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!

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