London Calling…. and Thailand….. and Greece….

So how did you spend the hottest weekend of the year so far? I spent mine in two different London cookery schools learning to cook Thai and Greek. This was my ‘big’ birthday present. Two classes, flights, hotel and all the trimmings.

Finding an available weekend to book a trip away is pretty tricky in this house. Between hubby’s shifts, his charity events, his degree course demands and my own work schedule, the field gets narrowed quite a bit, so my class choice was somewhat dictated by a small number of potential dates. That said, I was more than happy with Greek Street Food, which was a full day course offered by Waitrose and a cuisine that isn’t on the menu at local cookery schools here in Belfast. That booked, I had a look at Jamie Oliver’s newly opened school, which had popped up on my emails, FB and Twitter while I was in organising mode. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but the only class I could fit in alongside the Waitrose class was A Thai Feast on the Friday evening. I cook Thai quite a bit, but usually a prawn or chicken Thai curry or some such variation. This class was doing Prawn Tom Yum Soup (not difficult, but I hadn’t made it before all the same) and a crispy Thai beef stir fry dish along with coconut rice pudding with caramelised roasted pineapple. All sounded good and at only £45 for the class, it seemed daft not to include it.

When I booked the classes back in April. it was long before the London Bridge attacks and well ahead of the Grenfell Tower fire. Both these terrible events in the weeks and days shortly before my trip played heavily on my mind in the run up and while I was there as you might imagine. Indeed, the Jamie Oliver class, at the Westfield Shopping Centre at Shepherd’s Bush put me in plain sight of the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower, but even seeing it without the filter of a TV screen didn’t make the tragedy or the scale of it any easier to comprehend.

I was travelling alone. My two cooking buddies who have attended previous classes with me in Belfast had fairly robust reasons for not being able to make the trip when asked. One is still getting to grips with motherhood, only 7 months in, and weekends away are a rare luxury as I still (vaguely) remember. The other, at an altogether different stage in life, and one closer to my own, has her head in text books greedily gobbling up a Masters to keep her lifelong learning goals in play. So, I was flying solo and quite enjoying the space and free time to just suit myself.

Once settled at my hotel – Premier Inn at Old Street – having patiently waited for the hordes of Guns ‘n’ Roses fans to get checked in (the glass of Sauvignon Blanc helped immeasurably), I decided to head straight over to Westfield, as there were protests and demonstrations planned in central London and I didn’t want to be late for Jamie!

Once there, about an hour early, I decided to call in to the Wahaca restaurant that was only a couple of hundred metres away from my destination, Not because I was hungry, but we don’t have Wahaca here in NI, and given that many of my recipes for next week’s Mexican Pop-up Restaurant are taken from Thomasina Miers’ books and inspired by her, I felt I really needed to sample the food of my muse. I chose an outdoor spot to make the most of the beautiful weather and chose just two small nibbles/starter dishes – frijoles with tortilla chips and chorizo and a crab, cucumber and avocado taco. You can see both in the pic above, along with the green juice (apple, cucumber and ginger I think) and my kindle, on which I was reading The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. A fantastic and award-winning novel by a very talented Cork woman, which is full, page after page, of ‘unsavoury’ language shall we say. If you’ve read it, you’ll appreciate why I had to scramble the text a little in my picture editor. Use of the zoom function on any device would have let me down a bucketful!

Anyway, the Wahaca nibbles were delicious, but my timing was awful. I wasn’t even remotely hungry for my Thai Feast by 7:30 pm or so when we started to dine on our efforts, yet, trooper that I am, I managed to make a respectable stab at each course along with my ‘partner’ Becca. One thing about both these cookery schools is that all the cooking is done in pairs, so, if like me you’ve booked a single place, it can be a little like not getting picked for the school netball team all over again as you try to spot who else looks as uncomfortable and unencumbered as you do and instigate a pairing.

I was lucky to find two lovely partners at each of my classes – one about 20 years younger (Becca) and one probably about 20 years older (Lynn at the Waitrose class who was there with her daughter and son in law).

The class at Jamie’s is tucked away at the end of his Italian restaurant at the far end of the Southern Terrace at Westfield. It’s small and quite rustic and so has a degree of charm that you’d expect to find in a place with Jamie’s stamp on it. Our chef, Dino was great – very pleasant and laid back, but kept things running to time without seeming to bother much at all.

Becca and our Thai Feast at Jamie’s Cookery School

The food was really good and both the prawn tom yum soup and the beef stir fry are things I will definitely make when I get home. While the rice pudding was tasty, it was too heavy for me and I’d have preferred a looser consistency than we got. The caramelised pineapple was beautiful though. I presume had the class been more than 2 hrs, we’d have been able to have a go at making the dessert ourselves, but as it was, Dino made that for us and served it up at the end.

The next day, I had a full 5 hr class booked over at the Waitrose school at King’s Cross. Even at 9:30 am it was roasting hot, giving a hint of what was to come later that day and on Sunday. I was glad to be indoors out of the sun, as the faintest smidging of anything above 25 degrees and I burn terribly.

The area around the Waitrose site at King’s Cross has been beautifully regenerated and it was joyous to see toddlers out running through the ground fountains in their swimsuits while their families relaxed, Americanos in hand in the upmarket Granary Wharf area.

Another full class, with around 20 participants and two tutors awaited me at Waitrose. Russell and Leyli were lovely and the kitchen was very large, airy and extremely well kitted-out. Drinks were on tap all day, from wines and beers to coffees, juices and waters – whatever we wanted really. We made a lot in this class and I will undoubtedly return with recipes for some of the dishes. Indeed, I made three of them the very next night when I got home for my two teenage sons. They protested a little as they didn’t understand what I was describing and both wanted me to fire up the barbie and get some burgers on, but I didn’t cave in and they were both very appreciative and complimentary afterwards.

Lovely Leyli and the Waitrose Cookery School made my day and gave me a good selection of recipes to take away and add to my repertoire

We started with calamari served with a tahini dip. This was a simple recipe and something I’ve made before. I’m not sure I would serve the calamari with the tahini dip again. I prefer a more acidic sauce myself. Early on we prepared our pork shoulder for souvlaki, marinading it for a few hours in an oregano, garlic and lemon oil mixture, while we got on and made spanokorizo (a gently spiced rice and spinach dish with pomegranate and pine nuts), a fava dip (pretty much like a dahl) and coated a cheese called saganaki (very like halloumi) in a flour mix before frying it and serving it on top. this was delicious and just brimming with a wide range of different flavours and it was this (minus the cheese) that I made for my boys, along with some really simple and oh so tasty flatbreads.

The souvlaki was served up with a greek salad and some thick and creamy tzatziki in the quickest, easiest and tastiest flatbread I have ever had. I know the flatbread will become a regular in this house, given that it involves nothing more than SR flour, salt, water and a spoonful of natural yoghurt and a minimum of effort!

Yet again, I was filled to brimming after the Waitrose class and needed no dinner that evening when I got back to Northern Ireland. The recipes were emailed to me within a few hours of the class ending and already I’m thinking, if this Mexican night goes well, maybe the next pop-up night could be Greek-themed. Shirley Valentine eat your heart out!

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