Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paris Cooking School

Hi everyone - well this weary traveller is back from a month away, still a bit jetlagged and adjusting to having to get up for work every morning and be back in the real world again. I had a fantastic time away, and over the next few weeks you will be seeing and hearing a little of some of the food experiences I had in my travels. I have returned home with a whole swag of inspiration and ideas for dishes, as well as some new skills (I now know how to butcher a whole rabbit!) and some great kitchen hints and techniques. My trip took me to London, Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paris - all very different places with different produce and different food traditions. But I thought I would begin with an account of my cooking school experience in Paris.

Starting the day with a cafe au lait before heading to cooking school

I woke really early on my second day in Paris very excited that I was heading for cooking school that morning. Students had all been instructed to meet outside the Jules Joffrin train station where we would meet our instructor, Chef Pino Ficara. We would then walk to the nearby market to purchase our fresh ingredients and then up the hill to the school itself for class.

Our first market stop was a fromagerie (cheese shop) where Pino gave us a lesson in the various kinds of cheesemaking techniques which had us all spellbound. Cheesemaking is such a scientific and magical process and many recipies and ways of working have been around for literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. I learned about how the fromageries were set up, in order to have the cheese at it's best, and also to prevent the stinky cheeses from cross contaminating the more delicate ones- a lot of the cheeses are not refrigerated and virtually all of the cheese is made with raw milk. In Australia, it is illegal to sell raw milk products (an exception was only recently made that allowed 2 kinds of Roquefort to be imported, but our laws are ridiculously antiquated) so I was so excited at the prospect of having a raw milk cheese fest.

A tiny sample of the huge selection of cheeses I came across in the fromagerie

And a fest it was. I tasted no less than 15 kinds of cheese (there must have been a couple of hundred in the shop) - all hand made - some made by monks, some aged in caves, some preserved in straw, cheese soaked in wine or basted in beer, cheese from cow milk, sheep milk and goat milk, bright yellow hard cheese and creamy milky white cheese, cheese that tasted of clean air and pure milk, cheese that was sticky and deliciously foetid, cheese covered in ash or studded with wild herbs and lavender,tangy and crumbly cheese, velvety white goat cheese so delicious it made your eyes roll back in your head! The shop itself was so beautifully set up. The aproned staff expertly cut and lovingly wrapped our selections and we headed to our next stop - the charcuterie (butcher)

Some of the poultry and game on sale at the charcuterie

If you are squeamish about raw meat or you are only used to buying your meat wrapped in sanitised plastic packets, then you might have been a bit freaked out on entering the butcher shop. Much of the meat such as poultry and games is sold in one piece, with head, feet/ claws all still attatched. Not only are these used for stock, but they also allow you to ensure that the meat is fresh. The selection available was so exciting - including pheasant, squab pigeon,quail, duck, about 7 or 8 varieties of chicken, venison, rabbits and hares. I love game and particularly rabbit so I was thrilled when it was decided that we would cook rabbit that day. We bought two whole rabbits (skinned, but with the head and all left on, as well as the liver - we had plans for that) which were wrapped up by the butcher in brown paper and string and we headed down the street to the fishmonger.

Oysters and fresh live crustaceans for sale at the local fishmonger

The selection of fish, and particularly shellfish was spectacular - so many varieties of oysters! (they are never pre opened, they are sold closed or you can get the fishmonger to shuck them for you), mussels and clams, periwinkles, live crabs of all kinds, langoustines, prawns and lobsters - also smoked fish, snails and fresh kelp. The first thing that strikes you is that the fish doesn't smell fishy - it is SO fresh that it just smells like seawater. Everything looked so superb - we chose two large silvery bream that we planned on turning into a starter for our menu.

Delicious berries, destined for our kitchen

Pretty fresh radishes and onions at the greengrocer

Next stop, the vegetable market- a riot of brightly coloured reds, greens,oranges. Tight bunches of scarlet radishes, bundles of emerald green and creamy white asparagus, all kinds of herbs displayed in large wicker baskets big enough to put your washing in - and the berries! That luscious aroma of fresh strawberries again, cherries, melons... Everything looked so abundant and beautiful. We decided on what we wanted to serve with our dishes and came away with bunches of sweet smelling herbs, celery root (celeriac), wild asparagus (which I had never seen - delicate, with thin stalks and small pretty tapered ends), endive (witlof), fresh carrots, eschallots, garlic, a punnet or two of ruby coloured raspberries and some sweet smelling strawberries.

Gorgeous fresh artichokes for sale

Final stop on the way back to school was an artisan bread maker (who Chef said is quite mad and obsessed with perfection - but makes the best bread in Paris - using a centuries old woodfired oven, grinding his own flour with a stone grinder and keeping his sourdough culture literally locked in the basment because he is scared someone will steal it!) The bread! Oh.....the bread! The best I have ever eaten in my life. We chose bagettes, walnut bread, and a fruity rye loaf that we planned to serve with our cheeses. We munched on still warm bagettes happily as we walked up the hill to school in the sunshine.

Fresh bread from the artisan bakery - baked 4 times a day

The class was amazing and I learned so much - so many great tips and techniques as well as learning more about the actual chemistry of what happens to ingredients when you combine them or treat them in a particular way. It was also SO much fun. I learned to make proper creme patissiere (the beautiful custard that goes into choux puffs or tarts, and also butchered my first whole rabbit, which was like conducting surgery. In Australia they never have the feet or head left on!) I was in culinary heaven as we put our menu together - a starter of oven roasted bream filllets baked on a thick bed of fresh herbs and served with creamed celeriac, the main course of braised rabbit with sauteed endive, wild asparagus, carrots and eschallot confit and a dessert of a strawberry and raspberry tart, with an almond pastry base and vanilla creme patissiere. We also enjoyed a superb cheese platter between main course and dessert and lots of lovely french wine to wash it all down with. An unforgettable experience.

Here is what I cooked that day:

A starter of herb baked bream, celeriac puree and mache

Braised saddle of rabbit with wild asparagus, confit eschallots and witlof

Fresh fruit tart with almond pastry and creme patissiere

Because it doesn't get dark until 10pm, I decided to jump on a boat after class and cruise the Seine, enjoying the warm weather and that beautiful golden evening sunshine that turns everything buttery yellow. I cruised past the palaces, the tower, the Louvre - along the embankments where people were enjoying a glass of wine or lying on the grass. I felt so lucky to be there and to have had such a wonderful day. When I eventually made it back to Montmartre, I decided that I would have a picnic on my balcony for dinner, (I had eaten a lot during the day so I didn't want a big restaurant dinner) so I simply bought a small bagette (warm from the oven - they bake 4 times a day here!) ,a small piece of succulent cooked duck (in Paris butchers sometimes sell meat they cook on the premises), some raspberries and a little pot of creme freche to dip them in and ate them on my very Parisian wrought iron Juliet balcony overlooking the street as the sun went down. What a great day.

Chef Pino Ficara and I in the Montmartre kitchen

I have fallen completely and utterly in love with Paris - can you blame me??? I am already planning an extended return trip in 2011. In the meantime, I plan to hone my new skills and appreciation for French food in my own kitchen. Bon appetit!



  1. I got to try that wonderful wild asparagus at a review of La Sala, airfreighted in from France. So good...

  2. It's lovely isn't it! I didn't see a whole lot of it in the markets in Paris, just in a few places but I really loved the flavour - and it looked pretty too :)