Sunday, 24 January 2010

Leiths School of Food and Wine

Before lunch on Friday, an email pinged into my inbox inviting me to attend a cookery course on Saturday morning at Leiths School of Food and Wine. A quick peek at their website promised classic and creative seasonal cookery in a professional but informal atmosphere – perfect. Even more perfect was their being a mere two tube stops away from me, in Stamford Brook.

The School offers an array of courses, from morning masterclasses and specialist classes on everything from cakes and cheeses to sauces and sushi, to a year-long diploma for mini Gordons in the making.

Heading bleary-eyed through the door just before 10am, I shunned the classic chef whites in favour of head-to-toe black, which would better protect me from anything flying out of the frying pan and onto my attire. Entering the classroom, a cup of coffee was thrust into my hand by a fox-like chef sporting a high ponytail.

Around the room everyone was engaged in animated conversation. I found the nearest wall to lean against and sipped my coffee. A sprightly young chef introduced herself and talked us through the menu: Jerusalem artichoke soup with Parmesan croutons, followed by Balsamic lamb steaks with pinenut and parsley salad, and finishing with Profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce. My mouth was watering.

A second chef came through the double doors and whispered something to the sprightly chef. A look of controlled horror spread across her face. She cleared her throat. 'I've just been told there's a problem with the gas, in that we don't have any. But fear not, the gas man is on his way and I'm sure he'll be able to fix the problem'. We were assured this had never happened in the School's 35-year history.

Split into three groups, we were ushered into adjacent kitchens and taught knife skills. I was on a work station with Luke, Ian and Ali, who had been bought the class as a present from their mum, sister and girlfriend respectively – like the Christmas jumpers in the Tassimo ad. We all got to work slicing our onions, Samurai-style, into tiny chunks.

Ten minutes later the sprightly chef emerged with good news; the problem had been fixed and we were cooking with gas. Onto the soup... I melted a knob of butter in one of their chic old-school copper saucepans and added the onion, sweating it down until it began to caramelise. I then flung in the artichokes, which, we were informed, weren't artichokes at all but a member of the sunflower family. Curious.

As the ability to multitask is a must for all chefs, we made a start on our Choux pastry, bringing a knob of butter to a roiling boil (whatever that is) whilst sieving 4 ounces of flour three times. Adding the flour to the boiling butter, we took it off the heat and beat it senseless with a wooden spoon for a minute until it took on the appearance of smash mash, a shamefully familiar sight. After adding the eggs, we placed little blobs of the mixture onto baking trays, turning them over after 10 minutes and punching holes in them to make way for for the cream.

The lamb steaks were the easiest to make – after marinading them for half an hour in a plastic bag full of balsamic vinegar, they required a mere minute on each side in a hot frying pan. It never ceases to delight me how simple meat is to cook – it's all the other stuff that takes time.

Meanwhile, we tossed a salad of sundried tomatoes, black olives, pine nutes, parsley and lambs lettuce, and finished off our soups in the blender. The school is a sleek operation and admittedly we did have a lot of help, but they cleverly give you the impression it's all your own doing. After a morning of hard work, it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Drizzling my soup with truffle oil and the parmesan croutons I'd made earlier, it was absolutely delicious. So good in fact, I found it hard to believe it had come from my (not so) fair hands.

I was a bit disappointed with the lamb, as it was slightly less pink than I was hoping for, but the pesto sauce and pine nut salad gave it a fresh lift. I was probably most proud of my Profiteroles, purely because pastry is so damn hard to make. The chocolate sauce was divine (as all chocolate is), the cream was the perfect consistency and the pastry light and airy. I stopped at four and took the rest home. That reminds me...

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