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East Midlands

Business spotlight: The School of Artisan Food

29 Jan 2020

Cherished traditions are clearly on the rise

Rob Beswick talks to Judy Cobham-Lowe FIoD about one of Nottinghamshire’s best kept secrets: the School of Artisan Food

Judy Cobham-Lowe is determined to lift the lid off one of Nottinghamshire’s best kept secrets – and offer a tasty treat for IoD members into the bargain. Based on the Welbeck Estate in the heart of Sherwood Forest, the School of Artisan Food was set up 10 years ago by Alison Swan-Parente with the goal of reviving the lost skills of traditional artisan baking: naturally, with local produce, free from additives, preservatives and E numbers, to time-honoured recipes. Her school would be a celebration of skills from the past that we were in danger of losing. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, educating over 20,000 students eager to learn a range of traditional food skills that are light years away from the modern mass processing techniques that dominate contemporary food production– and all with as few miles from ‘farm to fork’ as possible. 

Today, courses range from its advanced diploma in artisan baking through to its newly introduced foundation degree and day courses, all based on a love of traditional artisan fare, using simple, wholesome ingredients, and a desire to take as little from nature as possible. Judy took up the role as Chair last year – though a glance at her CV suggests it’s a new departure. After a successful career in business schools she ran a corporate strategy practice which included BP, Standard Chartered and the BBC among its clients. Further roles cemented her position as a businesswoman with a seriously high profile: NED roles on PLC boards ranging from £250mn to £2.3bn t/o, becoming the first woman appointed to a NED role by the IoD Board Appointments Service, the first female NED in the UK Construction industry and first woman Director in HM Treasury (DMO). Perhaps unsurprisingly with that CV, she was made a Fellow of the IoD.

It’s all a long way from artisan bread-making, but it could be argued that landing such a high-profile chair suggests there’s something very special in the Artisan School’s mix. So, what was it about the school that convinced her to take on the chair’s role?

“Alison has done a superb job and it had a stellar reputation. Its goals were ones I felt passionate about: great food, produced in a manner that demanded care and an understanding of the natural world it comes from. But it was also focused on saving lost skills. “Alison founded the school in 2009, partially as a response to a lack of suitable bakers for her new project, the Welbeck Bakehouse. She wanted bakers capable of baking in a traditional manner. She could see that those skills were being lost and was determined to save them by putting them back on the catering curriculum.” To begin with the focus was on bread, cheese, meat and charcuterie. 

“From the outset all the products made on the estate were to be based on locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. We use ingredients that are in season – rather than flying in fruit and vegetables from around the world. We’re very proud of our cheese: our Stichelton is made from the milk provided by the Welbeck Holstein herd. I think it travels 20 yards from milking parlour to the dairy!”

Quality - not quantity or speed – is the watchword. “We have a very simple philosophy: if the recipe says we need to let the bread dough prove for 72 hours for it to be perfect, then that’s what we do. There are no short cuts: we’re looking for food perfection.” There is also a strong virtuous circle in the way the different foods produced on the estate interact: “Our Christmas mincemeat is flavoured with our estate-brewed beer, which in turn uses our bread in some of its seasonal brews.” We’re certainly not talking big farm miles to get produce to you, and with such a strong public demand for sustainability at the moment amid environmental concerns, its philosophy is right on the modern Zeitgeist of reducing food miles and lessening the carbon footprint of agriculture. “The recipes we use and techniques we teach are focused on sustainability. “There is also an emphasis on combating food waste – again, chiming nicely with the current Zeitgeist. “Our charcuterie courses look to make use of the whole animal, not just the choice cuts – in the way traditional butchers would in the past. Waste was something they refused to accept, while today we’re fussier about which cuts, we use. That’s something we want to change.” It’s been a recipe for success, with many former diploma students now running successful businesses based on the techniques learned, and winning awards by the score into the bargain.

Interestingly, though, the School is a charity, not a business – though one run in a very business-like fashion. “Alison was determined to set the school up as a charitable concern,” said Judy. “Part of its original goal was to get its artisan food messages out to everyone, to reach every part of the community. By accessing grants we’ve been able to attract students from poorer communities who wouldn’t normally have been able to attend a school like ours. “We’re also very proud of the number of refugees we’ve welcomed through our doors. One of our recent diploma graduates was a woman who had fled conflict in the Middle East and settled in the UK. She was a baker by trade and was superb, creating delicious traditional flatbreads, but wanted to take our course so she could learn a little more about local tastes, ingredients and techniques. She’s now working in a bakery set up by a previous course graduate, melding the two traditions, and is doing very well.” 

The school’s advanced diploma has now been joined by the UK’s first Foundation Degree in Artisan Food. A two-year course with an option of a third year, it is run in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University and is settling in nicely. “We only introduced it in 2019 so time will tell but it is going very well at the moment,” said Judy. More established is its vast array of short courses. 

“We have over 100 short courses in bakery, patisserie, butchery, viennoiserie, charcuterie, ice-cream, cheesemaking and hand-made chocolate – you name it, we do it. They vary in price by subject area and duration but start at around £145 per day.” 

The course list makes evocative and mouth-watering reading: From ‘Pig in a Day’ (all you need to know about butchery) to ‘Historic Pies’, ‘How to make Sourdough’, ‘Make your own Sausages’ and an ‘Introduction to cider-making’, with time for ‘Make your own afternoon tea’ in between, there’s something for everyone’s tastes. There’s even a Fire and Smoke BBQ course for those people who don’t set foot in the kitchen often but love playing with the BBQ every summer!

“We’ve delivered over 1,000 courses since we started,” says Judy, clearly pleased that the clientele are as varied as the courses themselves. Some are taken by the general public as a hobby, but others clearly have an eye on future business plans. “We’ve a lot of young farmers coming in to learn butchery skills and charcuterie, with the idea of setting up farm shops selling ultra-fresh produce in the place where it was reared. They are looking to give their farms another string to their bow.” 

And the courses aren’t just for adults. “We are very much about educating everyone on good food production techniques and sustainable healthy eating. We go into local schools and deliver sessions on diet, and run children’s courses at our school on things they’ll enjoy, such as making their own Easter eggs where the children get to taste cacao and learn about the journey from the bean to the chocolate bar. Despite all this activity, the School of Artisan Food is a little bit of a ‘best kept secret’ in Nottinghamshire. “I’m determined to raise our profile,” says Judy, “as we’ve got a brilliant story to tell. As a Fellow of the IoD and a member for many years I know how good a network IoD membership can be, and I want to get that network talking about the School of Artisan Food. I was delighted to welcome Ron Lynch and Cari Grice down to the school recently and they are keen for us to host a members’ event here, which should give members a fascinating look behind the scenes – with some lovely refreshments to go with it! “I’d like my fellow directors to see the school as somewhere to hire for a secure team awayday, or where they can bring groups on a team-building-with-baking programme. We’ve called it ‘Rising Together!’” But here’s irony: you may not have heard of the School of Artisan Food, but the rest of the world has. 

“We’ve just entertained 19 Chinese business people who wanted to see how we operated and the values artisan food can bring. They’d heard about us and flew over to see what the school was all about. They’ve gone back to China inspired by what they’ve seen. “Now, I’d like to make sure everyone in Nottinghamshire gets inspired by what we do here, too.”

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