Cooking skills: Alison’s artisan revival

Motivated by a desire to help revive skills such as bread baking, cheesemaking and butchery, Alison Swan Parente founded an artisan cookery school at the age of 60

In my twenties, way back in 1970-something, I went to the east coast of America to teach child development in a med school department and live in a delightful communal house. Young feminist that I was (and old one that I still am), I was positively proud that I had no domestic skills.

My mother had honed hers in post-war austerity conditions: she baked, cooked scrag-end of neck and made her own yoghurt. I was determined never to be chained to the kitchen, as I perceived her to be.

But what was this? Ralph the burly car mechanic make bread from the Tassajara Bread Book. Ann spent the evenings after work making quilts yet didn’t seem to have succumbed to the patriarchy. The seed of an idea that the domestic arts were useful and fun was sown (though I was still too busy working and going to women’s groups to learn any). I never did learn to sew, but my mother’s skills had been noted.

Marmalade and sourdough

As my family grew, I fell into making marmalade, experimented with sourdough breads and felt better rather than worse. When I retired from the NHS in 2008, I asked hero baker and fellow 60-year-old Andrew Whitley to advise me about setting up an artisan bakery.

start quoteIt’s really good fun to watch milk turn into cheese, flour and water into bread, and raw meat into delicious baconfinal quote

It was very hard (and still is) to find a skilled baker. When industrialised food processing came along, those artisan skills became scarse. While industrialised processes have made our lives so much easier and cheaper, our food has become so much more tasteless and bad for us.

This was a worry to me. It wasn’t just that our food culture had been impoverished; it was that very useful and relevant skills might be lost. True, there was still a generation that remembered the old ways. But frankly, they were all getting on.

Our first bakers were Polish. They were the only people who knew how to load the huge wood-burning ovens that Alf Armstrong from Cumbria had built for us. Meanwhile, we became very excited about fermentation and how to teach the lost skills associated with it: how to get the natural yeasts back into bread and complex tastes back into cheese and charcuterie.

A building and backing

We were lucky enough to have available the unused buildings of a former fire station on the beautiful Welbeck Estate, in the heart of Sherwood Forest. We got lucky again when we received one of the last local development grants of those boom years to convert the stables into our School of Artisan Food.

What a learning curve. As well as finally getting a crash course in how to bake properly, I had to learn how to read a balance sheet – still not my strongest suit – hold my own in a site meeting, keep up-to-date HR files and read the ever-growing literature on the artisan food world.

One of the great pleasures of this enterprise has been building up the library and discovering small imprints such as Prospect Books, which publishes the always fascinating proceedings of the Oxford Food Symposium, among other esoteric foodie delights.

What we have learnt

But it has been worth it. Four years after starting up, a huge number of people have come through our doors. Many of them, like me, are honing skills that they have sort-of thought about acquiring but have never had the time to. Our youngest short course participant was three (chocolate, of course) and our oldest so far 85 (bread).

As for the in-betweenies, since many of our board members are from that cohort that managed to keep artisan food skills alive – like Randolph Hodgson at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and Andrew with his book Bread Matters – I have to actively look for younger trustees. (We are a charitable trust that also provides a one-year baking diploma for students going into it as a career.)

We started our diploma courses by offering one in cheesemaking, butchery and baking. Two years later, it’s clear that it is better to teach dairying and butchery in smaller modular courses. Practitioners can dip in and out of learning, either as beginners who can practise their skills later, or as professionals who get limited time off work.

Bakery works better as a one-off long course, and our young graduates are very well placed to address the wide skills shortage in artisan bakeries. I say young – which happily many are – but we have also seen our fair share of older people fed up with the rat race who want to start their own small artisan businesses.

Next year, we are making a new departure with a summer school that combines the teaching of all three disciplines over seven days, and we think this will work well both for school leavers and retired people.

Part of the school’s philosophy is that good food doesn’t have to be posh, and that food education can tackle all kinds of issues, from social isolation to obesity. It’s also just really good fun to watch milk turn into cheese, flour and water into bread, and raw meat into delicious bacon.

I finally managed to remember the good stuff from my mother and, with a lot of support and luck, some brilliant colleagues and a few mistakes along the way, I didn’t seem to get chained to the kitchen after all.

Alison Swan Parente was born in 1948 in rural Sussex. She trained as a child psychotherapist, and worked with children, adolescents and their families in New Jersey, London and Nottingham. She also worked at the Women’s Therapy Centre in London for many years. She founded the School of Artisan Food in North Nottinghamshire in 2009 and is now the Chair of their Trustees. Read the school’s blog