Reviewed: Exeter Cookery School
I sent out a culinary SOS to owners Jim and Lucy. Because, quite frankly, who else is going to teach me to be ok with shellfish and seafood?
Quirky is a word we like on Muddy; quirky and useful = catnap as far as I’m concerned and I’d definitely place Exeter Cookery School in that coveted category.
It’s a school run by husband and wife team Jim and Lucy (Jim’s a former Masterchef semi-finalist with oodles of cheffing experience). Having moved to France to *cough* teach the French to cook and achieved a long run of success with their business, the couple with their daughter Jenny decided to return to their roots and recreate the culinary magic here for school children through to pensioners. Still relatively new kids on the Cookery School block, the number of awards won and recognition received in such a short space of time say it all, really.
Part of the charm of the School is its location, right on Exeter’s historic quayside, so you’re cooking next to the water with kayakers and boats bobbing up and down – how therapeutic is that?! Plus, it’s quite the vibrant sporting hub, with various activity centres dotted about, so often strolling around here can bring on the endorphins! One big bonus of being on the Quayside is that you don’t have to negotiate parking right in the city centre throng; instead you cut out a significant chunk of traffic, you can park in one of a few carparks that are literally a couple of minute’s walk from the School and away you go. Simple – and I like simple.
Think open plan, super-contemporary kitchen space, housed within an old converted warehouse. There’s nothing clinical and ‘school-ish’ about the School, which I liked (and is why I decided to hold this year’s Muddy Awards drinks here); it’s really quite charming and, if you’re booked on a whole day course you really get to see why it works.
Away from the action, there are squishy leather sofas and a chandelier-lit dining table where you all get to sit down and enjoy lunch (mainly what you’ve prepared that morning, unless you seriously muck it up, bolstered by a delicious pud). I can understand why a few passersby popped their heads in mid-course, to enquire about booking a table.
I was given the full list of courses to choose from and could easily have gone for something in my comfort zone, or even just outside it, but I decided to tackle my squeamishness when it comes to handling and eating shellfish and seafood head-on.
This hands-on course sets out to educate you on selecting, preparing and cooking a few of the more daunting-looking creatures of the deep blue. Jim is your expert chef and he’s as at home gently guiding novices like me, as he is nudging the more experienced towards perfection. It’s quite a skill, I think, to keep a class of all abilities in line. Our class was a nice size of around 8 (not too big that you get lost, not so small that you can hide at the back) and a real mixture of friends wanting to take their skills on to the next level, couples keen to learn something together – even a Canadian who’d brought her Dad whilst he was visiting on his hols. Worth mentioning that some were returners, who’d already tried different courses, so clearly had the bug.
In terms of the menu, well it helps that we’re never more than 35 miles from the sea in Devon, so we’ve rich pickings when it comes to fresh, sustainable seafood. Facing our group on the morning were stacks of meaty-looking crab and mountains of mussels, which on any other day would have filled me with some dread, but from the get-go, Jim talked and walked us through the whole process of cleaning, scraping, dissecting and preparing our ingredients.
The first part of the morning was all about the crab (prepping it for later, plus learning what can be used for a seafood stock) – it really does take that long to understand what parts you should and shouldn’t eat, plus Jim has a serious wealth of knowledge to impart along the way. Around one big communal table, he demo’s everything step-by-step and then you get to follow suit with your own crab. I was really quite chuffed with myself, not only for keeping up and getting stuck in, but for the quiet nods of encouragement I got, too.
Next up, mussels and getting familiar with the rules of prepping, how to tell if you’ve a goodun, or a rogue trying to get in on the action and then the cooking part (surprisingly quick and easy, I thought). Since this was to be our lunch, we also learned to create a more exotic version of Moules Marinieres – “mouclade”, which is cooked in exactly the same way, but with a few flavours from the East, cumin, coriander, turmeric and star anise. What. An. Aroma.
So this was lunch (delicious – and I made it!), rounded off by a School favourite: golden syrup pudding. Such a lovely way to punctuate the day and have a natter with your fellow students, lovely bunch they were, too.
The afternoon sesh took us back to our prepped crab and into the art of producing Timbale of Crab. We learned how to put together these little towers of white and brown crab meat, layered with avocado and tomato, with zesty flavours of lime and chilli. Then, having been on our feet for hours, we got to sit and observe Jim preparing a seafood bisque to pour around.
Et voila – no more fear of touching shellfish and much more knowledge on what to do with it, all presented to you at the end in a little pack, containing the recipes and your certificate (PROUD!). Plus, you get to take home your afternoon’s work and do a show and tell, then scoff!
Seriously? I was nervous about this one, but really needn’t have been and the course did exactly what I needed: knowledge and inspiring confidence. No preaching, no rushing – a really lovely day to come and immerse yourself in something new.
STAYING IN TOWN?
If you’re not local, then lucky you because you get to turn your time at the school into a little city break and the location is perfect as a starting point. Walking, shopping, eating and sightseeing can all be enjoyed in abundance and you can read my full City Guide here. Plus, be sure to tap up Jim and Lucy for their pro advice on eating out in the city – they’re full of great recommendations and passionate about it, too!
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking to build on their cooking skills, learn new techniques and dishes. This one’s particularly good if you feel a sense of apprehension about stepping into the kitchen and having your skills put under the spotlight. Jim will set your mind at ease immediately.
Not for: Erm, I genuinely can’t think who wouldn’t enjoy a course here, unless you’re just not into food, or already think you know it all!
££: Great value, definitely not stupidly priced. It’s £155 per person to do the course, which runs from 9.30 – 4.30pm and includes lunch (normally what you’ve cooked that morning). Half-day courses are priced around £65.
Exeter Cookery School, 60a Haven Road, Quayside Exeter, Devon, EX2 8DP. Tel: 07415 783759. exetercookeryschool.co.uk