Chapter 23: Week 21: A microbiological initiation

A microbe, our teacher tells us in our ‘Hygiene’ class today, is an infinitely small living being visible only through a microscope. I want to tell her that anything that is ‘infinitely’ small is, by definition, not visible through anything, let alone a microscope, but desist. No one likes to be corrected by someone older and wiser than they are when they’re pretending to teach 16-year-olds.

Which is one of the recurring – indeed, perhaps the only – problems I have with this course. That is, it’s really designed to be done by young adults stepping out into the world for the first time, not smart-arsed 46-year-olds who are already more highly qualified, not to say intelligent (and modest to boot) than their teachers. But classes on hygiene, as it’s called, and law and so on are part of the course and will come up in the exam and so yes, they have to be done.

What is also annoyingly becoming clear is that I will also have to do all the other exams the 17-year-olds do when they take their cookery exams, i.e. in French, maths, geography, history and so on. When I signed up for this course last year I was told that, since I already have a higher exam qualification in the UK (my degree, in fact, poor excuse for one though it was) I would be excused all but the cookery exams. Now, it turns out, the French educational system farts in the general direction of the English educational system and refuses to recognise it, and in particular a ‘Degree’ from the so-called ‘University’ of London, as in any way worthwhile whatsoever. “Ah doo nat recognaize yorr deggree,” it says in its heavily-accented English, much in the style of the French soldiers in that Monty Python film. I can appeal, of course, a process which will (a) take for ever, (b) cast a bad light on me and (c) will be won by the French so I might as well do the other exams and get it over with. As Delphine says, even if they agree now to recognise my English Degree they could decide not to in a few years’ time and take my CAP away, so just knuckle down and do the other exams.

The problem is that the other adult education students in my year come in on Tuesday mornings to study these other subjects (the teenagers are at school full-time and take two years to complete the course) and I now have to glean, second-hand from them details on exactly what these examinations may be about.

This one will run and run.

Like some of the cheeses we start talking about amongst ourselves in our hygiene class. It’s usually Eric who starts these discussions – he’s a bit, but not much, younger than me and runs his family restaurant just outside Avignon. He often manages to get our Hygiene teacher going on another subject than the one she’s teaching us (how much more fat there is in a tablespoon of mayonnaise than a tablespoon of vinaigrette is one of her favourites) and the ensuing discussions often serve to wake us all up. Which is not necessarily a good thing, but anyway.

The important thing we take away from today’s class (says our teacher) is that MOs (Micro Organismes) have five conditions essential for their life: something to eat, particularly proteins; at least 40% water in their environment; an agreeable temperature of 37 degrees centigrade; neutral pH of 7; and either an oxygenated atmosphere for aerobic bacteria or a lack of it for anaerobic ones. I, being a clever dick, think about those bugs that live inside volcanic vents in the ocean, inside frozen food and elsewhere these conditions don’t apply, but that’s just me being a clever dick. For the purpose of this exam, bugs like the conditions that apply inside our bodies, full stop.

Today’s cooking is a Gibelotte de Braconniers, essentially a poacher’s stew made on this occasion with rabbit. I’ve worked with rabbit a fair bit in the past; at my first restaurant we made rabbit terrine by stewing rabbit thighs with a few onions and then picking off the meat to stuff into ramekins, topping them up with the cooking juice and thyme laced with gelatine and allowing them to set. At my current restaurant chef sometimes puts rabbit on the weekly menu and I’ve had a go at cutting them up a few times.

Today we learn how to divide the body into six portions (some of them fairly mean ones it has to be said, there’s not an enormous amount of meat on a rabbit after all) and David impresses us by producing a series of côtes de lapin, rabbit chops which they serve as amuse bouches in the restaurant where he works (which is even posher than the one where I work). Hey David, no one likes a smart arse…

This afternoon is a ‘Charlotte aux fruits confits’. The ‘Fruits confits’ turn out to be tinned strawberries, which is not what I thought it would be – I was envisaging delicately preserved slices of quince and kiwi glistening with a light coating of sugar. Charlottes are cream puddings set either by the addition of fruit or gelatine and, to be on the safe side, we use both, and they work fairly well since most don’t turn out too runny and several are definitely edible. And it’s good practise for me since it’s Delphine’s birthday this weekend and we’re celebrating at home in Avignon by inviting the family round. Delphine wants a charlotte – she’s celebrating in conjunction with her brother who’s birthday comes soon – and traditionally they have a charlotte, so I’ve promised to make a gigantic one.

We finish off the day making something much more interesting – salmon profiteroles with beurre blanc. Beurre blanc – translating it as ‘white butter’ doesn’t really have the same cachet does it? – is a favourite of mine, easy to make, great tasting and it seems to impress people a lot. Every time I go to see Nick and Amanda in London I have to make it for them, with Amanda practising hard to perfect it herself. Here’s a tip: you can’t keep it in the fridge and use it again the next day, Amanda…

Of course, this being France and the recipe only having four basic ingredients – chopped shallots, wine and/or vinegar, salt and butter – the inverse square law of arguing about how to make it applies. That is, the less ingredients something has, the more different ways there are of making it. The arguments in class centre around how the proportions of wine and vinegar change depending on what you serve it with. Me, I just go for a 50-50 split but this is, clearly, the Easy, Foreign way out. What if you’re serving it with sole? Salmon? Surely you need more vinegar with the salmon…

The salmon profiteroles are simple by comparison: poach the salmon in a little cream, season, stuff into the choux buns you made earlier. Choux buns I do enjoy making, especially now I’ve got over the temptation to cook them too little – they always need more time in the oven than you think to dry them out properly. For which you also need an oven with vents that open to let the steam out – this may be why my choux buns don’t work at home, the oven is sealed shut and keeps all the moisture inside, preventing your choux from stiffening suitably.

Now there’s a tip…


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