To kick off Week 4, we were visited by two very charming men who dismantled a large amount of cow for our learning pleasure. Also a pig. And a lamb.
It was awesome.
Peter Holmes and Graham Portwine are two retired butchers who have a wealth of fascinating knowledge regarding all things meat, which they were kind enough to share with us. It was a lovely way to spend a Monday: being gently eased into a new week spending hours drooling over unusual and premium cuts of meat and watching expert butchers turning an intimidating carcass into a hundred viable dinner options with consummate skill. I still cannot be completely relied upon to accurately butcher a chicken, so I gazed on with envious admiration as they delineated joints I had never even heard of. There was a hacksaw and about six different types of knife involved. They sold off all the meat at cost price at the end of the day and I went home with a rucksack full of bavette steak, shin beef, and Barnsley chops.
It was a good job we had a relaxing Monday, because we needed it to gear up to Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, it was our group’s turn to do the Cooking for 50 challenge. For context, I am going to pause briefly and explain how the teaching structure at Leiths works, because I don’t think I ever have before – do skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested or you already know.
There are roughly 100 students in a Diploma year group at Leiths, and we are divided in half into the White group and the Blue group. One week the White group will cook in the mornings and have dems in the afternoons while the Blue group does the opposite, and then the next week the schedule switches so that the White group are having dems in the mornings and cooking in the afternoons, and so on. Within each half of the year there are three classes of sixteen students, organised roughly by age, named A, B, and C. So I happen to be in White and in the middle group in terms of age, thus I am in class White B. Each class has a class teacher who looks after the class as a whole in terms of all the administrative issues, marking collation and progress reports and the like, and who also leads their own class for cooking sessions the majority of the time. So this year, both B classes belong to Heli, who is my class teacher. We usually have Heli for two or three cooking sessions a week, and the others are led by other teachers at Leiths who aren’t responsible for a specific class but take classes (seemingly at random) when they’re not being handled by the designated class teacher.
Back with me? Lovely.
So, the Cooking for 50 challenge involves groups of four people cooking for 50 people, i.e. the other half of the year group. I cooked with three fellow students from White B for the whole of the Blue group: we had the morning to make them lunch. It was so hectic that I did not take a single picture, so instead have a screenshot of our Mexican-themed menu.
I did not sit down or eat or drink anything from 9am to 2pm while we cooked and, later, cleaned up. It was manic and exhausting. I think (I hope) that the food went down reasonably well, and I am so pleased to have the challenge behind us. The upside of the whole thing is that we, the White group, are fed by teams of students from the Blue group throughout the term, so we have been the lucky recipients of many different and delicious lunches.
Due to the vagaries of timetabling, Wednesday (when I could really have used a nice sit-down) was an all day cooking session. With no dem in which to relax, absorb information, and be fed, we were in the kitchens all day and made (deep breath): steamed steak and kidney suet puddings; slow-roast pork belly with choy sum, mange toute, and a peanut chilli dressing; wholemeal beer bread, and Arnold Bennett omelettes glazed with hollandaise sauce. We were also supposed to be making stock, but it was decided that there simply was not enough hob space.
To be honest, I was worried about all day cooking right off the back of Cooking for 50, but I needn’t have been. The kitchen gods seemed to be smiling upon me, and somehow the session felt almost relaxed. Admittedly, this might have been because anything would have felt relaxed after Tuesday’s madness, but you take what you can get. I would also like to point out that the pudding pictured above wasn’t actually served like that: I just forgot to get a photo before the teacher cut into it for marking.
By the time Wednesday drew to a close I felt like so much had happened that it may as well have been Friday. The universe doesn’t really work like that though, so back into the kitchens we went. Everyone seemed pretty tired and there’s a nasty bug going around that meant there were a few people absent, so it was a rather languid morning really. We made our first attempts at an Espagnole sauce (think really, really fancy and time-consuming gravy), pastry cases from pâte sucrée, and vanilla soufflés. What’s that you say? We seem to be making an awful lot of soufflés lately? Why yes, I concur. This was our third or fourth attempt in recent weeks, and I am happy to say that mine was deemed to be a good effort this time around. I’m not going to pretend that’s due to any particular skill on my part though: the complete randomness of soufflé achievement does seem to have little to do with technique in my case. It must be almost entirely determined by karma or fate or star-signs or something.
In the afternoon we had our first normal dem for ages, after a few days of unusual timetabling, and it was a good’un. Led by Heli, we explored fresh pasta and shellfish (yes, it does seem like quite a random combination, but I love both of these things so I’m not complaining) and were shown examples of the perfect pasta dough, alongside examples of what happens when the dough becomes too wet, too greasy, too dry and so on. We were also shown how to properly prepare squid, followed by the serving of some deep fried salt and pepper squid that was so delicious people were essentially elbowing others out of the way to get samples. We finished with matelote, a classic fish stew made typically with eel and red wine, that lots of people were unsure about but which actually turned out to be delicious. Well, I thought so anyway.
Above, you have a rare action shot from Friday’s session. We’re not really supposed to take pictures during cooking time, but I had just managed to flip my potato rosti over – after much worrying – and I was so proud of it sitting there all golden and delicious in its butter-bath that I couldn’t resist taking a quick snap. The rosti was served with a veal steak, green beans, the dreaded turned carrots, and a Madeira sauce, and made a very satisfactory lunch. We also used our pastry cases from the day before to make chocolate tarts topped with honeycomb. My pastry lacked some finesse (I am going to have to put ‘lacking in finesse’ on my CV for the sake of honesty), but the tart itself was so tasty that I didn’t particularly mind.
Finally, we ended the week with a wine session. Friday afternoon is the perfect time to do a wine tasting, and this time we were particularly lucky as we were visited by Nancy Gilchrist, who took us through an introduction to the art of food and wine pairing. We sampled six different wines with varying combinations of the food on the very odd little tasting plate you can see below. There’s brie, blue cheese, dill, a strawberry, apple, grissini, basil. dark chocolate, salt, curry sauce, and black pepper. We like to have all the bases covered.
Despite the hectic start to this week, the last few days were lovely, and I really feel like I have settled into term now and am completely used to the rhythm of school. Now I’d best go and practice my vegetable-turning skills like I promised I would so that I don’t end up destroying any more carrots next week.