22 March 2006

I have survived

Well it certainly wasn't pretty. But Chefette has survived her end-of-term exams in one piece.

Monday was the written exam, which will account for 15% of our marks for the intermediate term. We won't find out how we did for another couple of weeks, but I'm pretty confident that I'll hit the pass mark. Most of questions were fairly easy, in that you could anticipate and prepare for the sorts of things they would ask on the major methods, recipes, and ratios. But the examiners definitely lobbed in a few googlies. Like a big section on game, which we only covered in the previous term. And some pretty detailed wine questions on New World wines, which I don't know as well as France, Spain and Italy.

But that was the side show. The main event came Tuesday. The practical exam, a.k.a. the Big, Scary One. You can imagine the atmosphere. You're trying to achieve maximum efficiency, speed and skill while under the examiners' gaze, as they silently watch you cook an ambitious menu in four and a half hours, scribbling down notes on their papers. In an ideal world, of course, you'd be the epitome of non-stop concentration, have effortless speed, and would cook each dish to utter perfection. Or even to the standard to which you usually cooked during class. But the pressure of the clock is there, and it's easy to do stupid things you wouldn't normally do, or to panic when you get behind your timeplan.

On the day of the exam, we all arrived at the school in time to be dressed and in the dem room at 8.30am, with our timeplans and knife rolls. At 8.45, we were taken up to the kitchens, and given half an hour to weigh up ingredients. A good amount of time, but certainly not long enough to get everything weighed up. Then at 9:15, we started to cook. We were to serve 2 cheese souffles each at 12.45pm (with 5 minutes leeway either side). Then at 1.15pm we were to serve the rest of the dishes, namely:

  • A pan fried sirloin steak served medium rare
  • bearnaise sauce
  • potatoes of our choice, to complement the steak
  • turned carrots
  • coffee bavarois
  • pate frollee biscuits (almond pastry)
  • chelsea buns with apricot glaze
At 1:20, we all had to vacate the kitchens, hopefully with everything laid out on our tables for service.

In my case, the problem wasn't doing anything particularly stupid. I just wasn't as efficient as I should have been, and was playing catch up for most of the day. I had a nice, soft dough for the Chelsea buns, but the softness of the dough meant that mine took a bit longer to knead than others', and so I was 15 minutes behind my timeplan from about 10am onwards. I almost forgot my biscuits while trying to multi-task (making apricot glaze, sauteing potatoes and checking chelsea buns simultaneously). Fortunately, I managed to save them just before they went too dark.

Then I had to crank to get my souffles out at 12.45, overcoming a mild panic when my souffle base was really lumpy. (Managed to save it by whisking out the lumps aggressively with a sauce whisk.) But by that time I was a bit mentally exhausted, and was making stupid mistakes. Like not allowing enough time for my steak and my carrots. When the examiner said we could call for second service, my steak was still rare and my carrots were well undercooked. But somehow I managed to get everything plated up, and so scraped though by the skin of my teeth. I've no idea what my mark was, but one of the junior examiners took pity on us and told those of us who'd passed. Fortunately for me, I wasn't the only one who had problems. No one in kitchens 2 or 3 served on time, so I suspect there were a few underdone steaks. And at least 2 people failed (out of a total of 15), and will be offered retakes.

Thankfully it's all over now, and I can concentrate a few fun cooking escapades ahead. To whit. Making an empanada for the class party on Friday. And helping cook for a group of friends at a country house weekend over Easter, when we will be celebrating several birthdays.

I'll keep you all posted of any highlights over the break.

13 March 2006

Approaching exams

A very brief post from Chefette today, as there's not a whole lot to report. Much of our time last week was focussed on revising for end-of-term exams, and we had two afternoon revision sessions in lieu of demonstrations. The theory exam will be on Monday 20th March, followed by my practical exam on Tuesday 21st.

We do have one big assignment coming up before the exams, namely dinner party cooking on Thursday of this week. All of us have been assigned into groups of 3 or 4, and we will spend a morning cooking a three course meal for ourselves and 3-4 people from another class. We will then serve the meal while entertaining our guests, before cleaning up and getting a debriefing from our teachers.

