This week I enjoyed the most inspiring, fun, hands-on day I’ve had in a while. My mother and I travelled over to the magnificent Carlton Towers, near Selby, North Yorkshire for a day of French cookery with Lionel Strub, of The Clarendon Hotel, Hebden. Here, we learnt how to make the most incredible French food that looked amazing and would be easy to replicate back home.
First up, a word about Cooks at Carlton. This cookery school has a very special feel, as it is housed in the former kitchens of the 17th century and absolutely glorious Carlton Towers. The servants quarters were quite literally shut up after the Second World War; the key was turned in the lock and there was no looking back. Carlton Towers was sad, isolated and uninhabited for years, until Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard returned in 1990 and breathed a new lease of life into the building. His dream was to create a top quality, popular cookery school, and that’s just what has happened. When the quarters were ‘rediscovered’, there were still coals in the grate and the massive rooms were stuffed full of treasures and memories. Rather than sweep all of these aside, however, the rooms are sympathetic to their original use and features. The lovely thing is how passionate the Cooks team are about this too. They genuinely love to talk about the building’s past and this new chapter in its history. I loved how the original China was stored in a pantry cupboard, and how the room where we ate lunch – the Duchess’s Dining Room, was furnished with original pieces. I felt like I’d stepped back in time, and felt completely at home.
On to the course. A day’s learning at Cooks is an experience. On arrival, you draw up to the most beautiful building, then take the servants entrance under the grand stone staircase into a long, echoing stone corridor. You can see where the footsteps of hundreds of cooks, maids and footmen have worn away the flagstones over time. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and conducive to exploring. After tea, coffee and chat with the other course students in the Housekeeper’s Sitting Room room, the school’s Development Director Elaine Lemm told us about the history of the building and the school. There followed a wonderful tour of the kitchens. Each room in the kitchen is now being used as close as possible to it original purpose; game and butchery classes are held in the game larder, the cool dairy is used for cheese making and pastry, and the Duchess’s Dining Room is used for lunch. Even better, the outbuildings are being out to fantastic use. A micro-brewery has been installed, and there are plans for a vineyard in the former kitchen garden.
Our course was led by Lionel Strub, who moved over to England from Alsace in 1987. A classically trained chef, he is an energetic, enthusiastic and personable teacher. The kitchen at Cooks has been thoughtfully designed to fit in with all of the original features but thoroughly modern and fit for purpose. It holds up to 12 students, but our class had only seven – a comfortable number which allowed us all to get individual attention. At Cooks, all of the equipment, ingredients and recipes are laid out ready to use, so the focus and time are spent on cooking and learning, rather than weighing and prepping.
We started with beetroot bread. I had no idea how easy it would be to make. Forget the ten minutes of kneading – Lionel was happy with two! After smelling the delicious fresh yeast and crumbling it into s mixture of flours and salt, we grated in fresh beetroot – as much or as little as we wished. I wanted to make pink bread, so I added a lot. After a quick knead, it was left to prove whilst we got on with our chicken ballotine. Lionel whipped up a quick, easy Pommes Dauphinoise, then demonstrated how to make the ballotine stuffing. We fried bacon, garlic, shallot, mushroom and seasoning, then mixed this into sausage meat. The tricky part came next. I don’t usually eat or buy chicken thighs so was nervous when we were presented with some large joints of meat. It looked quite a complex procedure, but Lionel showed us twice and then left us to it. Breaking down the process into smaller sections helped, and I was rather pleased when I managed to get the leg joint out and end up with a reasonably neat looking piece of meat. The stuffing went in next, before the whole thing was wrapped up in cling film and popped into a Water bath of stock. A quick coffee break, and we moved onto shaping the bread. Again, such a quick process! We knocked out all of the air, then shaped into whatever shape we wanted. I went for a plait – channelling my inner Mary Berry I think.
Time to make our starter. Lionel had bought some home-smoked trout, which he showed us how to prepare into a divine tian with horseradish, cream cheese, seasoning, lemon and chives. Then it was time for a bit of restaurant-standard presentation. Thinly-sliced cucumber, moulded trout pâté, lemon, chive and a sliver of avocado all made this the most beautiful starter I’ve ever made. It was so easy to do, and I learnt a few tricks I’ll be using back home.
By this time, chicken, potatoes and bread were all done and it was time to eat! The Duchess’s Dining Room table was laid beautifully and we all gathered around to enjoy our cooking. The bread and terrine were a particular favourite, and the Pommes Dauphiniose was delightful. My chicken was good too but I found the stuffing a little heavy. I think I might use more vegetables and add in some soft cheese next time. I love how it was cooked though; the chicken was so moist and tender.
It was great to sit down with the other course students and continue the friendly, social atmosphere of the day.
Rest over, it was back to the kitchen to make the final dish of the day; Tarte aux Pommes. We made a basic shortcrust pastry, enriched with icing sugar, then lined some individual tins in the traditional French manner, crimping the edges so they stood proud of the tin. We then prepared sharp Bramley apples and a quick custard base – simply eggs, cream and sugar. It was refreshing that Lionel was so easygoing about measurements, just going with what he thought right. The filled tarts went straight into the oven, whilst Elaine took us on a tour of the house.
It really is magnificent. Everything about it is on an impressive scale, yet it manages to retain a homely, welcoming feel. I loved that we had time to soak up the atmosphere and just enjoy being in the hoise. Rather than being a stately home, this has such a lived in feel, with personal bits and bobs dotted about. I just which we had been allowed to go up the ‘wibbly wobbly staircase’.
Sadly it was time to go home, armed with our recipes, beautiful Tartes aux Pommes and leftover pastry. Thank you Lionel, Elaine and all of the staff at Cooks at Carlton for a wonderful day. I can’t wait to try to out the dishes again at home.