teach a man a dish … and you feed him for life
Food has become a national preoccupation, fed by the constant presence of Jamie, Gordon and other celebrity chefs on our screens. But for some of us, cooking is in danger of becoming a spectator sport as we sit back and watch rather than rolling up our sleeves to join in. Basic skills such as jointing meat, filleting fish and baking bread, which were once taken for granted, have gone by the wayside. I decided to enrol on three very different food courses in my quest to learn some fundamentals of food preparation. Not just cooking, but the whole process from choosing ingredients to preparing them. To understand meat I joined a course at The Ginger Pig in London’s Marylebone, a traditional butcher that specialises in free-range rare breeds with four stores in the capital and one in Yorkshire. For fish I headed to the Billingsgate Seafood Training School at the UK’s biggest inland fish market, and for bread making I went to learn more from the award-winning breadmakers Degustibus.
The Meat Class
With dangling strings of sausages and great slabs of meat hooked up to mature, The Ginger Pig on Marylebone High Street is everything you could want from a butchers’ shop. Around 18 months ago butchers Borut Kozelj and Perry Bartlett started running evening courses here to educate their increasingly curious customers and to demystify the craft of butchery. I enrolled in the beef class (they also do classes in pork, lamb and sausage-making) and donning an apron joined my fellow apprentices around a pair of well-used butchers’ blocks. With over 46 years of experience in meat preparation between them, Borut and Perry clearly enjoy sharing their knowledge. Borut begins by enthusiastically introducing us to the animal, gesticulating to a map of a cow on the wall showing the basic cuts. The most important thing about butchery, he tells us, is to know your animal. The shapes and cuts of meat are essentially transferable across pigs, sheep and cattle. To understand one is to have an insight into them all.
Talking us through the names and merits of specific cuts and joints, Borut explains the different treatments they require. What is immediately clear is the contrast between The Ginger Pig and supermarkets. Here customers can see the meat hanging, smell it and even touch it if they wish – it’s a hands-on multi-sensory experience far from the sanitised process of picking out plastic-wrapped steaks from a fridge.
With the theory over, Perry enlists a couple of volunteers to hoist half a cow-back from its hook onto the slabs. We take turns in lifting the giant hunk of meat to get a feel for its size and weight. “You need muscles to be a butcher,” Perry tells us. As we get better acquainted with the meat, I soon discover it’s not for the squeamish. The free range beef is from Longhorn Cattle, Britain’s oldest breed, born and reared on The Ginger Pig’s own East Moor Farm in Yorkshire, where it grazes freely on grass.
Our tools of the trade are a couple of dangerously long knives and a common-or-garden hacksaw, which Perry uses to saw through the bone that joins the fore ribs to the wing (middle) ribs and down to the delicate, deep-red marbled meat beneath. Then we are shown how to dissect the beef using the tip of a knife – we must find the right path by staying very close to the bone avoiding waste or damage to the meat. The key is listening carefully as you cut: it’s clear to hear (and feel) the difference as the knife moves between bone and meat. When my slow, stabbing attempts at master butchery are over Perry declares: “I think its dead now!” We name the cuts and go on to French trim a côte de boeuf, complete with string and butchers knots, which is ours to take home. It will be best slow cooked on the bone with the fat left on to intensify the flavour, Perry tells us. All the while the aroma of roasting beef has been spurring us on: Borut has slipped a giant fore-rib into the Aga while we are deep in concentration, immersed in the side of beef. Job done we help ourselves to great big slices of the pink and tender meat, accompanied by chunky chips and a glass of red wine to toast our efforts.
The Fish Course
Billingsgate is a different kettle of fish altogether. The fish market sits in the shadow of the still sleeping office blocks of Canary Wharf as I arrive in London’s Docklands at 6am to join a ‘Catch of the Day’ course at Billingsgate Seafood Training School. The market is in full swing, thronged with men in white coats and wellies. Generations of families are plying their trade here from fresh-faced teenagers to old men who have hollered here for half a century. Inside it is crisp and cold, the floor is freshly hosed and the air smells of the sea. The atmosphere is loud and alive. Fishmongers aren’t quiet or shy with a constant banter ringing through the vast space. “Did you hear about the delivery boy who was attacked at the chip shop? He got battered but not fried,” one stallholder jokes. You get the sense that very little has changed at Billingsgate, which by Royal Charter has been “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever” since 1699.
