Some cookery courses germinate for many, many months in the minds of their creators. “I wanted to teach a patisserie course that really celebrated the wonders of British tea-time. I wanted to showcase really old-fashioned, traditional and glamorous cakes, pastries, biscuits, finger sandwiches, homemade pork pies and sausage rolls. They are so unique in history, and we need to protect them” explained Vladimir Niza to the class in his introduction to the “Farmhouse Tea Delights & Traditional British Pastries Course” at the Daylesford Cookery School.
As we sat listening to the list of recipes that we were going to prepare and see demonstrated, we could not help but stare at the prodigious amount of work that had gone on behind the scenes prior to our arrival. Trays were lined in rows with bowls of pre-weighed ingredients. Equipment was set out on the window sills, cling film gleaming in the June sunshine. Cucumber and mint water carafes, recipe folders, seasonal displays of vegetables. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place.
His two helpers, sous-chef Michael and cookery school assistant Angie, were busy preparing lunch, weighing, measuring, wiping, sorting, unloading the dishwasher and serving hot drinks.
“If only I had a Michael and an Angie at home!” whispered one of the students. We all nodded in quiet agreement.
Vladimir has been the Head Tutor of the Daylesford Cookery School for two years now. With a C.V. that encompasses working for all the great and the good of the hospitality industry (including being Head Tutor at Le Manoir de Quat’Saisons Cookery School), a degree in food engineering and a Masters in applied nutrition, he has nevertheless stayed firmly rooted to the ancestral influences that have informed his cooking philosophy.
“My grandmother baked every day, and she had all the proper equipment to help her in the kitchen, every gadget. But above all, it was the provenance of all the ingredients that mattered most. Getting the best organic eggs, unsalted butter, flour, sugar, chocolate and fruit is pivotal to the success of all patisserie recipes.”
And what a great deal of ingredients we were going to need. The list of recipes planned on this course seemed overwhelming, and none of the students was a professional patissier, although some of us on the course were “baking mad” within the privacy of our own home kitchens.
Take a look at this recipe list:
Strawberry Charlotte (which included the making of a sponge biscuit, syrup, mousse and glaze)
Lemon Meringue Tartlets (which included the making of shortcrust pastry, lemon curd and Italian meringue)
Chocolate cake (which included the making of the cake and a chocolate filling & chocolate glaze)
Carrot Cake with a mascarpone icing
Chessboard biscuits (chocolate and vanilla biscuits)
Shortbread biscuits (with fresh thyme and rosemary)
Lime and coconut macaroons
Chocolate eclairs filled with crème patissiere
Scones with clotted cream and jam
Do you feel weak at the knees? I know I did.
To set the bar even higher, Vladimir spent quite a bit of time detailing the importance of empirical accuracy and technical precision when working in patisserie. Elasticity, viscosity, mathematics and temperature control were very important.
“Things will not work if you miss the ratios” he warned us. He recalled the teachings of one of the chefs he used to work with who said to the sous-chefs “The oven is not a hospital: if things go in it in a bad state, they will not recover.” Everything in patisserie had to be checked, re-checked and checked a third time.
I will tell you, in my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of this cookery course above all others that I have attended: pace. Vladimir paces the day so that some of the work is demonstrated by him and Michael. The students get to sit back, enjoy, look, listen and make notes. This is then interspersed with hands-on work, either working alone or in pairs. I do not wish to come home from a cookery course sweating, hot, burned and stressed: that is not my idea of fun. I have no idea why some owners of cookery schools should believe that the boot-camp approach offers either pleasure or repeat business. It is fallacious, and they need to come here to learn the balance of hands-on practise to demonstration ratio.
We made our way through the recipes we were allocated to make piece by piece, whisking, blending, folding and rolling. We picked up innumerable and varied hints and tips that are really worth mentioning, and here are just ten amongst many:
1. Vladimir recommended anatomic scales, carefully calibrated ovens, Kenwood Multipro mixers, really good quality spatulas, good quality stainless steel bowls, non-stick cake tins (not lined but just buttered and floured) and piping bags as tools he would not be without. In the cookery school they use Henkel knives and Demeyere pots and pans.
