Learning to cook in Paris

Paris has inspired countless chefs in their quest for gastronomic perfection – Eve Middleton follows suit and puts on her chef’s whites for a cookery course in the capital

Now we’ve sliced off the limbs and discarded the innards, we’re going to rip out the body’s framework,” chef Constance Deledalle instructed enthusiastically, with a certain amount of amusement as she took in our various expressions. With sleeves rolled up and hands covered in what felt like the world’s slimiest and squelchiest squid, I did as instructed and pulled hard on the cuttlebone, sliding my fingers up the gleaming white tube. “See, it worked,” she declared triumphantly, proudly looking on as I brandished what looked like a piece of discarded plastic.

Admittedly, 11am on a Saturday normally sees me taking part in some foodie activity, but it generally involves a relaxed brunch and copious amounts of tea. On this weekend, I had chosen instead to spread my gastronomic wings in Paris at the Cook’n With Class cookery school in Montmartre. Set up by chef Eric Fraudeau following a two-decade career in hospitality (with stints alongside Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, no less), this multinational enterprise offers all manner of courses for those wanting to brush up on their kitchen techniques.

My introduction to cooking our freshly bought squid – albeit not for the squeamish – was, I later discovered, typical of the hands-on approach at Cook’n With Class. At 9am that day I had met the five other participants (three Americans, one Australian and a fellow Brit) in front of the nearby métro stop, where Constance had greeted us to begin our morning market class. As we set off along Montmartre’s charming streets with shopping trolley in tow ready to be filled with seasonal ingredients, she outlined the morning’s activity. “First we will go shopping to buy what we need for lunch and we will meet the owners to find out more about their products. Then we will go back to the school, cook the dishes and sit down altogether for a lovely long lunch à la française.”

Cheese wonderland

Our first stop was the Fromagerie Quatrehomme, which has been in the same family for three generations; the Montmartre store is secondary to their main shop in the 7th arrondissement.

Constance explained that the cheeses were sourced individually from across France before being brought to Paris for the affinage (maturing) process in the shops’ cellars. A step beyond the glass-fronted store was like crossing into cheese wonderland – chilled open cabinets set into the traditional panelled woodwork groaned with a vast assortment of fromages, each set out with delicate care and attention. I spotted Saint-Marcellin and Saint-Félicien gleaming bright, while nearby tomme de brébis and tomme corse beckoned me away from my favourite Burgundy cheese Époisses.

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After opting for a selection from goat’s cheese through to a bleu d’Auvergne, we moved on to the fishmonger’s, where the alarmingly whole squid were added to the shopping trolley, before taking a quick walk to the greengrocer’s. Golden Limousin apples were handed over, swiftly followed by turnips, potatoes, peppers and fresh salad leaves. Happy with our decreasing shopping list, Constance marched us onwards towards the butcher’s, where gleaming ruby-red filets de canard were ticked off for our main course. A visit to the boulangerie later (I had to be forcibly dragged away from the pâtisserie display) and we were heading back to Cook’n With Class HQ ready to begin our cooking marathon.

“First up – we begin with the dessert, then we move on to preparing the vegetables, and then the fish and meat,” explained Constance, before setting us to work assiduously chopping the apples for a dessert of sablé breton topped with caramelised cinnamon apples, home-made vanilla ice cream and a salted caramel sauce. Tempting as it was to clean out the caramel pan fresh off the stove before it hit the washing up sink, the prospect of being revealed as a gourmande in front of the assembled gourmets led me to heartily engage in further chopping, this time for the thinly sliced turnips that would be cooked in orange juice alongside the pan-fried duck.

The hints and tips Constance gave were invaluable – whereas before I had been inadvertently blunting my knives by scraping vegetables off the chopping board, she taught us that using the back of the blade was far more effective. Likewise, after hearing about my problems making caramel at home, she gently pointed out that letting the cream come to room temperature before adding it to the burnt sugar, rather than putting it in fridge-cold, would have avoided my close brush with the A&E department.

After working our way through the preparation for the remaining vegetables, as well as the squid and the duck breasts, we began our meal with pan-fried squid set out on a bed of salad leaves. Working as a team had proved fruitful – our combined efforts and concentration had produced not only a lavish four-course menu, but also a sense of achievement and a shared bond provided by the love of good food and good company. Emerging blinking into the sunlight after our meal mid-afternoon, I felt enriched with delicious food and invaluable experience as I looked forward to my second Cook’n With Class session later that weekend.

