Review: Hartnett Holder & Co Backstage Cookery School

You could do far worse than book a night or two at Limewood - a five-star boutique country house hotel in the heart of the New Forest. The architecture is stunning, the rooms luxurious and the service excellent in every way. It's full of character and charm, and a great deal of thought has gone into every little detail like the staff uniforms, rows of Hunter wellies and twig pens. 

The gardens and grounds surrounding the hotel are stunning - rustic and wild but very well looked after. Huge pots of lavender line the beam-covered paths and lillypads float on the deck-surrounded ponds. You could spend a day at Limewood visiting the luxury spa and having afternoon tea in the courtyard or dinner at Hartnett Holder & Co.

Hartnett Holder & Co - or HH&Co - is headed up by Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder,. Their style is "chefs’ home-cooked food not chefs’ food cooked for restaurants" which certainly comes across. The food is relaxed, fresh, stylish, down-to-earth but beautifully presented and completely delicious. It's a very big attraction at Limewood, and the restaurant was packed when I had dinner there on a Wednesday night in July.

Angela and Luke, along with Chef Iain Longhorn, run a cookery school based at Limewood which they call HH&Co Backstage. "We don't call it a school because we don't want people to think they have to sit and listen and be bored - it's not like that at all." explains Chef Iain. "It's more like being behind the scenes in the HH&Co kitchen, so we call it HH&Co backstage."

There are many courses at HH&Co backstage. I did the "Seasonal Entertaining" course which essentially teaches you how to make an really impressive three course meal, as well as a pasta masterclass with Angela. The dishes taught on the course are all served in the restaurant - many of them are HH&Co signature dishes.

The school itself is beautiful with granite work tops, butler sinks and chunky wooden cabinets. It's rustic and charming but kitted out with clever taps and the latest Panasonic ovens and induction hobs. "We use the same hobs in the kitchen as well as they are so efficient. They heat up quick, cool down quick and there's no heat loss to the air, so the kitchen stays nice and cool." explains chef Iain. It was lovely and cool in there.

The school comfortably fits up to 10 people per course. The style of learning is fun, relaxed and informal. Each recipe was first demonstrated by one of the chefs on the main bench before we were able to have a go ourselves at one of the workstations. There were plenty of opportunities to ask questions and chat to the chefs who were mingling throughout the day.

Buttermilk panna cotta was the first recipe we learned to make. I've really been getting into making panna cotta recently (I usually swap the cream for yoghurt to make it more healthy!) so it was great to find out how to make it the proper Italian way with condensed milk and buttermilk.

The learning curve steepened suddenly as we swiftly moved onto crustaceans. Chef Iain took a dozy lobster from an ice bath and sent him to lobster heaven before preparing him for a yummy salad with smoked salmon and mango. "OK, each of you grab a lobster, it's your turn now" he said, nonchalantly.

My heart was thumping as I carried my little buddy from the sink to the chopping board. The lobsters had been soaking in an ice bath for over two hours, which shuts down the nervous system, so it's very humane. I won't go into details but it was quick and involved a sharp knife. It was a great skill to learn, much easier than it looked and something I feel confident to do again at home. The tail and claws were simmered for 7 minutes before the flesh was removed from the shell and chopped up.

I had a great chat with Chef Luke as I chopped up my lobster to add to his signature smoked salmon salad. He's such a nice guy and extremely down to earth. "I'm dyslexic, and when I was at school my teacher said I would never make it in life" he told me with a smile. "Lots of chefs are dyslexic" he continued "so we teach them just like this - hands on teaching - it's the best way to learn."

Chef Iain then demonstrated how to fillet a sea bream before we were each let loose on our own. The same principle applies to any similar sized fish so it's a great skill to have. I've never done this properly before at home but since the course I have gutted and filleted whole trouts using the same technique. All you need it a sharp flexible knife, some scissors and tweezers to remove stray bones.

We made a delicious tomato and truffle butter sauce in a cast iron pot which we popped the bream into. It was then baked in the oven, but with a dough crust instead of a lid. This is another signature HH&Co dish, and a real show-stopper. When cooked, the pot is brought to the table with the golden bread crust on top. The crust can be eaten with the fish and the sauce. It's really clever, but very simple and fun. "It's about fun-dining, not fine-dining" said Chef Luke. There's nothing stuffy about HH&Co, the atmosphere is very relaxed but the food is outstanding.

For lunch we sat at enjoyed the fruits of our morning labour - the delicious lobster salad followed by the bream, accompanied with fine wines. It was nice to sit and chat with everyone. A group size of 10 was perfect and the chefs sat with us as well. It was so lovely to get to know them. Chef Iain chatted about his little girl "She loves me to cut mango like a hedgehog" he said with a grin "it gets her every time!"

We were feeling a bit full and sleepy from the food and wine after lunch, but a coffee and a slice of delicious tiramisu on the sunny patio helped to wake us or an afternoon of pasta making with Angela Hartnett.

Angela showed us how to make "rich mans pasta" which contains 9 eggs yolks! It's surprisingly easy - make the dough, chill the dough, roll the dough, feed the dough through pasta machine and make shapes. I made spaghetti, farfalle (bows), tagliatelle and ravioli which was filled with a delicious pean, broadband, mint and ricotta filling.

After making pasta we were given a tour of the smoke house which is a big part of what HH&Co are about. They smoke their own salmon, which is absolutely superb, as well as pancetta, coppa, chorizo, salami and other meats. Limewood is the only hotel in the New Forest with it's own smokehouse.

We had goodie bags to take home with the panna cotta, some lobster salad and pasta we had made as well as copies of all the recipes from the day. The course was a full day, 9am-5pm, but the time just flew by. I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

A stay at Limewood is perfect for a special occasion and one of the cookery courses would make a lovely gift for a special birthday for any food enthusiast. A full day cookery course at HH&Co backstage ranges from £195 to £260 (for celebrity guest chef days). Half day courses start at £120. Double rooms at Limewood start at £315 room only which includes use of the spa.

This is a sponsored post. All words, opinions and images are my own.