Of all the culinary know-how I've just fast-tracked into one weekend, what most impressed me was a nifty little trick for slicing tomatoes – knowing whether to cut through the "hills" or "valleys". (The answer is the hilly mound.)
I learnt this lesson at the launch of Mary Cadogan's bespoke cookery classes at her school in Charente, south-west France, where I was looking for inspiration for my vegetarian diet. For the past six years Mary, a former food director of BBC Good Food magazine, has based herself in this foodie pocket of France – the home of tangy goats' cheeses, tender Limousin beef, and, she says, "the best mussels and oysters you are ever likely to taste".
Since moving here in 2004, Mary and her husband, Mick, have transformed a riverside property in Montignac – a serious renovation project that united two houses – into their home, Les Noisetiers. As well as being a delightful place to live, it's a set for glossy food shoots, a test kitchen for Mary's own recipes and an occasional and successful pop-up restaurant. And now a cookery school, too.
When students are in residence, Mary and Mick decamp to the older wing, a former 18th-century cottage, effectively giving guests the run of the extremely comfortable main house, a hybrid boutique B&B and posh gîte. You can expect well-dressed beds with goose-down duvets and Egyptian cotton, but this is not a place to stand on ceremony. "We are very informal and relaxed here," says Mary. "Feel free to wander about and make a cup of tea."
I was joined on the course by newly divorced Avril, whose itinerary was inspiration in cooking for one; Christine who was stuck in a culinary rut; Diane, looking for posh BBQ food; and Nicky, who hoped simply to upgrade her technical skills. Friday evening was about introductions and an informal kitchen supper. The hard graft started on Saturday, and by the end of the day my new buddies and I had prepared (and eaten) 12 different dishes. Indeed, it got very busy at times. Flatbreads? Done. Who's watching that dukkah? I'm on it! Are the iced blueberry and lime cheesecakes in the freezer yet? Er...
I run a kids' cook school and know first hand how tough it can be navigating personalities, getting everyone organised, divvying up the fun jobs – and that's just the parents. Mary is an encouraging tutor. One of her skills is to pass on what she calls "the stuff that's less easily learnt from a book". So, in turn, we were able to ask questions, make mistakes, road test gadgets, all the while scoffing Mary's honey and vanilla madeleines. You don't get that by flicking through Nigella's latest tome.
But it's not all work at Les Noisetiers. In the afternoon we sat by the river; one of us attempted to canoe up the river (the sauvignon at lunch probably didn't help), borrowed bikes and generally explored the area. Angoulême, an ancient fortress city entrenched in café culture, is just 20 minutes away and I happily squandered a couple of hours there. If you want to venture further, the haunting village of Oradour-sur-Glane, left as a shrine after its destruction by the Nazis, is 50 miles north.
We also squeezed in a couple of trips to local producers, including a vinaigrerie in Rouillac, where an impassioned Heston Blumenthal-type has discovered how to make the most sublime vinegars from pineau. Watch out for special events, too – around these parts, they'll find any excuse to celebrate food through the year. In the small village of Balzac there's a festival each June dedicated to peas and cherries. They once attempted a tart of cherries stuffed with peas – it didn't really catch on.
After just two days at Les Noisetiers I'd blinged-up my veggie repertoire, acquired some shiny new technical skills and gained access to Mary's back catalogue of recipes. And amid all this industry, I had thoroughly relaxed.
How to get there
A three-night bespoke cookery class with Mary Cadogan (00 33 5 45 37 61 27; marycadogan.com), for up to six guests, starts at £550 per person, including all meals and accommodation. Fiona Faulkner travelled from London to Angoulême via Paris, which costs from £109 return through Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com). The Cadogans can arrange transfers from Angoulême station from €20 each way.Reuse content