Learning the art of chocolate-making at Exeter's Gourmandine
Seventeen food disciples sat around a large wooden table on a chilly pre-Easter evening. From the very young, to students and young adults, to the more mature; each of us clad in apron and cardboard forage chef's hat in Exeter's French eatery, Gourmandine.
We might have looked like some strange cookery based cult, but no, we were all there in the name of CHOCOLATE - a privileged after-hours chocolate lock-in.
Gourmandine lies on Catherine Street in the heart of Exeter, a croissant's throw from the cathedral. A well established and much loved presence on Exeter's food map, it specialises in serving the finest authentic Breton crêpes and galettes and has more recently extended its menu, adding a range of classic French casseroles - Brit adopted classics such as "Le Boeuf Bourguignon" and "Le Coq au Vin" among them - to its 'cuisine de bistrot'.
It's a fine and unpretentious place to eat during normal opening hours, but now they are keen to let us in on some of the secrets of their simple classic French cuisine.
To its existing breakfast, lunch and sweet treat expertise, comes the welcome addition of a new masterclass initiative run in conjunction with Tiverton-based Le Frog Catering, which is owned and run by Gourmandine's executive chef, Mikael Perret.
For two fascinating and hugely enjoyable hours we placed ourselves in the skilled, classically trained hands of this dry-humoured Brittany-born Frenchman who fell in love with Devon some years ago and stayed here - to Exeter's considerable gain I feel.
This first masterclass was all about chocolate and chocolate making. We began by un-lidding a set of a dozen or so small casseroles (as in the pot, not the food dish) containing a treasury of chocolate buttons and squares.
Mikael asked half the group to taste their confections and identify the real chocolate (i.e. minimum 30% cocoa content) from the imposters - white 'chocolate' we learn, whilst a useful ingredient in decoration and patisserie, ain't the real deal. The other half of the group were asked to rank their chocolates in order of cocoa strength - the bitter 95% variety intended only for cooking (classically as a flavour and thickener in chilli) was correctly spotted.
Of course there was typically refined Belgian chocolate and Swiss too in the form of Lindt, acknowledged as one of the finest of the manufactured brands. Mikael spoke too of his admiration for Devon's artisan chocolate makers, including the TV featured Willie's Cacao in Uffculme. A surprise to me was how highly rated Spanish chocolate is ("as good as, if not better than Belgian" according to Mikael). It makes sense given the historical economic importance of chocolate to the Spanish (via its cultivated origins in Mexico, Central and South America) both as a currency and as a valuable import and export commodity. After all, the word 'chocolate' is adopted from the Spanish.
But we weren't there for a history lesson, although Mikael's knowledge and passion for his subject adds a great deal to the experience. Next we each chose a mould from a selection of shapes and sizes - mine a small traditional Easter egg - and either filled or lined it with the silky, melted chocolate. We were assured we would all go home with something, but were aided by our teacher's instruction in some simple techniques to avoid the potential pitfalls of working with this sensitive ingredient - splits, cracks and blooming (the grainy discolouring caused by the sugar crystallising or fat separation caused by cool or warm temperatures or poor tempering) were all described. This precious substance needed treating with respect.
You could be left in no doubt that working with chocolate is a science, complete with its own slightly daunting terminology ('tempering' is perhaps the key stage and sounds like a process best suited to those who have mastered the art). But, hey, science is fun and we had the luxury of plenty of freedom (and chocolate!) to experiment and make schoolboy and schoolgirl errors. Chocolate's great nemesis is good old H2O which has an effect as ruinous on our cocoa friend as it had on the Wicked Witch of the West.
Some large bowls of ganache (chocolate mixed with cream or in this case a "more stable" non-dairy cream) arrived at the table and Mikael taught us the rudiments of piping from a bag. This was the real messy fun part as the table surface (not to mention my fingers - no standing on ceremony here though - lick!) got a fair coating of the filling intended for the centre of the hollow chocolate balls we'd been given. But Mikael's enthusiasm and expertise seemed to be rubbing off on the amateurs as we did, perhaps surprisingly, avoid descending into Generation Game style cack-handed hilarity. On the contrary, there were some rather impressive and intricate filling and decorating operations going on.
To draw us to a close, Mikael emerged with some of our earlier moulded efforts, now set, the halves of eggs stuck together for us in the kitchen whilst we wrestled with the piping bags. We seemed to have produced mountains of mini eggs, miniature bars and Easter chicks to drop delicately into our take away tie-bags or simply devour on the spot. I was reasonably pleased with my own efforts though I dare say I'm the equivalent of a (slightly chocolate stained) white belt in the confectionery making ranks.
The Gourmandine team's Jeannie Milling hosted the event with real warmth and charm. She and Mikael told me they are keen to use the restaurant space in innovative ways; running further masterclasses and offering customised versions. They are happy to cater to specific dietary requirements and Mikael can bring his skills to your own home or other private dining arrangement. They hope to hold regular events of this kind every four to six weeks. The next one planned is the temptingly titled 'The Great French Bake Off' which promises a very Gallic take on our own nation's renewed cake-making obsession.
Keep an eye on the Gourmandine website for dates and sign up quick. You'll feel rather clever and will be guaranteed something delicious to eat.
The Exeter Daily would like to thank Gourmandine.