The cook report

We sent six writers from The Independent to six of the world's top cookery schools to see what they could learn. Here, they report back with favourite recipes, and tales of travels, triumphs and meals best described as 'not a disaster'
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Ian Irvine uses his loaf at the Panary, Dorset

Ian Irvine uses his loaf at the Panary, Dorset

We're an untypical lot, Paul Merry tells the six of us on his two-day traditional English breadmaking course at the Panary in Dorset. What he means is that we're all middle-aged men. But in ability we cover a more usual spectrum from complete novice to former cook in the Catering Corps. I'm an intermittent baker looking to improve my technique and, in particular, in search of bread that will please my children - which means a high ratio of yielding crumb to crust. The English baking tradition might help. Our strong white flour, high in gluten, results in bold, high loaves with lots of "oven-spring" (they rise fast when they hit the oven).

Our first dough is a 3kg wholemeal, with 2 per cent salt, 2 per cent yeast and 70 per cent water. I soon appreciate why professional bread recipes operate in percentages: it makes it easy to scale up. We all try kneading in various ragged imitations of Paul's powerful and economical technique, which effortlessly turns the dough from a sticky shapeless mass into a coherent entity.

Next come bridge rolls made with the whitest of white steel-ground flour and enriched with butter. Under Paul's encouraging eye and through his clear remarks we learn about different types of flour, how to shape cobs and bloomers, and to roll up pan loaves tightly. We make rye/wheat mixtures and use the giant mixer to create a dough for cottage and farmhouse loaves. We form the bridge rolls with delight and the plaited loaves with even more.

Our confidence increases and so does our bantering. Paul, an excellent teacher, ran his own artisan bakery in his native Australia for 10 years, before coming to England and deciding to concentrate on passing on his passion, knowledge and skills.

In the late afternoon we make the "sponges" for the next day, slow, minimally yeasted doughs which will prove overnight, developing complex flavours. Next day we use them to make Scottish rolls, farmhouse tins and cottage loaves - some of them in the dramatic wood-burning oven (Paul is an expert in building these things). In the afternoon we tour the water-powered Cann Mills, which host the Panary, and provide all of its stoneground flour.

At the share-out of the spoils I fill the largest cardboard box I can carry home on the train, shoehorning just a few more bridge rolls into the corners. "I made all this," I announce with pride as I display my creations to the children on the kitchen table as they emerge damp from the bath.

The children are massively impressed. My son, nearly three, consumes a third of a plaited loaf in 15 minutes and insists on taking the rest to bed with him; my daughter, six, chooses a Scotch roll and makes me promise to show her how to make them, which I'll be able to do using the excellent course notes. She devours the bread, crust and all.

Bridge rolls

Makes about 25 rolls

Quaintly named to conjure up an image of the afternoon refreshments served to ladies as they gather around card-playing tables, these rich little rolls have real charm. They're soft, white and delicate. Here is a relatively quick method for making them, perfect for the novice baker.

500g strong white bread flour
25g fresh yeast or 15g dried
250-270ml warm water (30°C)
10g salt
1 egg
30g butter or lard
1 beaten egg for glazing

Make a silky dough with the first five ingredients, then knead in the fat. Leave it to prove for 11/2 hours. You can knock back the dough (stretching and knocking the air out) after 45 minutes and leave it for another 30 minutes. Divide the dough into small pieces - about 30g each - flatten them, fold them in half then tightly roll each into short finger shapes. Place them on a baking tray, barely touching each other. Brush with beaten egg and leave them to prove for around 30 minutes. Bake them lightly in an oven pre-heated to the maximum temperature (about 220°c/gas mark 61/2) for just 15 minutes.

Paul Merry runs a range of breadmaking courses at Panary, 6 Empire Road, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 01722 341447, www.panary.co.uk. From £125 for one day to £460 for four, accommodation extra

Christina Patterson blisses out at the Dunbrody Country House Hotel, Ireland

I've always loved eating and hated cooking, so I was nervous about learning to cook seafood and Thai curries from one of Ireland's leading chefs. Arriving at the mini rural paradise, reached from Waterford airport via winding country lanes and a little ferry, I cheered up when I saw my gorgeous suite. A trip to the new Molton Brown spa was followed by a splendid dinner of seared foie gras with a black pudding and white-onion timbale and roast rack of new-season lamb with buttered leeks and a wholegrain mustard jus. Then I had a fabulous night's sleep. After a breakfast that included the best bread I've ever eaten, I was ready for anything. Ready, even, for cooking.

There were 10 of us on the course, sitting in an expectant semi-circle. The head chef, Phelim Byrne, a local boy in full whites, explained that we would start with basics: pesto. Well, I know all about pesto, of course. It comes in a jar. In fact, apparently, you grate some fresh Parmesan, chop pine kernels (or cashew nuts), add garlic and fresh basil leaves and chuck it all in a food processor.

