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Archive for March, 2010

Last year I started wondering what it would be like to actually get some real training in cookery and looked at some cookery schools. It soon became clear that I was going about it all wrong and what I actually wanted was an experience day. Just a one day course to give me a taster. There are lots of famous cookery schools out there which also cost if you want the star chef. I decided to look closer to home, a local school if there was one. I couldn’t find one and just happened to see a stall at the Essex Food Fair. It looked good and soon my mind was set on Braxted Park as it offered a good choice of courses and highly trained and reputable chefs.

Freshly smoked oysters

There was never really any competition when I saw the Modern British Cooking day. It covers game, fish, oysters, and several different techniques that I hadn’t used before so I put the idea among my family that they may want to get me a voucher for Christmas. It done the trick and one Braxted Park Voucher was gladly received on Christmas morning and I was soon planning when to book. That was a little harder as I was about to change jobs so getting time off was a problem. As you will have gathered I have now been on the course and what a day it was.

I got a lift up to Braxted Park Estate (knowing wine would be drunk), only 20 minutes up the road on a glorious sunny spring morning. As we drove up the long driveway towards the house we stopped to allow a pheasant to cross who seemed very unimpressed by our presence. We were then greeted by lots of Geese who also seemed to be enjoying the bright morning. My lift departed and I walked to a small cottage where the office for the school is. I was very early as I’d given plenty of time knowing there were local road works. I knock and no answer so I walk through the open door and am greeted cheerily and with a piping hot coffee. Whilst I wait for the other 6 people to arrive I read through the recipes, mouth-watering, out on the patio with a beautiful view and reminder of how lovely the county of Essex actually is.

Once everyone arrives, our chef and teacher, Chris Jagger, is introduced to us. His CV is impressive ranging from the Royal Navy to the F1 team McClaren to Lees Priory and Reeves Restaurant where they won restaurant of the year with Chris as Head Chef. Chris is also very funny and has this strange nervous twitch. Okay, that is a joke as he put it on when talking about cleaning the kitchen, keeping it in order and one of the group then calling him a neat freak. I also told Chris i would mention his twitch in my post and I’m not sure he believed I actually would. Honestly, he really did put it on…….. didn’t you Chris?

Cured Salmon with Onion Confit & Smoked Bacon

We finish coffee, walk up to the kitchen, all very relaxed. This was where I had a bit of a shock. I was thinking, cookery school, work stations, Chef at the front. No, this was a working kitchen although you could see our stations laid out. We were good, we put on our aprons (which we got to keep) and washed our hands. Chris explained that the morning would be prepping mainly, getting everything ready and anything that needed cooking for long could get put on. We start on the salmon, slicing off a piece each and taking the skin off. First technique I learnt, hold the knife and move the fish. Very simple and works a treat. I give myself a little satisfied smirk as I see the skin peel off with very little fish attached to it. We get the marinade together and cover the salmon, wrapping in cling film and off into the fridge.

Then, the venison. Chris brings up a huge slab on venison, a big layer of fat on it. This is the meat that has flavour he explains and then it’s handed to me, yes the whole thing, to trim. Everyone else gets the veg to prep. I am often called and almost prodded to pay attention to Chris as he explains the veg. Sorry Chris, I was concentrating on the meat. I have only ever had to trim a piece of meat once before. The rest of the gang are almost done and I’m still trimming fat off the venison. Chris finishes off for me, slicing off the bits that I thought was taking too much meat off. It has to have all the sinew off as we’re doing carpaccio so must be as lean as possible.

Carpaccio of Cured Venison with Horseradish, Chive & Roasted Walnut Cream

Right, veg and venison done. We get the Bream ready. It’s soaked in red wine and put in the fridge, bit easy really. Well that part is. I am skipping some detail so as not to bore you all with the fine detail and to give a more general overview. Prepping done, we walk back to the cottage for teas and scones with clotted cream. The group relaxing more all the time and we are all getting on really well. One thing I really noticed was that there was not one person who I wished hadn’t been there. No one was pretentious, no one pretending they know it all, a really good mix.

Finally the pheasant is prepped. A stuffing which is a kind of mousse, walnuts, chicken breast. Some of the group attempt cutting the breast out of the pheasant, some more successfully than others. A pocket is cut into the breasts to take the stuffing, we wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge.

A good break and we’re back in the kitchen. Now the real cooking starts. Pots are boiling, veg is pureed, actually that mixer seemed to get used a lot. Sauces are being reduced on the hob. My first job was to puree the artichoke. Just doing that produced such an amazing smell. There’s always something to do and while one person does one bit, the others are kept busy.

