A few weeks ago I was so thrilled to be invited to spend a day at Exeter Cookery School learning some vegetarian cookery! I have always loved to cook- the recipe book that I started in 1992, aged 11, is mainly full of chocolate based recipes, but as I grew up you can see more variety creeping in- including my curry phase and a newly discovered love of peanut butter in about 1995!
I learnt from my Mum who used to have my brother and I cook a meal each for the whole family at least every couple of weeks (mine was usually spaghetti bolognese- and as I have 3 different versions on this blog I don’t think my preferences have changed that much!) and from my Dad, whose philosophy on cooking was that a good glug of wine can make any sauce taste excellent (in fact this got me into trouble in home economics at school aged 13 when I brought a tupperware container full of wine to add to the sauce of the pasta I was making!)
But apart from a brief stint as a cook in the Sainsbury’s staff canteen in 2001 (where they couldn’t provide me with a ‘Pippa’ name badge, so I was known as ‘Penny’ all summer), I’ve never had any kind of professional cooking experience or training. As an experimental cook its always been trial and error for me. Therefore I’ve always known that I would love to do a proper cookery course- to learn new skills and the type of thing that you just wouldn’t know as a home cook.
When I heard a few months ago that a new cookery school was opening in Exeter I watched its progress (on Twitter!) with interest- and when they got in touch asking if I’d like to come along I jumped at the opportunity. The Cookery School is located down by the quay in Exeter and is an absolutely incredible space- it’s a converted warehouse which has been kitted out into a dreamy kitchen/social space.
I arrived in the morning and was greeted by Jim and Lucy who own and run the school. They have a wealth of experience, having moved back to the UK after 16 years running a cookery school in the Dordogne in France. Jim is a former Masterchef semi-finalist, and has worked alongside Rick Stein, Alistair Little and Tony Tobin. Jim and Lucy strongly believe that cooking should be fun, and this philosophy comes across clearly in the way that the course runs. I was slightly anxious about not being good enough to keep up, but Jim is so friendly and relaxed that he instantly put me at ease.
I was with a group of 4 other people, all of whom were lovely and very interesting to chat to. The day started on a fabulous note, with coffee and pastries, and then we got stuck in! On the agenda for the day was:
Ragout of tomatoes and fennel
Early summer vegetable salad with soft poached egg and an orange, walnut oil and grain mustard vinaigrette
Savoury shortcrust pasty tarts with goats cheese and slow-roasted tomatoes
The first thing that we did was prep the veg for a slow-roasted ragout- which was later to be turned into a soup (this was the inspiration behind a new recipe on the blog- Christmas soup- click here for the recipe)- it was fascinating to learn the ‘proper’ way to prepare the vegetables, and to see the way that Jim seasoned the food. It’s a great way to use up leftover vegetables, and I would never have thought to add in orange peel- but it just gives it all the most amazing flavour.
We then used orange juice to begin to make an amazing orange syrup which would eventually become the dressing for our summer salad. Next was a lesson in preparing the vegetables for the salad- it was so fun to learn the ‘cheffy’ (Jim’s favourite word I think!) way to prep veg and get them looking pretty- this was all about creating a salad that not only tasted amazing, but looked beautiful too. I have come away with extreme knife envy from this day, as Exeter Cookery School use the amazing I.O. Shen knives which not only look incredibly cool, but are just brilliant to use. (We have Global knives at home which are also fantastic but I need a proper, huge cheffy knife now!).
Top tip that I learnt here? You can pre-cook your vegetables, then if you just plunge them into cold water and leave them, when you are ready for them you just very quickly throw them into boiling water to warm them up again! Perfect if you are doing dinner for lots of people and likely to get flustered and overcook them! I also learnt not to cook them all in the same pan (certainly for this delicate tasting salad) as the stronger ones (such as broccoli) will flavour the more subtle ones (such as green beans). And, wow, I definitely haven’t been using enough salt in the pan when I cook my vegetables (in fact I never put salt in!), but I definitely will if I am making a ‘special’ meal as it really enhances the flavours.
Next up was a lesson in poaching eggs- I have never managed to successfully do this (I use the cheaty clingfilm method), but now I know how- I just need a much deeper pan! Oh, and always make sure you are using super-fresh free-range eggs for this. Here’s the revelation- you can also pre-poach an egg! So cook for 4 minutes, pop into a bowl of really cold water, and when you are ready to serve them you just re-heat in fresh boiling water for 1.5 minutes! So if you want to impress house guests at breakfast time you can whip up poached eggs for breakfast in no time at all!
Here comes one of the best bits- we were allowed to eat the morning’s work for lunch! Here it is, in all its glory and it really was completely delicious:
In the afternoon (after a yummy lunch which also involved a crème brûlée brought out by Lucy which was incredible), we made shortcrust pastry for our little goats cheese tarts (sorry, I took mine home and my husband ate them before I got a chance to take a picture!), and we pulled out roasted vegetables out of the oven to turn into a soup.
To do this, we blended them up and then put them through a mouli to make the soup extra smooth. Here’s Jim, presenting the soup topped with amazing basil oil (which we also learnt to make)
I absolutely loved every minute of the day, and it really flew by. I can highly recommend Exeter Cookery School to anyone looking to book themselves (or a loved one for Christmas) onto a course- I’m already planning to send my husband on the butchery course (although he would also love the fish one and the pasta one!) and I’d love to do the chocolate one! In fact I’d love to do all of them. The pace at which Jim worked was perfect for me, I learnt so much but it wasn’t overwhelming, and I had time to practice each thing, with Jim keeping a watchful eye and interjecting if I wasn’t getting it quite right. I loved the location- it felt very special, and it was also lovely to meet a group of like-minded people who love cooking.
I was invited to attend the 1 day vegetarian cookery course free of charge, however all opinions shared here are my own.