Get out of the frying pan and into the fish kettle

She used to be a disciple of Captain Birdseye, but a short course at Rick Stein's seafood school has improved Lucy Gillmore's stock

I've never really enjoyed cooking. I love food, but not the preparation – unless I've got a glass of wine in my hand and someone to talk to. Which is where the problems start. When I'm half-cut and in full flow I'm not really paying attention to what's going on around the oven.

I've never really enjoyed cooking. I love food, but not the preparation – unless I've got a glass of wine in my hand and someone to talk to. Which is where the problems start. When I'm half-cut and in full flow I'm not really paying attention to what's going on around the oven.

Take last week, for instance: I was making supper for a few friends and a colleague had given me her "foolproof" recipe for marinated salmon served on a bed of wilted spinach. Next day: "So?" "Mmm, fine," I blagged. Before breaking down and admitting that the spinach wasn't so much wilted as drowned, while the stove-top fire and thick black smoke had added a certain something – choking hysteria – to the evening. So it seemed like fate when a brochure for Rick Stein's Seafood School in Padstow fluttered in my direction. Could a two-day cookery course in Cornwall turn a disciple of Captain Birdseye into the queen of the fish kettle?

My taxi driver from Newquay airport introduced himself as the Mayor of Newquay, and friend, he said, of Rick. Of course. As we crawled along tiny lanes hemmed in by thick hedgerows, he gave me the low down on the Rick Stein versus Padstow's ruling families saga. The old Padstonians' noses have been put out of joint because they think that Rick thinks he's put Padstow on the map. Er, didn't he?

The Rick Stein empire (or Padstein, as some wag rechristened it) now incorporates most of this little Cornish fishing village. He and his wife Jill opened The Seafood Restaurant in 1975. They now own Stein's Seafood Deli, Stein's (an art gallery and gift shop), Rick Stein's Café, St Petroc's Hotel and Bistro and, of course, the Cookery School. There are also rooms above The Seafood Restaurant, while just up the lane is St Edmunds, the newest addition to the Stein stable with six luxurious bedrooms; all modern cherrywood four-posters, polished oak floors and rainfall shower heads. The cookery courses are full for most of the year, and getting a table at The Seafood restaurant at the weekend is virtually impossible. No wonder there's muttering down the local chippie.

The Seafood School has one, two and four-day courses. Light and airy, located on the first floor of a converted warehouse overlooking the estuary, it's won awards for its stylish design.

There were 16 of us on the course, welcomed with fresh coffee and smart folders containing the recipes we'd be attempting. There was a welcome note from Rick inside: "I'm pretty sure you will be in for a very enjoyable time ... because I think cooking is a very satisfying occupation." Mmm. I skimmed further down the page. "Every morning you will prepare and cook a seafood lunch with the Seafood School chef, Paul Sellars, then you will sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labour with a modest amount of wine." That was more like it. Once we were kitted out in white chef's coats and navy pinnies Paul kicked off. The day, he explained, would follow a basic structure. He'd show us how to do it, then we'd have a go. He finished by warning us to pace ourselves as we'd be grazing all day.

First we were going to make mussel, leek and saffron soup. The mussels were thrown into a pan – with a splash of wine. The bottle open, glasses were passed round. It was 10am. I had a feeling this was going to be my kind of course. Then we got to have a go. I paired up with Lucie; loves cooking (ie knows what she's doing, fabulous) and enjoys the odd glass of wine (even better). We chopped, stirred, sprinkled, simmered and finally sampled. Our soup tasted just like Paul's.

Next up was lemon sole with stir-fried spinach and coriander. Fish scales flying, wine glugging, sun pouring in through the windows. I'd never had so much fun in a kitchen.

Our third dish of the day was cod and chips, which we were cooking for our lunch. Paul filleted the first half then asked for a volunteer; a bit of audience participation. Angela, who's used to skinning rabbits, had a go.

