A statue of Alfred the Great stands in Winchester, England’s ancient capital. Having burnt the cakes, he was clearly no barbecue king, although the royal defence was that the cakes were simply charred.
Just a few miles from the Hampshire city lies Lainston House, a 17th-century country house hotel where, were he around today and with no Vikings to repel, Alfred would have been very comfortable learning the art of live fire cooking in the grounds, with five-star luxury, fit for a king, inside.
Lainston House, part of the Exclusive Collection of hotels with the likes of Pennyhill Park, Surrey, and South Lodge, Sussex, in its portfolio, is home to Season cookery school, which includes outdoor classes for the BBQ novice, enthusiast or aspiring pit master.
There are also indoor courses in the converted well house in the grounds, with a variety of cooking classes, as well as one to sharpen your knife skills.
Among the outdoor courses are Wood-Fired Cooking, led by David Jones from the Manna from Devon Cooking School; the Posh Barbeque class is a lesson in all things over live fire, while the Campfire Cooking course is perfect family learning, with parents playing second tongs as the children take charge. Gift vouchers are available for courses, and packages can include overnight stays.
“We are passionate about outdoor cooking, as well as fine dining indoors. Barbecues, wood-fired ovens, fire pits, we have created a real culinary experience,” says Phil Yeomans, executive chef at Lainston House.
“No matter your standard, we want to help take you up a level, while having a lot of fun along the way– whether it is showing you the versatility of a wood-fired oven, or how to turn a fire pit into a cooking tool.”
Also based at Lainston House is Andy Mackenzie, executive chef for Exclusive, who runs the Exclusive Chef’s Academy, with great food at the heart of the hotel group’s hospitality philosophy.
“On the Season outdoor courses, we teach people about building a fire, heat control, how to smoke low and slow – all the basic techniques, as well as the tricks of the trade,” says Mackenzie.
Students range from retired couples to families with young children and all ages and abilities in-between, not to mention film stars, who Yeomans is far too discreet to name.
“We have people who not only want to learn to cook, but also tips on the best equipment to use and how to design their gardens to create that outdoor space for eating and entertaining. ‘What do you think chef?’ is a regular question,” says Yeomans.
Meat, fish, pizzas, fruit, vegetables and bread are all on the teaching menu over fire, wood and coals. The provenance of the ingredients used, taken from the local supply chain, is key to Exclusive’s ethos and Lainston House can claim low food yards, yet alone miles, when it comes to fruit and vegetables.
“Students pick the fruit and veg from our kitchen gardens at the hotel – garden to plate, as well as farm to fork.”
Yeomans loves the relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor cookery space and, like all great chefs, enjoys pushing the boundaries.
“We create live fire feasts, using, for example, 30-day dry aged beef ribs, weighing 18oz each, making our own sauces from the tomatoes, herbs, onion and garlic we have picked and experimenting with combinations. This gives people the confidence to go and try them at home.”
Yeomans proceeds to tempt the taste buds, with salt-baked pineapple in the wood-fired oven to caramelise onto a barbecue pork cheek and becoming an à la carte dish.
“Creating those amazing wood smoke flavours that you can’t get from other methods of cooking.”
Managing director of Exclusive Collection is Danny Pecorelli, who, while operating at the top end of the hospitality sector, is committed to accessibility, especially to the chefs and kitchens.
“We want people to walk through the kitchens, inside and out, and see what and how we are cooking. Grills and barbecues, heat and fire, all add to the experience,” says Pecorelli.
Sustainability and using local producers are group-wide philosophies, adds Pecorelli, with grills and fire pits from the local Kingsworthy Foundry and meat from Hampshire butchers and farmers, supporting the county supply chain.
Pecorelli loves to barbecue himself, regularly using his Weber and his Ooni.
“I did spend more time in lockdown doing pizzas and flatbreads, but my spatchcock chicken is improving!” says Pecorelli.
“We love to create real passion around food at Exclusive. With a great variety of offerings and styles. Phil’s cooking and menus reflect Phil and that is the same for all our chefs across the group. Our hotels can give you a Michelin-Star experience, or you can bring the kids and make cupcakes.”
As well as its cookery school, a collection of hotels and spas and a golf club, there is also The Castle Inn, a 12th-century Cotswolds pub – the group as eclectic as it is exclusive.
“Each of our properties has its own unique experience. We are really excited about the Season cookery school and the outdoor dining opportunities. There is a real revolution in outside eating and entertaining and we are very much part of that movement,” says Pecorelli.
Outdoor dining and cooking is certainly not confined to Lainston House, with Exclusive’s properties running to nearly 700 acres of grounds and a myriad of al fresco options across terraces and gardens.
Yeomans, out walking and naturally with a nose for good food, says it is extraordinary how the waft of barbecues on the go permeates the air, drifting up from lawns large and small. Live fire cooking does its own marketing, the smoke enough to trigger a chain reaction. For ‘Aah Bisto’ – if you remember the gravy advertisement – read ‘Aah brisket’.
The world has changed and the world of food and hospitality is changing with it. Extraordinary and challenging times but opening eyes to the outdoor cooking and entertaining opportunities, be it in a reimagined back garden, or the grounds of a country house hotel.
BBQ magazine is media partner of Season Cookery School
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