26 June 2006

Quick update

Chefette is busy preparing for the Final Practical exam, so apologies for an extremely pithy posting this week.

The good news is that the written test last Friday went pretty well.

The bad news is that the final exam -- which I have to do on Thursday -- is going to be majorly difficult. We start cooking at 9am, and have five hours in which to make and serve the following three course menu:
  • Puff pastry feuillete cases filled with spinach and trout, and served with sauce vierge (to be served at 1.15pm)
  • Boned, stuffed quail with rosemary jus, spring vegetables and potatoes of our choice. To be accompanied by a loaf of walnut bread (both to be served at 1.45pm)
  • Lemon jellies with fresh raspberries (to be served at 2pm)
Yesterday I attempted a practice run-through, and it was a disaster. I didn't get the first course ready until 1.40pm. I didn't even get my vegetables washed, let alone cooked. Nor did I get the stuffing made for my quail. I burned the jus, underbaked the bread, and my lemon jelly wouldn't clear.

In short, I have a lot of work to do over the next three days to get myself up to speed!! Oh dear.

16 June 2006

Fergus's magic

The course is almost over. Chefette can hardly believe it, but the tangible proof is sitting on the dining table. To wit, a one-and-a-half page list of topics that we have covered over the past 9 months, which could have questions on the Final Theory Test. The principal of the school went over them with us at last Friday's revision session. Quite a few of them are from previous terms and aren't fresh in the mind. So mild pre-exam nerves are starting to nibble away at the far reaches of Chefette's conscious mind, and as of today she is diving head-on into theory revision. For the next 7 days, best try to avoid her, as her head will be filled with thoughts on 'reasons for failure in breadmaking', or 'method for jus' or 'seasons for feathered and furred game'.

At least there have been a couple of good omens from the Gods of Marking during the week. I found out that I passed my wine exam with distinction, along with several others in my class, so am still in the running for the wine prize. We won't find out until Friday 30th June (prize giving day) who the winner is, but at least this girl can still hope.

Also found out that the principal liked my portfolio. The Scotsman asked me to fix a couple of spelling errors and then bring it back in to school. It is going to be one of the portfolios sent to an external assessor, who will decide who wins the prize for best portfolio. Don't really think mine will win this category, but at least it was nice to be on the shortlist!

One last thing I have to tell you about. We had a talk yesterday from Fergus Henderson, the head chef (and part owner I think?) of St John's Restaurant in London, as one of his chefs from the restaurant demonstrated four dishes for us. Henderson is famous for his 'nose to tail' approach to eating, always ordering whole animals at the restaurant, and serving up as much of the animal as possible to customers in a menu that changes as the chefs work their way through the butchered cuts of meat. He's one of that remarkable breed, the English Eccentric, so beloved in British society. His appearance is dominated by his thick, round glasses that are at least two sizes too small for his florid face. That and the tell-tale signs -- shaking hands and arms -- of his unfortunate affliction with Parkinson's disease. But it was his poetic philosophy of cooking and his flair for odd, attention-grabbing turns of phrase that charmed me utterly.

He opened with the statement that he was going to talk about magic in the kitchen. He said that one of the best examples were fennel twigs, which created a force field when tied around a whole rabbit so that it can be cooked a long time while remaining completely moist. He discovered this in Italy, apparently, when everything on the menu said 'with fennel', but none of the meat -- which was uniformly well cooked, but without any trace of dryness -- was actually served with fennel. It puzzled him for ages until he found out about fennel twigs, and after experimenting with them he became convinced that one could achieve this magical effect by trying bundles of twigs around the joint of meat, and then braising it for a long time. When we tasted the rabbit cooked this way it was utterly delicious, completely moist, and best of all uncomplicated to make.

And there were other simple but delicious preparations. A whole turbot served on a bed of sweated down green and white vegetables (celery, leeks, onions, garlic, fennel) that had been finished with a bit of white wine and some thyme. Paper thin slices of marinated ox heart that were flashed on a very hot griddle. Breaded, golden fried pig's tail, which he said children always love. And last but not least the signature dish of his restaurant. Roast marrow bones, with a side of parsley salad and toasted homemade bread.