Clutching mugs of hot tea, we are shown around the pitches by the market’s chief inspector, Chris Leftwich. Having spent his whole life working with fish, he clearly still loves to share his knowledge. He scoops up a sad mouthed pollock and encourages us to stare into his eyes. “Freshness is easy to spot’” he says. “It should have vibrant, bulging eyes, a slimy, shiny skin and there should be no smell whatsoever, from the blood, when you open the gills.” Fresh mackerel, he tells us, will still be stiff in rigour (which it loses after 36 hours) and have a gold wedding band around the eyeballs. We pass by crates of prawns and mussels, bundles of razor clams and cockles galore. There are electric eels and ugly shark like dogfish, which sit next to cases of cod, haddock and sea bream as well as both farmed and wild salmon on ice. There can be over 160 varieties of fish on sale here on any one day, depending on the season and weather. Chefs from top restaurants, buyers from fishmongers and owners of local chippies congregate here at the crack of dawn each morning competing to get the freshest and best seafood of the day. All catch is traceable to a port, boat and landing time. Quality control is strict in this highly regulated industry, which ensures stocks are sustainable. Although not all of the fish is caught in UK waters, the variety and volume on sale is a poignant reminder that we are an island people.
The tour over, we head into the calm upstairs and are placed in the cool dry hands of CJ Jackson who heads up the Training School. The classroom’s individual workstations sport neatly arranged implements: filleting knives, pinboners, scissors, descalers and the intriguingly named haddock brush. Class tutor Ethne Neame begins by introducing us to the gurnard, prawns, sea bass and mackerel that we will be working with – the ingredients will depend on what is on offer downstairs. Our stated mission is to lunch on bouillabaisse, which will be the fruits (de mer) of our coming labour. Ethne launches straight into the demo, slicing open the belly of a ripple-skinned silver mackerel to reveal the blood red innards. She is a fast-paced teacher but is careful to make sure we are all keeping up. Demonstration over, she sets us up at our own stations and begins to explain the correct method for skinning the spiky red gurnard. In no time I’m whipping off the prehistoric top fin, severing the head from the spine with scissors, then pulling back to skin the fish in one deft movement. It look and feels like a leathery banana, I think, as I drop its gurning head into vegetable stock, together with prawn shells and an array of fish bones and skin. The potion bubbles away as it transforms into a delicious fish stock. I remove the gills from my gurnard, use the pinboners to extract stubborn bones then add my naked gurnard pieces into the simmering bouillabaisse that has started to take shape.
Ethne goes on to guide us through de-scaling and filleting a mackerel, an underrated fish that is high in the ever-popular brain-expanding omega3 and in relatively abundant supply. After gutting and cleaning, we marinade the whole fish in a mixture of red chilli, honey, olive oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds (this strong-flavoured fish easily handles such robust flavours) and wrap it in tin foil to enjoy at home later. Bowls of saffron-scented bouillabaisse are ladled out to the class, a satisfying end to a very early start.
Still, man cannot live by meat and fish alone and so I go to the Oxford home of the Degustibus bakery. I am greeted by the one man phenomenon that is Dan Schickentanz. Leaving behind a career in law to make bread, he came to the UK, via the US, from his native Germany in 1990. “You can tell a German,” he quips, “but you can’t tell him much.” The renowned artisan baker is now a regular at farmers’ markets, purveys fine sandwiches to lunchtime crowds from his outlets in the City of London and Marylebone and supplies top restaurants with his traditional handcrafted breads. He is an engaging, curious mix of chemist, artist, engineer and showman, the perfect combination for teaching the rudiments of bread making.
Named after the Latin proverb ‘de Gustibus non disputandum est [One cannot argue about taste]’, good taste is fundamental to Dan’s business, where he espouses the virtues of hearty yet light sourdough and rustic breads over mass-produced refined loaves. For him bread should be simple, healthy and robust.
As we tuck in to buttery Danish pastries, baked that morning by his sidekick Andy, Dan explains some of the core principles of breadmaking to the group. It is all about the 3 T’s: time, temperature and texture. With a furrowed brow, he outlines the baker’s formula (100 % flour, about 55 — 75 % water and perhaps 2 % salt and yeast — it all depends!) which he at once qualifies with the greater importance of the hidden ingredients of enthusiasm, understanding … and even love! He bombards us with ratios and percentages, quickfires mental arithmetic questions at us and explains the action of the yeast and the structural importance of gluten for making bread. “The story of yeast is like a Californian beach party,” he says, “you have heat, alcohol and proliferation!” Dan is a man of many metaphors; “The recipe is a pattern but you can choose to make your clothes from silk or nylon.” The consistent underlying message is that a baker must understand the ingredients and how they work together to create the ancient staple that is bread.
