I came into this week feeling oddly buoyant and energised, the exhaustion of the last couple of weeks behind me. There was no logical reason for this, since I did a non-stop eight hour shift at Taste of London on the weekend on top of everything else, so I can only assume that I am like one of those hypothermia victims who think that they are really hot so they get confused and take all their clothes off just before they die of cold.
Monday was pheasant plucking and drawing day. Again, no reason for me to be particularly happy about this – lots of people were rather dreading it – but having grown up in a house furnished with a ridiculous amount of taxidermy by an eccentric artist, the dead pheasants didn’t bother me at all. I’ve also got a fairly high threshold for things that people seem to find disgusting, so I was perfectly happy to pluck the pheasant bare-handed and (ready?) draw out its entrails by cutting a hole in the vent to enter the body’s cavity and hooking my fingers around its organs to extract them. We were then roasting our pheasant and preparing traditional game accompaniments to keep it company, which in this case consisted of game chips, fried crumb, savoy cabbage with pancetta, and gravy. We worked in pairs: my partner, Laura, and I were an excellent team and breezed through everything. We were one of the first teams to finish, and when we served our food the comments were positive, so all in all, a happy afternoon. Not for the pheasants though.
On Tuesday we were fed so much that I started to suspect Leiths is secretly out to permanently incapacitate us all. It was awesome. We started the day with a gift cooking dem delivered by Ansobe and Jane, by the end of which the weakest amongst the herd were saying things like ‘I cannot handle any more sugar’, and ‘I’m so full, I can’t taste any more.’ You’ll be pleased (and unsurprised) to hear that I did my bit by tasting all the food – oatcakes, relish, chutney, cheese, pate, cranberry bars, chocolate salami, mince meat biscuits, honeycomb, ice cream with salted caramel sauce, biscotti… I don’t want to brag, but I’m just really dedicated, you know? By the way, everyone who knows me is getting hand-made food-related Christmas gifts this year, because I am at culinary school and I have no income.
The afternoon was another lovely session, during which we got a sugar top up, just in case we were flagging after the morning’s diabetes-inducing fun. We made coffee éclairs and covered our Christmas cakes in fondant icing. The Christmas cake project is an ongoing one – more on that in a moment – but the little éclairs were a bit trickier than I was expecting them to be. Éclairs are one of those things I have made for years, only to get to Leiths and be told I have been making them wrong, and I haven’t quite gotten my head around the proper method yet. Still, éclairs are éclairs, and I ate three. To check the technique was definitely wrong on the whole batch. It was.
On Wednesday, we got to cook as teams of four to make an feast of Indian food for our lunches. We made chana dal, lamb rogan josh, methi poori, alu gobi, cucumber raita, and date chutney, and ate until we could physically eat no more, before going down for our Christmas dem with Phil and Sue in the afternoon and tasting a full Christmas dinner. Somehow, you just end up making room.
Thursday saw our last kitchen session of the term, which meant the last session with the students who are only at Leiths for the Foundation term. After spending nine weeks getting to know everyone in our class, it’s very sad to say goodbye to three out of the sixteen, and it’s going to seem odd to have three brand new students taking their places next term. Even though it was still technically November, we were listening to Christmas songs and eating Quality Street (for me, Quality Street are one of the true signs that Christmas is coming – I traditionally sit on my parents’ living room floor, tip a huge tub of Quality Street onto the rug, and put them in rainbow order, but I think I would get judged pretty hard for doing that in the school kitchens) and so it was all suitably festive.
Now, I like to bake, but I am not an artist in any sense at all, so while most people sculpted elaborate nativity scenes from fondant and piped intricate designs in a rainbow of colours, I simply baked some snowman-shaped macarons at home, popped them on my cake on top of some coconut snow, piped Merry Christmas on it in a wonky fashion, and called it a day. It took me about fifteen minutes out of our allotted two hours, and I spent the rest of the time wandering around hassling everyone else and eating all the chocolate. At the end of the day, we had a canapé party and got to sample amazing treats cooked by the teachers and mosey around to have a look at everyone else’s Christmas cake creations.
Finally, Friday morning saw us all trooping into school nervously to sit our theory exam. Many people have been incredulous and/or confused when I have mentioned that we have to sit theory exams as well as being assessed practically. I don’t think they believe me when I explain that there is a fair amount of technique and science behind classical cooking training – they look at me very sceptically as if I say ‘I am sure really all you are doing is floating about and icing buns all day’ – but I promise there is a lot of base knowledge to cover. We could be asked about why a pastry has become tough, the technique for making a perfect choux, temperature conversions from Celsius to Fahrenheit, locations of specific cuts of beef on a cow, the ratios of egg to oil in mayonnaise, and about a thousand other things. After it was over I ate a whole jumbo bag of Maltesers and then went to the pub with everyone else at 11.30am, which should give you an indication of the stress levels.
We also found out what we’ll be cooking for our practical exams next week. My assessment slot is on Wednesday, so while you’re all going about your business, please think of me getting up at 5am to drive to London and be critically examined on my pastry making and chicken jointing skills, while trying not to set anyone on fire or accidentally stab myself with a boning knife. It’s not all about swanning about and eating canapés. Unfortunately.