In France this is a madly fashionable thing to do and classes are booked by ambitious parents a year ahead. It's seen more as a cultural kick-start than a finishing school, catching the revivalist spirit of the times. A year ago the French Culture Minister, Jack Lang, declared Une Semaine de Gout, a week of good eating. The aim was to revive a sense of the national food heritage, and right across the country top chefs supported him, descending on schools rattling their batterie de cuisine.
Home economics this is not. We're not talking about the cookery lessons taught in British schools, making rock cakes, cheese straws or Scotch eggs. This is the real thing, classic French cookery with no concessions. The day I visited, children aged between seven and 11 had produced a three-star restaurant first course: Saumon cru a l'aneth avec mousseline d'avocat. This is a decorative plate of raw salmon with shallots, fresh dill, oil and lemon juice, with a green puree of avocado garnished with skinned segments of grapefruit.
Isn't marinated raw salmon a wee bit ambitious for the under-10s? By their own admission it's a bit yucky and none of them fancies actually eating it. Chef Michel Perraud says no, start them young and they will learn quickly.
The parents think it's OK. Debbie Barton says it's lovely to see her daughter Hannah so proud of what she's done. It also means that she and her husband get some nice treats at the weekend. 'We've been eating very well on Saturdays; she brought back quiche the first weekend. Since then we've had warm duck salad, oeuf florentine, croque-monsieur. Last week she made some lovely cremes caramels.'
Mrs Barton herself attended a diploma course at the school when she left her job as a bond dealer in the City. Her husband is still in the City and they regard entertaining as part of the job. 'Michel Perraud is quite exacting, he makes them do it properly. Cookery isn't being taught properly at schools now. Within 10 years people won't know anything about cooking except putting a chilled dish into the microwave. So maybe someone who knows something about food will be at a premium.'
None of the parents admitted to planning a food career for their children. 'This is purely a recreational activity,' said one mother, considering that at pounds 10 an hour it compares favourably with piano lessons, riding or tennis.
The weekly two-hour classes are held in the school's state-of-the-art demonstration kitchens under the stern eye of skilled French chefs. The young Michel Perraud, for example, was not only Michel Roux's head chef at the three-star Waterside Inn in Bray, but a Meilleur Ouvrier de Grande Bretagne: the highest award given to any professional cook in this country, shared with only a handful of chefs.
He is himself the father of two small children, aged seven and five, so teaching eight children aged between seven and 11 presents no problems for him. For the children, a passing knowledge of Franglais is desirable, and some French would be a help since many cooking terms are in that language.
In this class, happily, one student is well-versed in Franglais. Clemmy (Clemency), 11, is usually first to come up with a translation. 'Put eet in ze ball,' says the chef. 'Put eet in ze bowl,' translates Clemmy. 'Now put it in ze mole,' continues the chef. Clemmy is briefly stumped, but the empty bread tin in front of her provides the clue. 'Put eet in ze mould.'
The children, working in pairs, start with pound-cake, which is what the French call quatre-quart, using equal quantities of each ingredient, eggs, sugar, flour, butter. Our noses tell us when it is ready, the sweet smell of a Paris bakery filling the room. They come out of the oven temptingly risen, the moist yellow inside spilling out of a bronzed crust.
Then they move on to the marinated salmon and avocado mousse. None of the children is squeamish about handling the slippery raw slices of fish. But when they are given plastic picnic boxes to take it home, one of the girls expresses doubts about the fact that it is still raw. 'Can you eat it?' A classmate tells her confidently: 'It's OK. The lemon juice cooks it.'
Parents who are scared to give their children the run of the kitchen would have been startled to see these children confidently using knives, handling hot pans. They wash their hands, and tie on clean aprons, string round the back, then fastened in a bow at the front; a white forage cap keeps hair out of the eyes and the food. They learn to weigh, using digital scales. They tidy up as they go along, using clean J-cloths, and a stainless steel bowl on the table as a waste bin.
The recipes are designed to include all the basic skills, beating batter, whisking eggs, rolling pastry, breaking an egg. Michel leans over an eight-year-old who is about to crush the whole shell between her tiny hands. 'Look, put two thumbs in there, and pull back the shells.'
If you've broken the egg roughly and the edges of the shell are too jagged to pass it back and forth without tearing the yolk, Michel demonstrates the chef's way. He cups the raw egg in one hand, and lets the white drain between his fingers.
Under supervision, the children put butter to melt on the electrically heated hotplates. They paint it on the inside surface of the cake tins. Then they tip in a large tablespoon of flour, carefully shake it around to dust the surface finely, and turn the tin upside down and bang it energetically on the counter, to shake out excess. Michel inspects the tins. 'Don't leave a fingerprint, or the cake won't rise evenly. Look.' In Gallic dismay
he holds up a tin with a child's fingerprint etched in the butter and flour. Clemmy doesn't think that he has made the point strongly enough. 'A major, major crime, pressing it with your finger,' she pronounces.
