‘Lengthy’ Memories of The French House Party Cookery School 2022

Another trip to The French House Party is complete, as usual so many memories and experiences although this time I did not have to put out a tree fire at 23:00 whilst the ‘Pompiers’ rushed to the scene, it was out by the time they arrived. It’s my fourth time here and will not be my last, although my next adventure in about 6 weeks is about half an hour from this location, at another cookery school I frequent, I just adore this part of France but more about that next time.

From Neil picking me up at Toulouse airport (thanks my friend), to Moira dropping me off its been just brilliant, seeing my Michelin Starred Chef friend Jean Marc again was wonderful, he is such a kind, gentle and generous man, the latest addition Gregory was a class act, I have just tried one of his hand made chocolates that was gifted to me by the lovely Irish contingent that are now close friends (delish), we shared so many laughs it was body aching at times, in fact most of the time. The Foie Gras Macaron, pictured above was a Gregory invention that was inspired, its didn’t last long and melted in the mouth, savoury and sweet simultaneously!

Producer from father to son since 1875, La Maison Guinot will immerse you, young and old, in a unique journey around 6 generations of winegrowers. 20km from Carcassonne and 1 hour from Toulouse , come and discover all the mysteries of the oldest sparkling wines (Blanquette and Cremant) in the world, in our century-old cellar. I love this place, the experience makes your think twice about buying Champagne (well me anyway). Whilst you cannot get bottles shipped to the UK (they are a smallish batch producer and well, Brexit has complicated things), I managed to get two bottles of their best in my small case. You can buy ‘similar’ products in most supermarkets which are very good, but Guinot is the ‘nectar’ of Limoux in my humble opinion.

Carcassonne market with its sea of fresh produce is another treat experienced during this culinary adventure, seeing the explosion of colours, variety of lettuces, legumes and, well everything the aromas drifting through the air just get the saliva drooling for something to savour.

Nestled in the Hotel de la Cité, in the medieval Citadel of Carcassone, which has existed in some form since the 6th century BC is the 1 Michelin starred restaurant La Barbacane headed up by Chef Jérôme Ryon. It’s a stunning dinning room, lots of wood panels and ancient character with an efficient team of brilliant waiting staff, attentive but not overpowering. The food was sublime, amuse bouche, taste ticklers, trout, beef and strawberries delivered in different and inspiring ways, as usual it made us think, debate, cogitate and digest and think about what was to come. To be honest, I had been a little ‘devilish’ making Jean Marc who was going to be joining us in a couple of days, seem like Gordon Ramsey, and I continued to subtly suggest he would be a really hard taskmaster, which is, in reality completely the opposite when you meet him for real.

Back to H.Q. and we start cooking, Confit Duck and Mushroom Quiche sounds interesting, Pork Filet Mignon in Puff Pastry with Malpère Sauce and Strawberry in Hibiscus Granita, boom, delicious and we made it ourselves with the guidance and tutoring of Chef Gregory Legros!

Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner every day might seem too much, but many of the options are quite light, and if you want a small portion, you are doing the plating, and if not just say, there is no pressure to ‘stuff your face’. Much of the food is quite healthy (yeah), well maybe I am stretching that myth a little, its a cookery school, your learning to cook great food so enjoy it like we all did, especially the cheese, three times a day, I was in heaven.

Everyone got the chance to have a go at preparing all sorts, the lovely and very funny Joan, such a kind lady decided Choux would be a good experience, but these were savoury and extremely light and very tasty one variant with a Norwegian angle, the other was Mediterranean; the multi layer chocolate cake was just that, chocolate on chocolate on chocolate, but just cut yourself a small piece if you are calorie counting.

Breakfasts at The French Party are a Communal affair with time to natter, joke, put the world to rights, debate the contestants of the Eurovision Song Contest, and get to know each other ever more. As a group we ‘hit it off’ within seconds of meeting on the arrival day and we enjoyed our time together both in and out of the kitchen. Bernard went for an early daily walk and on one of those, we tasked him with bringing back some croissants and pastries from the local boulangerie to test, they were not great, ours on the table were far much better, by a yard mile, along with the rest of the delectables, breakfast is always fresh and delicious. If you wanted eggs, Moira would prepare them for you, in the four years I have attended, I don’t recall anyone saying yes, just enjoying the fresh fruit, pastries, hams, cheese, jams, fruit juice, tea and coffee and cereals there is plenty for everyone.

