Leiths: The Beginning

Tomorrow, I am going back to school.

After I finished my university degree, I said to anyone and everyone that I was done. No more studying for me! No more exams! No more reading lists! No more downing glasses of white wine to try to bully my beleaguered brain into coming up with the goods for writing a 3,000 word essay in two hours (totally works, by the way). I was going to have free time to truly call my own and not feel guilty for not studying in every spare minute. I was going to read what I wanted, when I wanted. I was going to say goodbye to revision forever.

It’s only been two years, and I’ve broken my solemn resolution.

This lovely tree is just outside our flat, and when the leaves start to turn it always reminds me that autumn and new beginnings are on their way.

In fairness, I’ve broken it for – in my eyes – the best thing ever. I will be doing the Leiths Diploma in Food and Wine over the course of the next academic year and, all being well, I will graduate in July 2016. I’ve been longing to do this diploma for years – literally, years – and have spent many wistful hours poring over the website, reading blogs, and wishing that I could be there learning to properly fillet fish and make consommé and do puff pastry from scratch and all the things that I haven’t quite gotten around to doing as a home cook. I cannot wait to be surrounded by people who are as boring about food as I am, and we can all be boring together in the same way and thus be the exact opposite of boring.

I mean, I’m terrified, of course. Excited, definitely, but out-of-my-mind nervous too. I’m scared that I will be rubbish, and that everyone else will have much more experience than I do and I won’t be able to keep up. I’m scared of cooking in an entirely new environment – usually, I’ll be bopping around my kitchen with earphones in, taking breaks to flop around and read or watch some TV, with no one watching me or criticising my lack of technique. I’m scared of changing the entire structure of my life to accommodate travelling into London every weekday for a 9-5 studying session at the school. But I am only going to get this opportunity once, and I fully intend to make the most of it.

An event at the gorgeous Bush Hall earlier in the week, celebrating Leiths’ 40th birthday.

I will be commuting from Oxford daily. That might sound mad, but we live here and are happy here, and I can’t afford to rent in London. It means getting up at 5.30am, a ten minute cycle to the train station, an hour on the train to Paddington, and then a twenty five minute cycle on the other end to get to the school. Then I do it all in reverse and get home at around 8pm. It’s two hours door-to-door, which means that I will spending four hours commuting every day and cycling ten miles. And that’s on top of being on my feet and cooking for hours at Leiths, rather than just vegging out in an office job, slumped over a desk and trying to set up an IV for effective delivery of biscuits into my bloodstream.

Whenever people hear that I will be doing this commute, the response is usually a sharp intake of breath and a look of shocked horror, followed by a commiseration: ‘Oh, you poor thing.’ I know these people all mean well (and god, believe me, I think ‘poor me’ too), but the fact that almost everyone else thinks that this will be an unachievable nightmare is actually not massively helpful. I need to be positive and delude myself. I have two friends who have commuting experience who promise me that it will be absolutely fine, and as someone who has never commuted for more than fifteen minutes before, I cling to their reassurances like a kitten to its mother. It will be fine. It will be fine.

Of course, the last time I cycled in London I got knocked off my bike. But I’ll wear a helmet now.

Triumphant after having completed a test commute last week without even coming close to dying once, sexy helmet and all.

So, that’s what I will be up to for the next year. Forgive me, friends, for dropping off the social radar entirely and not hosting any more dinner parties, but I will be too busy cooking to cook. I am hoping to blog the Leiths experience – partly because I want to remember it and partly because as a prospective student I liked reading other people’s blogs and I want to pay it forward – but I don’t know how feasible this will be in terms of battling through crushing exhaustion. If I get any time to myself to cook, then I will try to keep writing the occasional recipe post, and I want to limp along to the end of the bake along if I possibly can. Also, we do get the classic school holidays! So, if I am not sleeping or doing work experience, then I will try to keep this little blog alive then.

Bonne chance, mes amis. May your autumns be fruitful.


Food Memories

The first thing I can clearly remember eating is home-made raspberry sorbet. I was three years old. We lived in an apartment block in Siberia and frozen foods were popular because you could leave them outside on your balcony to chill. I remember my grandmother coming over from England and my mother baking her a birthday cake; I remember the dancing light of the candles catching shadows on her smile-lit face in the tiny, darkened kitchen. Once, my brother and I snatched some cut green peppers from a chopping board, not realising that they were hot. The sudden, intense pain horrified and confused me; we downed glass after glass of water, crying, then stuffed our mouths with soft white bread.


