Freshly baked bread might be the best smell in the world, but it’s guaranteed to make you hungry. So before embarking on my breadmaking course at Eckington Manor, near Evesham, it seemed sensible to tuck into a delicious breakfast to stave off any hunger pangs. Juicy jams made with orchard fruit, golden-yolked eggs from resident hens and plump pork sausages from the farm’s herd of Gloucester Old Spot pigs graced the breakfast table, alongside homemade muesli and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Many working farms are diversifying into accommodation and other activities, often including a spa to attract stressed-out urbanites. But at Eckington Manor, you’ll find hot ovens instead of saunas and you’ll be stretching out supple dough rather than attempting complex yoga moves.
The cookery school is housed in a converted Dutch barn, opened in 2007 alongside Lower End House – a distinctly higher-end boutique B&B across the courtyard. This 13th-century farmhouse is thought to be the oldest such building in Worcestershire.
Inside, Lower End House has been converted into five contemporary ensuite bedrooms, decked out in understated opulence with exposed beams, silk wallpaper, antler chandeliers and comfy beds. Downstairs there’s a well-stocked honesty bar and
a lounge with squishy antique sofas – perfect for curling up in front of the open fire in winter.
The communal dining room is a focal point for guests where, the night before the course, I met with Eckington Manor’s owner Judy Gardner. A powerhouse in a cuddly cardigan, Judy is the brain behind the whole operation. She came to the project with a proven background in food, having already built up her pickle business – Garner’s – which she sold to Baxters in 2001.
Judy’s dream of producing her own food was realised on her 260-acre farm, which now provides 80 percent of the cookery school’s produce. Spears of chives and handfuls of rosemary are picked fresh from the garden, vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colours (purple carrots anyone?) are harvested straight from the fields, while meat comes from Judy’s flock of ewes and her award-winning Aberdeen Angus and Highland cattle.
A fresh approach
For the breadmaking course, we were using simple ingredients that I knew I had lurking in my cupboards at home. It was a floury, hands-on affair from the start as Dean Cole – Eckington’s friendly Brummie chef – talked me through finger-mixing yeast, flour, water and salt and transform a sticky bowl of rising gloop into workable dough.
After a stress-busting kneading session, it was time to fashion the simple dough into all kinds of bread, from pittas to cottage rolls and plaited loaves. Then
it was straight into the state-of-the-art induction cookers and Agas that line the classroom walls, while I attempted rustic sourdough bread. The charm of breadmaking is its utter simplicity: by mixing flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and pungent buttermilk, I had fashioned a hearty-looking soda bread that most people could recreate at home without too many problems.
That afternoon, Dean’s instruction ventured into his passion for seafood – he’s on a mission to educate the British public in how to fully appreciate its potential. With this mission in mind, he deftly filleted a plaice, expertly shucked a diver-caught scallop and showed us how to make an easy, but impressive, salmon en papillote dish. This involved piling a fillet of fish on top of julienne carrots and butter, with some spring onions, tarragon and a slug of vermouth inside a foil and paper parcel. It was another delicious dish that I could see myself cooking at home.
Food for thought
Leaving Eckington Manor after a good night’s sleep, full of a hearty breakfast and carrying armfuls of my homemade bread, I felt truly relaxed. It wasn’t just the friendly welcome and delicious food that calmed me, but also through the realisation that, though I might not have a 260-acre farm, I could still have a slice of the good life by making my own bread at home. That warm glow wasn’t just from standing next to the Aga all day.
HOW TO GET THERE
Eckington is 12 miles south of Worcester on the B4084 and A4104.
Eckington WR10 3BH
Demo: £26.50; half-day £99 (10am-2pm), lunch included.
Full-day: £175 (9.30am-4pm).
Other courses: Aga cooking, modern British, Italian cooking, game.
EAT AND STAY
Lower End House
A family-run, luxury B&B. Double/twin rooms from £140, single from £65. If you book well in advance, Eckington Manor can provide supper trays featuring local delicacies.