Pheasant Spiked with Raisins, Served with Walnut Salad

The pheasant breasts are poached, a whole pheasant is in the oven roasting as we had one spare so it’s a nice bonus. It’s so hard to tell you exactly what we done as the afternoon was a bit of a blur. So much going on. It is basically cooking everything we prepped in the morning apart from the salmon and venison. I caramalise some walnuts to go with the salad for the pheasant which is cooled a bit to unwrap. There’s a smell of thyme and I turn to see a couple of the group shredding leaves. I don’t think I could work in a kitchen but I love the smell.

The pheasant is browned off in a pan and the oysters are prepared. A lot of laughs as six of us try to shuck the oysters. Don’t know if I was just lucky but I seem to do it quicker than anyone else. My first ever attempt so I do a little victory dance in my head. Chris is getting a smoker ready. We’re smoking the oysters with rice and brown sugar. It’s just filling up with amazing smells, sweet, savoury, herbs, it’s so great and my stomach tells me it’s ready to taste.

Smoked Oysters with Tomato & Fennel Essence

The cooking is finished and I plate up as you see in the photos. Okay, before Chris hunts me down and attacks me with his chef knives, I did not plate these up, Chris did. We all help prepare the platters for everyone to grab a taster and head off back to the cottage. Wine is served, the food is laid out and we tuck in.

So here it is. A hard day in the kitchen, a long day in fact which flew by. Sat with the group and ready for the final verdict. Can I just say it’s all fantastic, tastes great, looks great. The pheasant is the king of the day, an amazing sweet and savoury meat dish with the venison running a tough competition with the bream for second place. I think the feeling of satisfaction tops off the day. Knowing you helped prepare such great food which no one can fault and, if you have read my posts and tweets before, you will know I’m am my own worst critic.

Thank you Braxted, thank you Chris and thank to everyone who made it such a great day from the Braxted staff to the other guests. Oh and thanks Dad for the voucher.

Fillet of Black Bream in Red Wine with Artichocke Puree & Pickled Baby Beetroot

Cookery lessons and experience days are available by contacting Braxted Park on 01621 890300, email info@braxtedcookery.co.uk or visit www.braxtedparkcookery.co.uk

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If you read my last post you will know that it was my Dad’s 70th birthday recently. As a present to him we decided to treat him to dinner. Obviously it needed to be good and we often go out for a curry together so thought how about taking that a step further. After a visit to Benares with friends and telling my Dad about it, he seemed quite keen on trying it himself. Also as we go to the Taste festivals together he’s had the chance to try the Benares menu and loves it, so really it was a no-brainer.

I contacted Benares very early and sorry to Talitta for bugging you so much, you’ve been great. I then bumped into Atul Kochhar at Master Chef Live last year. I mean almost literally. I went to the Crabbies stand and thought “that guy looks familiar” and there was Atul. I asked why he was here and didn’t have a stand himself which is when I heard about the fire and refurb. I wished him the best with the refurb and said we would be visiting soon. Then a couple of weeks later we all went to Taste of Christmas together, me, wife, dad and mother in law. There was the Benares stand and again the food was great and I got to meet Talitta. We talked briefly about how the refurb was going and when I got home I made sure I made final arrangements for the dinner and so it was booked.

The day finally arrived and we get dressed up and on the train to London. Off at Bond Street in the drizzle we head down to Berkeley Square. WHere do just happen to walk past? Claridges. Well it is a special occasion so we pop in for a glass of champagne. Just a glass but what service and what surroundings and a great place to remind yourself that money doesn’t buy you class.

We drink up and continue the walk, Dad still not knowing where he’s going until we hit Berkeley Square and he sees Benares across the way. We’ve got there half an hour early so we can enjoy cocktails before the meal. My Wife and Dad going for a rhubarb mule and I go for a Benares special, the Mumbai Martini, vodka, lemon & sugar shaken with ginger and curry leaf. Sharp and spicy and very moorish.

We look through the menu and I narrow it down to a choice of all dished bar about 2. Hmmmm, a very difficult decision. Part of the problem is you don’t see food like this very often so you can’t even think “Well I’ve seen that elsewhere so I’ll go for something I’ve never seen before”. Atul, you don’t make choosing a dish easy. Unlike your local curry house, there’s no guidance as to how spicy the dishes are but I’ve been here before and even when the food is too spicy it tastes so good you keep on eating. To give you and idea of my threshold for spice, I struggle with a Tikka Masala sometimes. We are shown to our table and have a conversation with the Somellier about wine. We want a dry-ish white that will cope with the spice and some body. He suggests the Petra Unger Gruner Veltliner Kremstal 2006. He is right, it has so much body for a white, not too dry so it keep s you refreshed while eating. My first ever Austrian wine.