Macaron challenge

Taking place in the second of the two fully equipped rooms that make up the cookery school, the macaron class was a revelation; as a self-confessed fan of desserts and with something of a sweet tooth, I had always imagined these little almond-based pâtisseries to be as light and easy to whip up as they were to eat. “Ah, non,” exclaimed chef Briony Laberthonnière, our tutor for the three-hour class, “macarons are a very precise pastry – in fact, I would even go so far as to say they are temperamental. They require preparation, dedication and concentration; treat them with respect and they will reward you, but you can’t be slapdash when it comes to making them.”

Forewarned was forearmed, and as I and my four fellow attendees watched Briony carefully measure out egg whites down to the last gram on the digital scales (egg whites which had been set aside three days previously to age and gain the correct elasticity), we realised the degree of accuracy with which macarons had to be crafted.

Before embarking on making the shells, we whipped up a salted caramel filling, a white chocolate and lemon ganache and a blackberry jam, all dispatched to the fridge to wait for the main event. The shells were crafted from a mixture of egg whites and tant-pour-tant (an exact 50/50 mixture of twice-sifted icing sugar and ground almonds) before being added to an Italian meringue mixture. They then went through a process known as macaronage, where the air that had been beaten into the egg whites was then beaten out to achieve the glossy finish synonymous with the pâtisserie. After food dye was added, we piped out the shells and set them aside to air-dry until a skin had formed on the outside, before placing them in the oven.

“It’s a labour of love,” said Briony when prompted about why macarons were the product of such a long process. “They really are a special little pâtisserie – it was Marie Antoinette who made them popular; with all the colours and fillings, she wanted something that was as beautiful to eat as it was to look at. When they’re in the oven you have to keep an eye on them; you can almost see them growing millimetre by millimetre, it’s like macaron television.”

Satisfied that the macarons had risen sufficiently above the little pied (foot) at their base, we set them aside to cool before piping the filling and sandwiching them together. Placing them in tissue-paper-lined carry boxes, we were instructed to have the willpower to wait before eating them. Macarons benefit from a ‘relaxation’ period of up to 48 hours in order for the filling and the inner shell to merge, allowing for the perfect macaron experience.

With Briony’s words of advice ringing in my ears, I stepped beyond the threshold of my final Cook’n With Class session with a new-found respect for the humble macaron. Armed with my box of France’s most quintessential pâtisserie, as well as an increased awareness and knowledge of my love for French food, I felt that my Saturday mornings would never be the same again.

GETTING THERE

Eve travelled to Paris by train with Eurostar. Return fares from London St Pancras to Paris start from £69. Tel: 0843 218 6186 www.eurostar.com

WHERE TO STAY

Feels Like Home In Paris works with Cook’n With Class to provide accommodation. Eve stayed in a one-bedroom Paris With a View apartment in Rue Gabrielle in Montmartre, which sleeps up to four people (the sofa bed in the lounge sleeps two and the bedroom can be made up as a twin or double room). Prices start from €180 a night and €1,060 a week, minimum stay three nights.

Feels Like Home in Paris

Tel: (Fr) 6 87 86 82 11

www.feelslike homeinparis.com

WHERE TO SHOP

For the morning market class, Eve visited:

Fromagerie Quatrehomme

9 Rue du Poteau

75018 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 46 06 26 03

www.quatrehomme.fr

Boucherie Moderne

10 Rue du Poteau

75018 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 46 06 81 57

Les Délices de l’Atlantique

73 Rue Duhesme

75018 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 42 58 96 27

Au Pain d’Antan

2 Rue Eugène Sue

75018 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 42 64 71 78

www.aupaindantan.com

Recommendations from Briony, the macaron class chef:

Ladurée

75 Avenue des Champs-Élysées

75008 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 40 75 08 75

www.laduree.fr

The largest and best-known Ladurée store with tearoom – there are a further two stand-alone stores in Paris (in Rue Royale off the Place de la Madeleine and in Rue Bonaparte) and one in Versailles, as well as concessions in Printemps department store and Charles de Gaulle airport.

Pierre Hermé

72 Rue Bonaparte

75006 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 43 54 47 77

www.pierreherme.com

One of the master pâtissier’s two flagship stores in Paris (the other is in the more residential 15th arrondissement in Rue Vaugirard); here you will find a full range of macarons and pastries. Pierre Hermé has three other stand-alone stores in the capital, as well as concessions in two branches of Galeries Lafayette department store and one in Publicis Drugstore.

TOURIST INFORMATION

Paris tourist office

25 Rue des Pyramides

75001 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 49 52 42 63

www.parisinfo.com