Wil Law aka The Gingerbread Lad talks about a week of writing, eating and cooking at Totleigh Barton- and why it didn’t matter that he was the only male writer.
During my last year at University I apprehensively booked a place on the Arvon Food Writing course in Devon, as it seemed the only place where I could learn about the trade. I was worried about how little experience I had but when I arrived at Totleigh Barton, which looked like something off a postcard, I realised I had nothing to worry about at all. I met the nicest group of people, equally as inexperienced and nervous as me. We stayed in the nicest house, with the nicest hosts, all became brilliant friends, and gained invaluable knowledge about food writing from the fantastic tutors: Lulu Grimes who is the deputy editor of Olive magazine and Lindsey Bareham, who writes weekly for The Times and has published loads of cookbooks. The fact that I was the only boy and the youngest felt completely irrelevant because I was made to feel entirely comfortable, and we all shared the same love: food.
The course featured lots of discussions about food writing, including invaluable lessons on how to pitch yourself, a guest talk from wine critic Jancis Robinson, and one to ones with each tutor, which was massively beneficial. I had Lulu edit some of my recipes to the standard in which they would be published in a magazine. I still keep the piece of paper with her annotations on to keep my recipes as succinct as possible. The thing I was most nervous about was the Friday reading out of work, which is apparently done on all Arvon courses. People kept saying that ‘by the end of the week you’ll feel like you’re just reading to friends’ but at first I wasn’t convinced. When it came to it though, I actually really enjoyed it. The atmosphere was warming, everyone was behind each other, and we all genuinely loved hearing what each other had to say.
What surprised me most about the course was how involved the experts were. It was just like living with friends who you could talk to at any time, and who loved sharing information about the ins and outs of their trade. It was great to see what different forms food writing can take, with Lindsey’s recipe writing being as literary as any novel writing, and Lulu’s work editing for magazines being quite the opposite.
Highlights for me were having the tutor’s read their own work in the tea-light lit barn, squashed on the settees with all the other students and general conversation around the dinner table. I also liked just sitting and absorbing all the stories everybody had, as it was nice to be around, and genuinely enjoy the company of people I wouldn’t normally hang around with, let alone live with for a week. The other highlight was the food. The food was unbelievable, with small groups each having a night to cook. Each night had a theme (fish, vegetarian, beef and chicken) but we could cook whatever we liked inside this. We used produce from the garden, and ate like king and queens. I was on beef night and was taught by an eccentric lady on the course how to make proper puff pastry, which we then used for a traditional steak pie that night. That was a proud moment for me. The people I met became my mates and I cook their recipes all the time, and we share news on our food writing developments and support each other’s work.
Aside from having a great week and making memories I can tell my kids when I’m older (Lulu Grimes stole my pen, I dined with the world’s greatest wine critic and I tripped over Lindsey Bareham’s dog etc…) I now feel like a proper food writer. Since the course I’ve set up my blog, wrote student recipes for my university newspaper and have just this month had my cake published in olive magazine. I also know I definitely want to be a food writer, and feel I have the best knowledge of how to be one. I don’t believe I could have gained the knowledge of how to be one any better than I did that week, and although knowing how doesn’t make it any easier to achieve, I’m determined to give it my best shot.
To finish I thought I’d include the recipe Lulu edited for me, and one which reminds me of being at Totleigh, drinking lots of tea from the mugs that are like penguin book covers.
Cup of Tea Puddings
Enjoying a cup of tea each day is a British tradition. I wanted to make something which takes in all components of this staple, from how it’s made to how it tastes. The fact that the pudding is steamed even goes as far to emulate the all important first stage of boiling the kettle. The pudding itself is dense and the flavour is rich, just like a good cup of tea should be.
4 English tea bags, I like to use Rington’s or Yorkshire Tea
150g butter, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
Begin by infusing the tea bags in a mug boiling water, around 250mls. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy then alternate beating in the eggs and adding the flour until you have a thick batter. Add the tea mixture to the batter, squeezing each bag dry with a spoon to get the density of flavour, and then mix well.
Transfer the mixture into 4 mini plastic pudding bowls which have been wrapped in tin foil on the outside. Alternatively you could steam them in tea cups or mugs. Cover the top of the bowls /cups with tin foil and secure with an elastic band. Place into a pan used for steaming or alternatively a deep pan filled around a third of the way up with boiling water, using an upside down bowl above the water level for the puddings to stand on. Cover with a lid and steam for 1 hour on a low heat, topping up when necessary.
The puddings are cooked when they feel firm to touch. If plastic bowls were used you could then serve the pudding inside a cup before turning out onto a small plate and serving with cream; a dessert alternative to a good cream tea.
More recipes at www.gingerbreadlad.blogspot.com