Better Than Bangers and Mash

The lovely tune of the iPhone “Illuminate” ringtone resonates in my ears as I am pulled away from the comforts of sleep. My first thought is one of annoyance, my body wishing it didn’t have to get out of bed at 7:30, but then reality sets in and I remember it’s another day at the Food of Course Cookery School. My desire to stay in bed quickly fades with the excitement of the coming day taking over, and a wide smile spreads across my face.

I finish tying the laces on my La Sportiva Trail Runners and I head out the door of our shared home onto the adjacent road. The classic rolling green hills, hedge lined farms, and overcast skies make it hard to forget that I’m in the English countryside. As I run, I pass by Pip, the woman who runs the business side of the school while also contributing quite a bit of help in the kitchen, walking the two white Westies that run freely around the house, Spooky and Woody. About a mile later the paved asphalt is replaced by the narrow cobblestone streets of Alhampton, and the town’s few buildings are behind me before I know it.

Returning to the house, I slip off my shoes and enter the kitchen where I will go on to spend 90% of the next 13 hours. The granite countertops and humble appliance collection suggests not a sleek commercial kitchen, but rather a realistic home kitchen. My breakfast is a simple and small meal, but I make sure to practice my skills by poaching some eggs or dicing an onion. About thirty minutes later I’m back, seated at the dining table, which is now occupied by the 6 other students, Ally, Alec, Lexi, Henry, Jack, and Olivia. All of us being American gap year students, we bonded instantly and have become incredibly close already. We joke and laugh until our teacher and host mom Lou comes in to start the day of cooking.

We begin by reviewing the previous nights meal, discussing what could be improved and answering any questions about the process. We then take a look at the schedule for the day and what our focus points will be. Lou demonstrates a technical skill such as making a roux for a béchamel sauce, and then we divide up tasks for lunch and begin cooking. A few hours later we reunite around the table and enjoy our morning’s creations. Our stomachs finish the meal impossibly full, and we attempt to burn off some of the calories by cleaning up the inevitable mess made by our work.

When the kitchen is more or less spotless, we sit back down with our large green cookbooks for a theory and practical lesson. Lou talks through a certain culinary aspect that we will utilize in the afternoon, the process of bread making for example. Following the lesson, we circle around the induction stovetop while Lou demonstrates a different practical skill. In a similar fashion to the morning, we divide and conquer, except this time the goal isn’t actually to complete the evening meal, rather to prep different aspects in order to simplify the final preparation for the two students who are “on duty.”

When on duty, we sit down at 6:00 to make a time plan in order to ensure that everything gets done on time. We then swiftly get on with the actual preparation, which ends up being a lot of multitasking to complete the canapé, starter, main course, and dessert for the meal, in addition to sweeping and mopping the floors. While the focus of course is on the food itself, our evening meals are formal, meaning we practice presentation, table setting, serving, and other bits of etiquette.

A couple of hours of running around later, dinner is served (from the left of course) and we usually spend quite a while around the table conversing on topics ranging from the political structure of the UK to our most hilarious kitchen mishaps. We eventually realize what time it is, and do our best clean up possible.

Our night is capped off by a tradition we started on the first night of the course. We pile into the TV room at the house and watch an episode of The Great British Bake Off. It’s definitely nice to watch others cook after a long day of doing it ourselves, and I appreciate the communal end to the day. Afterward, I head up to my room to reenergize and do it all again.

After the first week of cooking, we broke the classic day schedule by taking the train into London to spend the weekend in the city. We appreciated some delicious meals that weren’t prepared by us, and were glad to not have to clean up afterward. We filled our time by walking down Oxford St, checking out Selfridges, visiting a few thrift shops, relaxing in the sun on the grass in Hyde Park, and of course getting a taste of the town’s pubs and nightlife. It was a ton of fun to be able to have 6 friends to enjoy the city with, as opposed to my usual solo exploration in Australia and New Zealand. This visit being my first to London since our family vacation in the spring of 2007, I was surprised how little I remembered about the city while certain strange memories came flooding back. One thing is certain however, I am still just as in love with the city and country as I was after our trip 11 years ago.

These days in Somerset really have been some of the best of my year so far. Not much can beat the amazingly beautiful surroundings, our cohesive and entertaining group, and a day in the kitchen preparing incredibly delicious meals. It’s amazing how much more comfortable and confident I feel in the kitchen already after only two weeks of class. I know I will still be very far from an expert after the course, but I have no doubt that cooking will continue to be a very important part of my life to come.

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