Chapter 15: Week 12: Self-examination

We have our first all-day test exam today, with written papers in the morning and practical this afternoon. It’s the first time I’ve done any exam papers at all for 20 years – and back then, at the age of 25, I sat in my final exam and calculated that it was exactly my 50th public exam (not counting the probably hundreds of test exams I’d sat at school and university). I promised myself on that day that I would never, ever sit another exam paper for the rest of my life.

So here I am taking my 51st exam. All in French.

The written parts are all based on previous CAP (Certificat d’Aptitude Professionel) exam papers but only covering what we’ve studied in the past three and a half months (three and a half months already?). So there’s a hygiene paper where we get asked about the five conditions necessary for the development of bacteria (37 degree heat, water, protein and the presence or not of oxygen), a business practices paper (calculate how much money Monsieur Marsaud has left to spend after he’s paid his rent and mobile phone bill every month) and a kitchen technology paper.

The latter is the hardest for me, partly because all the vocabulary on this has been new to me this year, and partly because the photocopied photograph of a kitchen range on which we’re supposed to label everything is smudged into an indistinguishable grey mush. So that thing down the end is either a deep-fat fryer or a bain marie. I plump for the latter, and it turns out to be a sauteuse. There you go.

The practical this afternoon is what we all see as more important. It’s the only ‘failing’ section of the exam – fail any other part and you can still make up the marks you need elsewhere; fail the practical and you fail the exam completely. Which is as it should be.

We have to produce two dishes in four hours, a chicken curry and an apple tart. We do get given the ‘approved’ recipes but have to check them carefully – exam setters are known for slipping in deliberate errors to try to trip you up. Tablespoons instead of teaspoons of salt, for example, or setting the oven to 300 degrees C.

As we’ve been taught, I set to writing down on the back of my exam paper which order I should be doing things in, and conclude that I should butcher the chicken, put the bones to roast and then make a stock while doing my veg, prep my pastry and then put stuff on to cook while that’s resting, then finish the apple tart. That way, all the ‘dirty’ stuff – meat, veg prep – is out of the way before I use my work area for making pastry.

Then I look up and see that at least half the class has started out by making pastry. Hmm. The temptation here is to join them just because it’s what everyone appears to be doing, but I have confidence in my calculations and it works out fine. We all finish at about the same time, but I’ve spent less time cleaning my workstation and more time cooking.

In France, ‘Chicken curry’ is essentially a fricassée of chicken with some curry powder stirred in; they’re not big on authentic, Indian sub-continent cookery here and definitely not into hot-tasting foods so I moderate the amount of curry powder I put in.

The apple tart is a ‘tarte fine’, pronounced feene, which is a circle of blind-baked pastry, crème patissière and then the apples sliced thinly and arranged attractively on top. Everyone knows what these things look like because they see them every day in the patisseries in town.

We also have to do a Pilaf rice to go with the curry, and not everyone succeeds with this; several rices get burned when they forget the 17-minute cooking time, others go soggy when they get stirred immediately after being removed from the oven by those curious to see how they’ve turned out. I remember the 17 minute rule, the no-stir rule and it works out fine. The curry’s good too, and I serve my plated meal and my two side dishes with the remainders in good time.

Just as I’m returning to my workstation I notice my neighbour about to set off with his plates; “Julian, you’ve forgotten the diced-tomato garnish!” I warn him.

Stoner Julian, ever laid-back, replies simply, “Yeah, I was hungry, I ate the tomato.” I lend him some of mine, generous person that I am, but see him picking at it on his way to the examiner. So check any curries you eat in France carefully – if the diced tomato garnish is missing, your meal may well have been prepared by a hungry stoner.

When we’ve all finished we clean and scrub the kitchen – there’s a collective mark for the condition of the place at the end of the exam so it’s worth doing it properly.

And then we’re free for the next two weeks of school holidays, two weeks during which we can remember every mistake and error and fault in the dishes we prepared….

And, obviously, during which I will NOT be on holiday but working like a dog in the restaurant.

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