So after a whole day of stuffing rich food into ourselves and a night of jolly drinking we awoke early on the Sunday, bleary-eyed, to prepare ourselves for yet more butchery! Luckily I’d seen sense to stick to local yummy ciders the night before, but my gaming partner had been at the red wine and agreed she was not 100%. A crisp walk up to the cookery school soon sorted us both out.
Our Sunday session seemed far more calm and collected, maybe we had just settled in with the resonance of the kitchen, I don’t know? We started doing our mise-en-place (prep) for our dinner later in the day, so it was quite similar to a supperclub day in fact. This included heating up cream, laced with lavender, ready for a wobbly pannacotta and chopping up tiny bits of veg for our anticipated consomme.
The rabbits we prepared the day before were handed back out again. They had been marinating overnight in a concoction of five spice, garlic and thyme. They smelled amazing and their fate was a giant pan full of melted duck fat. These were to be cooked, confit style, in a low oven for 5 hours and would be turned into rillets for us to take home.
Next up was our consomme. The previous day we had all helped to make a rich stock from our leftover rabbit carcasses. This was now simmering away and had a rich meaty smell. The stock was portioned off and we had to add various ingredients to it to turn it into a crystal clear beauty. Carrots,celery, leeks and tomato puree all went into the pot – pretty standard. Then, horror of horrors, we had to stir in a tub of egg whites. Suddenly before our eyes our beautiful stock looked like a bucket of sick! We were told to persevere and not fiddle too much with the concoction. Not before long the egg whites magically set and started to move up the pan, carrying with them the tiny pieces of veg and particles of impurity. This then formed a tough crust, protecting the consomme below. We could then delicately break the crust and ladle the consomme out and pass it through a sieve (and muslin) into bowls. These were decorated with yet more minute veg, which studded it like jewels. As this was to be our lunch we wanted it to be a bit more filling so we fried off the rabbit ballotines we had prepared the day before and sliced it enderly into the soup. Aesthetically this dish was outstanding. I’m not the most delicate of cooks and anything that requires too many pots and pans or that is too faffy I get bored with. This, however, produced such a stunningly clear soup, through such a bizarre and fun process, that I’ll definitely be trying it again. The taste, for me, was not salty enough but that was easily rectified. And the meaty slices of rabbit slipped down a treat.
Hangovers alleviated by the wholesome consomme, we got to work on our major challenge for the day. Plucking a whole bird, eek. There had been some balls up with the school’s order and so chef was a bird short. I think he could smell the fear on me and my gaming partner and suggested we share a bird. I felt a bit cross at this, as despite my reservations, we both wanted a proper go. Anyway, it was all ok in the end as suddenly a brace of beautiful red-legged partridges were plonked down on our work stations – not as good eating as the French grey legged partridge I understand.
I admit that at first I did not want to hold the dead bird at all. I had flashbacks of touching my dead hamster’s corpse at age 8 and flinging it away in horror. Anyway, flashback aside, I got on with it. First wings were hacked off, which seemed a shame, but they would have just got in the way otherwise. Next the legs were cut above the knee and then twisted off. We were instructed to pull hard and slowly in order to remove a hard sinew. Once off, the sinew can be pulled to make the claws open and close – it felt like a biology lesson jape! Feathers were plucked across the breast and towards the head. ‘Don’t rip the skin’ – I had Chef Monica’s mantra haunting my head! The plucking was actually really therapeutic and I built up a bit of a bond with my misshapen bird throughout this bit. My partner and I both agreed that we felt a bit rushed here as everyone else had bare birds in seconds. We were the only townies, so the only people who’d never done it before. Next up, the neck was cut and pulled out, followed by the seed sack. Then I cut blindly around the vent pipe to create an opening. I then put my fingers in, at the top of the carcass, loosened the guts, pulled my hand down and then drew out the guts (hence the term ‘drawing’). I managed to get everything out, bar a stubborn lung, which required knife assistance! My bedraggled bird now required a bit of flame thrower action to remove the remaining stubs of feathers – although we were reassured that some of these would burn away in the hot oven.
Hilariously you could spot our birds out of any line up. Everyone elses looked shop ready, whereas ours had a certain rustic charm! They were wrapped in some lovely thick bacon, had garlic and bay shoved up their bottoms and drizzled with oil. They required a mere 20 mins roasting, followed by a five-minute rest. As my bird was the not the most attractive on the block I decided to carve it up to serve. I removed the breasts and legs and seasoned once more. We plated up with various items we had made throughout the day including parsnip puree, balsamic red onions, red wine jus and fancy game crisps, made from beetroot and potato. I tried to give my plate height and also learnt how to do a wanky swish with my parsnip puree! All elements of the dish made for a perfect Sunday roast. The crisps in particular gave a great texture and yet you could taste the natural elements of the vegetables they had been. My partridge was well cooked, but I have to admit that even I was put off enjoying it 100% as I still had visions of plucking feathers and pulling its guts out. One should not eat meat, however, if one is not prepared to do those tasks!
Back in the kitchen the rabbit rillets were finished so we could take them home. The confited rabbit meat was pulled off the bone, shredded and then mixed with parsley, shallots, garlic and seasoning. Some of the duck fat was added in to moisten the mix and then it was piled into pots and topped up with more duck fat to seal it all in – a great way to preserve meat. We ate these as a starter that night and I have to admit that I think chef made us cook the rabbit for a bit too long as the meat seemed quite dry. I’m also not keen on overly fatty things, and the rillets were swimming in it, yuck!
Our final flourish was the lavender pannacotta, which I was a bit dubious about as it contained hardly any sugar and shedloads of lavender. It also looked like it had not set. Fear not, it came out of its mould as a big bouncing breast implant! We served it with macerated and spiced plums and a lady finger biscuit. The lavender flavour, combined with the creaminess, was out of this world and took my breath away. I’ll be making that again.
On reflection I think my partner and I had very different experiences of the game course. I love eating game and I wanted to increase my confidence with cooking and preparing it, which it certainly taught me (there’s some venison in my fridge now!). I did feel like I had a meat overload, but it confirmed to me that I do love decent meat, especially if I know where it has come from and how it has been prepared. My partner also wanted to learn the new skills, but she found that it confirmed to her that she did not like game! On most occasions her plates did not go back clean, which is rare for her. In fact, in a sick twist of fate she left the course announcing that she may become a vegetarian! And this isn’t because she was put off by the butchery, but because she simply didn’t like the taste and texture of the meat.
Anyway I loved my weekend at the Ashburton Cookery School and I’m already planning what to do next (patisserie!!). As a confident cook, I truly believe that most cooking is not about skill but about challenging oneself and building up confidence to try new things. These courses help create that confidence and bring you out of your comfort zone. I will never truly know everything there is to know about cooking and I’m glad that these courses exist to help me keep on learning.