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Visiting the glorious Welbeck Estate (in inappropriate footwear).

The beautiful Welbeck Estate nestled in Sherwood Forest is in the heart of the ancient royal hunting grounds – the Dukeries. Welbeck Abbey was founded in 1153 and when dissolved, the Estate became the home of the Dukes of Portland and it continues to be privately owned to this day. Apart from the beautiful natural setting and the stunning buildings it is perhaps best known for the labyrinth of underground tunnels and rooms (including a ballroom!) constructed by the 5th Duke and for its time leased to the MOD for an army training college until 2005. It is once again lived in by members of the extended family who have transformed it into a thriving working Estate which provides inspiring, creative spaces for artisan food businesses, education and the arts.

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Although the house is private there is much to see to in the open parts of the estate and I was invited along to meet some of the fantastic artisan food businesses which operate out of Welbeck and to visit the Farm Shop. As well as the Harley Gallery and Café, there is now a restaurant, garden centre and pet centre on the site if you should find yourself in the company of a non-foodie.

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Find me someone who loves food that doesn’t love a good farm shop, and Welbeck’s is a cut above the usual. Firstly it is huge – with a large range of butchery (including their own game), charcuterie, cheeses, veg, bread and pastries, chocolates and patisserie and hundreds of individually selected  and distinctive deli products, wines and beers  –  as well as the only Raw Milk dispensing machine I have ever come across, providing milk from Welbeck’s own pedigree Holstein cows ( I do have a bit of a penchant for raw milk – see my recent blog “Living on the Edge”). Oliver, the farm shop manager was my host for the day and tells me that every single product that comes into the shop is tasted and tested by his team. This must be tough job, but I guess someone has to do it.

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The Welbeck Estate is also home to the fabulous School of Artisan Food as well as playing host to its own bakery, butchery, brewery and dairy and to the sublime Stichelton Cheese. It is truly a bit of foodie heaven, the ethos that underpins all the initiatives here (no food waste – what isn’t eaten or sold goes to the pigs and minimal packaging for example) and the enthusiasm and skill with which traditional ways of producing food and drink are being encouraged and given new life makes this place truly exceptional and more than worth a drive out through the beautiful Nottinghamshire countryside.

My first hairnet and white coat of the day was presented to me by Emma Hall, Welbeck bakery’s “Queen”.  This compact bakery produces over 40 products using traditional artisan techniques and ingredients . With 450 sourdoughs going out overnight, the bakery has doubled production in the last 12 months and is struggling to keep up with the demand. Skilled artisan bakers are hard to come by (you can study this at the School of Artisan Food next door though) and the bakery encourages apprentices to come and learn on the job. Their amazing bread is available from the farm shop on the Estate and is shipped out to delis, farmshops and restaurants. This stuff is proper bread, slowly fermented using natural yeasts and containing nothing more than flour, salt and water, unrecognisable from your mass –produced supermarket stuff.

From bread to beer. The Welbeck Abbey Brewery is located in a yard which it shares with 6 small units designed to host other micro-food businesses. Like all the other products on the estate the real ale brewed here is true to its origins, using malted barley, hops and hot water. The brewery produces around 1800 litres a day with regular cask and bottled beers as well as a series of “specials”.  I was advised by my guide, the “Beer Genius” Tink (don’t think that was his actual name, but not sure) to try the Harley and the Portland Black. So, of course, I did.

Tours of the brewery can be booked directly and you can even hire it for private events and parties (I think there is some saying about that, no?)

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In 2006 the fascinating Jo Schneider set up Collingthwaite farm on the Estate and decided to try to recreate an original Stilton cheese (that is, one that was made with unpasteurised milk). European Protected Origin status means that this outstanding cheese cannot be called “Stilton” (as this must be made with pasteurised milk) but a chance encounter revealed that the village of Stilton was originally named Stichelton and hence the name was born. If you like blue cheese I defy you not to fall in love with one of Nottinghamshire’s best local products – this creamy cheese is nutty and rich with a gentle blue bite to it.

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Stichelton is made slowly, allowing a gentle acidification of the milk (which is pumped, still warm, directly from the milking shed next door) and is hand ladled to drain the curds (most places use machines). After the curds have been drained they are placed in hoops to “hasten” in the warmth encouraging the yeasts which will create the distinctive rind. The cheese is pierced; this allows in the air and creates the “blue) later than most Stiltons, giving a rounded, mellow and complex cheese.

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I was delighted to be shown behind the scenes at the dairy (once I’d removed my rather ill-advised suede thigh boots and exchanged them for wellies and my second hairnet of the day) and Jo talks with such passion about his cheese, (as indeed he does about the French ladies that sweat over their hand-ladled camembert in 30C heat…) it is catching. The cheese stores (I am sure there is a technical for these rooms, I forgot to ask) are evocative places, with unexpected smells and textures and a real sense of the organic process that is taking place – all from a starter culture (think sourdough bread) milk, rennet, salt and some accommodating bacteria.

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I’ll leave you with a quote that I think sums up the challenge of traditional cheese making and the use of unpasteurised milk in your “stilton” as Jo says “The ******’s can put cranberries in it and still call it Stilton but you can’t call it that if you make it on your own farm with raw milk”.

 The dairy isn’t open to the public but you can purchase Stichelton in the farm shop, and needless to say, I did.

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Finally, we had a quick tour of the milking shed and the contented ladies of the Welbeck herd (well actually the inappropriateness of my footwear meant I viewed from a platform above the herd as the chap in charge of the cows couldn’t believe I had actually turned up to a dairy visit in suede thigh boots  – what can I say, I wasn’t properly briefed).

Thanks so much to the Welbeck Estate for hosting, it was a great afternoon.

I visited Welbeck as a guest on behalf of the Great Food Club, views (and the boots) are my own.

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