There’s a sense of stumbling across a lost domain when you enter the Welbeck Estate. There’s a very big house, and winding drives, and orderly parkland. But there’s a village, a complete village, as well, with school, pub and post office, and houses, all in the same, delicious honeyed stone and design, 18 and 19th century, I’d say, comfortable, handsome, relics of a more confident age. Every part is beautifully maintained, cared for, loved, by William and Allison Parente, who live in the big house.
Welbeck, 15,000 acres just outside Sheffield, but still inside Nottinghamshire, was the creation of the Dukes of Portland. I don’t want to get into the complexities of inheritance. Suffice to say that the direct line or Portlands died out, and by a sequence of births, marriages and deaths, the Will and Allison ended up having responsibility for one of the country’s great estates.
And I suppose they could have settled there and lived quiet, comfortable lives, just pottering along. But that is not their way, nor their vision. They can see the part a glorious survival of six centuries of aristocratic management can play in a rather rougher and demanding contemporary world.
It would all seem an anomaly, would be an anomaly, at the beginning of the 21st century, were there not some very interesting signs of life stirring under the steepling roofs and inside the handsome buildings. In one outlying farm building, for example, Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson have been recreating Stilton cheese from unpasteurised milk of the Welbeck herd of Friesian cows. They’ve had to call it Stichelton, because they’re not allowed to call it Stilton, which has the European DOG stamp of approval and has to be made with pasteurised milk.
The success of the Stichelton enterprise encouraged Allison Parente to up the ante considerably by opening The School of Artisan Food in a block of renovated stables (slightly grander than the house I live in). There’s a working bakery, a dairy and a butchery section, with a micro-brewery being built. The school offers yearlong courses, which result in an advanced diploma in each of the areas. A year’s course costs £14,000, not a small investment, but you will have a marketable life skill at the end of it.
As Val Bines, the Head of Dairy on the full-time Advanced Diploma Qualification, says ‘As someone who has taught cheesemaking for many years this is a facility that, until now, has only been a dream. I hope that we will be able to encourage many more aspiring cheesemakers to take the first step with a sound education behind them.’
There are short courses as well – Wild Yeast Baking, Italian Baking and Pizza Making, Ice Cream Making, Beer and Cheese, for example, which won’t set you back nearly so much, anywhere between £160 for day to £600 for two days. The lecturers are drawn from the top of their professions – Andrew Sharp, Julie Cheney, Ivan Day, Emmanuel Hadjiandroeou, Martin Gott, Pammy Riggs among them – although to call them lecturers seems a bit of a misnomer. I can’t remember the last time I saw a lecturer is a white butcher’s apron, with blood smears on it, or with white coat and dinky hat, hands covered in flour. The lecturers at the School of Artisan Food are very much of the hands-on variety.
What do the students expect to get out of it?
‘England has a rich history of hand-crafted cheese-making,’ says Yvette McNally, ‘and at one time Teesdale in County Durham was an important ‘Yorkshire’ dale’ for farmstead cheese alongside Wensleydale and Swaledale. I’m learning the careful art and technique of the craft so that I can go on to set up a new creamery along traditional lines in Upper Teesdale, an area of outstanding nature beauty. I hope Teesdale can also become know as a centre of excellence for outstanding fine cheese’.
There is an increasing demand for the kind of skills the School of Artisan Food teaches. More and more people, it seems, are finding the relentless grind of contemporary work life unrewarding and uninvolving. The hard work involved in being a butcher, baker, cheesemaker or brewer will not be any the less. Nor do you follow any of these trades in order to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice. However, to judge by students and teachers I met, the personal rewards are the true measure of fulfillment. And you can always eat what you make. You can’t say that about banking or the law or architecture, can you?
The School of Artisan Food
Lower Motor Yard
Tel: 01909 532171