Just off Oxford Street, you’ll find Cookery School – two bright, well-equipped kitchen/classrooms, right in the centre of London. As I’m taking a few days off to recover from some exciting/stressful Adulting, I decided to book myself onto their “Ultimate Fish and Shellfish” course on Saturday.
It was great. I cooked things I’d not cooked before, met some lovely folks, and dismantled a fine selection of water critters.
The course is about six hours, with lots of hands-on time, and an eye-popping quantity of things to eat at the end. It’s a rich, full day for brain and stomach. You can tell, because they kept me too busy to take any pictures. Also, we were reminded, smartphones are filthy. Hand washing was (correctly) mandatory after Instagramming.
All the images here are things I came home and cooked from the course, but if you want to get a feel, there’s some great food (and action shots) on Cookery School’s own Instagram feed.
The tl;dr is that I’d recommend it hands down, especially for beginners or intermediate cooks looking to build confidence in particular areas.
We began with a light breakfast – herb scones and delightful caraway seed muffins, both fresh from the oven, prepared by the chef John, and his assistant (who’s name I sadly didn’t catch) who were looking after us for the day. Our session had about ten people, with one no-show, so we had plenty of space to work. The kitchen would have held a few more, I think, though north of 12 I imagine it’d be a little crowded.
There was an intro briefing: some health and safety, and a little background. Cookery School prides itself on sustainability, with the awards to match. Fish, John explained, can be sustainable, but you need to make a few substitutions in classic recipes, stick to line-caught fish, ideally from suppliers with sustainability certifications themselves, and generally just be willing to pay a little more for quality. They’d made a couple of substitutions on the day (Pollock over cod, for instance) to place marine viability over authenticity. I’m down with that, and so are the Marine Stewardship Council, who’ve certified Cookery School as being basically on top of this shit.
After the briefing, a brief interlude when one of the attendees passed out and had to be taken to hospital (nothing to do with the course, and dealt with quickly and professionally by staff and paramedics alike – damn, the NHS is brilliant) we got our hands dirty.
The course has an impressive selection of dishes, and we started by doing the fish prep. This was a great way to get some practice filleting, preparing squid and scallops, and knowing what to look for when you go fish shopping.
All in all, we made:
- A lobster-bisque-based fish stew
- Calamari braised in red wine
- Pollock with a black butter, parsley and caper sauce
- Mussels Provencal
- Seared scallops
- Grilled prawns with green salsa
- Fish cakes
- Mackerel with gooseberry sauce
- Smoked mackerel pâté
Plus a variety of sauces. The calamari and the fish stew were a revelation. Intellectually, I kind of knew you could slowly braise octopus and squid, but it had never occurred to me to do it. Succulent and tender, with the wine offsetting not overpowering. I’ll be making that one at home.
The bisque? Well, we were warned it was a hassle, and that warning was not entirely without merit. It’s a multi-stage process, culminating in what the recipes called a “lobster smoothie”. We blended and strained shells cooked in fresh fish stock to make this amazing, fragrant liquor that became the soup base. Guess what everyone’s getting for dinner when I next have both people over and afternoon to spare…
It’s a lot of food to get through, and the course covers it with a blend of demos and hands-on group work. Everyone gets at least one go at every technique, and the learning gets cemented by the groups that cooked each recipe demo-ing it back to he rest of the class in stages. Very few things were just made by John, and the ones he did, he explained in a nice amount of detail with plenty of time for questions.
If I sound a bit gushing and uncritical, it’s because I had a brilliant day, and there’s not much to criticise. The course was pitched intermediate, and the group was mixed ability. If I’d been expecting something more advanced I’d have been a little disappointed (although not, I think, bored). But in practice, fish is one of my weaker areas as a cook, and I got just what I wanted. This was a solid refresher of the basics: some technique and theory, hands on practice, recipe inspiration, and that all important thing – examples of what good looks like.
The course took me out of my comfort zone a bit, too. I’ve never cooked a lobster, or shelled a scallop, and I can be nervous about cooking times for a lot of fish. I think that’s why I’m so enthusiastic. It scratched the learning itch, pushed me a little, and helped build confidence. Not bad for single day, and as I waddled up the steps after a frankly massive lunch, I was pretty sure I’d be back again for another course.