I’m going to make a sweeping, reductive statement and say that I’m not really a fan of red wine. If my mother is reading this, I’m pretty sure she’ll be shaking her head and tutting that I can’t possibly be her daughter, but I can’t help it: it’s never been ‘my drink’. White wine is beauty, gin and tonic is even better, but red? I’ll pass, thanks.
Monday, then, was a bit tricky for me, as it began with a wine lecture and tasting based entirely around Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Even the hardcore red wine fans struggled with it a bit first thing on a Monday morning. Our most regular WSET instructor, Richard, is funny and charming, and while it was very interesting learning about the different flavours one can theoretically find in Merlot, I was hard pushed to detect anything other than ‘red wine’ from my glass. Still much to learn there.
Monday afternoon, however, was an unexpected delight. We made gluten free citrus polenta cakes and a Moroccan spiced spinach and chickpea strudel (pictured above – believe me, tastier than it looks). Both of my dishes received actual praise from Ansobe and I was glowing all afternoon. Anyone who reads this blog will likely have noticed that I make a fair bit of cake, so that wasn’t too much of a challenge, but it was my first time with filo. Of course, we had to do it all by hand. Even Queen Mary Berry says on Bake Off that filo is the one pastry she would buy rather than make, so that should give you an indication of how high the Leiths standards are. Filo pastry, from scratch, by hand. People: we are not messing around here. It was actually quite enjoyable in the end, and though I don’t think I’ll be doing it at home any time soon, the end result was an achievement.
Tuesday’s cooking session was slightly less serene. We had to skin whole slip soles, so that we could serve them grilled with burnt hollandaise, which is a retro throwback of a dish that I doubt will be gracing my dinner table. Pulling skin off a whole sole is oddly satisfying: if you do it right, you should be able to rip the whole thing off in one go, leaving the flesh below intact. I am slowly gaining confidence with hollandaise. I usually have to stop myself eating it from the bowl with a spoon and remind myself that it’s supposed to be used to glaze fish/ top an omelette/ smother poached eggs and so on, as opposed to simply being a tasty snack. My fish was a teeny little bit undercooked, but my sauce was well made and seasoned and I am finally getting the hang of turned courgettes, so Tuesday was fairly good to me.
Wednesday was an all day session on food safety and hygiene, finished by an exam, which enabled us to achieve our CIEH Level 2 Award in Food Safety. It’s a compulsory part of the Leiths Diploma and it was exactly as fun as it sounds. As there are no photos of the actual event, please enjoy this picture of the sunrise from the train.
Thursday’s morning of cooking was all about preparation for our all day kitchen session on Friday, so we made and shaped hot water crust pastry ready for our veal and gammon pies (no standard pork pies here), prepared our pie fillings, and cooked a spicy tamarind chutney. Hot water crust pastry breaks all the normal pastry rules. It’s hot, and we’re used to taking elaborate measures to keep pastry as cold as possible. You have to work it, and we’re using to touching pastry as little as we can. It’s very forgiving and can be shaped like plasticine, and we’re used to pastry tearing at the slightest provocation. Basically, it’s awesome.
In the afternoon we were visited by another Leiths alum: Henry Harris, formerly of Racine. While telling us interesting stories about his career in restaurants, he prepared us brains in black butter, duck hearts on toast, scallops with crab and celeriac remoulade, and steak au poivre. I think even some previously self-professed offal haters were won over by the brain dish, which was lovely, and it’s always a treat to take a bite from a lump of fillet steak that probably would have cost me half my weekly food budget in a restaurant.
Finally Friday: all day cooking. These sessions used to inspire fear simply because they’re so full on, but now that we do them reasonably often our stamina has improved and they don’t feel so much tougher than a normal half day. That said, I did wish there had been somewhere convenient to have a little nap at lunch. We finished the above dish first – spicy pea and potato cakes with poached eggs and tamarind chutney, which was a very satisfying meal. Then it was on to the parade of pies. Okay, so we only did two pies each, but in a class of sixteen that totals 32 pies, which is not to be sniffed at. The pie below is a chicken and red pepper special, which may not look too remarkable at first, but is crowned by my first (and happily successful) attempt at making flaky pastry from scratch. I am quite proud of the way all the layers have puffed up, even though it was pronounced underbaked. This was entirely my fault, because I was so impatient to get it out of the oven and see the pastry that I didn’t want to give it another five minutes.
Finally, the hand raised veal and gammon pie. This was a labour of love, constructed over three days, and I have to say it was worth the effort. It was absolutely delicious, even though it was so heavy that it could have easily qualified as a weapon. I literally had to take an entirely separate bag home to accommodate all the pie, and ended up borrowing spare tupperware from my kind classmate Shalini when my own supply was exhausted. The businessman sitting next to me on the train home to Oxford looked at me oddly as I lovingly cradled my bag of pie on my lap all the way home.
So we say goodbye to Week 7 and move on to Week 8, and the end of term looms terrifyingly close. Onwards.