Just as we were sniffing the basil and Parmesan, a tall, spiky-haired, handsome figure in jeans strode in. Kevin Dundon looks like the TV chef that he is. He is also the owner, with his wife Catherine, of the hotel and cookery school, and executive chef of the restaurant.

Next, we tackled balsamic roasted red onions, onion marmalade and oven-dried tomato crisps. When I say "we", I mean Byrne, actually. We sat and watched. It looked so easy, the way his knife flew over onions and herbs yet somehow, miraculously, left his fingers intact. Over coffee, I discovered that I was a lone novice. My fellow students were an eclectic array of professional chefs, enthusiasts and general foodies.

After coffee, we plaited a loaf of bread out of the dough that Phelim had made (surprisingly tricky) and folded a spring roll (extremely fiddly). Then the seafood itself: a bouillabaisse, then seafood chowder, turbot "wrapped in a potato crisp" and finally salmon teriyaki. My apron was, like a proper chef's, covered in stains. From the tasting, of course.

A couple of weeks later, I tried the seafood chowder. What took minutes in Dunbrody took hours. It was, according to one close friend, "not a disaster".

Seafood chowder

Serves 4

1/2 cup butter
1tbsp olive oil
3 or 4 of the following: cod, red mullet, monkfish, salmon, prawns, crab, scallops
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/3 bottle dry white wine
1 cup each cubed potatoes, chopped carrots and diced leeks
1/2 onion, diced
A few sprigs parsley, chopped

Put the oil and butter in a pan. Sweat off the carrots and onions and add the potato. Cook until tender. Turn down the heat, add the wine and some water, and simmer until the vegetables are soft. Chop the fish, add and stir until cooked. Add the cream, herbs and season.

Dunbrody Cookery School, Arthurstown, Ireland, 00 353 51 389 600, www.dunbrodyhouse.com. From €140 for a one- day demonstration. Rooms in the hotel from €120 a night, dinner €55

Matthew Hoffman brings back the flavour of Sicily from Anna Tasca Lanza's school

On the day after my return to London, having attended Anna Tasca Lanza's five-day course on her family's wine estate in Sicily, I got an early opportunity to put my new skills to the test. I had to make a quick dinner for a visiting friend, so I repeated the menu from one of my nights there: pasta with grated pecorino, seasoned whole artichokes roasted in charcoal embers, grilled thin sausages, raw fennel, and cannoli for dessert. Simple, and much appreciated.

The school is in the family-run 1,500- acre Regaleali wine estate in the foothills of the Madonie Mountains. My fellow students (eight American women) and I arrived separately on a Monday, and by 6pm were gathered in the kitchen to watch Anna bake a large cut of swordfish, which she first stuffs with her own mixture of local herbs, mint and garlic. It is served with a purée of wild mushrooms, potatoes boiled with mint, and a whole ricotta baked for eight hours.

This meal is a signature tune of what will follow for the next four days: local ingredients, many from the farm on which we're staying, used in a loving fashion while we watch, take notes and, of course, devour the results. There is some hands-on participation. My favourite activity was making the arancine - deep- fried rice balls, filled, in this case, with lamb ragu. The technique is to cup one hand, line it with freshly made risotto, add the filling and then complete the ball, patting it into shape.

There are trips to the winery and dairy (where we watch the shepherds making ricotta and pecorino from their goats' milk), and an expedition to the town of Polizzi Generosa, to sightsee, buy pottery and lunch with the locals.

One evening we take a 10-minute walk to Anna's sister's hilltop home, through vineyards, past foxes, mockingbirds, doves and an owl. It's followed by a meal of pasta and fagioli soup, a steak tartare and two of the Regaleali winery's Tasca d'Almerita wines. Strawberry blancmange and almond brittle and Pantelleria desert wine concluded the feast. Good food leads to good conversation.

Carciofi alla brace (artichokes on the coals)

A perfect barbecue idea. Trim away the thorns and tips of the leaves from some artichokes. Take one, spread the leaves apart with your thumbs and push a mixture of garlic, salt, pepper and dried oregano down between the leaves. Just before cooking, pour olive oil into the centre. After you have finished grilling the other dishes, and the coals have burned down, set the artichokes directly on to the cinders and give them a quarter turn from time to time so that they cook evenly. They are ready when they are completely charred. To eat, discard the outer leaves and bite off the flesh from the bottom of the remaining leaves.