Let’s spend a a day, a full on day cooking with Jean Marc Boyer, holder of a Michelin Star since 2007, not bad going indeed. We had another guest join us for the day, Didier, a keen cook who had been gifted a treat by his wife, he was a lovely guy, and very soon he was an extension of the famous five, now six! When Jean Marc starts his cooking it’s always with a sketch of the final dish, sometimes open to interpretation if you have not seen his artwork before. Within a few hours quality dishes are produced, and eaten, in fact I reproduced one last night for the family, my own interpretation of the above, not perfect but very tasty and it was enjoyed by all.

After lunch there is always a short break, then back into the kitchen to cook the evenings dinner, lots of techniques and lessons learnt, jokes said, laughs had, tea drunk…..ah. its 6 o’clock anyone for some bubbly, another treat, short break to chill for a while before back into the kitchen to complete the evenings dinner.

You always get value for money at The French House Party, this amount of time with such an experienced chef is not easy to find anywhere without massive expense, he never looks at his watch and says ‘I’m finished now’, you will see him clearing up as you sit down to enjoy your food, a very dedicated and professional chef, and great personal friend too.

The following morning was the chocolate masterclass with Marion, another familiar face I had previously visited her studio a few years back to learn, and we were connected on Instagram exchanging likes, comments and congratulations over the past few years, it was lovely to see her in the flesh after so long, she is a delightful and experienced chocolatier, and the Famous Five were going to get covered in the stuff!

It was a brilliant session as expected and we all came away with our home made confections, a box made of chocolate with a cocoa butter pattern on the top, I went for two different layers top and bottom to mix things up a bit! Our version of Ferrero Rocher, some close to the size of tennis balls, and almond clusters, finally chocolate covered marshmallows the goody bags weighed a ton but we all had smiles on our faces, it had been a wonderful few hours learning new skills.

After a light lunch, it was back into the kitchen to cook the final meal which included dealing with shelled scallops and rabbit saddles, which were quite challenging. I feel rabbit is like marmite, I hate marmite but love rabbit. You can see our view from the outside dinning table looking over the swimming pool, at night the sun setting was wonderous.. The rabbit caused mixed reactions, it was poached extremely gently for 20 minutes and it was meltingly tender, the included kidney was like butter but I suspect due to a combination of the colour and texture it was not the most popular dish. Now here is the trick, cooking is also about interpretation and I had asked Jean Marc, well told him I was going to finish my rabbit in a frying pan with loads of butter and a dash of oil, only for less than a minute, just to add a little colour and firm things up slightly, it worked a treat!

So there you have it, my week at the wonderful French House Party which ran from Friday to Wednesday, two brilliant chefs, an amazing chocolatier, our chef on the first evening Deidre Corless who cooked delicious welcome meal, Moira our delightful host and her team of helpers that did the washing up, made copious quantities of tea and coffee and helped things run so smoothly (as usual).

And the Famous Five, my new Irish chefs who were absolutely delightful, laughing, joking and making the week even more enjoyable, friends for life we are planning another cookery school trip in the coming months which will be brilliant.

If you ever fancy doing something a bit different then give it a go, I went once and keep returning its so much fun, and you get to meet new people who become lifelong friends. And in July I will be off again to my other favourite cookery school, watch out for the posts!

…………………………Until Next Time…………………L8ers…………………

10:00 o’clock is Wine o’clock

It’s checking out day at The French House Party and as I start my breakfast, my new Irish besties Joan, Seamus, Deidre and Bernard surprise me with a departing present, chocolates and macarons, what a beautiful thought. Not any old chocolates or macarons, hand made by our chef tutor Gegory Legros who had taken us though our paces on Saturday with much patience and understanding, he was brilliant.

