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Tried & Tested Food Cookery Course: Tapas (& Wine) at 52

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Published 1 April 2010

If you’re looking for a cookery school or course in London, you’re certainly not short of choice – but where to start. Food at 52 looks like a good option with a new course launched in association with Campo Viejo Spanish wine combining tapas cookery with wine matching. We booked a place and checked it out…

Tucked away on a residential Clerkenwell street, Food at 52 isn’t one of those cookery schools which has gone to a great effort to seem homely – it doesn’t need to. Stepping into Food at 52 you are quite literally stepping into chef-tutor John Benbow’s home. John formerly ran a set building company and his house is his latest project, decked out with intricate carvings and woodwork as intriguing as the food and cooking on offer.

The course I was going on was a unique wine and food pairing arranged in association with Campo Viejo Spanish wine. Throughout the afternoon, eight wines from the largest Spanish wine producer would be paired with tapas dishes, specially selected to compliment each wine and then cooked by us – the students.

From the start, the course was completely hands-on. A brief introduction from John and a welcome espresso and then we were soon slicing onions and using potentially deadly mandolins – one of the most fearsome pieces of kitchen equipment – to produce some suitably thin potato slices for our first dish – tortilla. I imagine it was a deliberate decision to give us this job before any wine…

Fingers fully intact, we went on to put together the rest of the tortilla and learn the important skill of multi-tasking by preparing another three tapas dishes in varying, time-specific stages. Keeping track of all the timings was quite an accomplishment given the number of processes involved – but it was John who took the lead, ensuring we couldn’t stray too far from the plan. The course was all about dispelling the myth that tapas isn’t something you can cook at home and the dishes were clearly chosen to reflect this. As is the nature with tapas, there were a lot of dishes and a lot of stages to go through – but each one was actually very simple. John made sure he got in a few top tips along the way, though. Romesco sauce which was to be served with grilled prawns was one such simple dish – but what keen home cook would ever think to fry off the prawn heads and shells to make some instant stock? I will admit that as something of a foodie geek, I have dabbled in making prawn powder from ground, toasted shells – but this, slightly less Heston “ready-when-you-need-it” method was an enlightenment and in showing the flavour which these shells can impart in a mere ten minutes, John has single-handedly ensured that I’ll never buy ready-shelled prawns again.

We went on to make Tuna Tartar from diced pepper, onion and tuna– a good excuse to get some chopping in. An emulsified (with a hand-blender) vinaigrette of balsamic, soy sauce and olive oil was a very unique John touch. Although I couldn’t help but find the use of soy in tapas a little questionable, the emulsification by blending method was fascinating – to other not quite so nerdy students as well as me – and the result was deliciously robust and velvety. Lamb chops were the final dish of the first half – and an opportunity to learn about trimming – useful I’m sure but what a shame to see the fat go to waste.

Making aioli to accompany the chops was another excuse for John to get his hand-blender out and show just how redundant the log whisking by hand method really is. Though there will always be a grump like me who thinks it’s not quite proper if it’s not done by hand, even I was won over by the finished product – and I’m sure about half the class who would have never considered making their own mayonnaise before may have left with a temptation to do so – an unquestionable mark of success for a cookery school.

Next, a well earned break and the chance to taste what we’d prepared thus far – and finally the chance for some wine. This is where Campo Viejo came in – one of their experts was on hand to guide through the four wines they had matched to our four dishes, explaining their different styles, and providing a crash-course in matching food to wine ; there was a generous glass of each to be had as we ate. Their involvement in the course is part of their Viva El Vino campaign which has seen special menus at restaurants nationwide including London’s Pinchito Tapas and Rebato’s encouraging diners to flip the way they order by choosing their wine first and then getting food to match. The whole process avoided feeling too much like a PR exercise – and though Campo Viejo are obviously trying to build a connection between themselves and Spanish food, they made sure it was John and Food at 52 who ran the show.

One each of a Cava, rose, white and red later and it was back to work with the second lot of dishes. There was a bit of Chorizo preparation – including peeling – who knew? – for a Chorizo and lentil recipe, calamari made with the secret addition of chilled lemonade in the batter, and some Patatas Bravas which turned out to be for the very bravas after we were a little heavy-handed with the chilli. The final dish was the highlight of the day merging Spanish tapas with the Moroccan styles which have been so influential to John – Dates Stuffed with Chorizo. In short – take a date, remove the stone and replace with a similar sized piece of chorizo. Wrap the lot in streaky bacon, breadcrumb and then fry. I urge you to try it.

We ate these dishes with four more wines – including some exceptionally good Dominio De Campo Viejo Reserva, 2004 –  these sit-down moments adding to the social element of the course and providing the opportunity to ask any burning questions of the food or the wine. As time ran over we were passed the bottle rather than shown the door – a friendly and satisfying end to a fun but busy day.

Course Details
Cookery School: Food at 52
Course: Spanish Tapas & Wine Course in association with Campo Viejo
Duration: 4 hours (12pm – 4pm)
Location: 52 Great Percy Street, Clerkenwell, WC1X 9QR (nearest tube: Kings Cross)
Class Size: 8-10
Cost: £95
Would suit: Food and wine enthusiasts with at least a basic level of kitchen skills
Website: www.foodat52.co.uk

Article written by Ben Norum. If you liked this article, please check out his other excellent review of the West London Wine School at a Big Yellow Storage.