We moved to England, and spent a few months living with that same grandmother. She taught me to make pastry. I stood at the table in the dining room, because I was too small to reach the counter in the kitchen, rubbing butter into flour. We made apple pies. As a treat, she’d give me Rich Tea biscuits, smeared with butter and jam. I couldn’t say ‘Maltesers’, so I called them ‘mouldy cheesers’, and begged for them from her special box kept on a high shelf. I discovered sausage rolls from packets. She taught me how to make a proper cup of tea, telling me to push the tea bag hard against the side of the cup with the back of a spoon to get all the flavour out. On Friday, we’d walk together to the little row of shops across the way, and buy fish and chips. I’d run around outside on the concrete parade for the interminably long time it took for our order to be ready, and then she’d let me sneak a chip, blistering hot and sharp with vinegar, before I raced back to the house. Later, when we moved to London, she would come and visit and bring us eggs at Easter, or cardboard stocking-shapes covered is plastic and housing different types of chocolate bars at Christmas. Crunchies were my favourite, and she’d find them for me specially. She died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was ten. Rich Tea biscuits still make me feel sad.

In London, I went to primary school. We ate potato smilies, turkey twizzlers, and baked beans from brightly coloured plastic trays partitioned into different sections. At break time we had milk and Nice biscuits, or sometimes Bourbons or Custard Creams on special Fridays. I went to children’s birthday parties and ate Party Rings and cocktail sausages and drank Fanta. At home, I loved Heinz chocolate pudding from a can, microwaved, with its glossy chocolate sauce. My mother once cut her hand badly opening a can of it for my brother and I, and I still remember the shock of the sudden blood on the chocolate. I loved ravioli in tomato sauce from a tin from Lidl. My friends and I would go down to the corner shop – alone, which felt so grown up – and spend our pocket money on sweets and chocolates for midnight feasts at sleepovers. We’d lay all the food out on the floor before eating it: Skittles; Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut; chocolate buttons. I discovered ice cream floats.


I became a teenager. At school, there was a vending machine, and we stopped at it most mornings to buy Twixes and packets of pickled onion Monster Munch. At break time, they served chocolate croissants – warm, doughy, and undercooked – and I loved them immoderately. My best friend and I started to cook for ourselves. We’d come home together after school and make Smush, which began as failed omelettes – scrambled eggs with peas and courgettes and cheese. She was a vegetarian. We’d make pesto pasta and cut apples into slices and dip them into Nutella, honey, peanut butter. We’d put veggie burgers in the oven for dinner, eat grapes from the freezer, scoff boxes of seashell-shaped pralines. My mother made spinach and lentil pie, and it became my favourite dish: I’d beg her for it every night, but my brother didn’t like it. We’d argue over whether to have apple pie – my choice – or crumble – my brother’s. My mother and I loved fish. I started to do the weekly food shop with my father, first at Lidl and then at Sainsburys. I began to develop food obsessions. I fell in love with dark jewelled pomegranate seeds, buying them by the pre-hulled pack, until my father told me they were too expensive and I started to buy the whole fruits, sitting at the kitchen table and ripping the seeds from the flesh with ruby juice running down my wrists. I wanted nothing else as much for weeks, until the obsession waned and I started on roule cheese instead. From my father, I inherited a taste for red grapefruit juice and bitter marmalade, canned sardines and crispy bacon sandwiches. From my mother, dark chocolate, whole fish and Thai flavourings: chilli; ginger; coriander.


I went to university. I lived in a student house and began to really cook entirely for myself and others for the first time. I made Christmas dinner for seventeen people, plates of turkey crammed on the lopsided laps of a jumble of students ornamenting our living room and hallway. We’d host pancake brunches, and I’d stand by the stove ladling and flipping for an hour. I made the mistake of trusting a rickety old gas oven for baking a torte: the mixture swelled and exploded, coating the inside of the oven and baking into charcoal. I got my own flat with a real kitchen and began to host dinner parties, dishing out lasagne and garlic bread, roast chickens with all the trimmings, chocolate fudge cake and lemon meringue pie. I took pride in making everything from scratch. I tried hummus and avocados for the first time: somehow, I had never come across them before. I taught myself to make meringues; friends of mine endured many failed experimental macarons. I started to buy cookbooks.


I graduated. Food was my constant. I became comfortable in the kitchen; happiest when feeding others. I became a hostess, had endless dinner parties, forced unwilling people to come over all the time. I experimented, sometimes failing, pushing myself: pan-fried scallops with roasted cauliflower purée, pancetta, and chive oil; home-made ravioli; beef Wellington. I taught myself to cook fish properly; learned what mirepoix actually is; read recipe books like novels. Cookery programmes left me awed and jealous and desperate. I had failures and disasters and simple, happy triumphs.

I cannot be the only person who does this.

I quit my job, and enrolled at culinary school, like a massive idiot. What could possibly go wrong?