Have I forgotten what March is like or is it really chilly for March? It’s below freezing when I leave the house in the mornings, and I’m still having to pour hot water over my car before I can drive to the station. It feels colder than winter did, and yet it’s supposedly spring.
I felt like I’d entered a slightly altered parallel universe this week when I stepped onto my very familiar morning train and found it not so familiar – instead of the blue and pink colour scheme to which I had become accustomed, everything was green and grey. I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when the trains are re-carpeted, re-painted, and re-upholstered seemingly overnight it’s oddly disorientating.
After I’d gotten over whining about the cold and the trains, our week began with a visit from Michael North, the Michelin-starred chef patron of The Nut Tree. I was hugely excited about this because The Nut Tree is one of my favourite restaurants in Oxfordshire and it was so lovely to have someone from my area to come and visit rather than another London-based chef. Don’t get me wrong, all of our guest lecturers from London have been great, but it’s wonderful to have a reminder that there is a culinary scene out in ‘the sticks’ too. Michael broke down a haunch of venison for us and made a couple of stunning dishes with it which were deceptively simple but big on flavour and precise technique. An inspiring masterclass.
The afternoon brought us a fairly relaxed cooking session, as we were basically prepping things for dishes in the week ahead and therefore didn’t have any specific service times. This always means we tend to chat and dawdle more and inevitably end up leaving the kitchen late, but it’s still good sometimes to slightly slow the frenetic energy of the kitchen and just focus on making something well. We made flaky pastry from scratch as well as fillings for the savoury tarts that the pastries were destined for, and began the process of making pear sorbet. I always forget how delicious pears can be – I think of them as a bit bland – but the sorbet mix was so good that I started eating spoonfuls of the stuff and had to have it dragged away from me so I’d have enough left to freeze. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) it’s a surprisingly easy sorbet to make and can be done at home without an ice cream maker.
On Tuesday we started off with a wine lecture by Laura Clay on varieties of white grapes we hadn’t yet covered, and then moved on to a cooking session that went, for me, fairly disastrously. My flaky pastry, which I had spent Monday afternoon lovingly making, completely failed to rise when baked. Making flaky pastry is a convoluted six stage process, and it’s disheartening to put all that work into something only to see it fail, especially when you have no idea what went wrong: it seemed totally fine all the way through until it came out of the oven. I got an awful mark for my pastry, but my tart filling of roasted butternut squash, feta, and a walnut and gruyere pesto was pronounced delicious. This was also the day another student – who is completely lovely – very accidentally whacked me fairly hard in the face with a big commercial roll of cling film. I’m not even sure how it happened, but I had to spend twenty minutes holding ice over my eye to try to stop it from bruising.
Unfortunately, Wednesday wasn’t much better. We were making hot cross buns and, for some reason, my dough rose much more slowly than everyone else’s, meaning I put them in the oven very late and it ran into my service time for our pear desserts. When I finally got them served my haste showed through, as my crosses were uneven and wonky. I had such grand plans for my pear plate – a scoop of pear sorbet, a tuille biscuit and crumb, flaked almonds, pear crisps, and a salted caramel sauce – but I was such a ball of stress that I ended up randomly blobbing my caramel onto the plate, under-drying my pear crisps so that they weren’t crisp enough, and making my tuilles too thin. All in all, very disappointing.
Wednesday also brought us a visit from Louise Talbot, a professional cheese maker, who gave us a demonstration on how to make all sorts of different cheeses, and butter, from scratch at home. We got to sample some incredible home-made halloumi and mozzarella, and the halloumi in particular was so much better than any version I’ve ever eaten from a supermarket; light, soft, and perfectly balanced.
Thursday started with a wine revision class, in which we attempted to identify different wines in a blind tasting. Normally we are given a tasting sheet which includes the details of each wine we’re given, along with the bottles themselves. This time the tasting sheet was disconcertingly blank, and the bottles were shrouded in mysterious black velvet cloaks. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I am very bad at identfying types of wine from a blind tasting. Nonetheless, the session with Richard was fun, and it was definitely useful to go over all we’ve covered this term, as there is a huge amount of material and I keep getting my Muscat and Muscadet and Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé mixed up.
We were a bit nervous about our afternoon cooking session when we saw that the morning group, who are usually pretty speedy, were leaving half an hour later than usual, which is never a good omen. We were making espagnole sauce, salt and pepper squid, and filleting and dressing the huge trout that we had poached the day before. Luckily, everything went much more smoothly than expected. My salt and pepper squid was just about acceptable, apart from my terrible knife skills, which need work.
Leiths is not averse to the occasional foray back into the seventies, and so it came about that we found ourselves poaching, filleting, and dressing an entire trout. It’s actually much trickier than it looks. Filleting such a big fish once it’s cooked is a challenge, as the flesh is very delicate, and getting all the bones out and reforming the fish requires some careful manoeuvring. Luckily, my partner Laura and I had some success with this retro classic, and our fish was pronounced perfectly cooked and beautifully dressed with its Tudor style watercress collar. The whole process was oddly satisfying, and, lucky for me, Laura doesn’t isn’t keen on trout and so I got to take all of that lovely fish home with me. Fish cakes, curries, pies… the possibilities are limitless. James is going to have to put up with eating a lot of trout.
On Friday morning we had a visit from Sue and Sarah who gave us a very informative and entertaining talk on setting up a catering business. I must say, I’m not sure I could handle the pressure and the sheer volume of logistics becoming a self-employed caterer seems to require, but Sue and Sarah were very knowledgeable and made us all laugh with tales of mayhem and mishaps that I perhaps shouldn’t share on this blog.
I was completely dreading Friday afternoon because it held our mock practical exam in store, bringing with it the harsh reminder that the real thing is less than two weeks away. Historically I have performed terribly in mock practicals, so I entered the kitchen full of anxiety and dread. We were tasked to make a cheddar and spinach souffle, and a venison steak with spring greens, a peppercorn sauce, and a potato accompaniment of our choice. In the end, I hit all the service times, but my soufflé was overcooked, my fondant potatoes were undercooked, and the outside of my venison was apparently scorched. Sigh. Not much more to be said there. No good being fast if you food isn’t up to standard.
And so concludes, incredibly, Week 9. Next week we have our theory exam, and the week after that our practical exams, and then we’ve lumbered through the Intermediate Term and have Advanced bearing down upon us.