sense to the layman. Essentially, what’s the difference between artisan bread and a loaf I can get off a shelf at Tesco for less than a quid?
“It’s all about long fermentation processes,” Wayne explains. “We’re talking 24- to 72-hour processes with artisan food, whereas a sliced white loaf from the shelves may have a fermentation process of an hour.
“Those fermentation times are giving people lots of bad digestion problems,” Wayne continues. “The gluten hasn’t had time to naturally break down.” I begin to reconsider the cheese sandwich I’ve made for my lunch.
The slow processes used in artisan baking are kinder to your gut: “If it’s a long fermentation, the natural enzymes called protease break down the gluten and make it easier to digest, which leads to less bloating.”
Put like this, the appeal of artisan food is clear: it tastes better, seems healthier, and gives us an excuse to stuff our faces with carbs at lunch without fearing an energy dip. I’m intrigued by the way Wayne talks about the artisan food movement as a revolution: “We’re trying to encourage these skills because it’s been a diminishing craft for a long time.
He’s teaching people who don’t hail from generations of bakers, but are passionate about slow food. “They’re either real enthusiasts who may be very young, or they could be professional people who are changing their careers,” says Wayne. “They don’t necessarily have any background in it, but they’re really passionate about artisan baking.”
Passion seems like the right word for the school’s ethos. Lesley tells me that she’s seen people come in on a one-day baking course and leave a year later with an Advanced Diploma. “We’ve had people that have come in after a gift, and it turns out that that’s what they want to do. They just quit their job and it completely changes their life.”
Sounds dramatic, but this was the path taken by David Carter, Wayne’s colleague. David was a solicitor for thirty years, and he came on the School’s Artisan Bread Baking course back when it opened in 2009. It was here, for the first time, that he realised his love for artisan baking: “I was in the first group of Bakery Diploma students. At the end of that year, the school asked me to stay and work for them. My role has grown and diversified ever since, which is really great.”
David’s journey got me thinking: where can we get our hands on some real artisan nosh made by alumni? Well, there’s Mimi’s Artisan Bakery in Tollerton. But Lesley’s keen to emphasise that it’s not all about setting up a bakery. She tells me about Sophie Wood, the brains behind Barmies: the savoury snacks made from a by-product of the beer-brewing process. If the idea tickles your taste buds, you can have a go on them over at the Totally Brewed micropub in Beeston.
As the school is a registered charity, it can’t sell the leftovers from its courses. While that sadly robs us of the chance to rock up and ask for a bite, it lets the staff help the needy. Surplus loaves tend to be offered to Rhubarb Farm, who distribute them to locals in deprived areas. They often give food banks in Nottingham and Sheffield a ring too. “If they can collect the bread, they’re welcome to have it,” says Lesley.
I’ve noticed there’s a whole lot of talk about giving and gifting at this school: giving knowledge, recipes and hope to the local community. And as I say my goodbyes, I can’t help but think about sharing some of these secrets myself.
The School of Artisan Food, Lower Motor Yard, Welbeck, S80 3LR. 01909 532 171
Catch The School of Artisan Food’s workshops at Festival of Food and Drink down Clumber Park from Saturday 16 - Sunday 17 September.