It feels very odd be writing ‘Intermediate Term’, and odder still to have cycled all the way back to Week 1. A new beginning – a new term – and yet a revisiting of the past: we’re back in first week once more. First days back anywhere tend to share similar features, be they at school, university, or work: the forgetting of passwords and door codes; repeated conversations and rehearsed questions and answers about what you did with your holidays; the unfamiliar familiarity of an old routine which you slip back into like a worn pair of winter boots. You’re buoyed by the limitless opportunity of a new term, year, or season which you’ve not yet had a chance to taint with apathy and laziness, and yet weighted by the fear of all the hard work and possible calamity it represents.
Going back to Leiths felt like a strange dream until I actually got there and remembered what my life at school is like. After that, it started to feel normal frighteningly fast. Sample six different wines at 10am on a Monday morning? Why not?
That was genuinely what we did on Monday, for our introductory wine lecture. Apparently all things wine-related are going to be getting a lot more serious this term. I did have a small wine breakthrough though: for the first time ever, I smelled wine and got something other than just ‘wine’ (apricots, in case you are wondering). Please may I have my diploma now?
In the afternoon we cooked the feast above as a gentle reintroduction to the kitchen (yes, really). From left to right, baba ghanoush with parsley and paprika, lamb meatballs in a cinnamon tomato sauce (technically kefta maticha), cous cous, roasted green peppers in harissa and preserved lemon dressing, and spiced chickpea flatbreads. We cooked as a table of four and it was all delicious.
On Tuesday our morning dem saw a truffle expert (fungus, not chocolate) come to speak to us and let us eat and handle some terrifyingly expensive specimens. We learnt, amongst other things, that there is no actual truffle in truffle oil and that dogs are preferable to pigs for truffle hunting because a pig will just eat all your truffles and get violent if you try to take them away from him. Later, we were back in the kitchens. I was told my portion of wild mushroom risotto and guinea fowl was on the large side for a main course. I promptly ate it all as an afternoon snack.
By mid-week, I think Leiths had decided that they’d eased us in gently enough and it was time to up the game a bit. The morning dem was on hollandaise with Ansobe. Hollandaise is another tricky technical skill for us to master, and I really was trying to focus on the technique, but I was minorly distracted by the absolutely delicious food we got to sample. Eggs Benedict, a fish tart with burnt hollandaise, steak with béarnaise sauce and triple-cooked chips… I ended the morning happy and full and sleepy, which was unfortunate because it was followed by a tricky afternoon for which I could have done with having my wits about me. Firstly we made artichoke soup for an assessment. This doesn’t sound so bad, but we were under strict time constraints, and I have never actually cooked with artichokes before. I have decided that they are divas in the vegetable kingdom. Once you peel them you immediately have to stick them in cold acidulated water so that they don’t oxidise and get ruined, you have to cut them into 2mm thick pieces to assure they cook through correctly, you must simmer (never boil) them in pre-scalded milk and… I won’t go on because it’s really dull, but suffice to say I was feeling a bit glum by the time I finally got my soup served. Luckily, and surprisingly, I actually got really good comments for a change. It’s not much to look at, but here’s a picture anyway to commemorate my triumph.
We followed up the artichoke soup with a pot roast chicken with a walnut and olive dressing which was slightly tricky, in part due to the fact that my cooking partner Sophie managed to properly slice through her finger while prepping the dressing. She was much more stoic about this than I would have been and soldiered on with a plaster and a blue glove for quite some time before I insisted that the blood filling the glove was problematic and she was whisked out of class to be tended to. Meanwhile, I haphazardly threw the rest of the chicken dish together and into the oven and ended up with the dish below an hour later – a very messy plate of over-cooked chicken. Sophie was fine in the end, for all those wondering.
On Thursday morning we had a lovely fish dem with Michael – I have been genetically blessed with the ability to eat fish at any time of day – followed by an oddly hectic session in which we made Eggs Benedict in order to test out our newly acquired hollandaise knowledge. It went well enough in the end, but Christ, was it ever a struggle getting there. Basically, the reason I only ever eat Eggs Benedict when I go out for brunch is that they are a bloody hassle to make and create a huge amount of washing up and scrubbing hollandaise off a gas hob is no fun.
I limped into the end of the week (literally, the cold and the cycling is making my knee play up), ready for another dem with Michael, this time on game. Now, I’ll eat anything and I’m not a squeamish person in the slightest, but even I struggled slightly as we watched a beautiful, sleek, fluffy rabbit get brutally beheaded by a cleaver and skinned. It was already dead, obviously. But still. The afternoon held more trauma in store. I’m pretty used to filleting flat fish by now, so when we were asked to fillet our first round fish – mackerel – I wasn’t too worried about it.
Ah, the blithe optimism of an ignorant idiot.
It was really, really hard. I mean, partly I was just rubbish at it, but it’s also pretty fiddly. Mackerel flesh is very delicate, and it’s easy for your fillets to start looking fairly brutally hacked as you attempt to prise them from the frame. The concentration in the kitchen was such that the room was almost completely silent, which is a rarity. We filleted two whole fish, and my end result was, frankly, awful, so I was left feeling pretty anxious about the whole thing.
Then we served our crème caramels, and mine was lovely, so that was nice.
In other news, either there is something wrong with my bike or I have lost literally all of my physical fitness over Christmas, because the five mile cycle ride from Paddington to Leiths which I was managing twice daily for months in 2015 has suddenly become a Herculean task to which I am not equal. This is not helped by the fact that it has been about zero degrees celsius while I have been cycling to school for much of this week, so I end the journey raw-faced and scarlet-fingered, the cold air having shredded my protesting lungs.
On the plus side, Great Western Rail have finally had the courtesy to bequeath my morning train to me. About time, really.