Walking through to the kitchen at the recently launched SEASON, The Exclusive Cookery School is like walking onto the set of BBC’s Masterchef. Here, within the 17th century, oak-beamed, Grade II listed well house sits six double-sided work stations with state-of-the-art ovens, every pan or implement you could need, and a box fresh apron (which much to my delight is yours to keep). Along the back wall, stretch shelves stocked with a symmetrical array of bowls, gadgets, seasoning and condiments, ready for you to run over and fetch when needed.
There’s a motley crew of around 12 of us arriving bright and early one Saturday for a full day Seasonal Dinner Party course: Adam and I, and a mix of other couples and soloists, from London or the surrounding Winchester area, ranging from the wary of sharp knives to ones a bit more confident, wanting to add to their repertoire; including a couple who came to learn the skills that might help them win Couples Come Dine With Me, which they’d applied for. One lady had enjoyed a recent pizza making half day course so much, she was returning to Season to learn more; lining up the bread making session to come back for next.
After a talk through of our stations, chef Olly Rouse talked us through the three-course menu of the day. A seasonal trio kicking off with scallops with a basil and courgette puree, followed by a fillet steak with fancy trimmings, and a deconstructed white chocolate and vanilla cheesecake that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin restaurant. In between clear, thorough demonstration of all the elements, he shared many a useful nugget, about taste, flavour and texture, and how to balance all three to impressive effect. He emphasised the importance of good prep in order to keep one out of the kitchen and socialising with your guests and to alleviate the stress of pulling everything together at the last minute. We learnt what items we could make the day before, and ways of adapting the menu to cater for vegetarians. It was a good balance of detail, without any dumbing down.
I personally came away with a wealth of transferable culinary tips and the confidence to apply them: from how to shuck and prepare a scallop, and slow cooking steak to the perfect medium rare with the aid of cling film and a 60 degree oven; the classic duchesse potato; a speedy pickled mushroom which takes minutes and results in a delicious sweet and sour caramelised accompaniment; a verdant basil and courgette puree, bursting with flavour and easily transformed into a soup with some stock. Then there’s the sugar frosted salty peanuts which felt a bit like a science experiment, and the fun use of a blowtorch to char a sweetcorn for a lovely smoky popcorn taste. We made giant slabs of ‘hob nob’ too, to crumble over the cheesecake; a batch each, big enough to sprinkle over the dessert and fill up a tub and snack on through the subsequent week.
I’ve been on short cookery courses before, but nothing as hands-on or fun as this. They’ve always been based around creating one particular dish, which requires picking up all the various ingredients to replicate back home. Something I always vow to incorporate into my regular repertoire, but only end up making once. At SEASON, some of the elements had been measured out in advance, but everything else was entirely up to us to create in our pairs. Chef was on hand if help was needed, but otherwise, once we’d had the initial show-through of each step, it was back to the station to cook, plate-up, and take through to the long wooden dining table to compare and tuck in, with a glass of wine, before heading back into the kitchen to continue. Time flew and I came away with a buzz of exhilaration at what we’d achieved and the excitement at trying it at home. The next night, I made the mushrooms again, to brilliant effect. There aren’t many of my friends who now don’t know about the steak tip. And the separate elements of the dessert, designed to take away and construct at home, made for a delicious and – may I say – impressive looking dish.
SEASON’s location in the 63-acre woodland grounds of the Georgian five-star Lainston House makes it a perfect way to switch off from the world and indulge in the luxury of learning something new. Across the path, the Hampshire hotel is a comfortable place for out of towners to stay. The 50 individually styled rooms hark back to another time, with modern touches in the shape of heated bathroom floors, spa baths and enormous rainfall showers.
We headed down on the Friday afternoon, getting there just in time for the early autumn sun to go down; to stroll the grounds and marvel at the mile-long avenue of lime trees that lends its name to the hotel’s restaurant where we ate. The Avenue is where Head Chef Olly Rouse carries out his day job, when he’s not sharing his knowledge at the cookery school. With a culinary start at the age of 13 and a CV including time in Michelin star kitchens such as Restaurant Petrus, Coworth Park and The Vineyard at Stowcross, the plates here are as delicious to look at as they are to eat. Not overly fussy, just enough pomp to make an occasion of the visit, and bursting with the ingredients and tastes of the season – many of the fruit, vegetables and herbs sourced onsite from the wall kitchen garden, which is also home to two mesmerising owls.
It’s a proper country escape, nearby Winchester town within easy reach, and the added bonus of coming away with a bundle of new knowledge to make a mess of the kitchen with back home. There are one or two half and full day courses on the SEASON calendar which I’ve got my eye on.
Classes at SEASON are available from £75 for a half day and from £155-£185 per person for a full day for up to 24 people. For more information, visit www.exclusive.co.uk. Twitter: @SeasonCookery
For more information on Lainston House, visit www.lainstonhouse.co.uk.