Behind the scenes at Northcote Manor's new cookery school
PUBLISHED: 14:56 09 June 2014 | UPDATED: 15:18 19 January 2016
Sue Riley road tests Lancashire's luxurious cookery school and comes away with almost everything she kneads to know
Hands up who remembers The Generation Game? Whether you’re of the Bruce Forsyth, Larry Grayson or Jim Davidson era, most will remember the pickle the contestants got into during the practical challenges.
Keep that image in your mind as you consider my day learning to make bread at Northcote Manor’s swish new cookery school. It’s a cookery day with terrific food and customer service – as you’d expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Michael Vanheste led the inaugural Beginner’s Bread course and as head tutor he will take most of the sessions at the new cookery school at Langho, with chef patron Nigel Haworth and executive chef Lisa Allen also running occasional masterclasses. During the day I learnt about flour and its protein content (look for 12-14% if making bread); that fresh yeast can be bought cheaply or sometimes given away free at supermarkets; kneading by hand or in a machine takes exactly the same amount of time and that the first proving of a dough is all about the flavour. But that was just the theory.
The emphasis was on practical techniques, so Michael quickly embarked on a demonstration of how to make a wholemeal Coburg loaf. Then to our workstations to make our own. There were six of us on the course and I shared a corner with Marilyn, a newly retired physiotherapist whose calm, organised style complimented my own haphazard technique.
As the day progressed we made white bread rolls, hot muffins and a tasty Lancashire cheese tear and share bread. Michael and his assistant, pastry chef Jenny Livesey, were always on hand to help and advise. With all the dry ingredients measured out it was impossible to go wrong. Well, almost.
With so many distractions - the state-of-the-art kitchen, (which doubles as a gourmet chef’s table) designed in partnership with Mark Harrison from family-owned Lancashire firm Stuart Frazer Kitchens, looks out on the main kitchen - and as lunch service began you could see the Northcote chefs led by Lisa Allen swing into action. I was so interested in what was going on in the main kitchen I got my water measure incorrect. ‘Trust the recipe, it works. The temptation is to add more water,’ said Michael, before realising my dough was more like tissue paper than the smooth balls everyone else had created. He popped it in the bin and quickly got me set up again; this time he added the water and it worked perfectly.
As he kneaded the dough for me so I was up to the same stage as everyone else I poured myself a glass of sparkling water from one of the taps which provide boiling, cold filtered and sparkling water. At £ 4,500 a tap what else would you expect?
Anyone who loves kitchen appliances and fancy gadgets will be understandably distracted in this kitchen which is part of a major expansion and investment at the Lancashire restaurant. But back to the breadmaking.
‘Work the bowl of dough until it’s clean,’ Michael said. There was just time to have a quick look at the TV screen which showed what the professionals were getting up to in the main kitchen, then to the kneading. Michael made it look easy (when he’s not at work he makes muffins with his children at the weekend; breadmaking is part of his life not just a job).
‘Master the technique and see, don’t knead too hard or you will break the gluten strands. Push, flick, push, flick, push, flick roll,’ Michael said.
When it was my turn I pushed and flicked and pushed and flicked until Michael quietly showed me where I was going wrong. With one-to-one guidance I can now push, flick and roll with the best of them. At various stages during the day proprietors Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft popped in to see what we were up to. Nigel advised that my new kneading style needed ‘more welly’. What, more pushing and flicking?
We used the dough to make rolls and Michael showed us how to plait, make pretzels (more Generation Game fun) and a myriad of other shapes; I quickly did a few twirls and with egg wash and lots of seeds they still looked pretty good. Afterwards we heard Lisa Allen and her team were checking out our bread rolls. Being judged by one of the country’s top chefs is a little intimidating but she smiled as we left so maybe we didn’t do too badly.
You can take from the course exactly what you want, after all it is a fun and luxurious day out. Yet it was also quite intensive as we raced against the clock to finish our breads and make time to eat the two-course lunch in the restaurant; a breakfast of muesli and fruit; afternoon tea and copious amounts of tea and coffee and homemade biscuits. The life of a bread chef is exhausting…
At the end of the day as we sat eating scones with jam and cream (ahem), we discussed what we’d learnt. Martin, a builder who recently attended a course at Le Manoir in Oxfordshire, talked about dried yeast, others emphasised the need to trust a recipe and not add more water or flour and I realised how precise you need to be with bread making. ‘The more precise you are the better you will become working out what goes wrong,’ said Michael.
And he should know having previously headed up Betty’s Cookery School in Yorkshire, a business known for its wonderful bread and cakes. But the biggest thing I learnt was how little I knew about making bread in the first place, which for me is the sign of a really good course. The refreshments aren’t bad either.
*Northcote Cookery School is running a range of courses from Dinner Party Secrets to Strawberries and Cream. Half day courses cost £95 and full days £185.