Cooking on grass

“The lesson also proved fruitful for the more practiced members of the group, who refined their techniques and learnt new best practices.”

JESSICA CARTER learns from the best at Caroline Waldegrave’s countryside cookery school 

Caroline Waldegrave has an impressive CV by any foodie’s standards. Having attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London, she joined Leith’s catering company in the early ‘70s, and was made founding principle of the esteemed Leith’s School of Food and Wine when it was established soon after. She went on to become co-owner and managing director of the school, and appear as a judge on TV’s MasterChef.

So impressive is this lady’s foodie repertoire, in fact, that you could write an entire book on it. Well, you could, if she hadn’t have beaten you to it. Caroline penned the culinary classic Leith’s Cookery Bible with Prue Leith in 1991, and has worked on many other tasty volumes over the ensuing years.

Most recently, Caroline has been getting her teeth into a foodie business of her own: Dudwell Cookery School. Far removed from her former place of work in the capital, this rural retreat is set among the lush Mendip Hills in the Somerset countryside, and contains an expanse of well-kept farmland and rustic guestrooms. Most importantly though, it also happens to house a fully equipped, purpose-built kitchen and a veritable foodie guru with over four decades worth of experience. 

When I arrived (I was admittedly a tad late, despite leaving extra time to navigate the unfamiliar country lanes), everyone was just finishing up breakfast in the beautiful wooden-beamed dining room which overlooks the garden and pool. Having been there since the day before, the small group were well-acquainted with each other and, as they were already washing their hands and donning their aprons, clearly keen to crack on.

First on the agenda was American carrot cake. Our ingredients were ready and waiting for us at our workstations, so we made a start, following the recipe with help from Caroline. Also that morning, we partnered up to make a delicious strawberry meringue roulade (tip: use half double cream and half Greek yoghurt for the filling, for a much lighter end result) and begun our macarons. The latter recipe was fairly daunting because, as I’ve learnt from practice, there are multiple ways macarons can go wrong. With Caroline’s wisdom and watchful eye, however, I was pleased to see mine emerge from the oven looking nothing short of professional. (Smug, much?)

It wasn’t all about the desserts that morning though; we also prepared an entire roast chicken lunch with all the trimmings. Handy for those who get sweaty palms over the idea of preparing a whole roast dinner on their own, the lesson also proved fruitful for the more practiced members of the group, who refined their techniques and learnt new best practices. That day, for instance, we cooked the mini sausages on their own and made separate bacon rolls (you get much better texture) and roasted the chicken in red wine to make a delicious jus.

It was this meal we then sat down to in the dining room, where we were joined by Caroline’s husband. (Yep he certainly has got a good deal, there.)

We relaxed – wine in hand – and chatted over the fruits of the morning’s labour, the guests telling me all about the dinner party they’d enjoyed there the evening before. After lunch (which was concluded by a slice of the roulade, followed by a sliver of the tart au citron that the group had cooked up the day before), I went for a wander around the pretty grounds.

As well as some scenic countryside strolls, there is plenty to keep guests entertained in between kitchen sessions at Dudwell – think tennis and badminton courts, a croquet course, ping pong table, library and swimming pool.

Caroline runs a range of courses – including some specifically for kids and teenagers – and can create bespoke packages on request. Although we were busy bees all morning, the class – which covered everything from knife skills to sauce making and how to use a number of kitchen gadgets – felt anything but chaotic, punctuated by plenty of tea breaks. Well, if I wanted to spend a moning in a hectic kitchen, I would have stayed at home…