Sumayya Usmani had the wonderful opportunity to teach a week of Root Camp in beautiful Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Here she shares her experience.
Sharing a week, with a group of strangers is challenging, but when it’s a group of sixteen teenagers, the challenge is amplified. When I accepted a week-long position to teach cookery at ‘Root Camp’ on Bute, I was daunted and completely oblivious as to how difficult yet fulfilling the experience would be. Cassia Kidron’s brainchild Root Camp is a residential field to fork cookery course offered to 14-21 year olds, giving them the basic tools to help cook from scratch, learning to how to pick their own vegetables, fishing, plucking game birds and the skills to butcher meat – but most of all create real food.
My stomach was in knots as I approached Bute, a beautiful Scottish island that exudes a fading Victorian legacy and as I drove up to Mount Stuart from the ferry, I was riddled with nervous excitement . This neo-Gothic mansion and its surrounding lands, kitchen garden and attached ‘flats’ were to be my home for the next week along with sixteen young personalities who I knew nothing about.
I was greeted with cool disinterest – A few fresh faces filled with a commitment to learn, others less so. A week filled with cooking some foods they had never tried, getting hands dirty in the garden, all this and the idea of plucking game birds during the week had quite a few very apprehensive. These children were in my hands, ones to share my passion for cooking, while not knowing their feelings about food and creating some unfamiliar dishes made my job even harder. But I had faith that the act of creating the simplest dish from scratch, feeding others and eating together would prove to be a powerfully liberating experience for them, instilling a sense of accomplishment and generosity.
Beginning with a simple idea to set the scene, I introduced my heritage flavours, let them play with the ingredients, and allowed them to make recipes their own. All this was fueled by my basic cooking philosophy of cooking using your senses estimation to create hearty home cooking and my desire to feed others. We had such incredible bounty from the island to work with: seasonal vegetables pulled out fresh from the estate’s kitchen garden included turnips, beetroots, squashes and pumpkins oozing autumnal earthiness. Strong fragrant meat from local game birds and venison was enhanced with fresh herbs and autumn sweet apples and brambles were inevitably found in an indulgent crumble. Personally, the highlight of my trip was the fresh double cream I had in my coffee, guilt-free each morning from the local dairy farm, with a arduous day ahead of teaching the groups, for long 4 – 5 hour cookery sessions for lunch and dinner. Encouraging the use of this abundant Scottish larder slowly developed an independent confidence of cooking soups, breads, risottos, curries with ease enjoying the magic of creating wholesome food, by instinct – on their own.
The week started with a diverse group of personalities, experience and uncertainty – slowly we established a method, efficiency progressed, ideas got explorative, independence in the kitchen grew, an understanding of flavour flourished. A mid week slump of frustration translated into lasting endearment; challenges lead to respect. In the end it all came together – the experience left 16 new friends, cooking and creating food together with a common bonding experience. What will come of this week away, maybe some will cook again, other may make a career out of it but one collective understanding we all took back was a sense of empowerment created by the very act of sharing food and the generosity of cooking from scratch but most of all, building confidence and independence through sharing flavour.
Sumayya Usmani is an internationally published food writer, author and cookery teacher. Based in Glasgow and London, Sumayya is passionate about the rich culinary heritage of Pakistan, and her writing and teaching are devoted to sharing those distinct flavours and exploring the cultures and traditions that have influenced them.
Her first book, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and Memories from Pakistan (Frances Lincoln) is a memoir based cookbook which celebrates the food heritage, and recipes she experienced growing up in Pakistan. Her second book, Mountain Berries, Desert Spice is out in Spring 2017.