Learning to cook French Style whilst in France

Posted on January 10, 2010

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There is the well-known, Cordon Blue cooking school (yes, we’ve all seen Julie and Julia recently), and The Ritz Escoffier in Paris which do both long courses to achieve a qualification, and short courses from 2 hours to learn individual dishes or meals. I have also done a short course where we prepared a 2 course meal at the Palais de Tokyo which is a far cheaper alternative and just as good. These courses are great, especially if you don’t have much time. There are always new things to learn and I love the mix of people that you find on each course.

If you have some more time, a weekend is fine then I highly recommend spending a few days at Les Ruches (The Beehives) cooking school near Poitiers.We were one of the first few people to visit here after Mark and Nina opened and it can only have got better since. They cashed in their life savings and houses in London to buy an old farmhouse which they have since converted into a cookery school and chambre d’hote accommodation. And they have done a fantastic job, the place looks amazing.

The cooking school is in a converted cottage and is set up to give lessons. As we had a bespoke course and ut was just the two of us, we stayed in the main house which was more cosy in the cold February weather. Nina and Mark picked us up in Poitiers after we had a good wander around the town (a couple of hours in plenty). Les Ruches is about a half an hour drive through the French countryside and it was interesting listening to the British couple’s story and how they had decided to follow their dream.

When we arrived I have to admit that I was marginally jealous, the house has been done beautifully with great attention to detail.The first evening we sat down to dinner that Mark had cooked including escalope de fois gras on brioche with a creamy grape sauce, and chicken with smoky lentils and bacon. It was divine and we were keen to see what we were going to learn the next day.

When we were asked what time we wanted to start the following day, we suggested a reasonable early start of 10am. Mark and Nina were marginally horrified by our relaxed approach but hid it well. I think they were used to more serious cooks passing through.

We took the ‘Seafood and sauces’ day class and have to admit that we learnt a lot. Looking at whole fish and being told that you will be gutting and scaling them, right after breakfast, wasn’t entirely what I’d imagined doing on  a weekend’s holiday but it was actually quite entertaining (I am rubbish at this incidentally, it’s just that I have learnt to laugh at myself). The bouillabaisse that we made tasted delicious and it is definitely something that I would never have attempted on my own but would now happily make again.

As you may have gathered, although we do a lot of travelling, this is our holiday time and next to exploring and  eating, one of our favourite things is sleeping. I still haven’t quite got used to the French style of having a glass of wine with lunch and so after we finished eating, we suggested that we popped off for a nap before starting on the afternoon’s lesson of salmon. Realising that we were there to have fun and learn as opposed to being serious chefs, they packed us off until 5pm when we would start preparing dinner.

We learnt two desserts whilst there – shortbread with cream served with raspberry coulis, which bought back memories of my saturday job in a bakery in Virginia Water; and then for dinner, the wonderful French mi-cuit au chocolat, mmmmm. Mi-cuit literally means half cooked so when you tuck into the dessert it ooozes warm chocolate goo. The Mi-cuit was served with crème anglaise – amazing how they can make custard sounds so much more appealing. We learnt some good tricks for presentation which makes such a difference to a meal.

Les Ruches is incredibly reasonable (from 100eur/day for cooking, from 40eur b&b) and Mark and Nina were enormously hospitable. They were genuinely keen to meet our needs and make our stay an enjoyable one.  If you go, please send our best (you can still see a photo of us on their website so I hope they haven’t forgotten us already!)

If you can’t make it to France in the near future, you could try Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ or, if you are looking for something with a bit less fuss, then I love ‘Bistro Cooking’

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