Those of you who know me well know I love to bake. OK, I don’t do it very often in Dubai (have you
my impractical kitchen? Or my waistline?), but there’s nothing more relaxing than getting out the butter and sugar and whipping something up. And is there anything like the smell of vanilla to lighten a gloomy day?
at the Meridien has general classes with a slightly French bias, and Chef Gregory gives the occasional pastry class. They’re good fun, but if you are sharing a class with others there’s only so much hands-on you get to do… plus he has prepped everything in advance, so you don’t actually feel as if you’ve done it all yourself. For some things the pre-prep is necessary—the macaron class was only two hours, and it takes longer than that start-to-finish to make three different kinds of macaron. So we made fillings, for example, but some of the fillings we actually ate had been made beforehand. So although I enjoy Gregory’s classes, I’ve done pretty much all of his pastry classes, and it was time for The Big Time.
So I had been searching and searching for a class I could do – about a week long—on my spring vacation. I had planned to do it in Italy, Vienna or maybe Budapest, since they all have excellent pastry traditions; France I shied away from since I speak about six words of French and none of them intelligibly.
Internet searches got me nowhere. Everything was either touring/wine tasting with a casual class thrown in, or going to full-fledged professional pastry school – way, way above my skill, budget and timeframe. Le Cordon Bleu may be very nice, but not at all what I wanted—or indeed, could handle. Scary chefs in toques barking at me in French? I don’t think so.
I was going to settle for a pizza course in Rome or maybe a gelato course in Sorrento when, two days before I HAD to make a decision, the website where I’d found these courses (GoLearnTo
) sent me an email saying there was a new pastry course in Bordeaux. It didn’t sound too, too scary-chefs-in-toques – they said I could be taught in English and I really, really wanted to do pastry, so I contacted them. Back and forth over email, then a phone call – they couldn’t take me right after the wedding in Barcelona, but would 9th-13th work? Sure--why not? I figured I could hang out in Paris for a few days. Sign me up.
And that’s how I found myself at a country inn in France, up to my elbows in patisserie.
is absolutely charming. It’s an 1850’s stone built farmhouse about an hour out of Bordeaux, and chef Marlene and her English husband Marc restored it and built an inn/cooking school out of the barns. They live in the house with their two delightful little girls, a cat on the prowl for tidbits, and the quietest dog I’ve ever met. The rooms are all exposed stone and wooden beams, and very comfortable. The inn’s restaurant is en famille, which means we ate whatever menu was being prepared and everyone sat together – apparently typical at country inns , but a challenge for me, since my French is those six words and my fellow diners (except for the Spanish teacher) didn’t speak English. (Though one evening, they spoke to me in French and I answered in a mix of Italian and English, so we did all right.) However, Marc and/or Marlene generally joined us for dessert at least and they kept conversation going and translated where necessary. Marc did most of the day-to-day cooking, and I would
say it’s a brave Englishman who will cook in France, but his food was superb! Parsnips? Cauliflower? Pate? Goat cheese? Quiche? ME?? But the pureed vegetable soup I got for lunch one day was absolutely delicious, as was the cauliflower and potato soup we had for a starter one night. I even gladly ate the goat cheese and honey salad, and asked for the recipe. (My Goat will love this). I would hold up any of the meals I had here against anything produced by the scary-chefs-in-toques in Paris. Pork with prunes, Toulouse sausage and endive, onion tart, daube en croute, duck l’orange with potatoes and broccoli (!), and on and on… French country food is lovely.
And the pastry? Ooh la la! Marlene called me before the class to ask if there was anything I particularly wanted to work on. I’m not a rank beginner, but I’ve always felt hopeless with a pastry bag and nothing I make is ever ‘pretty’, although it tastes good. So, of course, she designed my classes around pastry bags (Religieuse au chocolat and Paris-Brest) and doing things that were pretty (mille feuille, white & dark chocolate mousse cake, etc). And – quelle horreur!—she told me that the results of my class would be served in the restaurant that night. Nothing like knowing you are going to have scary French people eat your French desserts to make you pay very close attention to what you’re doing!
And I did pay attention. And took copious notes. Not that anything was actually that difficult in the end. So far from the scary-chefs-in-toques I was dreading, cooking with Marlene was like cooking with a good friend who knows lots more than you do and is willing to share all the secrets. Is the mousse for the bavarois aux fraises a little bland? Easy to fix: put a scoop in another bowl, add a flavoring, mix it in well, and then fold that back into the main mousse. Egg whites won’t whip up enough? A bit of lemon juice does the trick. She showed me all those things that books never tell you which can only be learned by experience. And did I get experience!
In four days of cooking, I made eight complete recipes. The first day we had a tasting from a professional bakery, so I would know what the finished products should look and taste like, followed by my first cooking session (pate choux), but the other days had two sessions each (though we ditched Tarte Tatin so I could go shopping for supplies to take back to Dubai). I came to cook, and we cooked! And I learned so much. The choices Marlene made when designing my course gave me a broad range of techniques to work on. Although I had had some experience of most of the techniques, Marlene could tell me how and why something worked (or wouldn’t work) and let me in on those little secrets that make such a difference. And doing all the fiddly bits of putting it all together is what really made it shine. I did the work (she mostly supervised and measured, and demonstrated new techniques before handing it back over to me), so I could look at the lovely results and think “I did that…and I know how it all works now so I can do it again.”
And as you can see by the pictures, I think it was a roaring a success! I got honest to goodness compliments all round, and some of the inn’s customers actually had seconds on dessert. Maybe I couldn't understand all the words, but I could see the smiles. I had a super time, and am leaving with a lot more confidence in my cooking than I started with. Now if I practice up on these skills, maybe next year I can get Marlene to teach me sugar skills. From cream puffs to Croquemboche with cracked caramel... Mmmmmm...