Did you know they use this in films to simulate breaking glass?" Jostling for position in the cramped quarters of Madame Matifas's tiny sweetshop in Berck, a huddle of teenagers watch her pick up a small hammer and shatter a sliver of boiled sugar mixture into hundreds of glittering shards. The 11 to 16-year-olds from Park View Community School in Durham are on a five-day gastronomic trip to northern France. Their mornings are spent in the company of extrovert chef and matre d'hotel Dominique Beauclair, their afternoons at a variety of culinary outlets, including a chocolate factory and a cheese farm, and today it is the turn of Madame Matifas's Succ s Berckois.
When the time comes for tasting, silence falls, as 30 connoisseurs suck appreciatively on their humbug lollipops made a la facon traditionelle. It's a different story back at their hotel, however, where tasting sessions include cheese, fresh fish or traditional meat dishes. Reactions are mixed.
"The day we did seafood, as soon as we saw the lobsters were still alive we all went 'ugh!'" comments 16-year-old Laura Horsley. Fortunately, the menu that day was confined to "quite nice" prawns, "horrible" oysters, curried mussels and halibut fillet, and death by scalding wasn't on the agenda. And despite Laura's misgivings, she is happy to concede that in general the food is good - "Fancy, but not so fancy people won't eat it."
The trip is based at the Hippotel in Le Touquet, whose resident linguist Kate Madden acts as interpreter, organises evening activities and smooths out any problems. The emphasis is on practical involvement, from the first evening when everyone gets together to make their own crepes. "They're all shattered after their journey, but it's fun and it helps the group to gel," explains Kate. Other evening frolics include a blind tasting - a crude but effective way of persuading reluctant gastronomes to have a go. "It's nice this," declares one girl, only to discover she's been eating snails.
Dominique's role is to provide an insight into traditional French cuisine backed up by practical demonstrations, and although not everyone can take an active part, he involves as many helpers as he can. Today our menu consists of entrecote bordelaise and chateaubriand flambe au cognac accompanied by four varieties of salad and followed by an apple dessert. He is an experienced restaurateur, and has also spent 10 years working in cabaret and likes nothing better than performing to an audience. And so the lights dim and the cognac bursts into flames, to the consternation of one or two younger pupils. "And now, un tout petit peu de cr me frache," he says with a grin, ladling out the contents of a huge tub of cream.
The five-day introduction to the art of French cooking culminated in a special dinner of frogs' legs, foie gras, escalope normande flambee au calvados and a cake with the message "Merci Park View Community School - et a bientot. "
Predictably, the sweetshop and chocolate factory featured high on the list of favourite activities, but Dominique's efforts were not in vain. "He's really friendly and funny, and there' s lots of competition to be one of his helpers, " commented one boy, while two GCSE food technology candidates were pleased with the tips and recipes.
Their teachers were equally enthusiastic. "The chef's personality has a lot to do with it," says food technology teacher Maria Fenwick. "There was a terrific buzz the day we did seafood. I wish I could create that atmosphere in my classroom."
Although some concessions are made to British squeamishness (the entrecote was juicy and tender, but not a drop of blood could be detected), it's a far cry from the usual British teenage diet and Dominique finds the children's response encouraging.
"A few hang back and pull a long face, but most of them really enjoy it, " he says. "Last year we even had a teacher who first came here years ago as a pupil and could still remember exactly what we prepared."
The trip was organised through PGL: 01989 764342