Fish Preparation & Cookery Class
If you spend any time on the internet or share my passion for local food, the chances are you’ve heard of the Exeter Cookery School by now. It’s founders, Jim and Lucy Fisher, have been making waves across social media for the past few months and their impressive Quayside building has enticed many a passerby to enquire about the impressive range of culinary courses they have on offer.
I for one was ecstatic to hear that a cookery school would be opening its doors right on my doorstep. While I like to consider myself something of a food connoisseur – in that I eat out far more than my waistband would prefer – I’m not the world’s best chef and I could certainly benefit from sharpening my kitchen skills. That’s why I decided to enroll on a day course in Fish Preparation & Cookery during the school’s opening week. Not only would I be able to find out exactly what Jim and Lucy are made of, but I might just come away with some new found skills as well…
I ought to premise this review by mentioning that I’ve been on a fish preparation course before. Back when I lived and worked in London I attended a class held by Tom Aiken at his restaurant in St Katharine Docks. Tom cast his critical eye over my filleting and skinning technique before declaring in no uncertain terms that my fillets were suitable only for a fish pie and needless to say I didn’t hold out much hope for my future as a seafood chef. That’s why I was rather skeptical about the possibility that Jim and Lucy of Exeter Cookery School would be able to turn this kitchen novice into domestic goddess in just one day. But then again, that was before I met them…
There’s really no excuse to get lost on your way to the cookery school. For starters, the name of the school has been painted in big bold letters along the side of the building, and it’s freshly painted exterior, wide glass doors and modern signage set it apart from its quayside neighbours. I arrived on Tuesday morning at 9.15 and was greeted by Lucy and Jim before taking a seat for a coffee and chat with my fellow classmates. Immediately I knew that this was going to be a good day. Not only does the building’s large, contemporary interior make you feel like a Masterchef contestant, but your hosts are friendly and welcoming from the outset and you can tell that cooking pretentions are left at the door.
Getting down to Business
Our first task of the day was arguably the messiest: the scaling, filleting, skinning and boning of sea bass and dover sole. To the uninitiated this might all sound very impressive but what it really boils down to is being presented with a dead Sea Bass armed only with a filleting knife and a false sense of security. Staring into the cold dead eyes of a recently deceased fish, knowing that you’re only moments away from being wrist deep in its guts isn’t exactly how I’d planned to spend my morning. Then again, the promise of lunch (Pan-Fried Seabass with Sautéed Ratte Potatoes, Wilted Spinach and Poached Fennel with a Pernod Butter Sauce) was enough incentive to give it a go.
From here on out I’ll spare you the gory details, but it suffices to say that with Jim’s masterful knowledge fish anatomy and the schools razor sharp filleting knives, I quickly got over my initial nerves and was prepping my fish in no time.
Over the course of the morning I was confident that I had picked up the necessary skills to give me the confidence to try fileting my own fish at home. Jim taught us that the best way to check if a fish is fresh is by having a quick look at its gills. As a rule, if they’re beige, give the fish a miss. He also demonstrated the best way to hold your knife and where to place the cuts, how to tell if your fish needs scaling and how to expertly remove the skin from a dover sole (I wasn’t very good at this part and needed a helping hand).
The aim of this whole exercise was to cook our own lunch, smug in the knowledge that we had prepared the fish from scratch and had mastered a somewhat dying art. All of the bones and fish heads left over from prep were tossed into a large stock pot, along with a selection of vegetables including carrots, celery and fennel. I also made a note that the gills were removed, to avoid bitterness. If there’s one thing I learnt on Tuesday, it’s that the resulting fish sauce is out of this world, so it’s vital not to sabotage your chances along the way.
Lunch is Served
Jim was on hand to guide us every step of the way in creating our lunch of Pan-fried Sea Bass. From the cooking of the fennel and potatoes, to the best way to crisp up our fish skin and how to put the final touches into our ‘prepared’ fish stock to make it into a mind blowing butter sauce. Unfortunately, I couldn’t begin to summarize it and do it justice. Instead, I would recommend you take the course and try it for yourselves.
At around 1pm we all sat down to sample what we’d prepared and even if I say so myself, it was delicious. As we busied away at our workstations, Lucy had prepared the dinner table under the school’s lovely little chandelier, and as we all sat around the table chatting away as we enjoyed the mornings labour. Dessert was served in the form of a freshly made fruit salad and some unusual but tasty basil ice-cream. Overall, the morning was an undoubted success and we were all excited to find out what the afternoon would bring…
Friend Fish, Asian Flavours & Bubbly
On the menu for the second half of the day was Mackerel with Ginger and Bak Choy with Soy and Sesame Dressing as well as some Dover Sole goujons and homemade aioli. With a helping hand from Jim both of these dishes were remarkably simple, including creating an aioli from scratch and perfecting the right balance of Asian flavours for our dressing. We steamed the mackerel in our pans, stirred the aioli for what seemed like hours in order to achieve the perfect consistency, and learned how to make a lighter and healthier batter for our goujons.
It was also during this part of the day that Jim really came into his own; demonstrating an extensive knowledge of the science behind mayonnaise and showing off his ability to construct a light and flavoursome dressing without any need for measurements or quantities. We learned to taste the flavours involved in our dishes and trust our instincts, rather than keeping our noses buried in cookbooks. I won’t be attempting to repeat everything he taught us here (and it’s definitely not because most of it went over my head) because I think that it’s preferable to hear it first-hand if and when you decided to take the course yourself.
Each dish was devoured at the end of the day along with a glass of bubbly and we were all given the opportunity to take notes, ask questions and generally revel in our new found culinary prowess. Overall, I would rate my day very highly indeed. Despite being on my feet all day and having to conquer my mild fear of blood, I genuinely feel like a far more competent cook having taken this class. Lucy and Jim are the loveliest people and their patience and clear enthusiasm for their craft makes them ideal teachers. Would I recommend Exeter Cookery School to others? Absolutely. I already have!
If you’d like to take part in a one day fish preparation and cookery course it will set you back £155 P/P and you can book online or give Lucy a call on 07415 783759.
You’ll come away having learned a variety of skills, from filleting to making aioli and presenting your food in a fashion akin to restaurant fare.