Our weekly classes are settling into a nice rhythm now that we’re over half-way through our year here at the Ecole d’Hotellerie in Avignon.
We cook one dish in the morning, a second in the afternoon and have an hour-long lunch break followed by one hour of classroom lecturing in the middle.
I hadn’t realised this before, but many – most, even – of my fellow pupils are also coming to school on Tuesday mornings to study maths, chemistry, French, English – all the regular school subjects that they will be examined on come the end of the academic year. I, having already done a degree at university in England (BA in Geography from University College London, don’cha know? remind me to tell you the full, gory story one day…) am excused such exams by dint of my previously-proven cleveress. Lucky me, one hour sitting in a hot classroom trying to stay awake is enough for one week. In fact, all those years ago when I did my very last public exam I had enough spare time after writing down everything I knew about the subject to calculate that it was my 50th public examination. Then, I swore that I’d never sit another examination but I’ve made an exception for this cookery course. We’ll have a four-hour practical during which we’ll cook and present two or three dishes, plus two written exams: one on cookery itself, a second on law, hygiene, nutrition and so on. Oh, and a third oral exam on business practise. Those who don’t already have a higher qualification also need to take all the ‘regular’ exams taken by the 17/18-year-olds doing our qualification, the Certificat d’Aptitude Professionel (option Cuisine) – it’s the equivalent of the UK’s GCSEs and whatever qualification you get when you leave High School in the USA.
So this morning we cook ‘Darnes de saumon grillé, beurre blanc” – salmon steaks with a beurre blanc sauce. And since I told Chef at the restaurant that I’d be doing this today, I’ve been cleaning and preparing salmon and making beurre blanc for a fair proportion of the past week.
I’ve even learned to tell the difference between farmed and fresh salmon by sight – let alone by taste. Fresh salmon, whilst available everywhere in France, is not by and large native to the country and particularly not to the south, the Midi where I live and work. But the French do set great store by Scottish salmon, even though it’s currently the subject of a Major Food Scare back in the UK; everyone there tells me that you’ll die on the spot or worse if you so much as sniff a Scottish farmed salmon. French people, on the other hand, will snap up the Scottish stuff whilst sniffing haughtily at the Norwegian variety so prized now in England.
Even more remarkably I’ve recently been harangued by a keen amateur cook of my acquaintance about the fact that she can now buy organic salmon. What, as we say, TF? Organic fish? Ignoring the food mile and stock depletion questions for the moment, how can fish be organic? Well, it turns out that the organisation in the UK which can certify vegetables and beef and whatever as organic has now established criteria for the certification of salmon as ‘organic’ – it’s all to do with what they eat (not very different to what non-organic fish eat, it seems) and stocking levels (less crowded than the non-organic ones), apparently.
I’m not convinced. Especially since the august body which is offering this organic certification to fish is called – I am not making this up – ‘The Soil Association’. Right.
Anyway, today’s ‘darnes de saumon‘ – lazy cuts of salmon where you just chop a vertical slice through the fish without bothering to filet it – come, school chef proudly tells us, from Scotland. I say nothing. French people, once they get an attitude in their heads about food, are as stubborn as mules. AOC mules with knobs on, in fact.
I, being class clever dick, have already learned how to grill salmon and make beurre blanc, thanks to Jean-Rémi Joly my chef at the restaurant who is taking great pride – and deriving much fun – from the process of teaching me how to do next week’s recipe when I return from school to the restaurant every Tuesday. The fun comes when his method for doing something differs from that of my school chef, Philippe Garnier. So grilling a salmon, the restaurant way, means filetting it, removing the bones, cutting it into pretty portions, cooking it skin-side down very fast on a fierce heat for a minute or two to make the skin crisp and then turning it over in the pan and finishing the cooking in the oven for a few minutes.
This is all very well and good for a posh restaurant in a four-star hotel, says M. Garnier, but for your CAP examination we will need to know how to cut a darne, not a filet, and to cook it by grilling only. Harumph, even if he is right. Here, as elsewhere in France and, probably, the rest of the world we learn to pass the exam. Also, I have inherited by osmosis the French mule-headedness about The Right Way To Cook Stuff Is My Way.
So, first part of the lesson is, Clean The Grill. The grills are heavy cast-iron plates which sit on top of a couple of gas burners going full-blast beneath them, making them smoking hot – hence the need to clean them thoroughly first because, obviously, the last students who used them wouldn’t have cleaned them properly. Now it’s my turn to harumph – if it came through my plonge and I was responsible for cleaning it, it would be spotless whenever it was next needed.