It all sounds nice and straightforward, but it's slightly complicated by the fact that the Scotsman had the not-so-brilliant idea of assigning us into groups, rather than letting us decide our own teams. In my particular case, he managed to assign to the group two of the students in the class who don't get on, and who barely even speak to each other. One of them is, to be frank, a bit of a lad who always comes to class late, who never knows the assignments, and who really doesn't take the course very seriously. While all the other groups have had two or three group meetings over the past few weeks, we have yet to have one meeting where all 3 of us were together at the same time. We have managed to put together a menu -- minestrone soup with foccacia bread, followed by pappardelle with wild boar ragu and a chocolate fondant pudding for dessert -- but still have not got ourselves organised enough to get a group timeplan together. I suspect it will be myself and the other responsible guy who will end up doing the lion's share of the work this week ...

And now off to school for our last week of term before exams. Lots of revision ahead!

04 March 2006

Terry and Peter. And learning to skin an eel.

If Chefette were to tell you that there's been a renaissance in food in Britain since the 1970s, she probably wouldn't be telling you anything you didn't already know. Everyone who lived in or visited Britain during that time has their horror stories from the olden days. Of dry overcooked roasts and thin watery gravy. Of refried chicken and chips. Of reconstituted custard with a thick, unnatural skin. And of rope-like Christmas turkeys with soggy brussels sprouts, all washed down with Liebfraumilch.

Oh how far the mighty pendulum has swung. On Saturday I was at Borough Market, fighting my way through the hordes in search of a shoulder of wild boar, juniper berries and a free range chicken. The quality and variety of the food on display continues to improve, and was positively breathtaking. There were boxes of fresh morels graded into various sizes. Razor clams and octopus on the fishmongers slab. (I've no idea who took these pictures of the market, but I found them on Flikr they kind of capture the spirit of the place.)

Anyway, there are a lot of good things happening in British markets and kitchens today, for which I am truly thankful. But I am also coming to realise that there have always been Brits who knew and cared about food in Britain. Who tried to serve the best food they could, and were proud to bring it to you.

I got to meet two such gents last Tuesday. Two butchers -- Terry and Peter -- who have been coming to the school for years and years. They were doing the first of two Meat Appreciation days for our class. They brought in 3 gigantic cuts -- a whole lamb, a side of pork, and a forequarter of beef -- and proceeded to butcher them for us in succession on a massive table, explaining all the different cuts and showing us different ways to bone them out.

Terry was the real character. 82 years old, and full of enthusiasm for life. He didn't do any of the large butchery cuts, but he did do all the trimming, boning and dressing of the various joints. He worked at Smithfield meat market in London over four decades, and had the tales and the wisecracks to prove it. He also gave us insight into the typical margins & business methods of modern butchers.

His colleague Peter was also thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced. He had that effortless, flowing efficiency of a really skilled artisan as he slashed, cut and sawed. He described the attributes of the animals and the details of the various cuts really clearly, all the while giving us the butcher's insight into what he was doing. Such as different ways he would cut the belly of pork depending on whether or not it's summer barbecue season!

Anyway, as a result of these fellows we learned all sorts of useful things, like how to determine the sex of a lamb carcass, and the virtues of thick end belly pork. I bought a thick end belly off them after the demonstration for only £7.50, and when I cooked it off, it made a positively delicious roast that could easily have served 8, with loads of crisp and melting crackling. Even better, the leftovers have kept the Husband and I in pork stir fry and pork fried rice these past couple of days ...

The butchering theme continued on Thursday, when the Scotsman announced in his fish demonstration that -- although it was strictly voluntary -- for anyone who wanted to watch, he was going to demonstrate killing and skinning an eel at 1.30. Naturally, Chefette had to witness this. (You knew it was going to be interesting when you saw several of the other teachers come by to watch as well.)

He pulled out a live, but slightly groggy eel of just about a meter in length from a cardboard box, where it had been wrapped in a wet tea towel. He stunned it first, by giving it a strong chop with the blunt end of a cleaver just behind the vent on the belly. Then, while it was unconscious, he put a hook through its jaw up into it's skull to kill it instantly. The other end of the hook he attached to the tap above the sink. He then gutted and cleaned it, before proceeding to make very shallow cut around the circumference of the neck just behind the head. To finish, he loosened the thick neck skin, then grabbed a pair of pliers and using a very high degree of force proceeded to pull away the skin in one long inside-out piece, like removing a knee sock. Quite an impressive feat! (I asked him later how many eels he'd skinned, and he said at least a couple of dozen.)

Ciao for now.

PS: For those of you who asked for it, see comment for the Peter Gordon biscotti recipe.