A cold, wet and dark night in Oxford, but a visit to Cowley Road magically transported me to an Italian farmhouse kitchen. I’d been invited by the lovely Hannah to attend one of the cookery classes held as part of Sophie’s Cookery School. The theme for that evening was Tuscan Farmhouse and ten of us were tasked with providing a traditional three-course dinner, presided over by Sophie Grigson. First up was a welcome from Sophie – who is absolutely lovely and instantly puts all of us at ease. An explanation of what Tuscan cooking is made up of led to an introduction of all the ingredients we’d be using that evening before the two most important instructions of the evening. Hand washing facilities and how to sharpen tour knives properly.
Being married to an ex-butcher and having worked in many kitchens, we do regularly sharpen our knives at home using an old sharpening steel. But even I was surprised to hear that we should be sharpening every time we use our knives. The difference between a blunt blade and a recently sharpened blade is ridiculous and makes kitchen work so much quicker and easier. Plus we all know that you are far more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade.
Once that had been covered, we moved on to our starters of three different types of bruschetta. We sliced a whole load of fresh tomatoes before getting them boiling in a pan with salt, pepper, olive oil and basil. These were left until well reduced down and was, hand on heart, the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had. So much so that I’ve used this method religiously ever since. Thick, sweet, tangy, herby and fresh, it works fabulously as a pizza topping, a pasta sauce and on bread as we did that evening. We sliced day old bread, fried in olive oil until golden, rubbed with a clove of garlic then dolloped on that sauce before dressing with fresh basil leaves. So, so good!
Also going on the bread was a dish called feggatini – chopped, fried and blitzed chicken livers with capers, lemons and parsley to make a pâté plus a cavolo nero topping which is a great way to use any leftover from your Sunday roast. Which actually never happens in my house as my kids love this dark, buttery cabbage but it works so well as a bruschetta topping that I may have to hide some from them in future.
Our main course was faraona con noci e uva which translates as guinea fowl with walnuts and grapes. We started by learning how to cut the birds and then pan frying until well browned – there was a lot of olive oil used that evening! As an IBS sufferer I was impressed and relieved that despite the many glugs of fragrant oil, my tummy remained happy. All too often oil can be a major trigger.
White wine was then evaporated off before grapes, walnuts and herbs were added and the sauce left to reduce. This was served with a huge vat of bubbling evil but oh so comforting polenta!
Finally, dessert was a dish called Torta Squisita. A pastry tart with a filling of chocolate, ricotta and candied peel. We made the pastry ourselves before mixing up the filling, admittedly the mix may not have looked the most appetising being beige and lumpy but oh my word it tasted amazing in a pie!
And that’s the best thing about Italian cooking. You can take the simplest, freshest and most flavoursome ingredients and make amazingly mouthwatering dishes with minimal effort. I’ve remade several of these at home since and they’ve come out pretty much the same every time – they may not look as pretty but they still taste pretty darn good. And that right there is the secret to a good cookery class. Clear instructions, great, everyday ingredients and entertaining instructors. I’d highly recommend going to any of Sophie’s classes, you’re guaranteed to have fun, eat well and learn lots!
A couple of months later, Jacqui went along to a Beginners Bread class, hoping to find a passion for breadmaking that had yet to surface. Judging by all the homemade bread she’s been making since I’d say Sophie did a grand job.
As Jacqui put it: “Sophie was utterly lovely and made everything so accessible, flexible and uncomplicated. I’ve already made multiple Doris Grant loaves since, which have become a staple in our household, and I’m looking forward to trying out lots of other breads, including the fougasse from the class (which some of you may remember as a tough technical challenge from GBBO last year!) and more advanced doughs.”
Since Jacqui attended the Beginners Bread course, Sophie’s Cookery School has added a ‘Bread Plus’ class, offering “a whole new world of possibilities once you’ve mastered the basics of bread-baking” with ‘enriching doughs to create gorgeous sticky Chelsea or Cinnamon Buns, or savoury, crisp seedy grissini, paper thin Sicilian carta di Musica bread, or perhaps chewy, glossy bagels ready to be stuffed with smoked salmon or creamy scrambled eggs.” Anyone else drooling?
Find a full list of upcoming classes at Sophie’s Cookery School here.
Thank you to Sophie’s Cookery School for inviting us to take part in the classes.