Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 1

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.



Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 9

I came into this week feeling oddly buoyant and energised, the exhaustion of the last couple of weeks behind me. There was no logical reason for this, since I did a non-stop eight hour shift at Taste of London on the weekend on top of everything else, so I can only assume that I am like one of those hypothermia victims who think that they are really hot so they get confused and take all their clothes off just before they die of cold.

Monday was pheasant plucking and drawing day. Again, no reason for me to be particularly happy about this – lots of people were rather dreading it – but having grown up in a house furnished with a ridiculous amount of taxidermy by an eccentric artist, the dead pheasants didn’t bother me at all. I’ve also got a fairly high threshold for things that people seem to find disgusting, so I was perfectly happy to pluck the pheasant bare-handed and (ready?) draw out its entrails by cutting a hole in the vent to enter the body’s cavity and hooking my fingers around its organs to extract them. We were then roasting our pheasant and preparing traditional game accompaniments to keep it company, which in this case consisted of game chips, fried crumb, savoy cabbage with pancetta, and gravy. We worked in pairs: my partner, Laura, and I were an excellent team and breezed through everything. We were one of the first teams to finish, and when we served our food the comments were positive, so all in all, a happy afternoon. Not for the pheasants though.

My phone camera is still broken, obviously, so apologies to those fond of things being in focus. We live in an imperfect and blurry world.

On Tuesday we were fed so much that I started to suspect Leiths is secretly out to permanently incapacitate us all. It was awesome. We started the day with a gift cooking dem delivered by Ansobe and Jane, by the end of which the weakest amongst the herd were saying things like ‘I cannot handle any more sugar’, and ‘I’m so full, I can’t taste any more.’ You’ll be pleased (and unsurprised) to hear that I did my bit by tasting all the food – oatcakes, relish, chutney, cheese, pate, cranberry bars, chocolate salami, mince meat biscuits, honeycomb, ice cream with salted caramel sauce, biscotti… I don’t want to brag, but I’m just really dedicated, you know? By the way, everyone who knows me is getting hand-made food-related Christmas gifts this year, because I am at culinary school and I have no income.

See how the photo isn’t blurry and rubbish? Will took it on his phone.

The afternoon was another lovely session, during which we got a sugar top up, just in case we were flagging after the morning’s diabetes-inducing fun. We made coffee éclairs and covered our Christmas cakes in fondant icing. The Christmas cake project is an ongoing one – more on that in a moment – but the little éclairs were a bit trickier than I was expecting them to be. Éclairs are one of those things I have made for years, only to get to Leiths and be told I have been making them wrong, and I haven’t quite gotten my head around the proper method yet. Still, éclairs are éclairs, and I ate three. To check the technique was definitely wrong on the whole batch. It was.

On Wednesday, we got to cook as teams of four to make an feast of Indian food for our lunches. We made chana dal, lamb rogan josh, methi poori, alu gobi, cucumber raita, and date chutney, and ate until we could physically eat no more, before going down for our Christmas dem with Phil and Sue in the afternoon and tasting a full Christmas dinner. Somehow, you just end up making room.

This time, the picture comes to you courtesy of Richard – although this isn’t our group’s food, we all made the same things.

Thursday saw our last kitchen session of the term, which meant the last session with the students who are only at Leiths for the Foundation term. After spending nine weeks getting to know everyone in our class, it’s very sad to say goodbye to three out of the sixteen, and it’s going to seem odd to have three brand new students taking their places next term. Even though it was still technically November, we were listening to Christmas songs and eating Quality Street (for me, Quality Street are one of the true signs that Christmas is coming – I traditionally sit on my parents’ living room floor, tip a huge tub of Quality Street onto the rug, and put them in rainbow order, but I think I would get judged pretty hard for doing that in the school kitchens) and so it was all suitably festive.

Now, I like to bake, but I am not an artist in any sense at all, so while most people sculpted elaborate nativity scenes from fondant and piped intricate designs in a rainbow of colours, I simply baked some snowman-shaped macarons at home, popped them on my cake on top of some coconut snow, piped Merry Christmas on it in a wonky fashion, and called it a day. It took me about fifteen minutes out of our allotted two hours, and I spent the rest of the time wandering around hassling everyone else and eating all the chocolate. At the end of the day, we had a canapé party and got to sample amazing treats cooked by the teachers and mosey around to have a look at everyone else’s Christmas cake creations.

A small sample of some of the incredible cakes made by my fellow students.
This is but a small snapshot of a truly impressive spread that lasted for about twelve minutes before we devoured every last morsel.

Finally, Friday morning saw us all trooping into school nervously to sit our theory exam. Many people have been incredulous and/or confused when I have mentioned that we have to sit theory exams as well as being assessed practically. I don’t think they believe me when I explain that there is a fair amount of technique and science behind classical cooking training – they look at me very sceptically as if I say ‘I am sure really all you are doing is floating about and icing buns all day’ – but I promise there is a lot of base knowledge to cover. We could be asked about why a pastry has become tough, the technique for making a perfect choux, temperature conversions from Celsius to Fahrenheit, locations of specific cuts of beef on a cow, the ratios of egg to oil in mayonnaise, and about a thousand other things. After it was over I ate a whole jumbo bag of Maltesers and then went to the pub with everyone else at 11.30am, which should give you an indication of the stress levels.