2. Keeping sieves dry – in the cookery school they sieve flour and baking powder three times to ensure totally even distribution throughout the mix and aeration of dry goods ingredients. They then shake the sieve clean, but they do not wash it, to prevent rust.
3. To pipe biscuits onto a baking tray, Vladimir sketched the dimensions with grid lines on the baking parchment, then turned the parchment upside down, to prevent the graphite contaminating the mix. He pipes choux buns in an “L” shape of rows as guides i.e firstly a vertical line on the left, then a horizontal line at the bottom, then fills in the rest of the tray.
4. Unrefined sugar is used to ensure that the caramel, fudgey taste is preserved.
5. If you are making a custard, heat sugar at the bottom of the pan before adding the milk so that the milk does not burn at the bottom.
6. Place used vanilla pods in the freezer to preserve them. Make a 6:1 sugar : water ratio (in this case 300g of sugar : 50g water for 8 used vanilla pods). Chop the vanilla pods, macerate them in the syrup, then pulverise in a blender. This makes vanilla syrup, which keeps for ages.
7. Using a good Kirsch, grand Manier, Calvados, Poire William and Eau de Vie is really important in providing flavour and aroma to a recipe.
8. Never use salted butter in patisserie work because you need to control how much salt goes into a recipe and it means the butter burns at a lower temperature if it is salted.
9. Roll your pastry between two pieces of clingfilm to get it really thin and even. Lift the clingfilm and replace after each roll.
10. Induction heat is a great tool for melting chocolate straight in a pan with butter and cream. You do not need a bain marie if you have an induction hob.
As we worked our way from cake to biscuits to icings, Vladimir and Michael explained the history and cultural significance of the ingredients we were using. We travelled from the spice trade, to the colonial era: from ancient Greece, to medieval Europe: from the Duchess of Bedford to Queen Victoria. We learned how tea became fashionable, how high tea was different from afternoon tea and how boiling water (which killed bacteria) made Britons healthier and increased life expectancy.
From the structure of gluten, the tempering of chocolate, the composition of an egg, the making of perfect pastry and the many uses of clingfilm, this course was ambitious, comprehensive and fascinating in equal measure.
Vladimir is of Italian and Portuguese descent, and his didactic style is very energetic and enthusiastic, imbued with an old-fashioned respect for craft, artisanal skill, scholarship and research. How telling that it takes an immigrant to create a course that pays homage to Britain’s most iconic meal, extolling the virtues of its arcane customs. It is true: we foreigners appreciate the elegant nuances of this institution, fast disappearing in the mediocrity that goes for standard fare in many British tea rooms.
He maintains a very youthful momentum round, what is essentially, a very big room, mentally negotiating an oven timer to the left, at the same time as stirring a pan of perilously volatile syrup to the right at the same time as checking an unstable chocolate melting endeavour straight on. Much of the course is centred on the senses: we were taught to taste our food all the way through its different stages of preparation; to see when the gelatine was set by using a spatula; to hear when the sugar and butter were adequately beaten together by the sound of the electric paddles; to touch pastry to judge when you should stop kneading; to smell the orange zest, vanilla seeds and carrot cake spice mix.
Half way through the course we ate a delicious lunch, befitting the theme of the day. Carefully cut organic egg mayonnaise, ham and cheese and chutney sandwiches, salads, home made sausage rolls, pork pies, green salad, tomato salad, cous cous and roasted vegetables and three bean salad were set out before us, with sparkling Prosecco, to celebrate. It was an exemplary “high tea” sort of lunch.
This day was Vladimir’s 38th birthday. We all laughed and joked how perspicacious to teach a cake making course on such a day, and at the end we lit a candle and all sang happy birthday. Tea was poured, aprons removed and the sense of amazement and achievement in the room was palpable. The photos tell it all.
“Thank-you my lovelies!” he exclaimed, “Now don’t be afraid to tuck in. Remember there are no calories here: it’s all organic health food!”
A hefty recipe and information folder, a big box of baked goodies and seasonal shopping from the farmshop loaded my journey back to the car park. What Daylesford Farm and Cookery School do, at their very essence, is provide a life-skills curriculum, albeit honed to an extremely luxurious level, quite like nowhere else. Seven hours, ten recipes, twelve pages of notes and a whole wealth of information, experience and knowledge later, I found it all, really, quite priceless.
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