Time for something a little different. Not because I’ve run out of ideas for recipes – oh hell, no! Loads more where they come from. But because I had a pretty special experience this past weekend and I felt the urge to write about it.
I got a very wonderful gift of my sister and brother-in-law for Christmas, which was an afternoon tea masterclass at John Whaite’s Kitchen in Lancashire. For those of you who don’t know, John Whaite was the winner of The Great British Bake Off all the way back in series 3 – ultimately, the series that kicked off it’s intense and widespread popularity.
John has since released three books, has a regular spot on ITV’s Lorraine, has paired up with Rosemary Shrager in ‘The Chopping Block’ and is about to embark on a promotional tour for his ‘Perfect Plates’ book over stateside, so US readers: take note!
He’s managed to do all of that, and also open up his own kitchen, in a converted family barn ‘up North’, where he teaches a variety of classes once a week. His sister, Jane, is on hand throughout in her multi-titled role (Kitchen something, and that something depends on how well you know her, so I will opt for Kitchen Manager) with cups of tea, coffee and washing up. She’s a star and a key cog in the machine. Paul is also a key helping hand as well while also being the official photographer for the day.
The day started, for me, with a pretty smooth 2 hour drive. I arrived at the kitchen at the same time as many others and I will admit that I was pretty nervous – I had gone alone and I was wondering if I’d be the only one who was there solo. It took mere minutes for the nerves to subside, however, as I sat down to a fantastic black coffee (seriously, was just so damn good!) and some excellent pastries and homemade jams. Erm…Damsen and Guiness, hello!
John introduced the team, and was a master at remembering our names throughout the day. Seriously, I’m so terrible with names I barely remembered my own. He sat down and explained the process of the day, got to know us a little, before getting started with the day.
We were split into pairs and given our own space to work at, and John talked us through, step-by-step each process. Because we were creating quite a few different pieces, and each of them came with their own individual elements, there was a lot to get done but John was superb at explaining each process concisely and in detail without taking up too much time or alternatively, leaving you feeling out of your depth. As a keen, and hopefully competent baker, many of the elements were already familiar to me, and what struck me was how well he explained processes to fit with every capability there. Beginners weren’t left scratching their heads with bewilderment, while more experienced bakers also got the chance to gather new information. With each demonstration, he explained knowledgable technical information. Not just what to do, but why and how it works that way. Baking is technical and scientific and it’s easy to just know something works and disregard the reason. I learnt a lot of why what I do every weekend works the way it does, and that was a really fantastic insight to have.
I don’t want to go too much into each element we created, because there was a lot, but there was a wide-range of skills we got to use and a vast array of techniques we got to play with or learn about: a couple of different pastries, several different meringues, piping skills, presentation tricks and tips and a host of flavour ideas.
One of the main things I took away from the day was not so much the process of how to make a meringue or a choux pastry – this I already knew – it was more the science behind the processes, the flavour ideas. It wasn’t so much about how to make the element, more about how to use it. And that was, for me, invaluable.
It was a long day – with the class starting at 10 and finishing about 3:30 where we sat down and got to eat what John had created (we got to take all ours home, and there was so much!) and have some prosecco – and he 10 of us, and the three hosts worked our socks off. My qualms about going solo seemed silly: everyone really got on and I think that’s down to the group size. It’s small enough that it feels intimate and friendly without feeling sparse or awkward.
What struck me most was how friendly our hosts were. I didn’t expect corporate or unfriendly, but to sit down for 30+ minutes and chat about everything and anything after a long day was a wonderful touch. They all seemed genuinely interested in what people had to talk about.
Classes vary in price, depending on the subject, but I’m already looking at what class to book on to next. Not just to learn from a pro, nor for the sole purpose of baking, but to immerse myself in what I think was a truly special day.
If you didn’t guess, I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re interested, I urge you to visit: http://www.johnwhaiteskitchen.com and book the class of your choice – they get sold out pretty quickly!
If you’re wanting to learn more about John and his work, click here