I learned how to make pancakes from Michel Roux. As culinary name-dropping goes, you have to admit, I’m up there with the best of them. Unfortunately, my claim is not entirely true.
I already knew how to make pancakes – Roux merely helped me to perfect my technique.
The French master chef was giving a weekend master-class at the Belle Isle School of Cookery in Fermanagh.
The school is part of the ancient building of Belle Isle Castle, built in 1680 and extended in 1850. Its present owner, the Duke of Abercorn, bought the castle in 1991 and transformed it into a thriving business.
Michel Roux has a distinguished pedigree as a master chef. He and his brother Albert opened their celebrated restaurant Le Gavroche in London in 1967. The pair quickly became known as the Michelin chefs who had single-handedly dragged Britain into a new culinary era.
However, the brothers had much humbler beginnings.
Their father and grandfather were charcutiers and Michel began his culinary career at 15 as a patissier in the working-class district of Belleville in Paris.
Albert Roux started working for a patissier at 14 and at 18 went to Britain to work in Nancy Astor’s country home, Clivedon. Following a year at the French Embassy in London he started his first job as chef to Sir Charles Clore in Belgravia.
Military service beckoned, but he was soon back climbing the culinary career ladder with a two-year stint in the British Embassy in Paris.
In 1959, Michel joined Albert in the British Embassy in Paris and from there he moved to the employ of Cécile de Rothschild. At 22 he was the youngest chef the family employed and he still considers his time there as his “university years”.
When asked what brought him to Belle Isle Castle cookery school, Roux replies: “Oh, I know the Duke and said I’d do him a favour’‘. And I thought I was good.
I’m still getting over the tinnitus from that level of name dropping.
Surveying Belle Isle, the popular image of down-at-heel occupants of Ireland’s great houses scrimping tea leaves into Meissen teapots couldn’t be further from the truth. The estate is a working business and an ideal trip to the school should include at least one night in the castle, though more modest accommodation is available.
Despite its age and heritage, the castle has the slightly odd feel of a new home. This is partly due to the décor, which was fashioned by David Hicks, the celebrated society interior designer. Guests will either love it or hate it, as Hicks was nothing if not adventurous with his palette of colours, the tangerine dining hall and my acid green bedroom being amongst the most memorable. Both were interesting and fun, though slightly less so in the early morning when you’re feeling a little delicate.
The castle’s corridors and winding staircases need a bit more clutter. I’d say another hundred years of collecting will see it right.
However, the parkland needs no such gilding, and a recent shower of rain had the woods glistening, and the views across the lake to the hills looking even brighter.
But is all this salubrious backdrop necessary for a cookery school?
The school’s aim is to “stir the imagination; to find natural flare where once lay only a fear of grams and ounces; to inspire in you a confidence to learn new techniques and a desire to perfect existing skills’‘.
All laudable aims, but when the chef-manager Liz Moore begins to talk about the school, students become privy to a deeper philosophy.
Moore is part of a new generation of chefs who possess not only a love of food, but a deep understanding of the damage our production and consumption patterns can wreak on the environment and on artisan producers.
The school is in a modern, purpose-built building which blends well with the surrounding converted farm buildings and cottages. All the food at Belle Isle is sourced locally, and Moore’s knowledge of how to manage an eco-kitchen means that even our master chef learnt a thing or two.
The course begins on Saturday morning after a hearty breakfast in the castle. Fresh coffee, chocolate treats and neatly pressed aprons are laid out in the demonstration room. All our ingredients are weighed and ready to go. Each work unit comfortably fits two students, and the classes are limited to ten, so there’s plenty of one-on-one tuition for needy people like me.
Moore starts with bread. Why bother baking it when there are so many good breads available in the shops?
I suppose bread-making could seem like a chore – there’s no denying it involves plenty of pounding and kneading. But what starts as a burden soon turns into therapy, as all the stresses and strains of the city are pounded away. A good tactic is to imagine the dough as being someone you’d like to rough up a bit. Without completely annihilating it, of course – that comes later when filleting the fish.
Then the delicate art of cooking steamed sea bass is demonstrated by Roux. The recipe appears in his book, Only the Best – The Art of Cooking with a Master Chef. So it was interesting to see an author follow his own, already-on-the-record advice.
We begin by filleting the sea bass. As I suffer from Classroom Munchausen’s Syndrome, I falter on purpose to get some personal attention. Roux deftly shows me the precise movements to remove the flesh from the bone, and how to skin it without leaving half the flesh behind. At 63 years old, Roux is a handsome man – tall and elegant with piercing blue eyes. I’d say he could charm the flesh off the bone with the Gallic accent alone.
The sea bass is steamed in parcels of blanched lettuce and served with deep-fried, shredded leeks and a coulis of leek, saffron and dill. But one of the major stumbling blocks for amateur chefs is pulling together the final elements – chefs often find themselves with a cooked main course but still waiting for their sauce.
Roux explains that this dish is a good one for entertaining as all the preparation can be done beforehand. You then reheat the coulis, and cook the fish at the last minute. Perfect. So I prepared to do this for a party of ten at home. But after blanching and drying my 20th lettuce leaf, I decided I’d just do spag bol next time.
There are ample breaks in the schedule, allowing aspiring chefs to meander around the estate.
There’s a children’s play area, a tennis court, a croquet lawn and fishing and shooting facilities.
During breaks, I preferred to flip through the books and magazines in my room. I was doubly del ighted to find an article in Country Life by the Duke of Abercorn on what books you should place in guest bedrooms.
According to the duke, copies of the classics are a must – but only inexpensive editions, as they’ll all go missing. “Or perhaps a copy of something you’ve published yourself (though that’s a little ostentatious).’’An absolute must is a copy of a book a guest might have written. No sign of any copies of The Sunday Business Post in my room, though.
