You cannot learn to be a good cook without learning how -and how not- to eat and without an abundance of greed and curiosity…
It’s not just about eating the best chefs’ food or cooking with the finest ingredients. You need to eat bad food to know what good food is, and to burn and ruin a lot of your own food and learn from your mistakes. And learn from the chefs who follow food fashion and scatter micro-herbs over everything, even sticky toffee pudding, who paint and glaze, drizzle and dribble, fiddle and faddle with tweezers and puddles on plates rather than make the ingredients taste simply and intensely of themselves.
I was lucky enough to discover French and Italian food at an early age. My mother would drive crazy distances in search of a good restaurant when we were children. We would roam the back streets until we found ourselves in a fish market where they were hosing down and closing and she would demand the best bouillabaisse in town. We ate L’Aioli and Soupe au Pistou in a tiny village restaurant in Murs in the Luberon. We picnicked in cherry orchards on ripe cheeses and rabbit pates bought in a deli in Apt, on rillettes and brandade from Carpentras, melons from Cavaillon.
When my mother wrote The Art of the Tart I was her sous chef helping cook for the photographs for the book.
‘But I’ve never made a tarte au citron before,’ I wailed.
‘Nor will the readers of the book have,’ she replied, ‘if you can’t understand my instructions I’ll re-write them.’
I was twelve at the time!
My passion for bread baking took longer to mature. At home as a child we were always fed dense, branny, organic wholemeal bread. Baguettes on holiday were a treat. So were our nanny Gladys’ ‘scooby snacks’ made with crusty cobs when Mama was away filming. That sense of wickedness: giant sandwiches piled with ham and cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, coleslaw; we could hardly get our mouths round them.
When I was asked to set up a new kitchen in a pub in Somerset I decided it was high time I learned to bake and my mother recommended Paul Merry at Panary. I went on Paul’s wood-fired course first and was instantly hooked. Next came, German, French, Italian and sourdough courses. I moved on to Paul’s professional course, baffled by the hydration maths and ratio of flour to water to yeast yet determined to understand it.
When I had my first baby, Alba, I left her on a Thursday to become the sorcerer’s apprentice, even though, to begin with, Paul only let me grease the bread tins. Finally he allowed me to make croissants, christening me ‘the croisssie girl.’
They were tough, cheesy, and a little yeasty to my taste buds, something wasn’t right, wasn’t French. I snuck in a little more sugar, then a little more, and they turned out buttery, golden, flaky.
Paul upgraded me to ‘oven girl,’ to weigh, fold and knead the dough and by the time I left Panary I was a fully fledged baker.
When we set up the pub restaurant our pizzas were, I like to think, the best between Taunton and Yeovil, in fact if I dare, the best between Taunton and Bath. But the high-octane life of a pub kitchen is not a place for the mother of two small children, so when I had Rory in 2018 I quit the seventy hour weeks and cooked for my family. The daily round of purees, packed lunches, teas and supper. Until a year later I went back to help Paul.
But what did I really want? A bakery? A restaurant? A cafe?
I started doing cookery demonstrations at my husband’s wood-burning stove shop. I baked my way through Dan Lepard’s ‘Short and Sweet.’ Customers stopped by, tasted, asked for lessons. I set up an Artisan Bread Baking Airbnb Experience. Pretty soon I had 5 star reviews and a full order book. I taught Wonderful Walkers Picnics. And then…
You all know what happened in March 2020.
Stuck at home with the children I refined my skills. The kitchen was stacked with flour sacks. I mastered the perfect bagels, baguettes, brown, white and finally
sourdough loaves after seven years of baking. And I started a business with Carol, my former chef at the pub. We called it The Kitchen Garden.
It wasn’t long before we were catering private dining and had opened a cookery school. In the let-up from lockdown we catered holiday lets through Sleeps 12. We eat breathe and bake dough and rise to every challenge. Baking is a labour of love. There are no short-cuts, and dough is as temperamental as two small children. You never know quite what it is going to do next.
We’ve driven loaves across Somerset sometimes for a single figure profit. It is only sustainable with our private dining and cookery school, now booked up until the autumn.
I do not regret the long, hard slog for a minute. I’ve met some amazing people and cooked for people who really appreciate good food. And the joy is, we don’t operate behind closed doors like chefs, we can see people enjoying what we’ve produced and almost taste their pleasure.
Perfect Neapolitan Pizza and Fresh Pasta Class Sandpits, Curry Rivel, Somerset Wednesday 8th and 15th September are limited to 4 spaces. 10am-3pm lunch included £150pp.
Artisan Bread Baking Sandpits, Curry Rivel, Somerset Thursday 9th, Friday 10th and Thursday 16th September at Sandpits in Curry Rivel, Somerset Classes are limited to 4 spaces. 10am-3pm lunch included £150pp.
The Art of the Tart – perfecting pastry Wednesday 22 September 10am to 4pm. Cost £175 pp lunch included Venue to be confirmed.
To book please visit www.thekitchengardensomerset.com
Miranda: 07899 665635