Learning seafood secrets with Abinger Cookery School
PUBLISHED: 19:05 27 September 2016 | UPDATED: 19:05 27 September 2016
Pete Gardner Photography
If cooking seafood leaves you feeling a bit like, well, a fish out of water, Abinger Cookery School has the answer. Surrey Life's Pete Gardner joined their one-day Seafood Secrets course to learn the tricks of the trade
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2016
A couple of years ago, our faithful Surrey Life readers may recall I spent a day at the Abinger Cookery School doing battle with Scotch eggs and ‘cow pies’ in an effort to learn how to cook Dude Food – just one of the many courses on offer here in the leafy backwoods of Surrey. Well, the editor has decreed that I need some more training in the culinary arts and so it is that I find myself packed off again – this time to grapple with Seafood Secrets – an area of cooking that has always left me slightly fearful whenever I gaze at the acres of fish staring back at me from the fishmonger’s slab…
Today, there are nine of us on the course, we men being outnumbered two to one by the ladies who seem much more relaxed about the approaching day. Looking around at our surroundings, the old converted Abinger Arms building lends itself perfectly to this venture, complete with a beautifully-fitted kitchen featuring individual work stations built around a central area where the chef demonstrates his skills, plus a dining area to try out your efforts and a large room with armchairs in which to relax afterwards.
Fishing for compliments
Now, it’s not often I get the opportunity to show off my mussels to an admiring crowd (mussels, I said – the seafood variety…) so it is with great excitement that I manage to turn out the first dish of the day with a moderate amount of success. Mussels with Chorizo and Cider appears, at first glance, an odd combination of ingredients – but not so. Careful preparation and the addition of important little elements fuses the whole dish into a fabulous celebration of taste and texture.
Wash, de-beard and scrape clean (sounds like me first thing in the morning) and you have the main ingredient in a beautiful glistening blue pile. A quick tap will also tell you which ones are still alive and kicking (a dead mussel at this point is not good) and then onto the chorizo and other bits and bobs. The whole dish is very rewarding as it takes only minutes to steam the shellfish in the delicious liquor – and then of course it has to be eaten immediately… a finger bowl is an essential requirement here, by the way.
No time for dawdling though, and our chef and tutor, Jake Pinn, has us all straight back at the chopping board to deal with a very slippery customer – the squid. Interestingly, these little beasts have legs, wings and a beak, but here the similarity between them and, say, a chicken ends abruptly. Legs (as Jake insists on calling the tentacles) are definitely on the menu, but the beak and wings are swiftly removed. The messy bit (you wouldn’t believe what’s inside a squid tube) is dealt with and what’s left is coated in flour and chilli flakes, quickly deep-fried and tossed in parsley and garlic. Delicious! A hot tip from the chef – cook them very fast or very slow – in-between and apparently it’s like eating a rubber band.
A different kettle...
Anyway, we have other fish to fry – bream and lemon sole in fact – two quite different types, the sole being a flat fish while the bream is beautiful, plump and silver-scaled. For some reason known only to the lemon sole, it has, rather conveniently, a line running along the backbone that you can follow with the knife – a bit like the cereal packets that tell you to tear along the dotted line to open – but no such guidelines on the bream. It’s a steep learning curve as they say: scales are scraped off underwater to prevent them showering the room; knife skills are needed to gently ease the fillets away; chef’s tweezers are used to prick out the tiny bones left behind; and, finally, the perfect fillets (ha ha) laid to one side for inspection. Two different fish then, and two very different ways of cooking them.
The bream is given a quick dusting of flour, seasoned and popped in a pan of olive oil and butter – skin-side down first to give a lovely crisp result before turning over to finish. The lemon sole, however, is dipped in a tempura batter made from cornflour, plain flour, salt, baking powder and soda water. Mixed to the consistency of wet paint (and oddly the same colour as the Magnolia on the walls of my sitting room…), the coated fish is placed gently in the bubbling deep-fryer. The idea is that the delicate fillets steam inside the batter while producing a superb crunchy texture on the outside. The result is a piece of delicate fish about as far removed from the cod down the local chippy as I am from the MasterChef final… Superb.
Bit on the side
Of course, no cookery course would be worth its salt without a few lessons on side dishes and accompaniments – and Jake is on it before we can rest on our laurels. Home-made mayonnaise (fresh eggs, mustard and oil carefully drizzled in) is added to capers, gherkins and parsley for the tartare sauce. Oh, and talking of the local chippy, we even get to knock up a bowl of mushy peas, or rather Crushed Peas with Mint and Almonds, which just works so well with the deep-fried sole.
Hanging up my apron, I think to myself that it’s been a good day – a mixture of fun and hard work – and I really do now feel inspired to tackle those fish gazing at me in the fishmonger’s. Indeed, a few days later, I buy a couple of sea bream and it is with great satisfaction that I decline the offer from the girl behind the counter to gut them for me. “Oh,” she exclaims, “I wish everyone would do it themselves!” “Ah,” I say quietly. “I’ve been on a course…”
Need to know
The Abinger Cookery School, Guildford Road, Abinger Hammer RH5 6RZ. Tel: 01306 730470. Web: abingercookeryschool.com. Seafood Secrets is a one-day course on fish cookery including selecting, preparing and cooking. Priced at £140. Several other courses are also on offer.