I’ve been to cookery courses across Britain – Divertimenti and Leiths in London, and, outside the capital, Daylesford, Ashburton, Eckinton Manor, Rick Stein’s Padstow, and Newlyn’s to name just a few. And I’ve travelled abroad too – I’ve been to courses in Shanghai, and in Ravello I enjoyed a day presided over by the mythical Mamma Agata.
But none has offered such a whirlwind of information, experiences, and damn good recipes as The Woodspeen.
What happened? What did I discover?
I found out that there was a lot of equipment, and much to make, that I really didn’t need.
And I found much to make and learn that I really, really did need – recipes which have become repeat stalwarts and techniques which have truly raised my cooking game.
About the Woodspeen
The Woodspeen is the restaurant near Newbury in Berkshire, opened in an old ramshackle pub, by chef John Campbell in 2014. John had already bagged Michelin stars at two other stellar restaurants, when he found the site, and fell in love with the view, and with the ample ground on which to develop a kitchen garden. The new restaurant has picture windows overlooking the glorious surrounding countryside; an open kitchen, a log fire, and a stylish bar. You can also book a Kitchen Table for a group of 8-12 lucky friends where you can watch Campbell and colleagues ply their craft.
In 2017 John founded a cookery school across the road, opposite the restaurant. And this was where a friend and I were going to spend a fabulous and frenetic day.
About Peter Eaton
Our tutor was Peter Eaton – head chef at The Woodspeen from its opening. Both had come from the nearby Vineyard, and prior to that Peter had done his stint at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He could have been scary, but he was anything but – using his immense experience, as well as a lively sense of humour, to coax the best out of the selection of hamfisted (well, me anyway), albeit enthusiastic and curious amateurs assembled that day in the school kitchen.
About The Woodspeen Cookery School
Not only, as I mention above, was the course at The Woodspeen the best of many that I’ve attended, the school itself is the best equipped. Before even entering there are the benefits of a good roomy car park and the restaurant’s kitchen garden.
John Campbell is a chef famed for his attention to detail, and, once inside, you see immediately that every consideration has been given to the design of the kitchen, and to its equipment. It is frankly fabulous fitted out. If I ever have the fortune to be able to replace my current kitchen I will definitely install Dekton worktops. I loved the vintage look, and the super-clean feel – Dekton is effectively indestructible – “only diamonds are harder” Peter told me. It was a joy to work on it. And everything provided; the knives, the mixers, the deep fryers, were a joy to use.
What was covered
Our course was called the Cupid’s Course, and officially it covered:
• ‘Served With’ – handmade bread and butter
• Starter – asparagus, poached egg, crab cake and pink grapefruit dressing
• Main – beef Wellington, truffle mash, black cabbage with red wine sauce
• Dessert – dark chocolate delice, passion fruit, salted caramel and hazelnuts
• ‘and to finish’ – tea, coffee served with my handmade macaroons and fudge
So, a very ambitious fourteen or so recipes to go through, and to make, in a day. And all designed to be made ahead, and quickly primped up later.
The idea was that this was to be a Valentine’s meal, produced with a flourish to our loved ones the following evening. But I pushed this – the next available evening to eat what we made for me was four days later, when we also had a hungry son on the prowl. What Peter Eaton sent me home with was absolutely up to the challenge – both the men in my life where fulsome in their praise.
However, in addition, and perhaps more invaluably, we learnt myriad techniques which could be used for all kinds of dishes, for example:
• How to cook meat perfectly – using cling film, the time to sear…
• How to deep fry
• The secret of making bread
• What to look for when buying olive oil
• What vegetables, herbs and fruit are best to grow yourself
• How to boil potatoes
• A tip for shortbread
• What miso can do for chocolate
• How to make caramac shards out of white chocolate….
…. and a great deal more besides.
There were two additional touches which I particularly appreciated.
Thankfully we didn’t have to eat the food we’d cooked ourselves
The first was that we didn’t have to eat what we had cooked for lunch. We all wanted to try and savour the food produced by the restaurant, and our wish was granted. We had a buffet lunch composed of all kinds of interesting things to try, paired with some interesting wines. The wines were accompanied by the sommelier who we had a chance to quiz.
One dish which intrigued me was the pickled carrots. I was told how to make these – not difficult – and thereby gained a sort of bonus recipe – one which I use constantly.
I was particularly interested in the Cote Hill Blue cheese, rind-washed in damson whisky. I thought it was excellent. I hadn’t realised that the rind-washed process falls definitely into the don’t-try-this-at-home category, and on returning I got hold of some Cote Hill Blue cheese (outstanding by the way) and brushed it with the damson gin I always have to hand. With disastrous results – but it led to my research into rind-washed cheeses (follow this link for the post).
It also meant that we were able to take everything home, and save ourselves a meal – a Valentine’s meal no less.
The second touch I appreciated was that we were given the apron that we’d been wearing and tea towel we’d been using. “By the time we pay for the laundering, we may as well give it away” explained Peter with careless insouciance. But few other schools are so generous.
So what did I, most usefully, learn?
• I learnt how to make butter – and that, although excellent, and I was glad I’d done it, it was not something I was likely to do again. Follow this link to the post where I describe the whole experience.
• I was given some very useful advice about how to poach a hen’s egg
• …and a quail’s egg.
• I should grow cress; two types of frilly, feathery mustard, golden streaks and ruby streaks; and pak choi.
• Make sure the olive oil you buy stipulates that it is ‘only made by mechanical means’
• I remain stubborn about not making bread that needs kneading (see ‘no need to knead’ bread); but I might be on for attempting pitta or flatbreads.
• How to boil potatoes (post to come)
• How to cook fillet to perfection…any fillet; beef, lamb, pork, venison (post to come)
• The fact that truffle mash goes perfectly with beef Wellington
• You can use buttermilk for doughnuts and pancakes
• Try making shortbread with strong flour and a little rice flour
• How to make pickled carrots (post to come)
• An idea for a citrus dressing (post to come)
• How to pep up fudge to counter the sweetness
• Using miso in a chocolate delice pudding
• Don’t ever attempt to make puff pastry yourself – always buy it!
And I had a whole pack of useful, fabulous, cook ahead recipes!
As I said goodbye to Peter, and talked a little about the course, he looked a tad frazzled I thought. “Did I try to do too much?” he questioned.
Not a bit of it, I assured him. It had been the best course I’d ever attended.
This post is dedicated to Caroline Coldrey.