Having lived in Paris for two years, I was bored with cooking the same old staples but, not a naturally gifted cook, I was looking for inspiration. The whole concept of Francoise's courses really appealed. A bit like going into someone else's kitchen and learning from the cook, it is relaxed and informal. Although the lessons were conducted in French, Francoise speaks good English and happily translated for us as we went along.
The other advantage is that there are never more than six to a class (and more often just three or four). Francoise is popular among groups of friends who want to organise a lunch or an evening in advance. The Saturday lunch course, for example, is ideal for a group of friends visiting Paris for the weekend. The lunch will be delicious and the premises are conveniently located near the Bourse, within walking distance of many of the sights.
The menus are flexible and you can suggest particular dishes. On one occasion, Francoise received a fax from a group of friends wanting to do all the Indian cuisine recipes that had been printed in a newspaper's colour supplement, and she happily obliged. Another group, of Americans, booked an evening devoted to the scary topic of souffles.
The mission is to plan a balanced meal with simple dishes, made with quality ingredients, served hot, on time and presented in an appetising way. To achieve this, though, a few basics must first be tackled. A generation ago, in France as in Britain, families passed on basic kitchen skills but sadly, modern life means that there is a substantial number of men and women who have had no such opportunities.
In this era of the supermarket, we have forgotten to ask for advice from the butcher or fishmonger down the street and Francoise stressed how important it is to have "a good relationship with the butcher". Unsurprisingly, she organises trips to the local markets and has lists of favourite specialist shops.
A typical lesson lasts three hours and all students are introduced to each other. Your apron and dishcloth are waiting for you, along with a printed menu of recipes. Each dish and its ingredients are discussed in detail and then the three-course meal is prepared. Students weigh and measure, use the correct knife for cutting and peeling, whisk the egg white and cook the entire meal. While students are expected to do their share of tidying up and clearing away, there is no heavy-duty cleaning or washing-up. Francoise moved the business out of her home as it grew, so the new, purpose-built kitchen is bright and airy and she has an enviable set of pots, pans and utensils, and a larder of herbs and spices to die for.
Although I knew how to chop an onion, I learnt how to present things better - to top-and-tail and peel potatoes, turnips and carrots in a more uniform way so that they do look delicate and, as my daughter says, "prettier". I also picked up some tips on which wine to serve with which foods and I have some great new recipes that I am happy to try at home.
Francoise maintains you need to try a recipe about three times before you are familiar enough with it to be happy. Although nervous, I have invited four Parisians for dinner in two weeks' time. I wouldn't have dreamt of entertaining them before doing this course. I phoned Francoise this morning to ask her what she would suggest I serve with her unbeatable boeuf bourguignon. She suggested fennel with an orange vinaigrette and then to finish the meal off with a creme brulee that has a hint of pistachio - all of which can be prepared the day before. Perfect.
The courses take place at 7, rue Paul Lelong, 75002 Paris (00 33 140 26 14 00) and cost Fr450 (about pounds 45) per person, but Francoise is offering `Independent' readers a special reduced price until mid-July of Fr400 (pounds 40), including lunch or dinner with wine.
Other suitable courses include La Toque d'Or, which is run by an Englishwoman, Sue Young, at 55 rue du Varennes, 75007 Paris (00 33 145 44 86 51) where prices are similar to those of Francoise Meunier and the classes are in English. Marie Blanche de Broglie runs a pricier version from her home at 18 avenue de la Motte Picquet, 75007 Paris (00 33 145 51 36 34). Each course costs Fr700 (pounds 70), but this does include a lesson on how to set the table
Six of the best culinary courses
ITALIAN COOKERY Weeks run between May and October at three locations in Italy. How much cooking you do is your choice, and outings are included. The cost of pounds 1,190 also includes insurance, flights, transfers, seven nights' full-board accommodation and tuition. There are also one-day courses at the Cirio Italian Kitchen in London, for pounds 55. Call 0181-208 0112, or visit www.italian-cookery-weeks.co.uk
COFFEE ADDICTS will love the half-day course at the Costa Real Coffee College in London. For pounds 50 you learn about the origins and production of coffee (with tastings) before moving on to making up your own blends and learning how to make the perfect cappuccino. Then there's a tour of the roastery and lunch, and you get a goody bag to take home. Call 0171- 840 2085.
TASTING PLACES has added Thailand to its range of cookery courses and now offers week-long courses in May and September at the Laem Set Inn, Koh Samui. Prices start at pounds 1,200 including tuition, full-board accommodation and airport transfers but not flights. Call 0171-460 0077 or visit www.tastingplaces.com
COOKING WITH Class Ltd is run by Victoria O'Neill at Pyon House in Herefordshire. Her day-long courses include Australian cuisine, cookery for kids (or for men) and Classic French cooking. Prices start at pounds 25 for a kids' class, and there will be b&b accommodation from April. Call 01432 830122.
OWNED AND run by chefs, the Drambuie Scottish Chefs centre opened in March last year in a hotel in Glasgow. Courses run between March and November, from two-hour demonstrations to week-long residential courses. Weekend courses cost pounds 199. Fully booked until summer but, to book for later, call 0141-427 1106.
CLARIDGE'S BAR offers three-hour cocktail master-classes, and there are still places in May, June, July and September. The price of pounds 50 includes a cocktail shaker, recipe booklet and certificate. Call 0171- 409 6307.Reuse content