Anna Tasca Lanza cooking classes at the Regaleali-Tasca d'Almerita Winery, Vallelunga, Sicily, 00 39 091 450727, www.absoluteitalia.com. From €130 for one day with lunch, to €2,250 for a five-day course including meals and accommodation

Brian Viner and his son find fun for all ages at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Oxford

It is a rare kind of charm that appeals equally to adults and children, but Raymond Blanc has it in abundance. I had booked my 10-year-old son Joseph and his friend Holly on to a course at La Petite Ecole de Cuisine, the cookery school for children based at Blanc's celebrated hotel in Oxfordshire, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. We arrived the evening before, and the great man came to meet us, trailing clouds of charisma. He told us that he had always wanted the Manoir to be child-friendly - not by occupying them while their parents have dinner, but encouraging them to have dinner too.

"I 'ad to fight the food writers, the travel writers, my managers, my receptionists ... none of zem wanted ze leetle 'ooligans 'ere," recalled Blanc, with not much evidence of a Cotswolds patois.

Blanc had his way, of course. Ze leetle 'ooligans are made to feel not only welcome but cherished. At dinner that night Holly ordered a starter of egg mayonnaise, and the halved eggs were made to look like mice, with almonds for ears, chives for tails, and tiny blobs of caviar as the noses and eyes. It was exquisitely done. For pudding, she and Joseph both had a "palette" of ice creams, a biscuit replica of a painter's palette, with five ice-creams looking exactly like oil paints and a paintbrush made of spun sugar. The children were agog. They didn't know food could be quite this much fun.

After a night in a sumptuous suite, and a delicious breakfast, it was time for them to get cooking. First they and their eight classmates (10 is the maximum number of pupils, to ensure their safety) were given chef's whites, then led to the Manoir's vast organic garden and given a quick lesson in how to smell and identify herbs. They were then delivered into the steady hands of Stephen Bulmer, the gregarious director of the Ecole de Cuisine, which has its own handsome space in the Manoir's kitchens.

Bulmer, a bluff Yorkshireman with a booming voice, had an admirable way with his 10 pupils, whose ages ranged from eight to 12 (and who were by no means all the product of the affluent middle classes; one couple said they'd saved for a year to put their son on the course). He didn't talk down to them, with the inevitable result that some of what he said sailed over their heads. But much of it stuck, and even now, weeks later, Joseph has not forgotten that it's worth checking near swings and roundabouts for fresh morels, worth £30 per kilo. The spores attach themselves to trees, the trees are turned into bark chips, and the chips are used in children's playgrounds. Hence the morels.

He and Holly learnt how to identify the four principal tastes - sweet, acid, bitter and salty - and how to make fresh tomato sauce and salmon fishcakes. The fishcakes first required a salmon to be gutted, with a particularly exciting squelch when its eyes came out. They lunched on what they had made, and in the afternoon returned to produce their own focaccia, pasta and top-quality chocolate mousse. Bulmer, to teach them to appreciate good chocolate, fed them morsels containing 15 per cent cocoa solids all the way up to 100 per cent. Joseph decided that the 100 per cent chocolate tasted like earth, and he wasn't wrong. But he loved the 85 per cent stuff and continues to favour Green & Black's over Kit-Kats, so the legacy of his day at La Petite Ecole is positive, if expensive.

At 3pm the parents returned (another couple had taken a Manoir-prepared picnic to Blenheim Palace while their two children beavered in the kitchens, which seemed immensely civilised) to watch certificates being dished out, and even better, to collect the fruits of the pupils' labour. At home that night we ate Joseph's pasta, followed by his chocolate mousse. The experience has plainly inspired him to take more of an interest in cooking, although he says he still prefers eating.

Tomato sauce for pasta

Serves 4

4 large, ripe good-quality tomatoes, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
50g tomato purée
1 tsp oregano or choice of herb
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Place the olive oil in a pan, add the tomatoes, garlic, purée and oregano, stir to mix them well, then bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Use when required.

La Petite Ecole de Cuisine at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire, 01844 278881, www.manoir.com. £825 based on two adults and a child (aged seven to 16) sharing a suite. Dinner and breakfast is included. Students take home their chef's whites and a copy of Raymond Blanc's book 'Foolproof French Cookery'. The price for a second child joining is £175

Sholto Byrnes gets leisurely lessons from the school of wok at Jimbaran Bay in Bali

The markets in Denpasar, on the southern coast of Bali, open at 4am. Fortunately, students of the Four Seasons Cooking School are not required to arrive quite that early. When our group is ferried from the hotel compound, it is past 8am, and the markets are a writhing mass of all ages, rapidly negotiated by stallholders with baskets of a bewildering array of vegetables, fruits and spices. There are a dozen types of banana, rice of all sorts and, of course, the obligatory plastic sandals and other gewgaws.

At the fish market, containers of garoupa, mahi-mahi, halibut, yellow-fin tuna and shark are laced with bamboo sticks, and carried on shoulders from the shore through mud paths slimy with water. This is as local as produce gets.

Back at the school, guests are served a light breakfast before learning how to prepare pepes ikan kakap (snapper), acar sayur (pickled veg), kue labu (pumpkin pudding) and satay lilit ayam (Balinese chicken satay). Mr Ariana steps in to demonstrate how a clove of garlic can be chopped in a trice, if a guest has, ahem, been taking rather longer. We sit down to eat the fruits of our labours at around 1.30pm. The staff have tidied up some efforts - securing a banana leaf around snapper is fiddlier than it sounds.

Many of the herbs and spices are grown in the resort, whose gated villas open on to long paths overlooking the bay. Staff are on hand to offer a lift in a buggy, lest the five-minute walk prove too arduous after a three-course lunch. Later, a session in the gym, or a kayak trip around the bay, is to be advised, if one is not to end up like Mr Ariana, who looks as though he thoroughly enjoys what he cooks. But Bali is not the place to worry about such things. If you need a few more lengths in the pool, who cares?

Balinese chicken satay

Serves 6, making 36 pieces of satay

1kg minced chicken
100g shallots, finely chopped
40g garlic, finely chopped
4 red chillies, thinly sliced
20g each of ginger and galangal, finely chopped
10g turmeric
1tsp each black pepper and nutmeg
2 cloves, ground
2tsp ground coriander
1tsp ground white sesame seeds
Salt and pepper
4tbsp sunflower oil
36 lemongrass sticks (or fat skewers)
2 lime leaves, finely shredded
50g grated, unsweetened coconut

Heat the oil in a frying pan on a low heat and sauté the shallots and all the spices, except the lime leaf and coconut, until aromatic and cooked. Take off the heat, cool, and blend to a paste in a pestle and mortar. Mix paste and chicken, add lime leaf and coconut, then season.

Shape a fistful of the mix around the last third of each lemongrass stick, twisting so there is slightly more at the end. Grill for two minutes each side. Serve with peanut or chilli sauce, or a green salad.

Four Seasons Resort, Jimbaran Bay, Denpasar, Bali, www.fourseasons.com, 00800 6488 6488. Cooking School module US$90, plus taxes, or included in a four-night package from US$490 a night for two

Caroline Stacey puts in a Stirling performance at the Nick Nairn Cook School

There were 20 of us, working in pairs, at impressively tooled-up work stations in the spanking new cookery school. We had to trust our partners not to let us down. I think Russell doubted my competence when I asked for an onion chopping lesson before we started.

But it meant I got personal tuition from the boyishly bouncy celebrity chef we'd all come to see in action. Nick Nairn was conducting his monthly series of New Scottish Cookery sessions. He put on a brilliant performance, offering tips the recipe books don't tell you, and anecdotes from Ready Steady Cook. This was a recreational day rather than a masterclass; we were there as much for the star turn and chat over lunch as to cook three impressive courses.

Our toughest assignment: halibut fillet with wilted greens and a mussel and white wine sauce on mashed potato. While our backs were turned an assistant had whisked away the bowl of mussel juice and decanted it into a smaller container. Russell immediately assumed I'd thrown it away.

We joined other students in the modish dining room to eat our fish and fill each other's glasses. "It's the best thing I've ever cooked," said Roger, whose partner had bought him the course as a self-interested present. "And the easiest," said Roma, who had wanted to learn the ropes from a celebrity chef.

After-lunch boisterousness was calmed by our mentor's mesmerising egg-whisking technique. The day, perfectly paced and over all too soon, ended on a high. We demolished our soufflés and left through the shop where the author of New Scottish Cookery was merrily signing copies.

Hot raspberry soufflés

Serves 2

1 level tbsp tinned custard
1 heaped tbsp good quality raspberry jam
1 egg yolk
2 egg whites
Pinch cream of tartar
Soft butter
Caster sugar

Pre-heat over to 200°C/gas mark 6. Butter two 7.5cm ramekins, putting plenty round the rim, then dust them out with a little extra caster sugar. In a bowl, mix the custard, jam and egg yolk well. In a clean bowl whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar into soft peaks. Lightly whisk one quarter of the whites into the custard to loosen it slightly, then carefully fold in the remainder.

Slide a baking sheet on to the middle shelf of the oven. Spoon the mixture into the prepared ramekins and level the tops. Slide the ramekins on to the preheated baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes until the soufflés are well risen, browned and doubled in height but still slightly wobbly. Serve with a dusting of icing sugar.

Nick Nairn Cook School, Port of Menteith, Stirling, 01877 389900, www.nicknairncookschool.com. One day classes from £130. Accommodation extra

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