So we clean them and heave the grills onto the burners where they all start smoking like billy-o, since they’re so encrusted with crud after generations of lazy, non-cleaning students have ignored them and left them filthy. I even scrubbed mine with a wire brush to no avail.
But we brush the darnes with melted butter (olive oil in the restaurant, school is more traditional and less Provençal) and put two each onto the grill, where those of us who haven’t been paying attention discover that (a) the grill needs to be really, really, really hot and (b) you need to have enough confidence and/or experience to leave it a good couple of minutes before trying to flip it over if you don’t want it to stick and then break up into lots of little bits as you try to scrape it off. And everyone learns that although they’re not listed in the official list of Things You Must Buy sent to us by the school, a pair of metal tongs are actually invaluable for picking up and turning over hot things.
We also learn how to do two things at once, i.e. make a beurre blanc sauce whilst grilling salmon. I’ve come to love beurre blanc sauce in the past couple of weeks since I learned how to make it at the restaurant. It’s one of those great sauces which are very, very simple to make but which give the appearance of being very difficult and complicated – the sort of thing only professional chefs can make. It’s just a shallot or two chopped up very finely (all the bits the same size, of course – any irregular bits should be disposed of in the usual way if your chef will be inspecting them for consistency, i.e. you eat them while he’s not looking), popped into a saucepan with some poivre mignonette (literally some very cute pepper, actually some crushed black pepper, but not from a mill which makes it too fine) covered with – and here the arguments start – with white wine and/or white wine vinegar. Some say just wine, others just vinegar, others that you need secret combinations of the two. Half and half works fine for me, and just enough of the two to cover the regularly-sized bits of shallots. Reduce this down until it’s almost, almost completely dry but not quite, and then whisk in some unsalted butter. Cold butter. How much? Well…the official recipe we’re given calls for 150 grammes of shallots – say, three or four of them – 200ml of wine and 100ml of vinegar, and a whole kilo of butter. And, just in case you fear this won’t kill your clients of cholesterol poisoning on the spot, you can add an optional 100ml of cream. Burp.
The tricks are to make sure the butter is cold, to cut it into plenty of cubes BEFORE you start cooking, to whisk them one at a time into the shallots and evaporated wine and vinegar mix, and keep whisking too until it’s nicely emulsified and then keep it warm until you need it during service in a bain marie at about 60 centigrade – should be good for up to a couple of hours but no longer and don’t get it too hot or you’ll end up with melted butter with shallots in it.
At school we just poured it over the salmon and served it (well, sent it off to the teacher’s cafeteria which gets all the good stuff while we poor students get to eat the muck the junior kids have been messing around with all morning). At the restaurant it’s strained first to remove the bits of onion so our posh customers don’t have any nasty bits to chew on, but this is a personal preference – I like the bits in the sauce and so do both my chefs.
After making such a healthy, light dish this morning we get to make Now That’s A Pudding! this afternoon. Well, officially it’s called Tarte au riz à la Normande but if you ever saw one, you’d call it Now That’s A Pudding! It’s a pastry case which you fill with rice pudding enriched (burp!) with a crème anglaise (because, well, rice pudding – made with half cream, half full-fat milk – just isn’t rich enough, right?). And then you cover the top with sliced apples, as if you were making a tarte fine aux pommes. Fried, naturally, in butter and flambéd with Calvados apple brandy. I’m sure there are parts of the world where this pudding would be considered a deadly weapon and possession of a slice could lead to imprisonment and a hefty fine.
I do learn a neat way to make rice pudding which had never occurred to me before, though – make it like a risotto. You ‘nacrer’ the rice (I’ve never found the English word for this, it just means fry the rice in some fat – butter here, olive oil for a savory risotto – until it goes transparent) and then add warm cream and milk mixed with sugar rather than stock a ladleful at a time, and keep going until it’s done. I’ve since found that you need to add something to give your rice a bit of flavour if you’re serving it on its own to some diet freaks – lemon zest is nice, or a vanilla pod (remember to leave the pod in the mix after scraping out the seeds, the flavour’s in the pods more than the seeds).
And then we assemble our puddings, blind-baking the cases, making a crème anglaise and mixing it with the rice and then making pretty with the fried and flambéd apple slices (cut them on a mandolin). A pudding fit for a king, assuming that the king concerned is Elvis Presley after a six-month starvation diet.