Just add a pinch of expert to a dollop of French countryside

A new bespoke cookery course in the Charente allows students to make the most of this beautiful region and its bounty. Fiona Faulkner reports

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.

Compact Facts

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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick