“GOOD MORNING!” the unmistakable voice of Rosemary Shrager booms as I walk into the state-of-the-art teaching kitchen at her eponymous Cookery School. “Welcome to my cookery school! Come on in!” she cries, her stentorian tones echoing across the marble worktops.
If I was at all nervous about spending a day in Royal Tunbridge Wells under the command and watchful eye of one of the country’s most famous chefs, I’m immediately put at ease by the warmth of the reception.
Straight down to business, Rosemary sits our small class down around one of the smart dining tables and rattles through the obligatory health and safety talk (it boils down to, “If you chop a finger off or burn yourself it’s your own damn fault!”) before running through the day’s itinerary. Today’s course is ‘Summer Cooking’, which, in this instance, means simple recipes that don’t require hours of time spent sweltering in the kitchen, yet still deliver maximum flavour and wow-factor.
First off we get the hard work out of the way – making and kneading dough for pitta bread and tomato and anchovy ring loaf.
“Push! Roll! Turn!” Rosemary barks, sounding rather like a sergeant-major of cox in the Boat Race. But by golly does her teaching deliver results; in no time at all the two different breads are in the oven, and this from someone who struggles with Pop Tarts.
Next we prepare a trio of cold meze; hummus – so simple, but so utterly delicious that I vow never to buy the shop-bought stuff again; tabbouleh – packed with fresh herbs and tangy with lemon; and tzatziki, which, with the additional of dill, is tastier and more exciting than you’d have thought given that its other ingredients comprise just cucumber and yoghurt.
We also conjure up a sensational carrot salad dressed with garlic and honey, a beautifully complex (in taste if not technique) shallot and tomato relish, and a hearty casserole of chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes.
“Balls!” exhorts Rosemary – not a curse but next on the menu; rich lamb-and-rice balls called kadim budu, which translates as ‘ladies’ thighs,’ “but you can call them gay man’s thighs if you like!” Rosemary says to me with a saucy wink, clearly knowing her audience. Coating them in egg and breadcrumbs, we deep-fry them until they’re just cooked through; as we taste the results, everyone in the room groans with delight. They’re some of the best balls I’ve ever tasted. [Ahem.]
Our main course – the ‘show-off’ dish of the day – is duck breast with a rich fruit compote, sweet and sour shallots and a chilli-spiked goat’s cheese cream that we prepared earlier. Sergeant-Major Shrager shows us how to render the fat from a duck breast – the secret is to score the skin down to the flesh and use a cold pan with just some salt instead of oil – and once sealed on the other side, the breasts are taken away to be finished off by Rosemary’s team of chefs while we produce dessert.
“Don’t tell anyone how easy this is!” Rosemary counsels, as we put together what will become, with some time churning in an ice-cream maker, the most delicious, zesty lemon-curd ice-cream. So I won’t, suffice it to say that its ease of manufacture belies its astonishing flavour and it was perfect with our other sweet effort, an Italian honey cake.
Finally, after about four hours, we’ve prepared all the dishes and it’s time for the really fun part – eating it all! A table has been laid for lunch and our colourful creations, served in smart Staub tableware, are arrayed on it banquet-style. I feel immensely proud to see the fruits (and vegetables, and meat…) of my labour all set out before me. And even if I do say so myself, it’s all absolutely delicious.
Although everything has been – or at least seemed – super-simple to make, that’s not to say that I haven’t learned anything. The techniques employed, the unexpected flavour combinations (goat’s cheese with duck is a revelation!) and abundant use of herbs and generous, fearless seasoning, are all hugely useful and skills that I’ll apply to my cooking at home.
And as for Rosemary Shrager herself, who along with her long-suffering assistant Johnny has taught the entire course in person (unlike some celebrity chefs who put their names to a cookery school but don’t actually teach there) I couldn’t have wished for a more fabulous – if occasionally terrifying – tutor. We part as friends, and I head to Tunbridge Wells station very full, very happy and carrying a bag containing what remains of the bread which I made and a brochure from which, I am quite sure, I’ll be booking another day here.
