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Welbeck Estate in England’s Sherwood Forest teaches the old methods for making the likes of cheese, bread and ale

(Photos by Leila Ashtari)

The resident bakers arrive in the night. Then, at 6:30 a.m., the milk begins pumping from the cows to the dairy, where cheese makers start another batch of famed Stichelton blue cheese. Down the road, past the farm shop, art gallery, café, offices and artist studios, novice bakers knead dough in the former Victorian firehouse. Across the lane, brewers ferment an experimental stout using malt smoked over beechwood chips.

This is the Welbeck Estate, and a visitor’s initial impression is of a Downton Abbey fantasy for the 21st-century epicurean. Tucked within the legendary Sherwood Forest, the 15,000-acre estate focuses on the teaching of age-old craft. In so doing, it has become a hub of artisan knowledge with very few peers.

The estate has seen several metamorphoses over its 875-year history: from a 12th-century Premonstratensian abbey to a ducal country house (where Archduke Franz Ferdinand almost perished in a hunting accident a year before his 1914 assassination) to an army headquarters during the Second World War. In 2005, the current owners, the Parente family, decided to inject some economic energy into the former coal region by focusing on artisan food.

A year later, a herd of organically raised Holstein cows attracted the first business when Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and American-born cheese maker Joe Schneider asked to make a raw-milk, Stilton-style cheese on the estate, which they called Stichelton. That same year, family matriarch Alison Swan Parente established the commercial bakery. She added a non-profit school in 2009, followed by a panoply of courses, in which about 2,000 people will participate this year. A government lottery grant funds classes for schoolchildren, which Parente believes will make real change in the greater culture, reclaiming knowledge that was nearly lost because of industrialized food.

“When you work with your hands, there’s a connection to your brain in a way a machine can’t do,” says Shelly Preston, the estate’s resident chocolatier. “You feel the product, you have a relationship with the product. You take the hands away and it becomes a very different product.”

Head brewer Claire Monk agrees. “It’s very much the old-fashioned way of teaching,” she says. “You teach by telling and showing and doing.” It’s how she learned to brew and how she trains her employees. Despite being maybe the youngest female head brewer in Britain, Monk, 27, has firmly established the Welbeck Abbey Brewery as an award-winning producer.

The estate’s crown jewel is the School of Artisan Food, where one can learn, in a half-day or up to a year, everything from lactic cheese-making to game butchery. And it’s not just moneyed food obsessives – workers and students here cut across diverse backgrounds and classes (this is Britain, after all).

On the day I visit, the most popular course has 14 first-time bakers learning to knead and get the right tack on wholemeal dough. David Carter, the baking co-ordinator, lingers at the back, assisting the instructor. Laid off after 30 years as a solicitor, Carter took a day course here, then soon returned for more study, before being offered a full-time job.

Whether for a first or second career, the school attracts students from varying backgrounds: a veteran bomb-disposal expert, a son of a local coal miner and a supermarket merchandiser in her 50s. Industry workers also attend the professional courses for continuing education.

Canadian cheese maker Ruth Klahsen, owner of Monforte Dairy in Stratford, Ont., recently visited Welbeck to research her own educational venture. No school in North America teaches cheese making, so this spring she is organizing a course for eight students. “I got kids on the floor here who made a $5,000 mistake,” says Klahsen, explaining that such training is expensive but necessary. “Ten thousand dollars to educate somebody for eight weeks seems like a lot, but [you] lose that much out of one bad error that you make out of a lack of education.”

The artisan revival in Britain has meant many eager producers setting up shop before mastering their craft. This results in artisan-labelled products of dubious quality, says Henrietta Green, a British food writer and consultant. The next step toward quality, she believes, should be the reinstatement of the apprenticeship system. “There’s nothing like working in a business, the sense of the routine, the practice, the making, to really learn the skill set.”

In a market awash in opportunistically branded “artisan” products, Welbeck graduates are paramount in maintaining quality. Last year, the school won top prize at the British Cookery School Awards, an indication that its hands-on approach is really influencing how Britons learn to cook and what they get to eat. When asked about the school’s future ambitions, Parente replies: “World domination.”

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