Advanced Cookery Week at Ashburton Cookery School

It started with a bang! Well, with hugs all round to the chefs that I hadn’t seen for two years, since finishing the six week intermediate course. Thankfully, not all of my old teachers have moved on since then. We were lucky enough to have Ross as our guiding light for the first three days, but a huge part of me was saddened to find out that Phil wouldn’t be taking us at any point. He’s a laugh and a half. Needless to say, a lot of my first day was spent sneaking out to have a catch up with him in the corridors, and to let him know what the others have all been up to. These chefs have ridiculously good memories.

There were seven of us on the course. Rod, the only man, was a local accountant who lived nearby. He did an Indian cooking weekend at the school, and wanted to come back to learn more. There were two Alices, one who grew up in Kenya, with experience on yachts and in chalets, and the other who lives half her year in beautiful Cornwall, and the other half cooking on the slopes. Pippa and Nathalie were both skippers, so that means they captain sail boats by themselves, which is blimmin’ impressive! I can’t even tie a proper seafaring knot. Vicki was from Essex, owning a wonderful looking cafe there called Stop The World (I had a proper stalk of the menu, and can’t wait to visit for the unicorn cake). We spent the first part of the morning sharing our stories, becoming more and more excited to get stuck in. We were each presented with a folder containing our itinerary for the week. With elements including ‘start three day beef cooking,’ ‘poussin butchery,’ and ‘ballotine of squab pigeon,’ we knew we’d be in for tonnes of new techniques, and delicious dishes to boot.

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From left to right: Pips, Alice, me, Stuart, Ross, Vicki, Nathalie and Alice.

The set up of the day was to work towards presenting your lunch dish at around half twelve, which you could then enjoy for about half an hour. We then returned to the kitchen (how strange it is to not say ‘galley’ anymore) to prep our dinner and dessert dish, which was eaten at around half five. One amazing difference between this course and my last, was that we were treated to wine with our evening meal, and miracle of all miracles, we didn’t have to partake in the clean down. I felt guilty about that for about five whole minutes, but then the guilt was quickly overshadowed by utter relief and sheer joy! What an absolute treat.

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And so, to the important bit. The food.

Day One

Lunch

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Steamed aromatic crab, ginger and coriander parcel, crab bisque reduction.

How to make a seafood bisque with depth, simply packed full of flavour, was something that I’d always wanted to learn. This was a surprisingly straightforward recipe and method, and it definitely packed a punch. The steamed cabbage parcel on top was filled with the first of many mousses we were to make, this one incorporating scallops and crab. With its winning list of ingredients, I wasn’t entirely taken with either the texture, or the overall taste. Potentially the inclusion of double cream made it a bit rich for my liking, so in the future I would scale it back and keep the mix a bit lighter.

Dinner

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Roasted saddle of Dartmoor lamb, basil pomme puree, patty pan, ratatouille and black olive salt.

This basil spiked mashed potato was an absolute triumph. Blitz a bunch of blanched and refreshed basil into your cream and butter laden mashed potato next time you make some, and just marvel at how beautiful it is. Back on the boat, Michael used to say he could ‘taste the misery’ of the cheap cuts of meat we sometimes had to buy from dodgy supermarkets in the middle of nowhere. Well, when I took a bite of this lamb, I could honestly taste how happy its (admittedly short) life had been, frolicking freely in the fields of Dartmoor. Black olive salt was a simple but game changing addition to this dish, and would be to many others. Stuffing the patty pan with ratatouille was fiddly, and I think ended up looking a tad old fashioned. Crispy herb leaves are a great way to elevate a dish, so if you have a deep fryer to hand (who does?! I’ve only had them in professional kitchens) I would crisp up basil, sage, mint, to adorn your dishes when in a pinch.

Dessert

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Apple tarte fine, calvados caramel, toffee ice cream.

Delicious, and way less stressful than making a tarte tatin. Every time I’ve tried, the apples either stick to the pan, the caramel won’t go dark enough, or the pastry doesn’t cook and ends up soggy. This dish changed my mindset on French apple based desserts, as I can totally use it as a substitute and no one would probably notice.

Day Two

Lunch

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Compressed pickled watermelon, ricotta cheese, pistachio glass tuille, balsamic pearls and olive oil spheres.