Back to school after our break, the mysteries of gelatine are revealed through panna cotta with thyme and lemon. At the end of each session, you find you’ve cooked your next meal, so when we take our seats for lunch, it is with the added frisson that we have prepared it ourselves.
No cookery course would be complete without the inclusion of wine. Matching food to wine is one of life’s joys, and although this art is included in the Belle Isle cookery courses, the school also runs separate courses in wine appreciation. Gourmet wine weekends will take place from next year, including a personalised, wine-specific programme. This course requires a minimum of eight people, and sounds like a good alternative weekend pursuit for a gang of friends.
On Sunday morning, we make soda bread with goat’s cheese and then sample our results. It is quite a revelation to see the many versions achieved by different skills; thankfully, there is no way of identifying who made which loaf, so I simply claim the best one as my own.
The Roux master-class delivered something for all. Total beginners walked away confidently knowing how to make the perfect pancake, and the more proficient picked up an extra tip or two.
The first pancake will help you work out how much mixture to put in the pan, advises Roux. The key to success is not to panic when the first one flops – it always does, he says. Then, when they start to curl up a little with a papery edge, you can flip them over with a spatula, or alternatively, use the preferred method taught by the Teflon-fingered Roux: “Just turn it with your fingers!” (The scars clear up in about a week.)
Roux has always been renowned as a canny businessman, but this aspect of his character is easily forgotten when he reminisces about a pear dish he made for his daughter’s First Holy Communion years previously: pears poached in Bollinger. Enquiring about the recipe, the canniness returns, and Roux replies with a twinkle in his eye that it’s available for purchase online at Amazon.com.
By Sunday afternoon, the aspiring chefs have developed an easy familiarity with their surroundings. It must be the bane of their hosts’ lives, seeing guests meander around the castle in an annoyingly proprietary way even though they’ve only been there a wet Sunday.
When the clouds did open up on Sunday, it didn’t stop the Northern Ireland Classic Cars Club from chugging up the drive.
No dastardly Terry-Thomas figure appeared from the vintage motors, but one quick-thinking club member spotted Roux and asked him to say a few words. Without hesitation, the master chef transformed into a master orator, and delivered an impromptu speech to the Classic Car Rally.
Although you’re unlikely to find Roux leading you through your cooking at Belle Isle, the permanent staff will not disappoint; the unflappable Moore, for one, has an impressive pedigree. Especially when you spot her giving Roux a guide to the finer points of recycling and eco-management. (Incidentally, did you know that pieces of orange peel blackened in the oven make great fire-lighters?)
Location: Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh
Chef and manager: Liz Moore
Courses: from one day to four weeks, including seasonal courses on game and Christmas cooking, as well as specialty courses covering breakfast, celiac and vegetarian food.
Cost: from stg£75 for one day to a blow-out five-day course for stg£950.
The two-day course of stg£220 includes accommodation, but a stay in the castle includes a supplement.
Access: children welcome, disabled accommodation available.
Some useful websites:
Ashburton Cookery School www.ashburtoncookeryschool.co.uk
Slow Food Ireland www.slowfoodireland.com
Belle Isle Castle www.belleislecastle.com
Belle Isle School of Cookery , Belle Isle Estate, Lisbellow, Co Fermanagh, BT94 5HG Northern Island 0044(0) 28 66387231
Michel Roux and his brother Albert opened Le Gavroche in London in 1967. It was their first venture into the restaurant business, having worked previously in private service. Britain had never experienced the kind of food on offer at Le Gavroche, and the restaurant was booked out from its first day of business.
By 1974, the pair had received their first Michelin star. A second followed in 1977, and in 1982, Le Gavroche became the first restaurant in Britain to boast three Michelin stars.
Five more restaurants were opened in due course, including The Waterside Inn in Bray, which itself also boasts the maximum three Michelin stars. Michel Roux is also the author of a number of books, his most celebrated being his autobiography, Life Is a Menu, published in 2000. Here, Roux’s writing in it is as beautifully constructed as his food.
Ireland’s growing stature as a destination for foodies from around the world represents a complete reversal of our grim culinary reputation of 20 years ago. The increasing number of cookery schools popping up around the country is evidence of this trend, but you don’t have to have a foreign accent to enjoy the art of cooking.
Check out a cookery school in a county or city near you, or those that are just a short hop across the water.
Shanagarry, Co Cork
Still at the top of the heap, Darina Allen’s school is probably the original of the species.
Miltown Malbay, Co Clare
This Victorian family home “serves fresh young food and mature drink’‘.
Carlingford, Co Louth
A unique 18th-century house where you can also partake of a Georgian banquet.
Dunbrody, Arthurstown, New Ross, Co Wexford
For budding enthusiasts and the experienced gourmet.
How about an intensive duck course in the smallest cookery school in the world?
Dunbrody Abbey Mews, Campile, Co Wexford
An opportunity to cook with celebrated chef Martin Dwyer in the converted farm buildings of Dunbrody Abbey.
Letterfrack, Connemara, Co Galway
Learn to cook in this 300-year-old thatched cottage situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Twelve Bens.
Church Road, Great Milton Oxfordshire
Raymond Blanc’s cookery school for people with deep pockets: one day’s tuition is £1,775.
21 St Alban’s Grove London W8 5BP
Caroline Waldegrave runs this internationally renowned cookery school.
Riverside Padstow, Cornwall PL28 8BY
Get fishy for the weekend with the celebrity chef Rick Stein. Ryanair has flights to Newquay.
Ross Golden Bannon
This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, December 2004.