Hoovering: Beard-Tugging and Tummy-Lugging

I recently got a cookery lesson at L’etalier Des Chefs as a present. I’d been twice before and loved it, so Santa had known it was a safe bet. I had a one-and-a-half hour course and chose French Cookery as it was full of things I’d never cooked before.

Moules marinières, fillet of skate with roasted cauliflower and caper buerre noisette and poached pear with hot chocolate sauce – I was able to tweet before the class: ‘I’m boning a fish tonight’. No retweets.

The class was the bomb. The kitchens are super swish, as was the chef that taught us: Dahlia. They’re less hot on the admin perhaps, when I emailed to check the spelling of her name, they said it was ‘S-t-e-v-e’.

You get to learn as much as you want, Steve knew the answers to all my annoying questions. I was that loser who asked extra stuff. Luckily the only other chap on this course, Simon, was as obsessed with food as me, so we both got stuck in.

First we did our ‘mise en place’. This is how proper chefs (and dickheads) say ‘chopping’. It’s just French for ‘putting in place’. I used to be defensive about my own chaotic style of home-cooking where I attempted to do everything at once and failed. Preparing everything first, before a hob even goes on, was one of the most useful things I learned.

I loved learning knife skills, holding them in the right place and getting them sharpened in key-cutters’. You can do a whole separate course in knives. When you can do a more fun, more applied course like this though, and learn all the skills you’re likely to ever use anyway – what’s the point? That isn’t one of the questions I asked the chef.

Then we tugged and batted all the beards and barnacles off the mussels. If they’re only a little bit open, you can tap them and if they are still alive, they close up again. That was a heady combination of wonder-making and repulsive. Then we cooked them up in a big steamy pan.

There’s no cream in moules marinières. Who knew? Chefs.

We didn’t miss it, it was scrumdiddly. I had a glass of Australian Chardonnay, dry and summery. There being only two of us, we had a huge mountain of buttery; garlicy; winey bivalves with hot fresh bread. There must have been enough for six. Simon and I were victors though, we gobbled them all up. Winners! Except that meant from then on, we were full.

Next, mainses. We nutted up our butter, which means to nearly burn it. Then we stir-fried the cauliflower into it. It was lush. The sweetest cauliflower I’d ever hoovered .
Next we got to grips with the skate, trimming off its wings. Some people like to eat the wings even though they’re full of cartilage. Steve said they like ‘the crunch’. (Some people buy the music of Chris Brown, that doesn’t mean we need to make time for them.)

The amount of butter we used to cook the fish in was obscene. Every time a great wad of it stopped sizzling at the edge of the pan, we had to add more. You know those people who only use coconut oil now? Imagine them crying. It was a festival of old fashioned fat. It was, of course, delicious. Fluffy fish, topped with tangy capers. Crunchy spuds and nutty, caramel-flavoured vegetables. We found room.

By the time it got to pudding, on the inside, I looked like Henry VIII. Poaching pears turned out to be delightfully simple. Use unripe pears. Peel them but leave the stalks on, all pretty. Melon-ball out any seeds. Cut the bottoms off to make them flat and cook them in hot sugary water, with vanilla and cardamon. The chocolate ganache was so simple on the day, just heating cream and then folding chocolate in. We ended up with a glossy rich liquid of the Gods. Together the pear and chocolate tasted of clean, rich decadence. I’ve not been able to recreate the ganache since. I sort of wish it had failed on the day, so I could have found out why. That’s not something you often hear a comedian say.

We were there for two and a half hours in the end because there was so much to scoff. I left with arteries like the M6 on a Friday night and pores which pumped out steady plumes of garlic, like a launderette does steam. That’s not to say I wasn’t glowing with joy, pride and whole new set of cookery-powers.

Jessica completed the French Cooking’ course from L’etalier des Chefs on 8th May 2014. More information from www.atelierdeschefs.co.uk