We made our own ricotta cheese, and it was delightful. All you need is milk, double cream, salt, lemon juice, and a muslin cloth. Who knew it was so gloriously straightforward?! As a self confessed ricotta addict, I have been known to eat it straight out of the tub, when its path in life was really intended for a pasta bake. This freshly made stuff though, I defy anybody not to just dig in and scoff it plain with a spoon. We pickled watermelon in rice wine vinegar, sugar and coriander seeds, which gave a superbly interesting result. Making those pearls was a dream, only requiring agar agar as the setting agent (conveniently found in almost all supermarkets). But those spheres, boy they were tricky. Isomalt was the molecular ingredient there, and the process was a nightmare. You can’t even see one on my plate, because I didn’t want to put it on. Having sampled a successfully made sphere, it was like eating a glass ball filled with extra virgin olive oil. Unpleasant. All in all, this dish really didn’t know what it was. Was it a starter? Was it a dessert? Was it a cheese course? I still feel confused by the whole affair, but each element tasted wonderful in its own right. Including the glass tuille, but we were warned not to eat too many shards, due to it containing isomalt. It’s known for giving some folks a dodgy tum, so best not eaten in too high a quantity.

Dinner

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Pot roasted poussin, sweetcorn, ham and truffle galantine, leek mousse and Sauternes sauce.

Confessions first, this poussin was not roasted in a pot. It was sealed in a pan, and finished in the oven, like most of the other meats we cooked. Such fibs going on in the titles! Assembling the pastry box was fun, resulting in a little container to put your chosen tidbits in, and a handy lid to perch delicately to one side. A galantine is a ballotine by any other name, and this one was packed full of flavour. Sweetcorn is my spirit food, and truffles make me dizzy with happiness, so this rolled up sausage had me at hello. If I was a bit of a knob, I would call this dish a ‘deconstructed chicken pie’. Hearty and delicious.

Dessert

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Prune and Armagnac souffle with apple and pecan crumble.

We all thought our souffles were raw and undercooked, as the middles were entirely molten liquid. We were assured that this was normal, but the jury is out on that one for me. I’ll have to learn a bit more about that family of desserts before I can pass judgment, because for me, I wanted it to be a bit more spongey and light through the middle. The prune ‘surprise’ hidden underneath was sadly not to my taste. It was beautiful folded through the souffle, but had no place sat there boldly on its own at the bottom of the ramekin. Look left, and behold a beautiful single serving of crumble. Yes, it’s hard to eff up a crumble, but that didn’t make it any less scrumptious.

Day Three

Lunch

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Loin of Venison in black treacle, shallot puree, cavolo nero, roasted salsify and wild mushrooms.

Venison requires next to no cooking, like a good fillet steak. Who knew?! I certainly didn’t. The black treacle marinade gave a great crust, and it melted in the mouth. Cooking the greens in bacon lardons and chestnuts was a winner for me, as I’m always on the hunt for new ways to serve sautéed leaves. Mushrooms, especially of the wild variety, are always a pleasure.

Dinner

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Lobster tail, lobster ravioli, lobster broth, confit fennel and tomatoes.

Learning the art of pasta making is always a joy. You feel like a proud parent when your ravioli is perfectly formed, but subsequently a little sad when it shrivels up in the pan. If someone can enlighten me how to not let this happen, please do. The lobster tail was stuffed with the same mixture that was inside the ravioli, which felt a bit like cheating. This was a strange dish, as the lobster tail was wrapped in caul fat and lardo. Basically, the stomach lining and back fat of an animal. In my mind, it was a twisted sort of surf and turf.

Dessert

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Dark chocolate cremeaux, pistachio sorbet, tuille, raspberry fluid gel.

Heaven on a plate. One tuille pictured, at least a dozen consumed. One cremeaux pictured, its sibling also consumed. One scoop of sorbet pictured, we finished the lot.

Day Four

Lunch

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Ballotine of squab pigeon, chicken boudin, date puree, butternut squash, braised turnips and pigeon jus.

