There can be only one winner in the MasterChef kitchen, and, as Greg Wallace rather menacingly asserts, that type of cooking doesn’t get much tougher.
But being in the kitchen needn’t always be about panic and fluster, and plates don’t always need to be adorned with molecular this and sous vide that.
There’s no pretension in the kitchen, although it’s hard not to feel a little overwhelmed at the thought of going behind the scenes of the hotel’s glamorous restaurant, Hartnett Holder & Co.
Run by Luke Holder and Angela Hartnett – TV chef and Michelin-starred and chef-patron of Mayfair’s Murano, the dining room is gorgeously grand without the accompanying airs and graces.
Food is simple, natural and informal, with the emphasis on quality, seasonal ingredients, cooked well and served in an unfussy, home-cooked style.
And this same feeling carries on in the cookery school, where stainless steel modernity has been eschewed in favour of warm wood and granite, giving the feel of a dream country house kitchen – albeit one with 10 cooking stations, each with its own sink and all the paraphernalia needed to create fresh, delicious food from scratch.
Courses are run by Iain Longhorn, formally of The Chesil Rectory in Winchester, with Angela and Luke dropping by if they’re in the hotel, and running some sessions themselves.
As we stand in the kitchen in our crisp, white aprons, we watch Iain run through what we’re going to be tackling during the day: lobster, smoked salmon and mango salad, sea bream in a tomato and lobster bisque, vanilla panna cotta with a basil granita, and, in the afternoon, HH&Co’s signature pasta dish, agnolotti.
The hands-on, informal style is perfect for everybody, from the kitchen novice to budding masterchefs.
I’ve been cooking – and watching all the foodie shows on television – for years, but I found myself tackling a whole series of firsts: dispatching, boiling and then shelling a lobster; filleting a sea bream; and making pasta from scratch.
The kitchen was a hive of industry; steam billowed, hands were floured, vanilla pods were halved and scraped; and lobsters were tackled with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Everything we cooked in the morning was eaten for lunch at an ancient refectory table stretching almost the entire length of the kitchen.
We feasted on that perfect salad – sweet with mango and large chunks of ruby lobster and with a hefty kick from fiery red chilli – and then moved on to the sea bream, which we cooked in a casserole dish under a lid of flat bread scattered with thyme and sea salt. Cutting away the top released a perfumed plume of steam, and we ate the perfect flakes of white fish with relish, mopping up the rich, earthy sauce with triangles of the salty, herbed bread. Wines were matched to the dishes by the hotel’s sommelier, and we enjoyed it with the delicious food we had created as friends enjoy a relaxed, informal lunch around the kitchen table at home.
In the afternoon, we learnt how to make ‘rich man’s pasta’, working nine egg yolks into a soft mound of flour. Even the egg yolks we used were sprinkled with that Lime Wood touch of luxury: the chickens that laid them were fed on a diet of marigold leaves.
The panna cotta we got to take home, as it needed time to set to a perfect state of wobbliness before eating. It was very well received, too – creamy and soft, heavily scented with vanilla, and perfect with fresh strawberries and ice-cold basil granita. Greg Wallace would have fallen in love with it; I just loved learning to make it.
Spending time in the HH&Co kitchen makes you forget all the clever stuff, and remember the most important thing about food is that eating and enjoyment go hand-in-hand.
And, as the results of our labours would have impressed even the most critical masterchef, perhaps fun dining IS fine dining, after all.
Lime Wood, Lyndhurst, New Forest, Hampshire