“You can always tell the difference between a farmed bass and a wild one,” volunteers James Lane-Fox. “The wild ones speak Cornish.”
The quip describes the group. Entirely men, we’ve amassed centuries of experience in harvesting wild game from stream, field and foreshore. Add to that countless lunches and dinners at clubs, pubs and restaurants and there’s little we don’t know about gulls’ eggs, rib of beef or treacle sponge. It’s the bit in between ? collecting the ingredients and the steaming plates ? that’s unexplored territory.
Of course that wouldn’t have been a problem once. Most of us were relegated to the role defined by the black-tied Johnny Cradock, popping corks and mixing mean martinis while our wives did the skillet work. But fewer women now guard their kitchens like Fanny, so we’ve been given a pink ticket to attend Katie Dashwood’s cookery evening, a four-hour crash course in simple cooking with sensational results.
That, at least, is the plan, if Katie can persuade the men to abandon their Cradocky role of opening bottles. The course matches food with wines from Savage Selection, a small, independent vintners run by Mark Savage, a former master of the Dummer Beagles. Katie’s attempt to demonstrate the intricacies of roasted asparagus with hollandaise sauce is being sunk under collective slurping and tasting notes.
“Lesbians! Bosoms!” yells Richenda Deutsch, Katie’s self-styled “scullery maid” and a keen follower of the Beaufort. “Right,” she says, “now that’s got your attention, how do you get a plump girl into bed? Answer ? a piece of cake.”
That’s not a tactic that would work with Dashwood. A professional cook and cookery writer, she’s no fat lady ? she’s a size 6 but 5ft 9in. “And that’s not because I don’t love food ? I adore it,” she laughs. “But my horse likes me slim”. A regular follower with the Heythrop and Irish packs, hunting defines her cookery ethos. “For me, cooking is about spending the maximum time drinking with friends and the minimum slaving in the kitchen ? unless I’ve got an especially handsome assistant. It’s all about the four Ss: savvy sourcing of ingredients; supporting local suppliers; seasonality; and simplicity.”
Dashwood’s class this evening is a typical Gloucestershire mix ? land agents, farmers and a stockbroker or two. Half are cooks keen to learn more; the others have been gently dragooned into coming but seem enthusiastic, though one unreconstructed soul admits he intends to pass the crib sheaf straight on to his wife. “A few years ago you couldn’t have held a successful course just for men,” says Dashwood, “but now men don’t seem at all shy about wielding a saucepan ? in fact, they think it’s quite sexy. Some of them have worked out that you’re far more likely to have your evil way if the girl is eating dinner right next to your bedroom rather than in a restaurant.”
In such a situation, speed is of the essence and Dashwood’s recipes take about 30 minutes maximum. “I’m especially proud of my cheat’s cheese soufflé. It uses my cheese sauce made from crème fraîche and cheddar, with the addition of whipped egg whites. It always works and takes just 12 minutes. If that doesn’t impress your girlfriend you’re going out with the wrong girl.”
Her course is based around dinner-party dishes: a blooded gazpacho, roast asparagus with hollandaise sauce, baked bass, fast fish pie, sirloin of beef with anchovy sauce and a spectacular ice-cream bombe, which is essentially Eton Mess frozen in a pudding bowl lined with cling film. She provides recipes for each and ends the fun with a full-blown lunch or dinner for the pupils and their partners.
“I never have a problem filling places,” says Dashwood. “My difficulty is getting them out of the house at the end of the afternoon or evening. But when they do leave, eventually, the novices will know enough to cook something delicious, even if it’s just on their wedding anniversary, while proficient cooks will have learnt a couple of new tricks.”
Enrol to become a domestic god.
Dishes with Dashers, £75. Tel 01451 850930 or 07768 906223 or email Katie Dashwood.
For further cookery courses and schools visit Mike Robinson cookery school.