AM I a desperate housewife? I’d like to think only occasionally (technically I’m no one’s wife although I do have a partner and a child), however when it comes to rustling up something interesting for us to eat this side of midnight after rushing home from work, it’s fair to say that sometimes it can be a challenge.
So I’ve signed up to a cookery course called Desperate Housewives and Hapless Husbands at The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath, a cookery school founded by French baker and cook book author Richard Bertinet. Bertinet himself is far from hapless – his new tome, Cook, is a useful mix of cookery tips and delicious-looking recipes designed to inspire confidence in the most novice cook.
There are 11 of us in the group, mainly the hapless contingent, ranging from teenager to retiree. Some have been sent by their wives, others have come of their own accord. They’re all here to learn how to cook or expand on the limited amount they know. And in some cases we’re talking basics – some have never chopped an onion. Not any longer. Chopping an onion will be the least of our worries, as between us today we’ll be making three different soups, numerous variations of Bolognese sauce, an egg-custard pudding and jointing and roasting chicken. We’ve got about four hours.
We divide among three benches. I’m with Bernie and Graeme. Bernie hasn’t cooked much since his survival cookery days at university, however he recently found himself in charge of preparing the children’s suppers and needs to expand on toast. “I think we have a kitchen and I suspect this is all part of a larger plot to get me in it,” he says. Graeme has two teenage daughters and came voluntarily. The family has an AGA, which he thinks does everything although he couldn’t swear by it.
Luckily seasoned cookery expert and author Jenny Chandler is on hand to guide us through the day. The good news, she tells us, is there’s no right or wrong way to do anything in the kitchen (apart from walking round with sharp knives – best to leave them on the chopping board). First, we’ll get the pudding in the oven as then there’ll be no last minute panic and there’s nothing worse than flavouring a sweet dish with raw garlic leftover on the board. Then we’ll crack on with some peeling, chopping and weighing to make the soups, Bolognese and chicken dishes.
And so we begin with the pud, the egg-custard dish called Far Breton that’s an old recipe of Bertinet’s granny. There’s nothing about this recipe that can go wrong, says Chandler, as she urges us to try the magic ingredient – prunes soaked in rum – which we warm in the oven, then pour over a batter and bake it some more. My cohorts are pleased: “this is proper cooking, when you take it out of the oven, do something, then put it back in,” they agree.
Puds in, we gather around the front to watch Chandler’s knife skills. “With knives, you get what you pay for,” she instructs, as onion, garlic and a bunch of parsley disappear under the blade. Next up is the chicken. “Morale welfare aside,” says Chandler, “cheap chicken tastes like cardboard that you have to flavour with other ingredients. So buy the best you can afford and eat less of it.” Not only that, we discover, a chicken from your butcher has a bag of goodies tucked inside – giblets, liver and neck, all delicious morsels for the stock-pot. Buy a whole chicken to joint at home and you’ll instantly save yourself a few quid over packs of chicken pieces that cost twice as much.
Next is Bolognese sauce. Bernie stirs the carrot, onion and bacon – it’s the base of the dish, what the Italians call soffrito. The recipe says to stir well. “Marvelous stirring,” says Graeme. “Thank you very much,” Bernie retorts, delighted. We turn up the heat and add the mushrooms to the pan, then some minced beef followed by a tin of tomatoes (“done this before,” my team-mates chortle, wielding the tin opener), then it’s on to simmer for 30 minutes. “If you’ve got four hours, even better,” says Chandler.
After soups (the key here is lots of olive oil – without it food tastes “self righteous”), we sit down at the long table and tuck in to the dishes that keep on coming. Not only is there spaghetti Bolognese, some of the sauce has been transformed into a shepherd’s pie and there’s perfectly seasoned mashed potato and roasted chicken pieces in various guises. We cut out the custard pud with cheffy rings and arrange the perfect circles on our plates. It’s a feast; we’ve more than succeeded in feeding ourselves, we’ve created food that’s truly tasty. “Hugely encouraging,” nods Graeme.
Back home the following week, I wonder whether Graeme and Bernie are feeling less hapless. Graeme’s planning to cook Bolognese for the family and his girls are excited. He’s hopeful. “It’s a start,” he says. Bernie has already made carrot and orange soup for the family and it went down a treat. He was amazed. He’s also cleaned the cooker and is anxious about what might happen next. I don’t think he has anything to worry about. Definitely less hapless and far better fed.
Desperate Housewives and Hapless Husbands 1-day cookery course costs £145. The next course runs on 25 June – book now to reserve your place. The Bertinet Kitchen, 01225 445531 www.thebertinetkitchen.com
Cook by Richard Bertinet (Kyle Cathie, £19.99) is available from all good bookshops and www.kylecathie.co.uk
JENNY CHANDLER | TIPS FOR DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES AND HAPLESS HUSBANDS
1. Get involved with the ingredients and flavours instead of rigidly following a recipe – the end result will taste far better.
2. There’s no need to splash out on a new set of knives. You only really need two – a good cook’s knife and a small paring knife.
3. Look after your knives and keep them sharp. You’ll be far less likely to cut yourself
4. When it comes to meat, poultry and fish, buy the best you can afford and eat it less often. Buying a whole chicken, rather than pieces, works out much cheaper and means you can use the carcass and giblets for stock.
5. Taste and season before you dish up. Consider salt, peppery zing, acidity and fat. Get these four elements working in harmony and you’ve cracked it.
6. A brown crust promises delicious flavour. A black crust means bitter and burnt
7. Ras-el-hanout is a Moroccan spice par excellence and a clever cheat’s way of adding authentic flavours in an instant.
8. And, most importantly, keeping a huge jar of prunes soaked in rum in the kitchen will take the edge off things when the going gets tough.
MAKE A WEEKEND OF IT | LUCKNAM PARK
Fancy pony-trekking through Cotswolds villages, a black sand body scrub and croquet on the lawn? Pack your bags and head to Lucknam Park. Set within stunning grounds six miles from Bath, this luxury country house hotel also promises fabulous Michelin-starred food in its restaurant, The Park (the hotel can arrange qualified babysitters so you can dine in peace while your little ones sleep upstairs). The next morning, swim in the tranquil spa pool before tucking into breakfast in the adjoining Brasserie restaurant. Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, Bath. To book, call 01225 742777 or visit www.lucknampark.co.uk.