We have become more than friends over the past 6 days, its’ difficult to describe the feelings and emotions as we have all shared an amazing experience, not the same as having a few drinks and a laugh at a poolside table in Lanzarote or Magaluf, we have worked together, learnt together, criticised in pairs, rewritten menus just like a brigade of chefs cooking in harmony for months, it has been epic.

We all had some time to spare today, departure day so our host Moira, always looking for ways to ensure we had the perfect experience had arranged a wine tasting……… to start at 10:00 a.m………., nice!

I have visited Domaine Le Fort before, and tried its award winning wines, but not the latest addition, THE best Chardonnay in the World 2020. It’s in a lovely location, near to the village of Bram, about a 20 minute drive from The French House Party HQ. We were greeted by Stéphanie one half of the family double act that are responsible for producing a seriously good range of wines from the Languedoc region of France, you might recognise some of the names on the map above.

Jean Marc was back in the front of the class yesterday afternoon; do you like Scallops, not the queenies and smaller varieties, I mean big fat juicy ones, fresh as the day is young. He produced a 6Kg box of Scallop Shells full of plump juiciness and some knives and off we went, carefully opening the tops, separating the muscle from the lid and doing everything to protect their succulent tender flesh.

The evenings starter was a dish he developed for a famous 5 star hotel in the Far East, Scallops in Parsley and Saffron Cream Sauce, and we were going to make it from scratch!

It’s the 1st time I have cooked 15 Scallops in one go, it’s was interesting to understand how to know when things were complete without lifting one of the juicy tender bivalve molluscs! Anyway, apparently I did a good job and they were all eaten, we debated the Parsley Sauce and I suggested changing to Coriander and dusting the Scallops with Curry Powder before frying, this was a typical session at the dining table, debate, questioning, adjusting. For more info, book the course.

I wanted to introduce you to my new friends properly, from the left Deidre, Seamus, Joan and Bernard. The lovely Marion, a chocolatier extraordinaire is explaining the tempering process on the right. What a bunch, so so funny. It was great seeing everyone play with chocolate for the first time, tempering is not easy and you can soon see lumps and realise things have got too cold!

I am now standing in an empty queue at Toulouse Airport, checkin is still not open, I grabbed a very nice Bayon Ham Baguette earlier to keep me going until I got through passport control. Only 2.5 hours to go and if there are no delays, will be heading into the sky for the flight home.

There were delays, luckily I had topped up when checked In and waiting for the plane to arrive, with a croque-monster au jambon and a drink, the airport was extremely hot beyond passport control but that’s another story.

……………. until next time …………… L8ers ……..

Talk Talk and Didier!

I have deep mixed emotions this evening!

It’s the last night, the last supper, almost the end of another roller coaster of unexplainable emotions, new friends, old colleagues (not from an age perspective), it makes me very happy but extremely sad when meaningful adventures come to a natural end, the cookery school I booked finishes tomorrow and I am flooded, no drowned with simultaneous happy and sad feelings which bring a sincere tear, well flooding to both my eyes. I have always had emotions, feelings that sometimes overtake me, it’s in my nature and that’s me.

I had a delivery today, I am in another country, my lovely wife of over 34 years would not be expecting the delivery of ……….. a jar of Amora Savora Mustard!! It was an important part of the dressing in the dish we made a day or so ago, time has dissolved to be honest so I am not 100% sure when, but time does not matter as its taste was exceptional and the compulsiveness in me stepped into action and I ordered a jar!

We had an extra guest on Monday, Didier, who lives near Carcassonne and was here for the day, a very keen cook whose wife had gifted him a voucher for the French House Party Cookery School, he was really nice and after some introductions during breakfast we all got on like age old ‘chums’, who may have shared an illicit cigarette or two behind the bike sheds after school, nuff said he was fab, fitted in which sounds so awkward, we worked together as a cohesive team, chatted during breaks, sharing stories and experiences, he was just lovely.

