Valentina Harris is an expert in Italian cooking, and at the start of July I was very lucky to be invited to attend a cookery class with Valentina at the School of Artisan Food, located in the stunning grounds of Welbeck Estate.
The School of Artisan food is a registered charity and has been open since 2009 and 5,000 short course participants have soared through the doors since. The focus is on foods that ferment such as breads and cheeses, however the school also has special guest chefs sharing their culinary secrets to teach mere mortals like me some top tips to ensure I am not totally useless in the kitchen.
With courses ranging from South East Asian cuisine, British pies and making your own sausages (to name just a microscopic few) there is something that every foodie, no matter your level of skill to enjoy. The school even runs courses for children!
On a gorgeous Sunday in July I drove the 30 miles to the heart of Sherwood Forest to attend a full day cooking class with Valentina Harris. The menu we were cooking? An Italian Summer.
With English as her second language (her Dad put her in a room for hours upon hours with BBC World Service on the radio, so she has the voice of a Radio 4 presenter) Valentina is every bit Italian, gesticulating more and more whilst talking about her passion of food. Having written over 30 cookbooks, had a TV series and been on all manner of television shows, I was in the presence of a cooking genius.
After arriving at 9.30am, a quick introduction and a getting to know you session with the other participants, it was time to don our aprons and head into the beautiful catering kitchen. (I forgot to get a photo! This one is courtesy of The School of Artisan Food.)
Valentina really has a way with words and described the menu in detail and why she had chosen these dishes. She paints a stunning picture with words of her childhood on a boat, tucking in to Panzenella with her family.
The course started promptly at 10am and, grouped into twos, we were all excited. It was my first time meeting the lovely FishWifes Kitchen too which made me smile. We chat on twitter but haven’t ever seen each other in real life! The menu we were making consisted of:
- Spaghetti al Pesto Trapanese
- Melanzane alla Parmigiano (Baked aubergine with tomato and mozzarella)
- Sugo di Pomodoro il Sofritto (Tomato sauce with onions and garlic)
- Branzino al Sale (See bass in a salt crust)
- Fagiolini alla Fiorentina (Green beans in Florentine style)
- Semifreddo al Mirtillo (Blueberry semifreddo)
- Semifreddo al Cioccolato (Chocolate semifreddo)
Looking at all those dishes, I wondered how the heck we were going to do these in just one day! I assumed it would have taken me a week to complete alone! In our pairs we prepped, chopped, cooked, salted, bubbled and boiled our way through the extensive menu. However, considering how fantastic every dish was, they were relatively simple to execute.
We started first with making the Semifreddo desserts to ensure they had enough time to set while we worked through the rest of the menu. Then it was on to the tomato sauce to complete the baked aubergine dish. After a light lunch of breads, cheeses and salads, we jumped right back into the kitchen for the remainder of the lesson.
We dove into creating the Panzenella, soaking the crusty bread in salt water and wringing it out to leave a sodden doughy mixture (my least favourite part of the experience if I am honest). Then tossing that with fat juicy tomatoes, onion, cucumber and basil and coating it in olive oil, red wine vinegar and seasoning.
From there we created the gorgeous pesto using a pestle and mortar to crush garlic, basil, almonds and tomatoes to a pulp. This would be served on spaghetti later. This was absolutely delicious, the combination of the almonds and basil creating a deliciously light pesto.
We then created our aubergine ‘pie’ by layering aubergines and the delicious tomato sauce together. I didn’t put the Parmesan and Mozzarella in mine, and was really happy with the outcome. It tasted delicious!
The beans were then lightly boiled until tender and then mixed with a delicious coating of tomato puree, fennel seeds, onion and olive oil. I am not one to opt for veggies at every meal but these were so good that I went back for seconds… and thirds.
Lastly was the ‘pièce de résistance’. A freshly gutted sea bass, stuffed with a mixture of herbs, and covered in a salt crust, then baked for 40 minutes. The salt crust was then cracked open, displaying a perfectly cooked, succulent fish with the fresh herb and salt taste. Oh my gosh this was magical!
We then all sat together to eat our meal around 4pm. The whole day lasted around 7 hours, which I thought was fantastic value for money. I really feel as though I learned a lot with Valentina and would highly recommend joining in on one of the short courses.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the School of Artisan Food and would definitely go back for more courses. Thank you to Valentina and the School of Artisan Food for allowing me to join in on this class. To see other courses at the school, click HERE. You can also buy gift vouchers, perfect for Mothers Day, Fathers Day, birthdays and Christmas pressies!