Once upon a time I threw dinner parties for fun. I scoured cookbooks, shopped for exotic ingredients and conjured up creative menus. A friend once called me a brave cook. While not a culinary compliment, his point was that I loved cooking. Over the years my culinary va-va-voom has faded and I now dish up reliable, filling one-pot stews. My strategy is to keep the booze flowing so that nobody really cares what they are eating.
So, I had great expectations of the Seasonal Supper Party Course at the newly opened Season Cookery School, which is set in the grounds of Lainston House, an Exclusive hotel, just two miles from the cathedral city of Winchester. The day was hosted by chef Olly Rouse, who convinced the class that we, too, could produce a three-course seasonal meal without too much effort. He chats as he demonstrates and is clearly a sociable guy with unreliable friends. They arrive late for supper and then tell stories too good to interrupt. But, given that Olly is a top chef, he still produces an amazing supper even if it is served an hour late.
And his top tip? It involves Clingfilm and a fillet of beef. And it is utterly brilliant. I have never cooked beef fillet for anyone, let alone a tableful of hungry friends, but with this tip under my apron, I will. And it will be seared brown on the outside and a perfect pink inside. And it can be left in the oven for three hours and will still be that perfect shade of pink. This tip alone, for me, was worth the trip to Season*. It is a beautiful venue with a fully stocked walled garden – lots of berries in the fruit cage, including redcurrants and honey berries. After lunch Olly showed us the garden and explained how the chefs help harvest the gluts, and what they don’t use as fresh produce is pickled, fermented and preserved using traditional methods.
Pickling is a gem of a tip. It is a speedy way to bring a shot of sweetness to a dish. We pickled mushrooms to go with scallops for the starter, and the beetroot which was part of the main beef dish. Both were a delicious surprise to the taste buds. For the mushrooms: bring white wine vinegar, sugar and water to simmer. Pour this liquid over the mushrooms, then leave to cool until you need them. Then drain and pan fry. For beetroot: boil red wine and white wine vinegar with sugar. Pour over diced, cooked beetroot, transfer to fridge to chill. Drain and use when ready.
And the pudding. Oh, the pudding! It was a deconstructed cheesecake. It was soooo MasterChef. We blasted a banana with a blowtorch, squirted mousse out of an icing bag into swirls, crystallised peanuts until they had a fluffy sugary covering and crumbled the perfect biscuit base into a pile. Olly suggested presenting it as one big serving and giving everyone a spoon. The man is a genius. That is my kind of pudding, mainly because I am greedy and fast with a spoon. And he suggested making extra of the HobNob-esque biscuit base and rolling it up in a log to pop in the freezer ready to make home-made biscuits in about as much time as it takes to make a good cup of coffee. As I say, the man is a genius.
*Top tip: I didn’t want to give it away! But if you insist … once you have seared the meat, you wrap it in Clingfilm and leave it the oven for three hours at 60C.
In a nutshell: The school is newly built with lots of mod-cons and a welcoming lounge where you can relax on sofas with a coffee when you arrive. The kitchen is spacious and modern with six well equipped double-sided workstations, and then a large demonstration area with benches in front of it so you can sit and watch and ask questions. There is also a long dining table where you sit together after cooking to enjoy the fruits of your labour. The teaching is friendly and informative with the focus on skills so that you can create your own dishes at home using the new techniques. A Seasonal Dinner Party, full day with chef Olly Rouse at Season cookery school costs £185.