Monday, September 26, 2005

Cordon Vert Cookery School

Vegetarian Society Cordon Vert Cookery School
Parkdale, Altrincham

I spent the weekend doing two one day workshops at the Vegetarian Society's Cordon Vert Cookery School near Manchester. The workshops were the "Italian Cookery" and "Around the World."

Saturday was the Italian Cookery day. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to learn that this course concentrates on recipes and food that originates in Italy, and the recipes for the day included pasta, stuffed peppers, risotto and the like.

There were nine of us on the course, and all except one were vegetarians. The tutors welcome non veggies as they are always keen to show that vegetarian food can be exciting and tasty.

The day began with demos of pasta making and foccachia bread making followed by a run through of the recipes that we would be cooking. Everybody made some pasta dough and we were then split into three groups of three and the recipes divided amongst us. The group I was in made spaghetti, stuffed peppers, biscotti, pesto and baked fennel in creamy white wine sauce.
We also tried our hand at making tortellini.

Once all of the groups had finished their cooking, it was time to eat. The menu started with rosemary focaccia accompanied by peppers stuffed with olive paste, garlic, cherry tomatoes and capers. This was then followed by spaghetti with pesto, spinach and ricotta tortellini in a rich tomato sauce and squash and sage tortellini in a vodka lemon cream and chive sauce. After this came Il Secondo which was the baked fennel in cream and a lemon herb risotto cake accompanied by a chickpea salad. For dessert we had a chocolate amaretti flan. This was then all washed down with coffee and the biscotti.

The meal, although I do say so myself - having had quite a large hand in cooking it - was lovely. The flavours of the different dishes all complemented each other and whoever designed the menu for this course should be congratulated.

The course itself was good fun and the tutors were very good, keeping an eye on everyone and helping out where and when they were needed.

On Sunday it was the "All Around the World" course. This consisted of recipes from such places as Greece, Morocco, Russia and South Africa.

Once again the course began with demos of various techniques - pastry making, rolling vine leaves etc before we were split into teams and given various recipes to cook. Today, there were also nine on the course, but only two of us had done the course yesterday.

The format was very similar, but the recipes were more fiddly and took more thought and preparation than the ones on the Italian course yesterday.

After a few hours in the kitchen we sat down to eat what we had prepared. For starters we had Thai mushroom soup with crispy wontons. Two groups had prepared different batches of the soup and it is always interesting to taste the difference between the dishes that different people have made when following the same recipe. The soups were no exception. One was quite spicy, the other less so and had a more earthy flavour.

The main course consisted of a real mixture of dishes. Dolmada, Bobitie - roasted vegetables in an egg custard from South Africa, Russian Piroshki with a carrot filling, Paneer Seekh Kebabs, Flautas and a range of salsas and dips. The weird thing was, they all sort of complemented each other despite being from different international cuisines. For dessert we had baked fruit cake custard pudding - rather like a bread pudding made with fruit cake and an orange infused custard, and Caribbean coffee, ginger and rum trifle. Yummm!

Everyone said that they thoroughly enjoyed the two days and I for one can't wait to go back to do some more. I'm currently about a third of the way through my Cordon Vert Diploma courses, so have a way to go yet but I'm enjoying every minute. Next up is the Far Eastern course in January. As you may imagine, being a curry lover, I am really looking forward to that one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An Audience with Antonio Carluccio

Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

I’ve always been a big fan of Antonio Carluccio. His enthusiasm for food and the apparent simplicity of his recipes have always appealed to me. His “Vegetables” book is widely used in my kitchen and I’ve been to his Cafés several times and have never had a bad meal or poor service there.

So, when I saw that he was appearing at a local venue to promote his new book, Italia, I booked up and went along.

The theatre was full, which is a testament to his popularity. The evening was fairly informal and consisted of Antonio telling a few tales to the audience, cooking a couple of dishes and then, during the second half, taking some questions.

During the first half of the evening, he introduced us to his book, explaining that he had travelled the twenty different regions of Italy gathering stories and recipes. He started off by cooking Gnocchi di Ricotta con Sugo di Porcini – Ricotta dumplings with porcini sauce. During this task, he was ably assisted by Marco, the chef from the local branch of Carluccio’s Café. As he began to cook, the wonderful smells began to waft over the audience, and I, for one, became very hungry as I would imagine everyone else did.

The next dish he did was La Costoletta del Curato which was a veal dish with pesto. The veal didn’t interest me, but the pesto was made with about a dozen different herbs including Basil, Chervil, Dill, Mint, Chives, Parsley and Tarragon and as they were being crushed in a mortar and pestle they smelled gorgeous.

Then it was the interval where we were able to sample the gnocchi dish prepared, Antonio informed us, by Marco from some 12 kilos of ricotta! It was served in very small cups, but was very nice. I could easily have eaten a whole dish of it. The gnocchi, despite having only ricotta, flour and breadcrumbs was very similar to the potato gnocchi that most of us are used to.

After the break, Antonio answered questions from the audience. This was quite entertaining and we found out how and why he had turned to a career in cooking from his former career in wine, why he thought the English under-rated their own food and much more besides.

Overall, a very entertaining evening. And yes, I did buy his new book and stood in line for the great man to sign it too. Well, you have to do these things don’t you?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Olive Branch Brasserie & Bar

The Olive Branch Brasserie & Bar
High Street
Essex CO16 0EA

Tel: 01255 861199

I’ve suffered with migraine since I began my teens and there’s nothing worse than when it spoils something that you’ve been looking forward to for ages.

My wife was taking me to the Olive Branch in Thorpe-Le-Soken for my birthday. I’d been there once, many years ago and remembered it as being a good, up-market restaurant that served fabulous food.

So it was, that we ventured to the restaurant near the Essex coast.

The service was superb, we waited in the bar area with a drink (Glenmorangie on my part, Verve Clicquot for my wife) while our orders were taken. We were then shown to our table and the wine (a fruity New Zealand white - I forget the name) arrived as, shortly after, did the starters. I started with veggie sushi with a sweet chilli sauce - very nice. The sushi stuffing (if you will) consisted of very finely sliced carrot, cucumber and what appeared to be vermicelli noodles and was very tasty. Even the side salad, which I typically leave, had a tasty mustard dressing on it so it was duly eaten. My wife had a Pancetta and Gruyere Muffin (which they would also do without the pancetta as a veggie option). She said that it too was very tasty.

And so onto the mains. There was only one veggie main dish, Grilled Halloumi Cheese with Anti Pasti Vegetables. I love anti-pasti and halloumi, so the combination sounded great. And it was. The vegetables - aubergines, courgettes and peppers - were grilled and had just the right amount of 'char' to their flavour - except one piece of courgette that should have applied a bit more sunscreen before venturing close to the grill - and beneath the halloumi were some crushed new potatoes. The olive oil was delicately flavoured with various herbs and tasted great. Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through the dish, the old migraine decided that I'd eaten enough and raised the appetite inhibitors. So that was that. I called it a day and forewent the desert I was planning - chocolate crepes with Grand Marnier, should you be interested.

My wife had a lamb dish which she said was nice (but not up to New Zealand lamb standards that she, as an Antipodean, is used to) and we had sweet potato and rosemary mash and grilled asparagus for side dishes - both quite tasty.

The Olive Branch is not the cheapest of places, but then again it isn't the dearest either - main courses ranged from £10 to £59 (for lobster for two) but the presentation, service, taste and amount of the food is certainly worth the price.

We plan to do a return trip sometime in the near future and finish all the courses without any interruption from recurring illnesses.