We also found out what we’ll be cooking for our practical exams next week. My assessment slot is on Wednesday, so while you’re all going about your business, please think of me getting up at 5am to drive to London and be critically examined on my pastry making and chicken jointing skills, while trying not to set anyone on fire or accidentally stab myself with a boning knife. It’s not all about swanning about and eating canapés. Unfortunately.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 7

Week 7 seems to have slipped by with unsettling speed, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that we had Monday off and assessments instead of a dem on Tuesday morning, so by the time we got started in earnest it was Wednesday and, hey, already halfway through the week! In my assessment I learned that I passed both my wine exam – thank god, as I really didn’t fancy doing it again – and my most recent Leiths theory test. Then we got back into our normal rhythm with an afternoon of scattershot cooking that saw us segmenting oranges, icing cakes, steaming mussels, and making caramel sauce without much rhyme or reason (at least in my case).


Weirdly, I found segmenting oranges to be the trickiest part of all this. It’s fiddly, and as I’ve mentioned before, I am clumsy and impatient. You have to remove every last bit of pith from each segment and make sure they are perfectly shaped with no straggly bits. I actually managed to get my first in-kitchen cut doing this – I’m surprised I made it all the way to Week 7 without this happening, frankly – because everything gets very slippery and the serrated knives are wickedly sharp, as I found out when mine sliced into my thumb. I think you’re supposed to wear these cuts like badges of pride. I wish I’d gotten mine doing something a bit more rock and roll than cutting up an orange.


Wednesday was a rather pleasant day in the kitchen, which saw us making smoked haddock, spinach, and tomato gougères. Gougère is savoury choux pastry with added cheese, and it’s stupidly delicious. It’s actually a bit of a cheeky shortcut to making a pie: far less faff than lining a tin with shortcrust or, god forbid, making puff pastry from scratch. You knock up your choux, which takes about ten minutes, then spoon it round the walls of your pie dish and whack it in the oven to expand and go gloriously golden while you get on with making your filling. Then you pop the filling into the crispy pastry to heat it through and that’s job done.

Full disclosure – this is actually a picture of my fellow student Jack’s gougère. I forgot to photograph mine before the teacher cut into it, and after a tasting your pretty food always looks a mess. But mine looked pretty much exactly like this.

Thursday, on the other hand, was a bit less satisfying, and probably one of the worst days in the kitchen I’ve had so far at school. We were making coq au vin, and I did everything wrong. My chicken was overcooked, my mushrooms and bacon weren’t cut correctly, my sauce was too salty and yet under-reduced, my broccoli was overcooked, my presentation was awful… just bad bad bad. I also got burns on both my right arm and my face when someone’s hot chicken pan decided to spit a spray of sizzling oil up in my direction. All this failure took so long that we were delayed in leaving the kitchen, so I got out of school late and missed my usual train, meaning a harrowing cycle in traffic that was much heavier than what I am used to. Then, when I got to Paddington, there were crowds so huge that there were police controlling the scene because a big train had been cancelled. I made it onto the later train back to Oxford, just, but then it was delayed by twenty minutes because of some signalling problem, so I got back stupidly late, and then I got stuck in a standstill traffic jam trying to get home because there are ridiculous roadworks around the station and that evening there was the added complication of a burst sewer pipe. I was incredibly grumpy all evening and poor James had to put up with me sulking.

I’m not even going to show you a picture of the chicken because it was that bad.

Luckily, I managed to slightly redeem myself on Friday, by making well-cooked lamb cutlets with new potatoes en papillote, green beans, and a tomato salsa. I even got a good mark for knife skills, and, as we’ve established, my knife skills are generally rubbish.


It felt a bit odd having only three dems this week, but they were good ones. We started with pastry on Wednesday, then had healthy eating for a bit of a contrast on Thursday, and finished with game on Friday. The pastry and glazing dem covered delicious things that were fairly familiar to anyone who is an avid (read: obsessive) watcher of Bake Off, like myself. We saw Heli expertly demonstrate the endless rolling and folding that constitutes the making of rough puff pastry, and got to sample some beautiful Eccles cakes. There was also a stunning glazed fig tart on walnut pastry that I wish I had had the sense to get a photograph of, and a fiddly little apple flan which we will have to try and recreate next week.

Belinda and Sue talked to us about healthy eating and special diets on Thursday. I’m not completely inexperienced in this area as I’ve cooked for vegetarians, vegans, and coeliacs fairly often, and cooked for and lived with a diabetic at university (although he just ate whatever he liked and then corrected his blood sugar with insulin afterwards, so making him dinner was never exactly a challenge). Much as I love the near-constant stream of sugar I subside on at Leiths – and trust me, I love it – it was a good change to eat some fresh salads, soups, and stir fries and feel briefly virtuous before going home and eating all of the chocolate in the world (sorry about how there is no chocolate left for anyone else).

Friday’s dem was on game. This, I think, is Michael’s particular bailiwick, and he guided us through the basics of how to prepare and cook some furred and feathered game. See the picture at the top of this post? The reason that plate of food looks so pretty and professional is that I did not make it: Michael prepared woodcock for us in the traditional way, trussing it with its own beak. We all got to have a taste and I liked it, but I think I was perhaps the only person that did. Woodcock has, to put it mildly, a very distinctive game-y flavour – I like offal and I liked this, but lots of people were pulling faces. Less controversial were the delicious roast pheasant and slow-cooked venison shanks. Perfect autumnal fare. We have to pluck and draw pheasants on our own at some point in the next couple of weeks, which I can only assume will cause chaos and carnage.


I am writing this post curled up on the sofa in the boat, which is a warm haven, despite the fact that it’s currently being tossed about the river by a fairly vicious storm. It’s all very atmospheric and dramatic, and with the clouds scudding past and the fierce wind making waves smack against the boat’s hull it finally feels as through winter is truly drawing in. Only two more full weeks to go of Foundation term, and then the practical exam week (which we shall not mention, ever, please), and then I get to sleep in til 1pm every day, construct a duvet fort to live in, and stop cooking fancy meals so we can subsist on pain au chocolat and crisps.


Sort of.