We decide, finally. Dad – Chicken Liver Masala which is pan fried chicken liver with Punjabi style spices. My Wife goes for the Bhatti Ka Junglee Khargosh which is Tandoori roasted rabbit in a spicy crust marinated with hot plum chutney. I, meanwhile go for Achari Kabuter, grilled supreme of pigeon with pickled mango and beetroot, vanilla chutney. I had decided after my first attempt with pigeon not to have it again but thought, Atul must know what he’s doing and glad I tried again. Not so gamey as i remember and it tasted so good, hot spices that were cooled by the chutney. Dad’s livers went down easily and he nodded satisfaction as did my wife. We didn’t even let each other taste a bit as we wanted to eat our own dishes.

Mongsho Ghughni

A nice break and on to the main courses. This is where I really struggled to choose so went for a main ingredient I’ve never had. This time my Dad went for the Mongsho Ghughni, roast Romney Marsh lamb rump on rosemary sweet potatoes and chick peas. My wife this time going for duck breast and I have to admit here to not knowing how it comes as it’s the one dish not on the menu on the website. I went for Hiran Ki Boti, grilled fallow deer fillet with yellow pumpkin kedgeree and pear chutney. Very pleased I chose this as it was mild after the spicy starter and, cooked medium rare, tasted so good and not as gamey as venison. An almost silent meal as everyone savours the taste and spices. We have the usual suspects to accompany, pulao rice, naan bread and then Gobi Tori Masala which is courgette and broccoli and a Saag Aloo Khumbi which is what most of us would expect Saag Aloo to be with the addition of field mushrooms and fenugreek. We actually struggle to finish everything and I am already thinking desert so don’t want to push myself too much. I’m not a great pudding person but when it comes to places fo this class, I always make sure I leave room.

Duck Breast

We are given a very nice break and we continue good conversation and have during the meal so far enjoyed a few laughs with the staff who are so welcoming and friendly. The main man of the night asks the Goan coconut jaggery cake with banana and basil ice cream. When it arrives there is a message of birthday wishes written to him in chocolate sauce and, of course, a candle (not sure what happened to the other 69). My wife asks for the chocolate platter not realising it’s for two people and she goes to change her mind. Not to disappoint her and as I was torn anyway I volunteer my sharing services (although she later admitted she could have eaten the whole lot on her own). It is sublime, a great mixture of chocolate variety and lovely refreshing sorbet.

Hiran Ki Boti

With wine gone, we ordered the desert wines as recommended. My wife got very excited by this being a Man U fan as the wine we had was called De Strafford Straw Wine 2005. The closeness to the name Old Trafford amused her greatly, especially as I’m an Arsenal fan. It’s just the wine and there’s no connection I snarl. It’s not as sweet as most desert wines and it has a deep smokeyness that hits you as you bring the glass to your nose. The grape is a Chenin Blanc and it’s from South Africa. Dad’s wine is a Passito della Rocca 2003 and is a mix of Savuvignon Blanc, Riesling Italico, Trebbiano di Soave, Gargeanega. I try a bit and it’s very similar to our wine yet not as smokey. Again a great glass to match the desert.  As with an Indian restaurant you get hot towels which is turned into another experience. On the table is placed a tray with what looks like three mints. Hot water is poured into the tray and suddenly you have three hot towels to wipe our hands with. Pure magic. Well simple things please simple minds. It’s a bit of fun to finish the meal with.

I always get a bit sad at his point of the night as I feel that’s it. I know coffee is coming and it was great as you would expect from a top restaurant. Dad enjoyed his mint tea too. The petit fours were so good we had to ask for another dish of them a my wife refused to share and quickly nabbed the plate that was put on our table. We reluctantly get our bill and pay. One last thing for the night to happen, my book is brought to the table. I had emailed Talitta earlier in the week asking if I could have one of Atul’s books signed and it was, personally to me which is great – thank you Atul. If you read my New Year’s resolution post, you will know I said I will try spices this year, so now there is no excuse.

So there it is, Benares. A real experience is taste and spice. I urge anyone to go, enjoy and immerse yourself in the magic that is conjured up by this magician of spice. I know Olly Smith is a big fan of Atul Kochhar and, as Olly said when he heard we had been, “Atul Rules” and so does his team. Great place, great night.

Happy Birthday Dad

For more information on Benares, visit www.benaresrestaurant.com

THe book I bought was Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar

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