During lunch, at a big trestle table overlooking the harbour and scattered with perfectly chilled bottles of white wine (not a modest amount), tongues loosened as we filled our stomachs. Most people there had been given the course as a present. Everyone seemed to agree that although it looks expensive at first, when you break it down it is rather good value. You get two nights' accommodation for yourself and a partner, dinner with wine for the student, one night at The Seafood Restaurant and one at St Petroc's – and you get to graze and drink all day.

After lunch we tried our hands at prawn and monkfish caldine and then watched Paul make Cotriade, a kind of fish stew, before school ended at 4pm. Feeling vaguely sozzled, I went for a brisk stagger down on the beach to try to work up an appetite for supper.

Day two dawned with chronic indigestion cured, surprisingly, by chargrilled John Dory with mango, prawn and chilli salsa. And grilled hake with shellfish in garlic butter. And warm poached skate with the flavours of Morocco.

At the end of the day I was very full. Again. My head was also bursting with fishy facts. I now know how to kill a lobster painlessly; anaesthetise it by putting it in the freezer for an hour then plunge into boiling water. Slime on a fish is good; shows it's fresh. Tricks of the trade? If you burn something, call it "caramelised". If you make a hash of it, call it "rustic". Skate's overassertive, I can now say knowledgeably. It needs lots of other flavours added. Poaching helps, or you can wrap it in tin foil and put it in the dishwasher on a rinse cycle. That one's going to come up at dinner parties.

And do I enjoy cooking now? Yes. As long as I'm surrounded by 16 like-minded people with a glass of wine in my hand.

The two-day residential course at the Seafood School (01841 532700, www.rickstein.com) costs £595.

Pack your pinny for a cook's tour

Le Cordon Bleu (0207 935 3503; www.cordonbleu.net,), 114 Marylebone Lane, London, offers a variety of long and short courses. Create the perfect croissant at a one-day Boulangerie Workshop on 17 May, price £160. There are also eight-week evening courses available, including advanced technique, starting 27 May, price £335, and vegetarian cuisine, from 28 May, price £395.

The Ballymaloe Cookery School (00 353 21 4646785; www.cookingisfun.ie), Shanagarry, East Cork, Ireland, is an off-shoot of the famous Ballymaloe Country House Hotel. It hosts courses on a variety of subjects and techniques, including a half-day tapas class on 28 May, price €95 (£68), and a full day course entitled " A Taste of Thailand" on 30 May, price €185 (£132).

The stately Swinton Park (01765 680 900, www.swintonpark.co.uk) in Masham, North Yorkshire, offers an array of residential and non-residential cookery courses. This year there will be 10 five-day residential courses, the first of which begins on 8 June. These consist of two sessions per day, lasting between three and four hours, covering a wide range of styles and techniques. The course costs £1,275 per person, based on two people sharing a room (there is a single supplement of £200). The price includes accommodation, food and drink and tuition.

The Devon-based Horn of Plenty (01822 832 528; www.TheHornOfPlenty.co.uk) in Gulworthy, Tavistock has organised a programme of courses from October to December. Day courses will take place every Wednesday and Thursday, with additional weekend courses also available. The day courses cost from £50 and weekend courses start at £300, including bed and breakfast in the Horn of Plenty hotel. The course contents range from traditional English gourmet to Oriental, Asian and Italian cuisine. Similar courses are also on offer at The Horn of Plenty's sister restaurant, The Carved Angel in Bournemouth (01803 832465).

This summer, Tante Marie (01483 726 957; www.tantemarie.co.uk), Woodham House, Carlton Road, Woking, Surrey, will be holding two short, non-residential culinary courses. The Beginners Cookery course runs for a choice of one or two weeks, beginning 21 July. One week costs £450 and two weeks £775. A four-week Essential Skills course starts on 7 July and costs £1,700. Accommodation can be arranged with local families in the area from £12 per night.

Clare Spurrell

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