Ah, Christmas, the most emotive of all the C-words. Whilst I'm not keen on shops full of Christmas tat and festive music before the start of Autumn, I'm very happy to eat Christmas food at pretty much any time of year; I'm a big fan of wintery food in general, and any occasion that encourages the consumption of sprouts, pre-lunch booze and one's own body weight in cheese gets my vote every time. As a blogger, this all-year-round love of Christmas food is useful, as festive previews tend to be over the summer, and thus it was I found myself a couple of weeks ago at The Vegetarian Society in Altrincham for a Christmas cookery school.
The weather, naturally, was beautiful, and the sunshine streaming in through the French doors meant the Christmas tree set up in the corner of our reception room looked a little forlorn. It's amazing how quickly you can get into the spirit of something though, and as soon as we were in the kitchen with our genial chef Alex, it was surprisingly easy to buy into the whole thing, particularly with the prospect of some mince pies in the offing. There were eight of us on the course, grouped around a central island worktop set with individual stations - it's a lovely kitchen, with plenty of space and several cookers, hobs and sinks so that you don't all end up queuing to wash your hands at the same time. We began with some knife skills and then were straight into the festive baking, working together to make mincemeat before rolling out our own pastry and each making four mince pies. I've always wanted to be the sort of person who makes their own mincemeat and it was really very easy (especially if you make The Lady Sybil do the elbow grease, as seen below). Alex also demonstrated a couple of dishes, but even these were very hands-on, with jobs assigned to anyone making eye contact at the wrong moment.
Over a cup of tea and one of our own mince pies (which were perfect - not too sweet and each the size of a small house), we got to look through a selection of recipes and each choose one to make. This is a great idea, and my favourite part of the whole course - every cookery school I've been to before has given everyone the same thing to make, whereas the idea here is that we each make something different and then all sit down to a real feast of dishes. This could, of course, be a little daunting for the inexperienced cook, and it did take a few minutes to get my head round where everything was (mind you, my mum has lived in her current house for 17 years, and I still can't ever find anything in her kitchen). The recipe I'd chosen - the Stilton and Walnut Cheesecake with Port and Blueberry sauce - was fairly straightforward though, and Alex was on hand to help with any questions and to laugh at me for accidentally setting my Port sauce on fire just the tiniest bit.
The afternoon flew by, and it was soon time for us to proudly carry our dishes through to the serving table and sit down for Christmas dinner. There wasn't a duff dish amongst them, although my favourites were my Stilton tart (due to the presence of a great deal of cheese rather than any skill on my part), the spectacular Chestnut and Butterbean Wellington and the astonishingly good Sumac Carrot Smash. Alex joined us for lunch along with cookery school manager Jonathan and media officer Su, and great company they were too; in fact everyone on the course was lovely, and the atmosphere was festive indeed.
The whole day was brilliant fun, and I actually learned a few things as well as confirming that my love of sprouts remains undiminished. The people at the Vegetarian Society are lovely, and not the least bit preachy to the array of (mostly) carnivores sitting in front of them; instead, they're all about showing that vegetarian food can be just as good (and sometimes better) than its meatier equivalents. I rarely cook meat at home any more, and whilst I shan't be going back to vegetarianism any time soon (last attempted when I was 16, and trying to convince Morrissey I was the girl for him with no idea I was barking up a very wrong tree indeed) I will definitely be making a number of the recipes from the pack - even the Nut Roast looks good. Maybe not until nearer December though...
- The Vegetarian Society Cookery School is at Parkdale, Dunham Rd, Altrincham WA14 4QG. The next Festive Feasts course is on Wednesday 8th November and costs £139, good value for a full-day course where the numbers are kept low. Just beware your friends and family will expect you to replicate the entire feast for them single-handedly, as mine are currently baying for.