One evening last month I headed a little way out of Ipswich and along a farm track to uncover Root Camp that was tucked away behind the woodland garden in Little Blakenham.
Although only a short drive from our county town, the farm is surrounded by countryside, providing the ideal backdrop for the activities that go on there.
Root Camp is a residential field-to-table cookery school for 15-21 year olds. Root Camps take place at various locations around the country, and the Suffolk camps are here for three weeks of the summer.
Groups of children from various backgrounds stay at Root Camp for a week learning how to cook from scratch, as well as being taught about the provenance of the ingredients and the importance of sustainable farming.
The founder of Root Camp Cassia greeted me at the farm and showed me around the site. When I arrived one group was busy in the kitchen cooking a Middle Eastern feast for dinner, whilst the other group were learning how to make natural balms, sleeping pillows and footbaths.
Cassia explained that there are normally around 16 children at each Root Camp and the group is split into two – one half will be taking part in an activity, whilst the other half cooks the next meal, and then they swap over for the afternoon.
The idea for Root Camp began when Cassia realised that she needed to teach her son to cook before he left home.
“I think that being able to cook for yourself, and others, and have independence in that way will make you into an adult, so I decided to teach my son to cook in an intensive way, but I wanted to make it fun.
“I said he could invite six friends over for a weekend, they could all stay the night and I would teach them how to cook. It was all based around the teenage sensibility – fast pasta, team supper, late breakfast, early supper with friends.
“I called it Teen Cuisine, I typed up the recipes, I put them into two teams and they’d both make the same dish and compete – it was really fun. It got me thinking that I’d done it for these small bunch of kids but there must be a lot of kids out there who needed that.”
She spoke to a friend about her idea – Guy Watson, the founder of Riverford Organics in Devon – and he said that it wasn’t just about the cooking, it was that young people needed to learn about the ingredients and where their food came from. He invited Cassia’s group to come and work on the land at Riverford – and the structure of Root Camp began to take shape.
“We’re a very urban society and for people who don’t have a relationship with the countryside it’s an unknown,” explained Cassia, “Root Camp aims to make things transparent, so you know there’s a process behind the products that you buy. It is no ones fault that they don’t know that process, as it’s not part of everyday life anymore, but it’s a wonderful thing from them to know.”
Personally, I realise that I often take living in the countryside for granted. I grew up on a farm and I know how hard my dad had to work to make sure the land was fruitful each season – but many children don’t have that same connection to the food that we eat everyday and I was really pleased to see Root Camp bridging that gap.
During their stay at Root Camp the children take part in a variety of activities. They might be bread making, gardening, foraging, owl spotting, learning butchery techniques or fishing. The week I visited, the group had been to Old Hall Community in East Bergholt to find out about alternative ways of living and farming.
This was mentioned numerous times when I was chatting to the group as they were cooking supper in a converted barn on the site. There was obviously a great rapport going in the group, with a bit of banter, but also a keen interest in how to make the food. The kids welcomed me in, chatting about what they’d been up to that week and letting me try one of the balms that they’d made.
Cassia had explained earlier that the children come from all different walks of life, and through cooking and eating food together, those social bubbles are burst.
She is keen to stress that Root Camp isn’t about offering a perfect view of the world. There’s too much of that on social media. Instead it offers children the chance to experience a different side to life, try new things, and see there are other ways to live.
“Root Camp is about tasting in the wider sense of the word – tasting freedom, nature, food, cultures, spices, and embedding experiences for the rest of life.”
I think we could all do with some of that, no matter how old we are.