Not being a lover of pigeon prior to the course, it’s safe to say I’ve switched camps. The bird was a delight to butcher, with really tiny legs and bones that weren’t that hard to cut through. A whole chicken it still a bit daunting to me, so this smaller bird was right up my street. We used ‘meat glue’ to sandwich the breasts together, but having made this dish at home, it worked just as well without. Funny story, I once made the crew chocolate chip cookies, and mistakenly used meat glue instead of cornflour. The tubs were the same, and both products are white powders. Before you panic, meat glue is entirely safe for human consumption, but still, I didn’t tell anyone my blunder in fear of an uprising. The boudin was beautiful, although rich, probably due to the amount of double cream again. It was basically a chicken sausage with pistachios and figs. Seeing date puree sang to my heart, and was a blissfully simple blend up of Medjool dates soaked in hot water. My favourite savoury dish of the week.

Dinner

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Slow cooked smoked ox cheek with pomme Anna, glazed young vegetable and Madeira jus.

We cooked this bad boy in the water bath for three whole days. It fell apart, but without a vac packing machine or water bath at home, you could easily end up with the same result by slowly braising it in the oven. The pomme Anna I’d made before, being the only repeat recipe between this course and the last. It was still enjoyable to make and eat, due to it consisting entirely of thinly sliced potato and butter. It’s a bit of a time consuming and fiddly faff though, and that’s just making one of them, so it’s no surprise that I hadn’t actually made one in those two years between then and now.

Dessert

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Pineapple and Szechuan parfait, griddled pineapple, pineapple crisps and dark Cuban rum caramel.

My favourite dessert of the week. So unusual, and something I would immediately order at a restaurant if reading it on the menu. It requires Boiron brand fruit purees, so my dreams of making it at home are a little bit dashed. It’s one to make in a professional kitchen, as you need the right ingredients and equipment to really do it justice.

Day Five

Starter

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Ballotine (last one, I promise) of foie gras, Sauternes jelly, smoked apple puree, walnut vinaigrette, griddled brioche.

Divine. But how we got there is a different story. We were each presented with an enormous liver, and told it made up 85% of the duck’s cavity at the end of its life. It’s a delicacy in France, but a lot of people understandably completely disagree and condemn the method by which it is made. This article details the production of foie really well. At Ashburton, they pride themselves on using the best quality produce they can get their hands on, so we were assured that the livers we got were from a higher welfare farm. Beliefs aside, it was an eye opening process, perhaps not one I’d be in any rush to repeat. You have to scrape away parts of the liver to expose the web of veins, pulling them out as you go. You end up with a pile of yellow mush on a sheet of cling film. Attempting to roll it into a log, you poach it in water before piercing the sausage to allow the fat to escape. It was like popping a big spot. Once it was cooked, we mixed through some shallots and red wine, before rolling it again, and cooling it down. The Sauternes jelly that everything sat on was just beautiful, balancing the dish perfectly.

Main Course

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Curry crusted halibut, cauliflower and coconut puree, lime emulsion and coconut foam.

Coating a firm white fish in a mixture of parmesan and curry powder is nothing I’ve ever thought of doing, but it worked brilliantly. In my opinion, this dish was the most well thought out of the week, with each element bringing something special. Lime emulsion turned out to be another name for a sort of lime infused mayonnaise, and it complimented the fish perfectly. Roasting cauliflower florets in spices was a great juxtaposition to the silky smooth puree. The foam over the top conjured up images of the sea for me, and I fell head over heels in love with this dish.

Dessert

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Mango panna cotta, sable soldiers and Champagne foam.

Sadly we ended the week with a bit of a damp squib. The sable soldiers were akin to a deliciously buttery shortbread, offending no one, but the panna cotta was a total disaster. Despite passing it through a chinoise several times, it remained grainy to the bitter end. It was also well overset, using too many gelatine leaves. A real shame, as panna cotta is truly one of my favourite desserts, but this recipe really needed tweaking to end up pleasant to eat.

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So all in all, my experience of returning to Ashburton was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more. From reading about the course online, I knew a lot of the elements were things that I already knew how to make. But overall the dishes were high end, well thought out, and gave me the chance to practice the all important art of plating. Above all else, it was an absolute pleasure to meet some truly amazing women who inspired me, and reassured me that I’d chosen the right career. We spent almost every night down at the wine bar, and I can honestly say the week wouldn’t have been nearly as good without them. Now if any of you would like a recipe for a dish that catches your eye, just give me a holler.

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