It was a perfect excuse for a bit of mother-and-daughter bonding. I had met Silvana de Soissons, a charismatic Italian foodie chef a few weeks ago at Thyme at Southrop, at the launch of her Foodie Bugle lecture series. Her warmth and energy had made that a special day, and so what could be more appropriate than to combine a bit of professional Italian culinary know how with a visit to the beautiful city of Bath?
The Vegetarian Cookery School was set up in 2001 by Rachel Demuth of Demuths restaurant, of which more in the next post. The light and airy premises is in a stunning location in the centre of Bath, just by the Abbey. The day session was underpinned by the calm and organised Helen, one of the Cookery School resident chefs, allowing guest teacher Silvana free rein to cook the busy agenda, while regaling us with interesting facts about Italian history and culture, and the scientific reasoning of the cooking processes.
We were a mixed bunch: a chef from the Ethicurean, an award winning sustainable restaurant near Bristol, a research chemist into oncological drugs, a website designer from Manchester, and two primary school headteachers from Coventry, and my marketing daughter.
Silvana taught us to discriminate between cane (good) and beet (bad) sugar, the mechanics of salt and how Italian cookery uses everything; nothing goes to waste. To demonstrate this, later in the session some discarded spinach stalks evolved into featherlight fritters and were served up with chilli jelly.
The day flowed in a gentle stream of tuition, participation and tasting. We made some rich, white bread rolls (“the Italians are not a brown bread nation”), fresh herb farfalle (pasta bows), and a potato ricotta and spinach pie encased in a meltingly soft olive oil crust. To balance the carbohydrates, we put together watercress and shallots, topped with split, just-cooked purple sprouting broccoli, toasted chopped almonds, with a sharp lemon and sherry olive oil dressing. It reminded me yet again how important the use of good vinegar is in cooking. This was followed by a pistachio cake, light and airy following the spirit of the day, with no raising agent save well whisked whole egg.
At 3.30, after some potent strawberry negronis, we all sat down to this feast around a large table above the kitchen. In true Italian style, we let our hair down and sorted out the world, with Silvana presiding. This is a special lady who runs an online foodie magazine of an extremely high standard, putting into the shade many publications in print. It has just been nominated for a special category in the Guild of Food Writers awards this year. She deserves every accolade going, for championing small rural businesses, who otherwise never get heard or seen. The true spirit of the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy after all.
As for the Vegetarian Cookery School, I’m not going to apply the overused description of passionate; you can take that as a given. And this is no amateur hippy vegetarian operation. For them, using the best of ingredients for everything is just normal, in a meatless cooking arena. All their courses are professionally run in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. A list of them is on their website, and I am sure any of the courses would be as enjoyable as the one last Saturday.
Vegetarian Cookery School
6 Terrace Walk
Bath BA1 1LN
Tel: 01225 427938