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September 24, 2010 11:33 pm
“That’ll see you through the week,” says Ray Smith, placing a freshly excised pig’s eyeball on the table. “Sorry, old butcher’s joke.”
Smith is a butcher who – jokes aside – takes his meat very seriously. He started in the business at 14 and has appeared in the British foodie television series River Cottage. His passion is infectious. The two halves of a Large White hang like a Damien Hirst installation to one side, and from a wooden block the unfortunate pig’s head smirks at the class. We’re a mixed group: a handful of enthusiasts, a sprinkling of professional foodies and a couple of novice smallholders, all here to learn how to turn a pig into chops, joints, loin, sausages, charcuterie and so much more.
We’re in a Grade II-listed outbuilding on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, which now serves as a classroom for the fledgling School of Artisan Food. The school opened in October last year and runs short courses (such as today’s “Pig in a Day”) in baking, butchery, brewing, preserves and cheesemaking but, from Monday, it will welcome its first group of students on to the new one-year diploma in artisan food. “We believe we’re the first to offer such a course in the UK,” says Lynn Hopkins, the school’s administrator, as she gives me a tour of the brand new kitchens and 80-seat lecture theatre, the dairy and bakery. “I think the closest is perhaps the Slow Food movement’s University of Gastronomic Science in northern Italy.”
Artisan food – that is, food produced by small-scale and highly skilled bakers, cheesemakers and the like – is now more fashionable than ever. Be it handmade bread, organic, free-range meat from rare breeds, local cheeses or seasonal produce, consumers want to know where their food comes from and who makes it. Yet, although there are a number of highly regarded cookery schools in Britain including Leiths and Le Cordon Bleu, there is surprisingly little in the way of training available for food producers.
Randolph Hodgson, chairman of Neal’s Yard Dairy and a member of the school’s board of trustees, makes the point in its prospectus: “Fifty years ago there were several schools in Britain providing training for hundreds of cheesemakers and now there are none. The School of Artisan Food will fill that gap.”
The 20 students who start next week on the £14,000-a-year course will spend one week on each of the four core disciplines – brewing, baking, butchery and cheesemaking – before specialising in one area. During the year they will not only learn their way around a kitchen under the guidance of experts such as Smith, but also come to understand food history, the social, political and environmental currents underlying today’s food industry, and undertake work placements with artisan producers.
The students range from a new school leaver to a 65-year-old retiree but for many it will mark their departure from the rat race and the start of a new career.
Simona Giaquinto, 37, was until recently a vice-president at JPMorgan, specialising in liquidity solutions. But when the credit crunch came she decided to reappraise her life. “I felt the City just wasn’t what it used to be,” she says. “You work 16-hour days, it’s really hard work and I just needed a break.”
After attending an open day in February, Giaquinto decided the School of Artisan Food was the right fit: “I really liked it. You can see the passion they’ve put into the school.” She and her husband, an accountant, both gave up their jobs and spent six weeks travelling around France and Italy on a foodie odyssey before relocating to Nottinghamshire in readiness for the new term. Their goal is to eventually start an artisan food business.
Coming from a high-pressure City job has given Giaquinto skills she feels will help her get the most from the course. “I was at JPMorgan for nine years and I’ve learned to be disciplined, meet deadlines and be switched on. I’m also never afraid to try new things or do things differently.”
Students at the school will have around 30 hours of taught lessons per week and are encouraged to take additional short courses and complete work experience modules with established producers to give them a fully rounded understanding of artisan food. It’s hard work, but Vanessa Holloway, 34, who is enrolled on the baking course, is excited at the prospect: “I love working hard and I’m not afraid of that.”
Holloway has worked in business and marketing for the past 12 years and until last week was group product manager for home appliance manufacturer Miele. “I’m usually working 12-14 hours a day so I’ll have bags of time during the course to put my [future] business plan together.”
For her, the course offers the perfect opportunity “to network and to learn to make amazing bread”. Keen to take on the supermarkets with a business that replicates the ethos of a farmers’ market, Holloway feels she needs to be able to “make the product from flour to loaf” to truly understand her future business. “There seems to be a revolution happening. People are thinking about what they’re buying.”
Joining the course was very much a last-minute decision and Holloway will only see the school for the first time this weekend when she moves into accommodation in a refurbished Victorian school on site, which she’ll call home for the next year. “I’ve got a really good feeling about it. It sounds really credible and I wanted to do something that would be an asset as I’m investing a large amount of money,” she explains. But – as with Giaquinto – the driving force behind her decision to study at the school is the desire for a life change. “I spend a lot of time at work, or travelling to and from work, and I wanted to do something different.”
Abi Ingram knows the feeling. After six years in the City working for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, she quit in April last year to complete a year-long diploma course at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. The course is expensive – just over £17,000 a year – but, says Ingram, 29, “It was worth every penny. It has given me a skill set that I can use for the rest of my life, and it’s also introduced me to a job I never knew existed before I did the course.” Ingram now works at a food magazine where she is one of a team – all Leiths-trained – who create and test recipes, style food for shoots and offer guidance and advice to readers.
The course opened many doors, she says. “We had talks from chefs, lawyers and accountants on starting a business and how to get your kitchen certified, and we worked with great ingredients. It was hard work but it’s lovely now to be doing something people relate to and want to talk to you about. Before, at dinner parties, I’d dread the ‘What do you do?’ question. Now I’m doing a job people want to talk about.”
Making the break from a hard-won career can be tough: company cars, expense accounts and the camaraderie of the office are all given up in favour of financial uncertainty and the challenge of starting a business from scratch. But at the end of the day, as Smith the butcher parcels up the mound of sausages and chorizo we’ve made for us to take home, it’s clear that the trade-off, for all the risks, can feel immensely rewarding.
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