Essex cookery schools
PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 March 2016
With the perfect rise of the Great British Bake Off and the fabulous plates of food featured on MasterChef, more and more of us are taking the chance to improve our kitchen crafts with the help of cookery classes. Stephanie Mackentyre speaks to three Essex schools that can help you get top marks
Sharon Sonnex is the manager of The Cookery School at Braxted Park, which has long been welcoming cooks from all walks of life to help turn them into domestic gods or goddesses.
‘We have all sorts take part in our classes, from 18 year olds off to university wanting to learn to cook, to 65 year old gents who have never cooked in their lives and now they are retired and have more time or find themselves in a situation where they are having to look after themselves or a loved one. Many of our clients are good home cooks looking to expand their cookery skills and repertoire. Many come along with friends for a fun day out and find the whole experience really relaxing, especially as a day in our kitchen transports them away from their daily life pressures. Couples come along to spend time together. To be honest, the list is endless.’
So is there a set level of actual culinary skill required to book on a lesson, I ask?
‘No, we have classes for all levels. We cater for complete beginners on our cooking for beginners cookery classes where a comprehensive selection of dishes are taught to give students a good base to go away and build on. We also offer more specific beginners classes like bread for beginners, Indian cooking skills for beginners and fish and shellfish for beginners.’
At Braxted Park a typical lesson will begin at 9am for 9.15am and starts with refreshments while you meet your chef/tutor and they explain the day ahead. Then, at 9.30am, it’s off to the kitchen and although each chef has their own unique style, you will find there’s a demonstration by the chef to begin, showing you the various techniques involved, and then you’re off to have a go yourself. Of course, your chef is still on hand to help and guide you through each stage. Best of all, there are also kitchen assistants to do the washing up and help sort the ingredients. It’s a sociable way of learning to cook as you work in pairs. Then it’s time for a mid-morning break from the stoves and a chance to sample something you made earlier. Next, it’s back to the kitchen to complete the tutorial followed by a late lunch which you’ve prepared yourself, served with wine or beer at 3pm. However, you’ll make more than enough to bring some back to impress your family.’
The average price of a course at Braxted is £145 for the day, which includes your recipe folder, all of your ingredients, regular refreshments and lunch, plus a Braxted Cookery School apron so you can look the part once you’re home. You can book as a group or an individual, and with over 80 classes to pick from, the hardest part is choosing which one.
After 10 years spent in the wine trade, George Unwin returned to the family home at Baythorne Hall, near Sudbury, to set up a wine shop and cookery school.
Baythorne Hall started The Cookery School over a year ago, in February 2015. ‘My initial plan was to convert one of the barns into a wine shop,’ says George. ‘The cookery school idea came from discussions with chefs who I had contact with from my years in the wine trade.’
I asked George why he thought learning to be better cooks has become so popular as a past time? ‘I think it’s because of the amount of information now available about the health benefits of good food, and because it is communicated to us through such a wealth of media exposure. The fact that Essex Life has a thriving food and drink section just shows how important it is in this county alone. As well as this, I really think that the developments in kitchen design and technology have made these spaces far more enjoyable environments to spend time in. No longer are kitchens a place to do the chores – they are now a family space to be enjoyed.’
So what’s the most popular course currently run at Baythorne Hall? ‘Baking in general seems to be popular at the moment, particularly breads and cakes, but we’re also noticing more and more demand for more specific skills courses. For example, courses that include a butchery section or fish preparation.’
Most of Baythorne Hall’s classes are full days from 9.30am to 4.30pm and you’ll be expected to create quite a wide array of dishes during your time with Baythorne. George has learned lessons himself since opening the cook school.
‘We’ve found that there is no point in trying to cram too much in, as this can detract from the day. As well as lots of hands-on cooking, our courses also need to be fun and we have a group of friendly and very personable chefs running the courses who encourage plenty of laughter throughout the day. With an on-site wine merchants, a glass or two of interesting wine is also enjoyed as part of the day.’
