Despite appearances, most evenings I do actually stay in and cook. This is both for pleasure (in the preparation and the eating) and necessity - my shameful propensity for greed when eating out renders it imperative that I cook properly, from scratch, with healthy ingredients when at home, lest I end up the size of a bungalow or small country. Despite this, I'd never actually been on a cookery course until a couple of weeks ago; I'm not entirely sure why, but I think I was worried that it would all be pretty intimidating, with knife-wielding experts doing that showy-off cheffy thing with their onion chopping and then triumphantly presenting their plated-up works of art to a terrifying, Masterchef-style judge whilst I was still haplessly trying to find my ingredients in the fridge.
Well, I've been on two courses now thanks to Cheshire Cookery School in Altrincham, and obviously they aren't like that at all. The first of these was a full-day course called "Forgotten Cuts of Meat" that I won in a Twitter competition run by Taste Today; its name, coupled with the fact that our genial guide for the day was Robert Owen Brown, formerly of the Mark Addy and never one to hold back when it comes to persuading people to put unusual animal parts in their mouths, made it fairly clear that this was to be an offal-based extravaganza - confirmed by the enormous bag of lamb testicles that greeted me on my arrival at the school. This was certainly a case of being thrown in at the deep end - Rob preferred to just get on with cooking rather than have us watch him demonstrate any of the dishes, and within minutes we were each rustling up our own terrine of Lavender Scented Duck Liver Pâté with Honey Roast Pear (which we took home), swiftly followed by Roast Bone Marrow with Parsley & Caper Salad (which we had for lunch with a glass of wine), Lambs Fry with Nut Butter (which we had for tea, with more wine) and Madeira Tripe (there is not enough wine in ALL THE WORLD to persuade me to eat tripe, so I gave mine to chef to take home for his tea - the sauce was delicious though). It was a splendid day with one of my very favourite chefs (and people), and I went home tired and happy even if my hair did smell really quite unpleasantly of tripe.
Apparently my behaviour had indeed been satisfactory (I had been tempted to throw testicles at chef, but had nobly desisted), for I was invited back the following week to a shorter evening class - the three hour Tapas and Paella course, this time hosted by experienced chef Kurt Thomas. This was a bigger class, with sixteen of us divided up to work in pairs, and far more demonstration of the recipes and processes involved; indeed, the first dish - chorizo in red wine - was cooked purely for demonstration purposes, although we did get to eat it afterwards (I will pass over the undignified scrummage that took place at this point in proceedings). Kurt then showed us how to make a Spanish tortilla with onions and potato and a tomato salsa followed by chicken and chorizo paella, before letting us loose on our own workstations. I was lucky enough to be working with Claire Thomas of Good Egg Foodie blogging renown, and we turned out to make a pretty good team, working with professionalism and efficiency (as is clearly seen in at least one of the photos below).
The food we dished up tasted pretty good too - our tortilla had a surprising amount of flavour for such a simple dish, and our paella both looked and tasted quite impressive (if we do say so ourselves) when we sat down to snarf it with a well-earned glass of red. Once again, there was plenty to bring home as well (where the leftovers met with great approval from an impartial judge). In some ways, this class was more manageable - three hours is a nice length of time, although I would have preferred slightly less time watching demonstrations and more time cooking, and perhaps a wider variety of dishes to make. It certainly wasn't as stretching as the full day offal course, but Kurt makes for a very entertaining and knowledgeable guide (there was some particularly useful stuff on knife skills), so it was no less enjoyable - just different.
The facilities at Cheshire Cookery School are stunning, with plenty of workspace, enviably sharp knives and swanky high-tech appliances, and the people who run it are just lovely - essentially they will have a laugh and a chat with you whilst also surreptitiously clearing up your workspace with you, thereby setting impossibly high standards for any future suitors. I'll be quite honest - I wouldn't have booked a course had I not had the chance to try one first, as full day courses are £150 and half day ones £75, which I think is a lot to pay if you're uncertain whether you'll enjoy something. I can categorically say though that the courses are great fun and offer good value for money, so much so that I have already selected at least one more I want to go on in the next couple of months as a paying customer. Masterchef, watch out - I'm newly enthusiastic in a kitchen AND I can now do that cheffy chopping thing with an onion.
- The Cheshire Cookery School is at LM Business Park, Norman Road, Altrincham WA14 4EP; 0161 928 5120. They run corporate events as well as a wide range of cookery courses, and also do gift vouchers (which I'll be hinting at pretty strongly come Christmas).