|Barely scraping a pass in toast management, I was sure I’d be the special needs pupil at Acorn Holiday’s two day "Gourmet Cookery" course. Well I was sure that acting-down was a good way of dealing with my guilt: this New Man had often strayed down the wrong aisles of the supermarket, and bought trolley-loads of ready-meals.
Even so, I'm not without pride. When there’s something to learn I play my 'all I can do is beans-on-toast' trick and gain status at the very bottom of the class. I joined my fellow cooks for a ten o’clock start at the adult education centre. There are six of us, with a recipe booklet and a kitchen place each. There too is Mo Burns, our teacher who delays none in getting us to measure out flour, yeast, oil and sugar to get our Focaccia, an Italian bread, rising. There’s no space for giggling and looking helpless, so I knead my dough with attitude and leave it to prove as we watch our teacher making some quick pates - smoked mackerel, aubergine, and hummous.
You can almost tell Mo has appeared on TV’s Food and Drink programme, as she’s got oodles and noodles of confidence or whatever ever you measure that in. She’s skilful, cheerful and reassuring. Her approach is very hands-off, so when I’m looking pathetic, and my dough is too dry she attends to the knead perfectly. And she doesn’t have motivate us at all, since everything we make we will have to eat.
Today’s specials are a challenging ‘roulade’ and pears poached in cranberry juice - where the juice is left to bubble down to a tasty syrup. The roulade is a sort-of soufflé, where we fold whipped egg white into a white sauce, called a roux, and cook it in a flat tin. Later we layer-on a mixture of water cress and fromage frais and roll it up, Swiss roll fashion. Some of us try an even tastier variation with a cream, wine and mushroom filling. And then it’s time to stop rattling pots and start eating - there were no disasters, lots of "Mmmms" and kissing of finger-tips from the evidently more expert cooks. Veggies, healthy eaters and anyone really would have agreed.
On day two we make pasta. It’s unbelievably easy - just flour, eggs and more kneading - so easy that it must be tried. It’s only a bit more effort to add colour using spinach or tomato paste, but the ending is the same - roll it, cut it and mangle it with a pasta machine.
Pasta sauces are easy too. Olive and tomato, or a pesto sauce made using spinach instead of basil and walnuts instead of pine kernels. The class favourite is a chuck ‘em together sauce with smoked salmon, soured cream and chives.
Today’s special is chicken mouselline - made by steaming blended chicken, cream and egg white in a ring mould. You line the mould with barely cooked spinach leaf to provide colour as well as a quick exit for the delicate, cooked mousse. But why a ring-shaped mould? Simple, if what you’re cooking cooks too slowly in the centre, don’t bother having one - now that’s lateral thinking!
And so finally to the sweet - an apple strudel which needs skilful pastry acrobatics: rolling out the dough, hanging it over the back of your hands, coaxing it outwards till it goes see-through and ready to fill with apple and raisins. Lastly cook, dust with sugar, place in the boot of the car and show it to the folks you left to live on Chicken Tikka for the weekend. I was quite proud of myself, and they of me.
Mo Burns’ course is very good. It’s a childish observation I know, but just as a Mr Watt taught me physics, this really is a great name to cook with. She sums up the course as covering essential cookery skills - like making sauces, bread, pastry, pasta and helping steer shopping trolleys towards the basic ingredients. She says we should cook more, and looking at the 15 recipes added to my repertoire - sensible, seasonal, and strudel-aside, not too fussy I think I will.
I could have played ignorant at a hundred other activity holidays such as pottery, ballooning and off-road driving. The cookery course was £100, a bit more than many as it included food, but it felt like good value. As most the courses happen in Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire this needed two nights away - the farmhouse accommodation was £20 a night, hotels cost more.
There’s even a idea or two here for novel staff away-days - how about a day’s Gliding for a management team building exercise? On the other hand, forget building and those pesky redundancy procedures, why not take your supernumeraries for an hour’s Bungee jumping?
Acorn Holidays, PO Box 120, Hereford, HR4 6YB. Tel: 01432 830083. Fax: 01432 830110