My River Cottage Moment

Sep 25, 2016 by

My River Cottage Moment
Tim Maddens and Stephen Lamb

Yesterday I spent the day with two River Cottage chefs Stephen Lamb and Tim Maddens in Croan Cottages Co. Kilkenny. I really enjoyed it because I love listening to people talk about food who are as certain as I am that food provenance is key.

Stephen Lamb began the day talking about his childhood in Manchester telling us a great story about their Christmas turkey. He spoke to us about sourcing quality ingredients particularly meats. Intensively farmed anything is not the same as animals raised with care and attention and allowed to live as nature intended. Vegetables flown half way around the world, picked unripe and plastic wrapped the same.  He explained about ancient preservation techniques that have been used for centuries that don’t need refrigeration. He spoke to us about having to deal with the food safety police at River Cottage who want everything refrigerated. The RC motto – if it’s a regulation they comply.  A recommendation, they say “thank you very much, we will give it careful consideration……”

He began by dry curing a pork belly from a free range pig. The key 3% salt to weight of the meat. So 30g of salt per kilo of meat. This is the minimum required for the curing process. Any less is seasoning and any more a waste. You do not need nitrates/nitrites/refrigeration. This is the way pork preservation has been done since the dawn of time. The reason being that pork does not improve and keep the way beef does with hanging (apart from a week to 10 days).

Pork belly dry cure

The only thing he weighed was the salt. The soft brown sugar was added by eye and experience. The other seasonings  – some fresh thyme, bay, juniper berries and fennel seed. Then you leave it to allow the salt to work it’s magic and draw all the excess moisture out. You just need to turn it and I quote “every time you reach into the fridge for a beer”, that’s presuming you store it in the fridge as it cures.

Francis Nesbitt who owns Croan and Tim were busy frying up some home cured bacon in the kitchen for us to taste. And all I can say is wow. So far removed from the stuff you buy in a supermarket vac pack as is physically possible to be. But then I know this from experience.

He also made up a wet cure for a guinea fowl using 3% salt again to each litre of liquid. To this he added Highbank Orchard apple juice and cider. Wet brines are particularly good for birds that tend to be dry, especially turkey. Next time I buy an organic chicken I am going to try this recipe out. I only buy chicken occasionally so buy the best I can.

Stephen then got one of the participants up to make a dry rub for a piece of beef that had been produced at Croan. Go by instinct he was told. Add how much you think it needs. The poor chap was a bit daunted at first. People love to follow recipes, rules, exact quantities. Tim said to us to use a recipe as a guideline. This rub included rose petals. A happy accident Stephen called it. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try stuff out. If it works, it’s a happy accident. If it doesn’t chalk it up to experience.

Dry rub for beef

He demonstrated bresaola as well using top side of beef and marinading in red wine and spices. This is something I am going to try next when I get my hands of a piece of organic Dexter beef I’ve been promised.


Tim Maddens took over then and demonstrated how to portion a wild mallard. Again the advice. Go for wild game always, not farmed. Duck reared in a shed is not the same as wild duck. He made up a seasoning mix by pimping up shop bought Five Spice but said he makes his own at RC. Then he used all the trimmings and bones to make a broth by adding a cup of soy sauce to each litre of water. This was to be our lunch but we were given the duck breasts seasoned with the Five Spice and told how to cook them. As we cooked the breasts, rested them and sliced them he went into the kitchen and finished off the broth, added noodles and very finely sliced fennel. We then had steaming bowls of noodles in broth topped with the duck. Again if you get the provenance of the main ingredient right, everything else follows. Another wow.

We also were shown how to skin and butcher a wild rabbit. I have butchered wild rabbits before with a You Tube video on a laptop propped up in front of me. I learned how to do it right yesterday. I have to admit I was a bit squeamish about skinning the poor bunny. But that was because I had never done it before. I soon got stuck in.

After lunch we had a talk on fermentation and Stephen got us to make a simple curd cheese called labneh just adding salt to Greek yoghurt and straining it in muslin.


We were supposed to go out for a wander in the garden and do bit of that wonderful-right-on-trend term – forage but it was a really wet day so he demonstrated a salsa verde to go with the lamb that was on the menu for dinner that evening and everyone got stuck in and made some.

I was only there for one day of the two day course and couldn’t stay for dinner sadly but I am sure it was fabulous.

I spoke to two butchers who were participating on the course. I know one as he has a superb shop in Ashbourne. The other based in Waterford was on the original Pig in a Day course I had done with Stephen in Kilkenny School of Food last year. We talked about how we cared about provenance of ingredients and very rarely if ever ate out as well as we cooked at home. I was beginning to think I had become a crank and was way too fussy. So it was refreshing to meet others who think the same. This was my River Cottage moment.

Croan Cottages is a fabulous location for a course like this as there are five self catering cottages on the site. It’s a smallholding growing all it’s own vegetables and fruit and has sheep, goats, Angus cattle, pigs, turkeys and hens. Francis is a great host and took me around the gardens and the animals before I left.

I really recommend you go and do the next River Cottage course there.


I was there as a guest of Francis but he didn’t ask me to write about it.

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *