- Food & Drink
10 years ago Sara and I cemented our friendship over a year-long cookery course at a college in Richmond. It was called ‘An Introduction to French Cooking Techniques’ and it was tremendous. We learned how to gut, scale and fillet fish; tie up a joint for roasting; debone a chicken; make hollandaise sauce; roll out pastry; and bake a sponge cake. After 40 weeks we emerged from the classroom ready to be housewives in the 1920s.
We started each lesson in exactly the same way: running around the Waitrose by Richmond train station, ransacking the aisles for ingredients and panicking about being late. Not once did I make it off the train with a bag of everything I needed and a neatly folded apron. No, I was always in Waitrose, rifling through the fresh meat counter and scouring the shelves for kumquats.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise that we ran into the Cookery School at Waitrose King’s Cross 2 minutes before the lesson was due to start. And this was in spite of not needing to buy any ingredients. Our classmates were sat at a long table, cheerfully eating cheese straws and drinking stollen spritzes. We were sweatily stripping off our coats and filling out an allergy declaration form. The class was ready to begin.
The Cookery School at Waitrose King’s Cross is vast. Part of the huge new supermarket in Granary Square, which also has a café and wine bar (wine bar!) tucked in among the aisles, it’s an airy mix of dining space and high spec kitchen. By far the most exciting thing for me were the ovens. They’re the same as the ones on Great British Bake Off, with the magic slidey door.
Watching GBBO, I’ve often wondered how enjoyable opening and shutting that oven would be. It’s good. So, so good.
When we got to the baking stage of the tartiflette recipe, I unnecessarily opened the oven several times to check its progress, even though I could’ve just looked through the glass door. Our tartiflette took longer to cook than it should’ve done but, by God, it was fun.
The course Sara and I had signed up to was ‘An Alpine Christmas.’ Mulled wine, tartiflette, crêpes suzette. I’m not sure this is what people eat for Christmas in the French Alps, but for pure calories it seemed like good value.
We started by making the mulled wine. There were four chefs working that night, enthusiastically lead by Jack, with around 20 students. The chefs laid out the ingredients and equipment, regularly rolled away the trolley full of washing up, and demonstrated what we were going to do. Then they walked around the kitchen making sure we actually followed their instructions. It was impossible to go wrong.
Sara and I have a long history with mulled wine. We often reminisce about the party when the mull was so potent it spontaneously combusted (see the comments), so a lesson in mulling wine seemed unnecessary. Hot wine is something we have mastered.
Incredibly, the Waitrose way of making mulled wine doesn’t begin by pouring 5 litres of the cheapest red wine you can lay your hands on into a large pan, then adding orange juice, most of a bottle of brandy, a token orange and roughly a tablespoon of sugar. They make a spiced caramel with bay, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg and clementine juice. Then add wine and cook it ever so gently for about an hour.
I’m not saying that the Waitrose mulled wine was better than our traditional flaming mull, but I may borrow a few elements from it this Christmas. Like its drinkability.
While the mulled wine steamed, we made tartiflette. Onions, potatoes and lardons slowly fried in butter, then baked with white wine, cream and a mix of Reblochon and Taleggio (because “they didn’t send us enough Reblochon”). We sat by the oven door (going the full GBBO), greedily watching the cheese melt and the golden, bubbling crust form. The kitchen was filled with gluttonous anticipation, and the bowl of green salad the chefs had tossed together was viewed with mirth. Who would eat green salad when there was cheesy potato to be had?
I ended up eating quite a lot of green salad. Tartiflette, in all its oozing glory, is a bit of a battle when you haven’t spent the day skiing. Everyone dug in, helped by alternating glasses of mulled and straight up wine. If there had been a row of armchairs to climb into, then the next hour would’ve been filled with the gentle whistle and grunt of 20 people sleeping off a carb coma.
Instead, there were frying pans and the crêpe batter we’d made earlier. Sara had to leave early to pick her puppy up from the dog sitters (such grown-up responsibilities we have now), so I fried the pancakes by myself.
Crêpes suzette turn out to be really easy, even the flaming bit. Although the flaming bit is only easy if you accidentally empty most of a bottle of Cointreau into the pan. Setting fire to it was no bother. Putting the flames out, on the other hand, took patience.
I rolled out of the cookery school at half ten, a tub of tartiflette in one pocket and a pot of orange syrup in the other. It might not have been a traditional Alpine Christmas meal, but the cosy sense of being stuffed was perfectly festive.