To book your cookery course with Rosemary at Rosemary Shrager’s Cookery School, Tunbridge Wells, or to find out about culinary events taking place at the School, please visit rosemaryshrager.com.
Duck breasts with lentil salad and kiwi dressing
In general, I am not a fan of kiwi fruit but I do enjoy them puréed in this refreshing, slightly bittersweet dressing. We grow tiny ones against the wall at Swinton Park and they are very successful. The dressing doesn’t keep well, so do use it on the day you make it.
4 duck breasts, skin on
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
4 tablespoons soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons runny honey
2 teaspoons English mustard powder
25g unsalted butter
1 frisée lettuce
sea salt and black pepper
micro herbs or small salad leaves, to garnish
For the lentil salad:
1 tablespoon olive oil
25g onion, finely chopped
75g smoked streaky bacon, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
75g Puy lentils
350ml chicken stock, plus a little extra if
1 tablespoon thyme
1 bay leaf
For the kiwi dressing:
2 kiwi fruit, peeled and chopped
½ small green chilli, finely chopped
juice and grated zest of ½ lemon
4 mint leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
75ml extra virgin olive oil
1 Cook the lentils. Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the onion with the bacon and garlic and cook until softened. Add the lentils, stock, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20–25 minutes, until the lentils are tender – you may need to add more stock if they become too dry. Leave to cool and season well with salt and pepper.
2 For the dressing, put the kiwi fruit, chilli, lemon juice and zest, mint and vinegar into a blender. Blend while adding the oil in a slow, steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.
3 Cut about 7 slashes in the skin of each duck breast, taking care not to cut into the flesh. Heat a dry frying pan over a low–medium heat, sprinkle some salt into the pan, then add the duck breasts, skin-side down, and press them down with a spatula or fish slice. Cook without moving them for 5 minutes or until the skin is dark brown. Transfer to a plate. Wipe the pan clean.
4 Mix the soy sauce, sugar, honey and mustard together in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer until reduced by almost a third.
5 Melt the butter in the cleaned frying pan over a medium heat. Add the duck breasts, skin-side up, and cook for 1 minute. Add the reduced soy and honey mixture and cook the duck for a further 4 minutes, basting constantly – be careful not to burn. The duck should be nice and sticky, so cook to reduce the sauce a little further if necessary. Remove from the pan and leave to rest.
6 While the duck is resting, wash the frisée, discarding any yellow leaves, drain well and shake dry in a clean tea towel. Put the frisée into a large bowl and mix in the lentils with 2 teaspoons of the dressing. Season with salt and pepper.
7 To serve, divide the frisée and lentil salad between serving plates. Slice the duck breasts, place on top and spoon some dressing around. Garnish with micro herbs or small salad leaves.
Baby Artichokes in Olive Oil
The vegetables are cooked in boiling water, then covered in olive oil so they become meltingly tender and delicious. If you can’t get baby artichokes you can use large ones instead – but remember to adjust the cooking time according to size. Once prepared, you can store these in the fridge for several days.
8 baby globe artichokes
juice of 2 lemons
extra virgin olive oil for coating
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
fine sea salt and black pepper
1 First prepare the artichokes. Peel the stalks with a potato peeler.
2 Remove some of the leaves on the outside of the artichokes to expose the paler leaves.
3 Trim off the top of each artichoke and discard the tips of the leaves.
4 Put the artichokes into cold water into which you have squeezed the juice of 1 lemon, to prevent discolouring.
5 Cook the artichokes in a large saucepan of boiling water for 4–5 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the base comes out easily.
6 If they are a little on the large side, cook for a few minutes longer.
7 Drain the artichokes thoroughly. Cut them in half lengthways and put them into a bowl.
8 While they are still warm, coat liberally with olive oil.
9 Add the remaining lemon juice, bay leaves and garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Mix together well.
Recipes taken from Rosemary Shrager’s Absolutely Foolproof Food for Family & Friends, published by Hamlyn, £18.99, available from octopusbooks.co.uk.
© photography Christian Barnett