Lunch is served and it’s generally what you’ve been taught to prepare and cook that morning, and then in the afternoon you’ll make at least two more dishes to take home. Participants are clearly enjoying the experience, as repeat business is brisk.
‘We get a lot of repeat business, and it is clear that those who come back time and again are really into their food as the second and third bookings are often on completely different subjects to the first course, so people are using the courses to develop a broad spectrum of cooking ability.’
With more than seven professional chefs regularly running the courses, George is keen to attract even more. However, a good chef doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher.
‘Just as important for us is their ability to communicate their knowledge and ideas to a group and keep that group interested for a whole day. Therefore, confidence and course delivery are extremely important.’
You can BakeWell
You Can BakeWELL was created by Dan Tucker, who has a background in teaching. His premises offer freshly-baked cupcakes and cakes and also a relaxed setting for people to come behind the scenes on organised days and learn from the craftsman himself. His cupcakes are incredibly popular, offering 60 different flavours.
‘Some are based on childhood favourites,’ says Dan. ‘For example, my Fairground Attraction is candy floss and marshmallow, as they are the two things I think about from my childhood when I think of trips to the fair. Apple Sinner is apple and cinnamon, because they just go so well together, and our Tropical Volcano has mango inside and a coconut top and it’s shaped like a volcano.’
Dan’s even got a cupcake called The Grumpy Troll. ‘It’s one of our best sellers. I named it after a friend of mine!’
People who book onto Dan’s cupcake baking course are encouraged to create their own flavours from the selection of ingredients on offer on the day. If you’re a fan of Bake Off, you’ll be pleased to know that Dan stocks all of the exact Bake Off equipment so you can experience that TV Bake Off excitement without the stress.
Dan adds: ‘Our baking school is different as we are all about sweet things and cake; we are a dedicated cake school and ours is fun and relaxed. We also make sure our classes are engaging. I’m passionate about what I do and we want people to have fun and not get too stressed out about baking. We say at the introduction, don’t worry if you cover me in icing sugar or drop your eggs on the floor, just relax and enjoy it.’
A full day class size can be just four or up to eight students, depending on which class, so there’s no fighting for tutor attention. Shorter decorating courses run for two to three hours and have space for between eight and 10 people.
‘Our most popular class is the Magic of Macarons, and our Wilton decorating classes,’ adds Dan. The Wilton decorating classes are a series of four, two-hour lessons. Held once a week, you’ll learn all of the decorating techniques with a week in between to practise at home, helping your brain to retain those new skills.
‘There’s no magic tool and there is some skill required, but you just have to practice. You can’t learn these skills in a day, you need to commit to four weeks,’ says Dan. Dan also runs baking parties for children and adults too. The minimum age is six, as the children are entering a commercial kitchen and actually bake not just decorate their cakes.
‘They even learn some fun maths with the recipes, do some sugar craft work for decorations, choose flavours for their icings and then learn some piping styles, and that’s when the sprinkles mayhem begins!’
Parents were so amazed at what their children had created, they started to book the courses for themselves.
‘We do a lot of hen parties. Time dictates if we do just decorate or bake and decorate. They can also bring wine although often it’s a pre-dinner party and they are all trying to concentrate and out-do each other!’
Dan also hosts a popular and sociable Cake Club once a month for those who’ve completed all four of the Wilton decorating courses, where he teaches new techniques and goes over styles to keep them fresh in his student’s minds.
Get the taste
The Cookery School
Braxted Park Estate, Witham, CM8 3EN, 01621 890300, www.braxtedpark.co.uk
Baythorne Hall Cookery School
Baythorne End, Halstead, CO9 4AH, 01440 785680, www.baythornehall.co.uk
You Can BakeWELL
2 Market Place, Dunmow, CM6 1AT, 01371 879679, www.youcanbakewell.co.uk