They beat the eggs with the sugar, by hand, till pale and creamy. Then they beat in the flour, which is very difficult and the children complain. 'It's 'ard, I know, but it 'as to be done.' A machine is allowed for beating the egg whites till stiff.
Later, Michel and assistant Deon Foster show the children how to use a kitchen knife to slice segments carefully from a pink grapefruit (the outside skin has already been peeled for them). Michel stops them from pushing the knife, and demonstrates a gentle sawing action.
The lesson over, Michel praises them. 'You have done very, very well today. Are there any questions?' A girl's hand goes up: 'Where do you get your trousers?' He fingers his chef's blue dog's-toothtrousers: 'Ah, in France.' Off they run, down the stairs, clutching their quatre-quart cakes with boxes of salmon to hand over to parents.
Some parents hope the course will succeed where they have failed. Clemmy's mother is Roz Denny, a broadcaster and cookery-book writer (the Sainsbury's Book of Children's Cookery she wrote with Caroline Waldegrave is published next month). 'Clemmy is not going to listen to me, but she may listen to Cordon Bleu,' says Roz. 'I take the view that husbands can't teach their wives to drive, and mothers can't teach their daughters to cook. But I'd like her to grow up with a sense of food. This generation is getting very little taught to them.'
Denise Diesen, who sent her daughter Gillian, sees it as a cultural opportunity, not a door to the profession. 'Kitchen work is quite gruelling and you have to be really quite exceptional to get on. But I love cooking and Gillian loves being in the kitchen. I see it purely as a recreational activity, and the course is artistic and creative. It's something very adult for Gillian to do, rather sophisticated.'
Mrs Diesen is American and married to a Norwegian, and they travel on business. 'We enjoy good food and wine at home and in restaurants, and we think it's a sensual experience that enhances life. Isn't it like the appreciation of music and art?'
The school had invited me to bring my daughter, Georgia, aged eight, for the morning. She loved every minute, the teachers, her classmates, and 'presenting' the food. And how did her father feel about it? Proud and grateful, mopping up every last drop of the delicious saumon cru. Unfortunately, someone had already seen off the avocado mousse.-
COURSES FOR YOUNG COOKS
LES PETITS CORDON BLEUS Le Cordon Bleu, 114 Marylebone Lane, London W1M 6HH, tel 071-935 3503.
Classes suitable for children aged 7 to 14 cost pounds 210 for 10 two-hour Saturday classes, or pounds 105 for five classes. Next school begins in mid-April.
YOUNG COOKS OF BRITAIN Bridge Courtyard, Donnington, Chichester, West Sussex PO20 7PP, tel 0243 779239.
Basic techniques taught on holidays for 11- to 16-year-olds, including stir-frying, roasting, cake-baking and bread-making. There are two courses every summer, taught by a well-known television cook or food writer - this year Sophie Grigson. Spare time away from the kitchen can be spent on tennis, swimming or riding. Young Cooks of Britain also organise the annual Sainsbury's Future Cooks Awards. Summer holiday courses: 18-22 August/
23-27 August, pounds 265 including accommodation, full board and use of sports facilities, 20 places per course.
LOAVES & FISHES COOKERY SCHOOL 76 High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 1HF, tel 0672 516716.
Angela Rawson and Nikki Rowan-Kedge teach children aged 4-11 how to make dishes such as cheesecake, pizza and Yorkshire Fat Rascals (a kind of tea-cake). Bread is on the curriculum, too. 11- to 15-year-olds can graduate to souffles and roasts. Children's Cookery Club: every other Saturday, pounds 5 per 1 1/2 hour session (10-11.30am or 2-3.30pm), further classes available during school holidays. Student Cookery Courses: various dates, pounds 16.50 per 2 1/4 hour afternoon session, including tea. Prices include all ingredients and completed dishes are taken home.
HOTEL MARTINEZ 73 La Croisette, 06406 Cannes, France, tel c/o Concorde Reservations, 0800 181591.
Ambitious embryo pastrycooks on holiday in the south of France can learn to make simple patisserie at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, which boasts two Michelin stars. Participants are presented with a certificate to prove that they have cooked with chef Christian Willer. The course is for children aged 12 and under. 'It's rare for a Michelin chef to get down on his hands and knees with the kids,' says the hotel's UK public relations office. The 'Little Chefs at the Martinez' course is free for guests' children, Fr120 for others.
BBC GOOD FOOD MAGAZINE 10 Bayham Street, London NW1 0AG.
The magazine is launching a Get Cooking Campaign in June, in conjunction with the National Food Alliance, and funded by the Department of Health. Editor Sarah Jane Evans says it will be run 'like a dating agency' - putting people who would like to run food clubs, cookery courses and after-school activities in touch with potential young cooks.
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