If you are wondering what the ‘Talk Talk” reference is in the title of the post it’s about the group of the 80’s led by Mark Hollis who passed in 2019 aged 64. I am listening to their album ‘The Very Best of Talk Talk’ whilst writing, it’s a ‘post rock’ style of music that is both melodic and rhythmic, it seems to inspire feeling and contemplation simultaneously.

The view from our outside dining area is not half bad, when the sun is setting it is even more stunning but I won’t share that, look, back and see for yourself as I have on 4 occasions now and still come back for more.

Today we went to see Marion at her chocolate shop and laboratory. Marion is lovely, a kind soul, and has been making chocolates by hand for over 12 years, running workshops for enthusiasts for just as long. I met Marion on my last trip before COVID and it was great to see her again, we connected on Instagram after the last trip and have had conversations ever since.

Fun was had by all, unfortunately Didier was only here for one day but the rest of us had so much enjoyment, learning how to temper chocolate, making all sorts of tempting goodies, it was definitely a children in a sweetshop experience but we were full grown adults acting like under 14’s, sucked in by the temptations of the wicked coca pod and its decadence.

Referring back to the group ‘Talk Talk’, songs which have been bouncing ear to ear whilst I have been scribing this blog post there are two tracks that have been like basketballs in my head resonating on a personal level and seem to convey a meaningful message, the first is ‘Life’s what you make it”, the second is ‘ It’s my life’. Make of it what you will. Nite!

……………………………Until next time…………………L8ers………………..

Restaurant S Comme – An Experience at Château de Palaga

Everyone has been busy in the kitchen and probably put on the odd ounce, the Chocolate cake above is a multi layer affair, I produced the first, coco-pops with added tempered chocolate, mixed and formed into a circular crispy base (not as simple as it sounds), then a layer of piped Chocolate ‘cream’ as glue, a flourless (ish) cake and more piping with some hazelnuts to dress, it was rich and decadent.

Today has been intense and I did warn them about Jean-Marc, he has a Michelin Star, is beyond professional and probably one of the the nicest people you could ever meet! Actually my new Irish friends loved him, he is an amazing guy, very calm, extremely patient and whilst first impressions may have you wondering, after a while you get where he is coming from and everything falls naturally into place.

It’s actually midnight, I have a bottle of Corbières 2018 open and the excitement and adrenalin of the last few days is rushing through my veins. We have a lie in tomorrow but that seems to pass me by, birds are very active singing their hearts out from about 04:30, it’s beautiful and melodic, rhythms echoing from tree to branch to bush, mesmerising and strangely calming.

As usual I won’t provide a running commentary of my trip as I would rather you come and experience it first hand, I know what you are missing as do my new friends. We have turned into food analysts, critics, judges, discussing how we might change, tweak adjust certain recipes to suit our own styles and preferences.

With that in mind, another one of our evening excursions was to a brilliant little restaurant called ‘S Comme’ in the village of Palaja which is a short distance from Carcassonne. On the way there, our driver Neil was able to stop at one of the best viewpoints of the Citadel and I was able to capture its ‘atmosphere’, a delightful view (above) which really underestimates the impressive structure in all its glory. The atmosphere at the restaurant was calming, the food delicious and very unassuming, the two Belgium’s that cook, take the orders and serve did an amazing job of explaining the menus and producing stunning plates of mouth watering fare. It’s well worth a visit if you are in the area

I fell in love with Carcassonne on my 1st trip, not just ‘La Cité’, the medieval citadel of the fortified city which is stunning, but its rich and generous surrounds, and reaching further out to the ancient and historic region of Gascony and its many castles, rolling countryside and attractive villages and market towns. And without forgetting Domaine St Raymond, the base of The French House Party, with its elegance and stunning sunsets.

Time for a cuppa, it’s 07:30. I did get some sleep and now look forward to a morning of chocolates.

……………….Until next time…………L8ers………..

My Happy Place – Another Trip to The French House Party

Life has been somewhat challenging for a while. New job, multiple bereavements, a 15 year old with ADHD facing exams, a vitamin B12 deficiency making me feel somewhat ’weird’, the news has been ’interesting’, both locally and on a global scale and to be honest, my head needs some space, time to rejuvenate.

