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  • Writer's pictureAli


I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a birthday present so much. Given my birthday’s in August, the fact that I had to wait until January for it made it all the more exciting.

I’m talking about going on a gluten-free River Cottage baking course (of course) where we were going to learn how to make sourdough bread, chocolate chip cookies, mini quiches and linseed crackers.

There was a small matter of getting there, though. By tractor.

Yes, that’s right. You’ve driven into what feels like the middle of nowhere (close to Axminster, if you’re wondering) and then everyone piles into the back of a tractor. (Note: don’t assume this will save your car from getting muddy; going down all those country lanes meant mine resembled something that had been left near a chocolate milkshake in a blender without the lid on.)

The course is run by Naomi Devlin, a Coeliac herself (always reassuring), and it happened to be the same day her River Cottage gluten-free cookbook had come out.

Snacks on arrival quelled any hunger pangs and then we were straight to work on the ‘sponge’ for sourdough bread. The prep had already been done for us (i.e. the starter, which takes at least 24 hours to, erm, start) so all we had to do was mix together 3 different flours (rice, teff & buckwheat), a few ground linseeds and some warm water.

So far, so different from anything I’d ever made before.

Unbaked cookiesNext came the cookies. Again, we were greeted with a range of unusual ingredients (chestnut flour, tapioca starch & sweet rice flour to name but a few). Once we’d made the dough it had to sit on the side to ‘rest’ (it’s hard work being a cookie).

By this time it was becoming patently obvious that Naomi really knows her domestic science. A qualified nutritionist, she could answer any question thrown at her by the range of food restricted diets people enquired about. (Oh yes, it wasn’t just Coeliacs on the course. There were people who couldn’t have dairy, egg and – a new one to me – tapioca.)

But back to the cooking… I must say, it’s been some time since I had a decent quiche. (Just 20 years or so.) The idea of a short pastry was very appealing, unlike the ingredients that were going into it. Psyllium husks, anyone? But I trusted Naomi.

RosemaryIt wasn’t long before the pastry had been filled with a delicious assortment of herbs and veg from the River Cottage garden.

“Make sure there aren’t any holes in your pastry!” Naomi reminded us.

Hmmm, possibly my haste to get to the finished product contributed to a pool of egg running outside my pastry crust (thankfully, it wasn’t beyond repair, but it did mean topping up my quiches halfway through cooking).

Ali & cookiesWhile they were bubbling away in the oven, it was time for the cookies to go in, and it wasn’t long before they came out looking every bit as delicious as Naomi promised. Initially I showed restraint (after all, they were serving us a fabulous lunch) but come 3 o’clock I decided it was every man for himself and scoffed a couple (delish!).

At this point we seemed to be doing one of those clever TV shows where oodles of food seems to be to-ing and fro-ing from ovens with the minimum of effort.

The sourdough sponge was ready and a range of ingredients were added (the familiar psyllium husks came out again, along with liquid pectin and a wonderful aroma from a blob of fresh yeast). Once mixed, we coated our tins in a selection of sesame and sunflower seeds and popped the bread in to rise.

By the way, if you’ve ever attempted gluten-free bread, don’t be put off by the fact that it (a) has some very odd ingredients and (b) doesn’t look like anything particularly special when it’s in its tin.

Exhibit A will show you what I mean:

Uncooked sourdough

Not exactly tempting, is it? But then look at what came out of the oven:

Cooked sourdough

It’s the visual equivalent of a chorus of angels! And yes, it does taste as good as it looks. In fact, so did the mini quiches (although admittedly they didn’t produce quite as fine a spectacle, hence the lack of photograph).

You’d think by now we’d have no time to bake anything more but somehow Naomi squeezed in a set of delicious crackers and a farinata.

“Farin-what?!” you might ask. It’s a thick, savoury pancake. And yes, it’s got some weird ingredients in it (like millet and chickpeas), although that didn’t detract from the taste (melted butter on warm farinata, anyone?).

My, oh my, was I pleased with my day. Not only had I a stash of goodies to take away with me, I’d also armed myself with some unexpected knowledge about gluten-free food technology. And all this excitement distracted me from the fact I’d stuffed myself silly and had to get back into the tractor for the bumpy ride back up the hill.

Sunset Goodbye, River Cottage. ‘Til we meet again!

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