The following is a review of our Beginners Cookery Weekend from Muddy Stilettos: The Urban Guide to the Countryside. Visit muddystilettos.co.uk
“I’m just back from a weekend course at Ashburton Cookery School in south Devon and had to jump straight onto the blogeroo while I’m still on a massive freaking high. It turns out I can cook! Actual food! Incr-Edible!
Anyone who knows me well will chuckle at this statement. I’m the Queen of procrastination; I can usually find a zillion excuses not to spend time in the kitchen at home. But really it’s all an elaborate ruse to conceal my dirty little secret, *cough*: I have approximately zero culinary knowledge and can list the dishes I can cook to ok-ish standard on one hand. I mean, come on people, who admits to something like that nowadays? If you can’t pull together a fancy dinner party and don’t refer to all the celeb chefs by first names only, then you really should go and have a word with yourself, right?
All that changed today, as I jumped straight into my New Year’s resolutions, no messing about. This is my biggie for 2017 and I’ve only gone and ticked it off already – here’s the certificate to prove it just before it goes off to be framed in a nice, attention-grabbing gilt number.
Some of you may know a bit about Ashburton Cookery School already, since it’s considered to be one of the best schools in the country. My fellow classmates who had also enrolled on the ‘Beginners Course’ with me had travelled from all over the place, one even from far-flung Brittany in French-France. For long-distance visitors making a mini-break of it, you could definitely do worse than Ashburton, being one of those pretty Georgian towns on the southern edge of Dartmoor brimming with antiques emporiums and smart deli’s and just a really nice vibe about it. The main school campus itself (there are other smaller kitchens elsewhere in the town) is an attractive, modern wood and glass building just on the outskirts of town, with beautiful views across the Dartmoor hills.
I had no idea what to expect, since the school has over 40 different courses on its curriculum, from dinner parties and knife skills to patisserie, sushi and speciality cuisine from all around the world. Then there’s the prestigious Chef’s Academy, where the Gordon Ramsays of tomorrow come and train to be qualified chefs. So if this is the kind of place that attracts serious foodies, would my peers really be ‘beginners’ like me? Will the tutors be able to come down to my level? Will they think I’m a lost cause?
I needn’t have got my knickers in a twist. When you arrive, you’re eased into things with coffee and 10 minutes to exchange pleasantries and ‘what’s the worst thing you’ve done in the kitchen’ stories with your classmates, in the room where you’ll later get to sit and eat your dishes. Then you’re handed an apron and ushered into the kitchen. In my class there were just seven of us, an eclectic mix of retirees, mother and daughter duos and young aspiring chefs, but fundamentally we were all just a bit fed up of winging it at home and wanted to learn enough to make us feel that bit more confident in the kitchen.
We were given packs containing the ambitious-looking menus that we would be cooking, recipes and a bunch of helpful-looking lists full of the kind of stuff I’ve always assumed other people were somehow just born knowing: what fruits and veg are in season and when, meat temperatures and cooking times and so on. All of the tutors are trained chefs and have spent years working in the industry. Ours, Lee, a local from Plymouth did a great job of putting us all at ease. I knew from the off that no question would be considered too stoopid and that I’d get through the next 48 hours without feeling a fool.
This two-day course is almost completely practical, meaning we get to cook almost everything on the menu ourselves, from scratch. It’s designed to equip you with the basic skills that you somehow managed to miss growing up and that you’ll be able to use in lots of other recipes: pastry, sauces, bread-making, cooking meat and fish, roasts and so on.
You’re also cooking with the best locally-sourced ingredients, which I now realise makes such a difference. Honey is from the local chair of the beekeeping society, meat is Dartmoor reared and the cream comes from Riverford dairy down the road.
The kitchens themselves feel a bit bake-off-y minus the tent flaps, but no sign of Mel and Sue, sadly. Our kitchen was the smallest which I liked because it felt more intimate, a bit like the baby room in the nursery, you know the carpeted one upstairs where we could make as much of a racket as we liked.
And here’s the really magical bit: kitchen porters (or KP’s, as us pro’s call them) dart around quietly clearing up dirty dishes and cleaning up your bomb-site cooking stations as you work. And some invisible fairy has done all of the prep, measuring out your ingredients. This not only cuts out all the boring faff, it means you get to make the most of every single minute of the course cooking.
On day one, we were shown how to bake rosemary and olive focaccia bread with a simple green salad, followed by a salmon, dill and leek tart with green veg and a fruit salad with mascarpone cream to finish. Each step was demonstrated at just the right pace and then it was over to us. And we all achieved it, to our complete and utter surprise.
Day two and we all miraculously returned, nobody struck down with food poisoning. Today, being Sunday was centred around the roast. Now, having just done Christmas this was particularly apt for me, since the “foolproof” Delia Christmas turned out to be not so in the Muddy household. It might not look much, but our efforts were rewarded with a leek, potato and watercress soup, roast pork loin with crackling that actually had crunch, vegetables that weren’t a mush and homemade apple sauce. And it was actually yummy even though I say so myself. We were also shown how to whip up a delicious chocolate and hazelnut brownie and present it like a pro. Have a looksie:
I’ve learnt soooo many nifty tips these past few days; simple chef’s tricks of the trade that help make life easier, like double layering clingfilm to avoid getting into a tangled-up mess; how to chop an onion without it falling apart and crush garlic without the mess of one of those crushers; and my favourite – how to segment an orange without it ending up in a horrible pulpy mess.
I should warn you that, once you’ve collected your certificate, right by the exit there’s also a small shop crammed full of gadgety bits and swanky knives – in fact most of the equipment used at the school is available to buy if you really get the bug – and at a lower cost than most other stores. It’s hard not to part with the pennies in here once you’re brimming with new-found enthusiasm for your culinary adventures.
For anyone thinking about booking on to one of these cracking courses, it might seem a bit on the expensive side at first – my course would set you back £315 for the weekend – but I think it’s more than worth it. These are well thought-out days that are packed full of useful, practical stuff and it’s an incredible way to step out of your busy life for a while and absorb yourself in something new. A small price to pay for one of life’s great skills, I reckon.”
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