It’s been a funny old week. When we started at Leiths, we were told that by the end of the third week we’d be so exhausted that we’d basically be dragging ourselves around on our knees, begging for mercy and occasionally weakly lifting ourselves up to the stoves to attempt to make a white sauce before falling asleep. This is probably why Leiths went fairly easy on us this week – because they fear our collective complete collapse. We don’t get anything as lavish as a half term, but we do have a three day weekend, which is why I am writing this at 10am on a Friday morning in my PJs, having just eaten cheese on toast for breakfast and experiencing that odd feeling of unsettling freedom. You know, when you’re consciously aware that you’re allowed to be at home and barely moving, but you’re so used to rushing around all the time that your subconscious is quietly panicking and going ‘Come on, get your act together, woman! Up and at ’em! Go and do something! Anything!’. So I occasionally leap up and walk purposefully into the kitchen, turn around in a circle, realise there’s nothing I have to be doing in there, wash up a mug or something as a token effort, and then go and sit back down again.
Oddly enough, though, I’ve not been as tired as I’d expected to be. With the epic commute, the long days, cooking for hours on end, and trying to absorb huge amounts of new information, I thought I’d be sobbing quietly in a corner by now. But I’ve been surprised at what my body and my mind can handle. It might be because I am so used to being stupidly busy and working very hard, or it might be because it’s only been three weeks and I’m going to have my real crash in week five or something. Instead, what I’ve found tough is going back into an educational environment. Being observed, criticised, and tested, puts me on edge and basically makes me a rubbish cook. I mean, that’s my excuse, anyway. Perhaps I am simply just a rubbish cook.
You would think that sixteen nervous people flambéing Crepes Suzette in one kitchen would be a recipe for disaster and hair-aflame, but no, it was simply how we ended Monday. We’d started it with a wine lecture – tasting included, naturally – so having covered both drinking alcohol and setting it on fire, I went into the week feeling prepared for pretty much anything. I mean, frankly, what other life skills does one need? We were also informed that our wine exam would be, um, next week. This seems terrifyingly soon to me, but hey. I’m sure they know what they are doing. I will be able to confirm or deny this by the end of next Tuesday.
The wine lectures have been really interesting and it’s been great to branch out into a new area of the course, but I have to say, I’ve found it quite tricky. The theory has been fine, but I’m not very good at the tasting. I usually choose wine at the supermarket based on a) whether or not I can afford it and b) how nice the bottle looks. Seriously. So my wine-palate is not what you would call refined. Tasting wine is part of the lecture process (first thing on a Monday morning, which takes a bit of mental adjustment), and one of the first things to do is check the ‘nose’ of the wine to see what you can smell. People were offering answers such as ‘black cherry’, ‘leather’, and ‘oak’, but to be brutally honest, all I can ever smell is ‘wine’, and if I said I could smell anything else I would be lying. Still, it does sound quite impressive to throw out ‘herbaceous notes! Hmm… possibly mint?’, so sometimes I join in for fun. I particularly enjoyed the session on matching food with wine, during which we were presented with little taster plates of food to try with different wines to see the effect they had on each other.
On Tuesday morning, we had a fish dem. Now, I love fish and wouldn’t mind eating it for breakfast (which I essentially did that day), so I was a very happy culinary student, although I think sole meunière at 9.30am may have been a bit much for some people. Michael laid out a great display of various types of fish – I think fish are beautiful – and I considered stealing that turbot which is probably worth more than my laptop, but ultimately decided against it due to the impracticality of hiding stolen fish in a locker room. And my impeccable moral code, obviously. We even got to end the dem with delicious plaice goujons (posh fish fingers), freshly fried and dipped in home-made tartare sauce, before heading off to, er, eat more lunch.
This week also saw our first foray into bread-making. We made rosemary focaccia. We actually made it twice, as you can see from the picture, to make sure we had the method forever imprinted into our dough-weary heads. The 17.49 from Paddington that day was suffused with the smell of freshly baked bread, and as no one knew my rucksack was full of focaccia I think it may have caused some confusion. I distinctly heard one girl say to her friend ‘Am I going mad, or does it smell like bread to you?’ Stranger, you are not mad. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you so. You would have thought I was weird.
On Wednesday afternoon we made fish pie, which all went a bit wrong for me. I’ve made fish pie dozens of times, and I’ve noticed so far that somehow it’s the stuff I make all the time which I screw up, and the stuff I’ve never made before that I somehow manage to fluke my way through. We’d been given a specific service time to test our organisational skills, and were told that we’d lose points for being late. I took this all very seriously and worked as quickly as I could, only to find myself on course to finish about 45 minutes before the specified service time. Because I’m an idiot, I hadn’t initially understood that we weren’t allowed to serve early either, so at this point I had to come to a squealing halt and leave my pie sitting on the side for a while to kill some time.
I’ve also been told I am under-seasoning my food so far, so on fish pie day I went absolutely wild with the seasoning. I then tasted it and thought ‘Oh god, this is incredibly salty, I have massively over-seasoned’. The problem is that you can’t really reverse over-seasoning, but I thought ‘Ah well, at least I won’t be under this time!’. Of course, as I am sure you can guess, when my pie was tasted it was pronounced under-seasoned. Essentially, I think I must have a really bad palate, and I can’t tell when something is correctly seasoned, so that’s definitely something I have to work on. I was also really disappointed to have messed up the piping of my mash on to my pie in my haste to get finished – before I realised we couldn’t be early – because I do a lot of piping (as you can probably see from all the cupcake and birthday cake recipes on this blog), so I really should know what I am doing by now. All in all, a disappointing day.
Finally, Thursday began with a beautiful meringue dem from a fellow Hannah. (Side note: usually, there are a dozen other Hannahs wherever I go – in every class or group I’ve ever been in, in every job I’ve had – but I am the only Leiths student in our group this year called Hannah! I can just put my first name on everything without my surname initial! The Lauras and Emilys of my generation will also understand the delight of this). We got to taste an insane amount of meringue nest, pavlova, meringue roulade, and lemon meringue pie. They then cleverly gave us a test while we were completely hopped up on sugar. I think I refrained from simply scrawling ‘MORE MERINGUE please feed me delicious meringue forever’ across my test paper, but cannot be sure.
The day came to an end with my inexpert gutting and cooking of that beautiful mackerel up there. I think this week has been the toughest for me so far, but I have still learned loads and, although it’s slow and halting, I feel like I might have gradually started to make some progress.
Also, I can cycle all the way up the stupid hill on my commute now without feeling like my lungs are going to explode. So that’s good.