No need to get in a stew
Barely scraping a pass in toast management, I was sure I'd be the special needs pupil on a two-day gourmet cookery course run by Acorn Holidays. Playing down culinary pretensions was the only way to deal with my past guilt: this New Man regularly strays down the wrong aisles of the supermarket to buy trolley-loads of ready-made meals, so something had to be done.
While I may be sensitive, I'm not without pride, so when there's something to learn, my strategy is to claim complete ignorance, and thereby gain status from the very bottom of the class.
So I join my fellow aspiring cooks for a 10 o'clock start at an adult education centre. There are six of us, with a recipe booklet and a kitchen place each.
There, too, is Mo Burns, our teacher, who delays not a minute in getting us to measure out the flour, yeast, oil and sugar to get our focaccia rising. There's no space for looking helpless, so I knead my dough with attitude and leave it to prove as we rest to watch our teacher run off a few quick pates - smoked mackerel, aubergine, houmous.
You can almost tell Mo has appeared on BBC's Food and Drink programme, as she's got oodles of confidence (or whatever you measure that in). She's skilful, cheerful and reassuring. Her approach is hands-off, too, so when I'm looking pathetic, and my dough is too dry, she attends to the knead perfectly. And she doesn't have to motivate us at all, since everything we make we will have to eat.
First off on today's menu is a challenging roulade and pears poached in cranberry juice - where the juice is left to bubble down to a tasty syrup. The roulade is a sort-of souffle, where we fold whipped egg white into a white sauce, called a roux, and cook it in a flat tin. Later we layer on a mixture of water cress and fromage frais and roll it up, Swiss-roll fashion. Some of us try a richer variation with a cream, wine and mushroom filling.
At last it's time to stop rattling pots and start eating. There are no disasters, only lots of "Mmmms" and kissing of finger-tips from the evidently more expert cooks.
On day two we make pasta. It's unbelievably easy - just flour, eggs and more kneading - so easy that it must be tried. It's only a bit more effort to add colour using spinach or tomato paste, but the ending is the same - roll it, cut it and mangle it with a pasta machine.
Pasta sauces are easy too. Olive and tomato, or a pesto sauce made using spinach instead of basil and walnuts instead of pine kernels. Our class favourite was a chuck'em together sauce with smoked salmon, soured cream and chives.
For the day's special we concoct chicken mousseline - made by steaming blended chicken, cream and egg white in a ring mould. The mould is lined with barely-cooked spinach leaf to provide colour as well as a quick exit for the delicate, cooked mousse. But why a ring-shaped mould? Simple, if what you're cooking cooks too slowly in the centre, don't bother having one. Now that's lateral thinking for you.
And so finally to the pudding - an apple strudel which needs skilful pastry acrobatics: rolling out the dough, hanging it over the back of your hands, coaxing it outwards till it goes see-through and ready to fill with apple and raisins. Lastly cook, dust with sugar, place in the boot of the car and show off to the folks you left to live on chicken tikka for the weekend. I was quite proud of myself, and they of me.
Mo Burns's course is very good. It's a childish observation I know, but just as a Mr Watt taught me physics, hers really is a great name to cook with. She sums up the course as covering essential cookery skills - such as making sauces, bread, pastry, and pasta. She says we should all cook more, and looking at the 15 recipes added to my repertoire - sensible, seasonal, and (strudelaside) not too fussy - I think I will.
The cookery course at Pounds 100 is a bit more than many of Acorn's as it includes food, but it still felt like good value. As most of the courses are in Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire, you need also to book two night's accommodation: farmhouses start at about Pounds 20 a night, hotels cost more. Acorn Holidays, PO Box 120, Hereford, HR4 8YB. Tel: 01432 830083