Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 7

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.


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.