While his chef was making up the parsley salad, he told us -- with utter seriousness -- not ever to dice your vegetables too fine, because it was wrong to take them too far away from their original shape. Thinly slicing the shallots for the parsley salad was fine. That allowed you to tame the shallot and show it who's boss, without robbing it of its elegant curved profile. And when adding the capers you must always think about eating sultana bran. When eating sultana bran, you wanted just enough sultanas but not too many. Otherwise you wouldn't experience the joy of discovering one or two sultanas on your spoonful of bran. If every spoonful was guaranteed to have one or more sultanas, you couldn't possibly have the same magical eating experience as you do when you aren't sure whether or not you'll be lucky enough to taste a sultana in your next mouthful of bran.

Make of that what you will. Toodle pip!

09 June 2006

Summer in the kitchen

Chefette can happily announce that summer has officialy arrived in London this week. Hundreds of people have been cooking themselves to a bright shade of pink in Hyde Park over the past few days. And at school, Kitchens 2 and 3 have been getting really hot. Think swollen feet, pink face and sweaty hair hot. The Scotsman, bless him, has been touchingly concerned with our welfare, and keeps reminding us to drink lots of water.

Did a work experience evening at a stylish, well-known London restaurant the other day. (A rooftop establishment, with a spectacular view from the Thames -- hint, hint). Thought their food was very over styled, over clever, and over handled. Their 'tuna nicoise' starter consisted of a thin toasted strip of pita bread, on top of which was aligned, from left to right: a round disk of chargrilled tuna loin, a single quail's egg dipped in paprika, a tiny cluster of folded anchovies, a chunk of bright purple potato, a few lightly dressed snow peas, and something else I can't remember. How pretentious is that? I mean, why not just give us a normal nicoise salad with beautiful ingredients? But the team there were great to me, and it was good to experience another working kitchen. I did get to plate up a few dishes during service on the cold starter section and the dessert station. Also got some good experience opening oysters, thankfully without any nasty cuts and scrapes.

Loads going on at school of late. We've been doing shellfish this week, and I did pretty well with the scallops, less well at the crab. I've also learned how to cut the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword. Evidently it's a ceremonial thing, known as 'sabrage'. I've no idea if it will ever come in useful as a party trick, but I may try it on the husband one of these days just to show the old dog still has a few tricks up her sleeve (works with a knife also, not just a sword). As a new year's eve baby myself, I'm predisposed to believe that anything pertaining to champagne is probably good.

Best thing about today was my dessert. A rich and utterly mouthwatering raspberry creme brulee, with a thin, golden caramelized crust on top and a luciously soft set to the cream. The Scotsman couldn't taste very well since he had a cold, but his assistant pronounced it very good indeed. I was a little worried when the recipe said the ramekins would set in 20 minutes in a bain marie in the oven, and mine took an hour (!). But they were so good I ended up making a complete pig out of myself, finishing two individual portions of it. Made the cycle ride home in the heat a bit difficult I can tell you ...

We also had a cheese guy in for a demonstration, who fed us loads and loads. Around 20 different cheeses we tasted. A slightly odd fellow, but boy did he know amazing amounts about cheese. Indeed, had Got Religion on cheese. He kept sounding off with messianic zeal about how crazy the EU regulations are for prohibiting the sale of raw (unpasteurised) milk. And how it's practically a criminal offence to serve unripe cheese. Then he would lament how the British public -- who for generations have wanted only inexpensive cheese -- now had unsavably bad palates, and wouldn't know the good stuff if it bit them in the ankle. When I asked him about transporting cheese back on the train from Paris to London, he told me I could bring pretty much anything back without any concerns about hygiene, even if it is out of the fridge a good few hours. Can't really say I fully grasped his argument, but it was along the lines of 'good, artisan cheeses often have so much naturally occuring bacteria in them anyway, that there's no room for the food spoilage bacteria to develop'. If that means anything to you let me know!

Must dash shortly and get some dinner on the table. In the meantime, a humourous anecdote for you. One of those bizarre random London interactions with urban fauna. I was at the computer the other weekend and happened to glance outside the window. What did I see but one of the local fox population -- one that lives near the rubbish bins behind the parking lot of the apartment building next door --stretched out and sunning itself on the roof of the green soft-top sportscar that parks in space number 36. It had actually climbed up the car to get on top of the roof. How on earth it started doing that, I shall leave you all to ponder.