By late morning on Friday, the first of the participants started arriving. Some had met in Taunton the night before; some were meeting each other for the first time; and all of them were meeting the instructors for the first time. Within 30 mins of their arriving, they had all chosen roommates for the weekend, met our unofficial 16th participant (Tess the hyperactive sheepdog), and settled down to presenting their 5-minute elevator pitches about themselves. With the ice comprehensively broken, we sat down to a buffet lunch of salads, quiches, lively conversation, and excellent local Somerset apple cider from Orchard Pig, who make a wonderful range.
Lunch was followed by a brief presentation food writing and photography and then participants were thrown into the deep end with hands-on writing and photographic exercises. You could almost smell the smoke from smouldering brain cogs as it dawned on them that yes, Jamie and I really were asking them to write something meaningful 10 minutes! Similarly, Meeta and Ilva put the other half of the group through some gruelling paces, pushing their food styling and camera skills to the limit by styling some of our photogenic sponsor products with the rustic English country garden and old stone walls as a backdrop. Then everybody gathered once again in the training room with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the green fields, for two more photographic presentations before we were finally done for the day and could reward ourselves with a glass of Bisol prosecco for the day's hard work. Dinner was an informal affair at the gorgeous wooden rustic wooden table in the kitchen, warmed by the old AGA. Sponsor Donald Russell had very kindly provided us with 15 fish pies from their range of luxury ready-made meals, which we served with minted peas, washed down with Bisol's Crede prosecco and followed by exuberantly pink raspberry Eton Mess - delicious with the gentle flavour of vanilla from our sponsor Nielsen-Massey. After dinner, everybody turned in for a quiet and relatively early night.
Saturday morning started off with a hearty breakfast of toast, bagels, muesli, yoghurt, cold meats and cheeses - including the rather awesome Capricorn Somerset Goats Cheese from our sponsors. And then it was back to the training room for the morning's first photography presentation. This was followed by a hands-on styling session which saw Ilva and Meeta each talking the participants through how they would style and set up a shoot, and then some free play time for participants to experiment on their own. To put these skills into practice, we then headed for our first visit of the day: Brown & Forrest, a small family-owned smokery in nearby Hambridge. Here, we met the charming and enthusiastic owner Jesse Pattison who took us into the smokery to show us how they hot and cold smoke everything from salmon to eels to garlic, cheese and salt. We also got to enjoy some of the smokery's products: cold-smoked salmon; hot-smoked eel, chicken and duck; and some excellent smoked trout paté.
After our visit to the smokery, participants were treated to an English pub lunch. The Canal Inn certainly fits the bill in appearance, with its gleaming draught beer taps, dark wooden beamed interior and low ceilings. Staff and regular patrons were a little taken aback when 15 out-of-towners descended on them and spent the first 10 minutes snapping pictures of everything from the decorative horse brasses to the vinegar bottles - but then how were they to know that these were 15 people on a mission who had to write up the visit as part of an assignment! We enjoyed a starter of asparagus with a poached duck egg and hollandaise; a main of seabass; and dessert of a berry tart with clotted cream. Maybe not traditional English pub food, but lovely nonetheless. And from there it was back to the house for a large pot of coffee, some fortifying luxury almond nougat from South African company Sally Williams, and a writing workshop before participants were turned loose in pairs to write a blog post on the morning's visit to the smokery, while instructors had the opportunity of spending time with each team, providing individual support, advice and guidance. Once all the groups had finished and presented their pieces, it was back to the house for a catered dinner of carrot & coriander soup, salad and mackerel pate starters; poached salmon, roasted chicken with pears, and butternut risotto for mains; plus a mixed berry Eton mess, a lemon cheesecake and a fresh fruit salad for dessert, washed down with Bisol Jeio Rosé prosecco - nobody went to bed hungry or thirsty!
After lunch, participants were once again set a task to perform in groups of two and left to work on their own while the presenters moved between groups offering advice and guidance and Hayley got to work on dinner, stuffing the gorgeous legs of lamb that Donald Russell had sponsored with smoked garlic provided by The Garlic Farm, using the ultra-sharp ceramic knives kindly provided by Edge of Belgravia. The smell in the kitchen by mid-afternoon wonderful beyond words. As the afternoon drew to a close, we gathered in the training room for a final time to hear participants present their final project. But of course, mankind cannot live by writing and photography alone: to fortify everyone for the presentations, we broke out the boxes of Bluebasil Brownies - delectable, gooey brownies in flavours like Caramel Crunch, Cardamom and Chocwork Orange. A large helping of chocolate and 60 mins later, we were done with the last of the participants' presentations, and off to the main house for a traditional English farewell dinner of wonderful asparagus from The Garlic Farm, followed by the utterly delicious slow-roast legs of lamb and washed down with plenty of gorgeous French red wine called Domaine of the Bee.