The few roads north of Oxford Circus are some of the most discordant in London, stuck in-between the chain-store tat of Londoners’ most hated mile and Marylebone’s bijou boutiques. But with the Wallace Collection, Zoilo and the Riding House Café all hidden away here, I find myself fighting through the melee increasingly often.
I had been aware for a while that this patch is also home to the Cookery School. I’d perused their website on several occasions, but never quite made a booking. Blame it on cramming for the terrifying WSET exam, which satisfied my thirst for culinary knowledge at least temporarily. With several kitchen disasters under my belt since then (including a spectacular exploding earl grey and chocolate torte), it became clear my cooking skills needed a bit of work to catch up with my boozing abilities. So, I jumped at the chance to attend the Cookery School’s tapas class two weeks ago.
The “classroom” is a little smaller than you might expect, just a ground-level shop space off Little Portland Street. Inside, three spotless, stainless steel high tables are set out in front of a small professional kitchen, with a slanted mirror above to make sure everyone can see the stove.
We were welcomed with a glass of Xarel-lo (a zingy Spanish white; one of the three varietals traditionally used in Cava production), which aided the necessary awkward introductions. This is a great place to come alone: all but two of our group were solo.
From the ingredients lined up at the side and our personally named aprons, it became pretty clear that this was going to be a hands-on session. And no sooner than glasses were drained, the bread-making began. Pre-proofed dough was divvied out between us so we could try to master the baker’s technique of whirling it around whilst tucking the edges to create a neat roll.
Fingers limbered-up and first jokes cracked, we split into groups to each work on one of the tapas dishes. The word tapas, as I have now learnt, derives from the saucers traditionally placed atop drinks to protect them. Proprietors would place a little amuse bouche on each saucer, and from this humble beginning, tapas gradually became fancier and fancier.
On the menu were:
• “rustic” bread rolls
• chorizo and chicory salad (courtesy of Moro)
• potato tortilla
• patatas bravas
• pimientos de padron
• orange and almond cake
While we worked in three groups, everyone crowded around to watch and taste when anything was taken to the stove. The dishes were perhaps a little conventional (I would have loved to have seen croquetas or some killer garlic and chilli prawns), but it was the technical advice that stuck in my mind at the end of the day: how to crush garlic with the flat blade of a knife, working through the clove and adding salt for traction; how to tuck in your fingers when chopping, so the knife grazes your knuckle rather then removing a fingertip; and how much salt we should really have each day (a lot, if you ask me).
After an hour and a half of cooking, while we were busily blackening pimientos de pardon (a Galician classic), the work tables were whipped out of the way and a communal table was laid for dinner. Wine was poured, plates were loaded and I was taken by surprise by the the food. Even the tortilla, which will never be my first choice, was rich and moist. It’s the orange and almond cakes though, that I’ll be rushing to recreate.
Maybe it was the second glass of Xarel-lo, but I left the class enthused. I was impressed by the standard of teaching, the quality of the ingredients and the structure of the afternoon. The group meal was particularly effective at bringing the class to a leisurely conclusion.
You can find details of all the Cookery School’s classes and courses online here. I found the level, aimed at the serious home cook, spot-on.