A look back at my visit to Schol of Artisan Food

Baking, I have to admit, is something I shy away from. I am an amateur athlete and spend up to 20 hours a week in spring/summer training to race triathlons. The sugar within virtually all baked goods is the resolute enemy and provides no nutrition to my body. I need to be thin as being lighter means less body mass to carry around the 140 miles that I race in just over 12 and a 1/2 hours. However, I’m a foodie and I love to eat. It is a real battle for me. I have come to accept that it is about balance and having baked goods/wine/whisky/gin in moderation is ok. In fact it is damn good for my mental health. I enjoy these items and want to explore the plethora of senses that are derived from taste to smell to texture to temperature from them. They excite me and I take pleasure from being excited.

Those that have read my About page will know that I am a qualified pastry chef but that means nothing as you will read in a forthcoming article on here. I skipped all the lessons and I have no idea how I passed the exam apart from the level required being minimal. When watching the Great British Bake Off I have no idea how to make most of the items apart from bread. My attempts at Choux Pastry have always ended in failure. So when I received an invitation from The School of Artisan Food to take a course on Tarts and Choux Pastry, I jumped at the opportunity.

The course was held at Welbeck Abbey, just over a 3 hour drive from me in Kent, so I had plenty of time to contemplate what I hoped to learn and achieve. The Welbeck Estate is large at 15,000 acres surrounding a house and a myriad of buildings. As you enter, there is a Notcuts Garden Centre to the right and then a selection of grand buildings, one of which houses the well-stocked farm shop. Here you can purchase an array of products from Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. There is a an award winning butchers alongside breads from the Welbeck Bakehouse and ales from the Welbeck Abbey Brewery. As you progress towards the school, you are treated to some magnificent looking buildings housing local enterprises, homes and offices. The closer you get towards the school the better they become and it is like navigating through a maze with signs to locate the school which has the added benefit of the brewery being opposite.

The course was led my Mickael Jahan, a Master Baker, who held the position of Team Captain for the Great Britain Bakery team at the Sigep International Bakery Cup 2015. For a full biography head over to his site at Mickaels Bakehouse

After an introduction accompanied by a cup of tea chosen from the assortment on offer, we discussed the format and itinerary for the following 2 days. Day One would consist of making a Pate Sucree (and a chocolate version) for the tarts, creme patisserie, chocolate ganache, a cardamom streusel and some delicious Palet Breton biscuits which were super easy and super quick to make. Day Two would involve filling the tarts with the ganache, an apricot and rosemary cream (that we made) and the most daunting part of all – a successful Choux Pastry.

Walking into the kitchen I noted how it was perfectly planned out for tuition and large. It was purpose built and fit for purpose. I found Mickael to be a superb teacher. He explained everything so clearly and spent time with everyone individually. You worked at your own pace and if finished started to clean your work station (Mickael was very keen to install into us the importance of working tidy and minimising the washing up) and perhaps discuss with one of the other attendees how you had got on.

What made the weekend was Michaels relaxed demeanour and obvious skills. He was very humble, approachable and non-aloof. I learnt so much over the weekend and accomplished things I have never been able to do before. I left on the first day feeling as if I had turned a corner pastry-wise. I had made tart cases that were thin and a mastered how to make a super “Creme Pat”. To it I added some pistachio paste along with my work bench colleague Amy, an auditor for a global accountancy firm. The Palet Breton biscuits had taken just 30 minutes from start to finish and opened up lots of possibilities. It would be perfectly acceptable to enjoy them by themselves but they could be pimped with all manner of toppings. Fresh cream and berries in season would be one obvious choice or the chocolate ganache piped on in swirls. I started to feel creative, conjuring up all sorts of flavour combinations that I thought would work. In my mind I knew how to make one type of biscuit and I was going to open the worlds best bakery only serving Palet Bretons.

Day Two was exciting. I would finally learn how to make Choux Pastry which had always been a complete catastrophe for me never rising and always very heavy. To finally conquer this skill would be tantamount to doing the Rubik’s Cube I had spent countless hours trying to master as a kid. I would also be attempting to make a ganache with Michael’s secret tip to almost guarantee it having a beautiful shine. The Callebaut and Valrhona chocolate had been teasing me with their aroma the previous day, so finally I was going to be able to weigh a little extra than needed for me to enjoy. I do enjoy these chef’s treats.

I did not get an opportunity to try the Chocolate Tarts immediately once baked as lunch was served. This consisted of a succulent joint of roast beef with roast potatoes, mash, parsnips, peas and enormous Yorkshire puddings. To follow was cheese from the Estate called Stichelton made to an original unpasteurised stilton recipe. It was perfect and a great opportunity to have a proper chat with the other students and a quick look at the well stocked cookery book library. My fellow attendees were a mixed bunch from the aforementioned Amy to a food buyer, housewives and an apple farmer called John looking for new ways to use his fruit.

Post lunch the kitchen was notably quieter. Everybody was exhibiting signs of focus for now was the time to make Choux Pastry, an item that very few of us had ever had success at making. Michael demonstrated it first, making it look akin to simply mixing a few ingredients and heating them. This is far from the truth but when broken down into logical steps it was actually remarkably easy to do. We had pre-drawn on baking paper the previous day circles for us to pipe the resulting mixture onto which worked perfectly to get uniformity (just remember to turn the paper over so your mixture does not touch the pencil lead). The key is having everything prepared ahead of time so you attempt the pastry in a relaxed state of mind. Once on the sheets we placed them into our oven tentatively watching over them until they reached the optimum colour (a lovely light brown). They were a triumph and I now feel confident to be able to bake them at home at any time to impress my guests when visiting for tea.

Whilst they were baking we began filling the remaining tart cases by layering them with the cardamon streusel and apricots or apples. We had experimented with the cardamon deciding wether to use green or black varieties as both have a different flavour profile. I opened for the green as I liked its intensity. Once the choux had cooked and cooled down we began to fill them with the remaining ganache and some cream. It was a delicious ending to a fabulous course.

My overall impressions of the course were very positive. I really could not find fault with it at all. Te location was stunning, the teaching excellent and my fellow attendees charming. We were ably assisted by David who had taken a full time course at the school having become tired of being a lawyer after 30 years practice. He was not only helpful but very insightful providing many tips to me in conversation. It was a pleasure to have him help us throughout the weekend. I have included a portrait of him below.