Have I ever mentioned I am a bit of a cheese ’nut’. Whilst eating a stunning gourmet lunch at La Barbacane, a 1 Michelin starred restaurant in the centre of Cité de Carcassonne (the ancient citadel) I could not resist the cheese course before dessert, a choice of 5 different goats cheeses, with a truffled honey, it was absolutely delicious.

I have made some amazing new friends on my latest trip to ‘The French House Party’, you should really try it, something different, exploratory if you like, with, in my case a food slant, but boy does it help take away life’s challenges for a few days and gives you a chance to change your focus, learn some new skills in the process, meet new and interesting people and recharge the batteries at the same time. It’s my fourth time here so feels very familiar and like a second home.

The famous and incredible musician and composer ‘Mike Batt’ is here in August for a creative songwriting course! His multitude of hits include ‘Bright Eyes’ – No. 1 in six countries for Art Garfunkel, ‘A Winter’s Tale’ – No. 2 for David Essex, ‘Caravan’ for Barbara Dickson, and ‘Nine Million Bicycles’ and ‘The Closest Thing To Crazy’ for Katie Melua, whom he ‘discovered’ and managed for 10 years, selling 11 million records on his own label!

Carcassonne is a wonder; medieval, old, atmospheric, extremely crowded and hot in the summer, but this is May, it’s mild and there is plenty of space to move about. I am with my new friends in no particular order, Joan, Seamus, Deirdre and Bernard and what a lovely bunch they are, wonderful, full of character, laughing and joking, I couldn’t wish for any other people to be with on my foodie trip, something I did regularly before that dreaded ‘C’ word. We are sharing this adventure of exploration, food, wine, chatting and putting the world to rights.

I don’t want to sound like a moaning old git, but there is something about French Markets, and European markets in general. They are kind of rugged and beautiful at the same time. Dodgy looking vegetables which would unlikely been seen in the UK, rotisseries of Chicken, with their flavoursome fat cooking sliced potatoes served in foil containers for people to take home for lunch. Massive melons, sliced into chunks for people to munch on, every possible variety of Lettuce, Asparagus everywhere, all colours and sizes (the season is well under way) it’s a joy to behold if you have any appreciation of food, and we visited a cracker in Carcassonne, nestled under the ‘younger’ walls of the newer, old city!

I am on the 6 day Gourmet Explorer (for the second time), having also completed the Advanced Course (a couple of times) and this time we have a new tutor in Gregory Legros, a kind, calm and extremely talented Chef, Tutor and maker of wonder. My good friend and 1 Michelin star awarded Jean-Marc Boyer will also be joining us for a couple of days, causing havoc as usual but he is also a kind, patient and extremely talented Chef who I have now known for over 5 years, a dear friend indeed.

Meet Seamus, a cheeky fellow, full of mirth and kindness busy prepping some mushrooms for a super rich………wait for it…….. Porcini and Duck Quiche, well we are in the region famous for ‘Canard’, and Foie Gras of course. The Porcini were dried, so we rehydrated them, and then being careful to remove the grit and nasties, reduced the liquor to a thick syrup a bit like the fluid that collects in Tobacco Smokers pipes, the the gap in the bowl beneath the cup if you have ever seen such things, but shown below to give you an idea!

It was unbelievable being back in The French House Party kitchen with fellow foodie enthusiasts after so long, although I was at a cookery school in November last year, the trip to France, the atmosphere, the location, the weather always gives me an extra level of energy that cannot be described…. And the passion of the French when it comes to food, it’s contagious and difficult to describes unless it’s something that you ‘get’.

During this session we had made short savoury pastry, prepared fillings, stripped confit Duck, made a reduction with the Porcini juice to intensify its flavour and had some fun along the way. The resultant dish was extremely rich, decadent and downright delicious.

I am going to stop now as we have a night out at a local restaurant but suffice to say, I am feeling less anxious, calmer, my head is not so confused about things in general and we have the pleasure of Jean-Marc tommorow.

…………………….Until next time…………………… L8ers……………………