For an easy start we get to work on a basic bread mix, using the flour (⅔ white to ⅓ wholemeal), dried yeast, salt and Dan’s cherished ageing sourdough mix (known as a starter) that awaits us in glass bowls. There are no flour improvers or fats added here; just water goes in to complete the mix. Soon we are elbow deep in dough, like children making mud pies in the chemistry lab. Once the dry ingredients have absorbed all the water we tip out the tacky dough onto stainless steel worktops with just a sprinkling of flour to stop it sticking. We begin kneading by pulling the dough gently towards us with the heel of one hand whilst turning it in quarter turns, in a circular motion, with the other hand. It is done in a gentle, rolling movement to invite the air into the dough. There’s no need for brute force or exhaustive kneading; a few minutes is plenty. We leave our smooth dough balls to prove (the time-passing process that allows the yeast to work its alchemy so the bread rises) under Dan’s “amazing see-through bread proving device,” aka the upturned bowl.
While we’ve been getting our hands messy Dan has advanced a few steps ahead of us. He cuts a fist sized ball of dough from the main bulk, gradually working and flattening it until it dangles from his hands, stretching under its own weight. He flips this expertly into the air, catches it and continues with the stretching, until a round(ish) pizza base is formed. We tamely follow suit, without the flipping, to create our own misshapen pizza bases, which will be our lunch. Andy brings out a sumptuous spread of toppings for our imperfect pizzas: bowls of fresh herbs, slices of mushrooms, plates of hams, mozzarella and homemade chunky ratatouille. I decide to create my first calzone, layering one half of the base with torn pieces of mozzarella, strips of Parma ham and rich tomato purée and folding it over to pinch it into a light Mediterranean pastie.
During the hour or so we need to allow the dough to prove for a second time (until it has doubled in size), we tuck in to a leisurely lunch of spectacularly delicious pizza and green salad not to mention the succulent, juicy calzone which was barely of a size for everyone to get a taste. Keen to return to admire our rising dough, we gently knead once more before shaping into rough loaves and allowing them to relax for 10 minutes. Then, after a light spray of water (to keep the crust supple as it expands in the heat) we dust them with flour before they are taken off to the ovens — Dan cooks electric, because, as he says, “it does not smell, is not dirty and does not explode.” To complete our intensive training, Dan leads us in creating the rustic looking plaits, grissini and focaccia (with fresh rosemary) that we will bake to take home. The breads are placed directly on the oven sole (a hot flat shelf), where around 30 minutes later they will be recovered with a long handled wooden paddle known as a bakers’ peel, and our senses will be engulfed with the unique aroma of fresh baked bread.
Some time later …
I am lucky enough to have a local market (which I have ignored since moving to the area) brimming with fresh produce, fishmongers and butchers, and even pots and pans. Since my classes, this has become a regular haunt. I take such pleasure in feeding friends and family simple food with great ingredients – nothing tops a steak and onion sandwich with still warm bread, thinly sliced rib-eye and an organic onion with a pile of rocket and baby spinach on the side. I will often breakfast on a couple of kippers or lunch on lightly grilled mackerel with nothing more than olive oil, rock salt and some crushed garlic; it’s enough! I continue to experiment with my bread making, trying strong white flour mixed with seeds and grains, or adding a little milk (organic, semi-skimmed of course) for a crunchy crust. Leaving the dough for two hours or more on the second proving, for example, creates a much bigger and thoroughly aerated loaf, sublime with some warm brie and a smattering of red chillies. I found an extra room in my house. It is called the kitchen.
Where to enrol
The Ginger Pig (020 7935 778; learnbutchery.co.uk) 8–10 Moxon Street, Marylebone, London W1U 4EW. Butchery classes run from 6.30–9.30pm on a Monday and Tuesday. Courses cost £95 for the pork, lamb and sausage making classes or £120 for the beef class, which includes supper and a joint to take home.
Billingsgate Seafood Training School (020 7517 3548; seafoodtraining.org), Office 30, Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London E14 5ST. ‘Catch of the Day’ classes take place from 6.15am – 2.15pm on weekdays and cost £185. Classes on Saturdays, which don’t include a market tour, take place from 9.30am — 2.00pm and cost £95. All classes include breakfast, lunch, prepared fish to take home and a cool bag.
Degustibus (01235 555 777; degustibus.co.uk) Unit 10 Fitzharris Trading Estate, 70 Wootton Road, Abingdon OX29 8JU. Courses cost £195 per person and take place from 9–4.30pm on Saturdays. Fee includes course notes, breakfast and lunch and lots of breads to take home.