Padstow, on Cornwall’s north coast, is a nice enough looking seaside town. It’s a bit too shabby to be considered postcard perfect but it’s very pleasant, with its old stone walled harbour, terraced buildings and, of course, the impact of celebrity chef Rick Stein.

While a lot of rural towns in England are doing it tough – many of them in Cornwall – Padstow, thanks in no small part to Stein’s obvious influence seems to be thriving. As London has its pearly kings and queens, Rick Rules Padstow and Long live the King.

The northern areas of Cornwall have developed a reputation as a food destination – certainly the produce is there to support that. Seafood (naturally), duck and other assorted wildlife feature prominently on the menus. Stein’s success has clearly encouraged up and comers such as Paul Ainsworth (see the blog ‘Needy from Padstow writes …’) and Nathan Outlaw from Rock (a short ferry across the Camel Estuary from Padstow).

Ainsworth has carved himself a niche in Padstow, just a few doors down from Rick Stein’s cafe. Other Stein establishments in Padstow include the Seafood Restaurant, the Stein patisserie, the Stein deli and the Stein fish and chip store. There’s also a host of boutique hotels and B&Bs run by the empire. But what Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband came to Padstein, er, sorry, Padstow for was the cooking school.

Gluttonous husband has it all goin’ on. Not only does he love his tucker, he loves to be able to cook it too. Bright and early one recent morning, he hopped in the car for the 35 minute trip around the water from Rock to the Padstow Seafood School.

There, he found around 14 other like-minded souls, busily donning crisp white chef’s uniforms and a navy blue apron, ready for a day’s introduction to seafood.

Was the Great Man himself in attendance? No. He left the tutelage to a trusted courtier, who went by the very approachable name of Keith. His opening words? “Don’t be horrified but we’re going to use lots and lots of butter and salt.” A good start, dare I say. The rationale behind this apparently was that the students were learning to prepare restaurant quality meals and they were admonished not to necessarily use the same levels in their home kitchens. Food for thought before Greedy Girl reaches for the salt shaker at her next meal.

The team prepared five fish dishes all featuring local ingredients but recipes drawn from Rick Stein’s world travels. Keith, flanked by two video cameras overhead to give all comers a good look at his techniques, prepared each recipe first. The students were then paired into teams to have a go themselves. Gluttonous husband found himself paired with Sally from Hampshire, a reasonable cook by all reports.

First up was seared scallops with iberico ham. A smoking skillet was causing some angst among the pupils, having probably been on the flame for about 10 minutes but Keith said the most important element was a searingly hot pan to caramelise the scallops. Gluttonous husband said the trick was to sear the scallop on one side for a couple of minutes and then to take the pan off the heat and flip the scallop so it would finish cooking. He then took the scallops out and plonked in lots of butter and a good swig of sherry vinegar to make a sauce. It was served with thin slices of the iberico ham and a few leaves, seasoned with salt and oil.

Gluttonous husband was thankful for the change of clothes when it came to the next dish – Singapore chilli crab. Keith showed the team how to kill a live crab as humanely as possible with a specially-made skewer that was inserted into a particular part of the crab’s abdomen, which immediately paralyses it and then the skewer is inserted into the mouth to kill it. This all needs to be done quickly. There were more than a few squeals and the cause of a near-domestic between a young couple.
The crab then goes into a boiling pot for about 10 minutes while the attention passes to the sauce.

That’s when the knife skills get a work out, chopping garlic, ginger, chillis and spring onions into fine dice. When the crab is ready, it gets stood on its claws to drain and once cool enough to touch, you get your hands really dirty, by dismembering it and breaking the shell to give easier access to the meat. The crab pieces go into a very hot wok with oil and once caramelised, quickly add some tomato ketchup, soy, water and the chopped bits and the crab’s brown meat, stir well and put a lid on the wok to quickly give it a two-minute steam. A little shake of the wok afterwards and it was time to plate up with a few sprigs of spring onion to garnish.

Was it hot? No. Singaporean locals probably would have been disappointed with the level of heat, with most students opting not to use too much in the way of the chilli seeds. No oohs and aahs about the spice but most assuredly about the flavour.

Next up was devilled mackerel with mint and tomato salad. Mackerel is not Greedy Girl’s preferred fish by any stretch of the imagination. Students were shown how to gut and fillet the fish. That was then left aside to first make a sauce consisting of melted butter, stirring in sugar, mustard, pepper, ground coriander, red wine vinegar and salt. That was massaged into the fish fillets and they were put under a salamander, skin side up. It was served with a simple salad of tomato, onion and mint. The knife skills, particularly in the filleting, showed up the practised home cook from the others.

Gluttonous husband then got to deal with Skate, with black butter. Skate is an all-purpose name these days for any type of ray, skate itself having been declared endangered after nearly being fished to oblivion. Students were served up a full ray that needed to be trimmed and cleaned, particularly the need to take the top layer of skin off the flesh. It was then poached in a court-bouillon. The ‘black butter’ was a traditional beurre noisette and the key there, according to Keith, was the need to use salted butter. Apparently it just doesn’t work with unsalted.

A key part of the day was tasting wines. Half way through the prep of the mackerel dish, glasses of Rick Stein’s white from his vineyard venture in the Adelaide Hills started to flow. Not sure if the sun was over the yardarm by then, but gluttonous husband didn’t really care …

The skate was the last dish the group prepared. The wine was in full flow, the bellies were starting to be stretched and a very welcome coffee loomed. There was, however, one more demonstration to come by Keith, who preapred bourride of red mullet, John Dory and fresh salted cod. After all the wine, Keith indicated he probably wouldn’t like to see the students pick up another boning knife.

The key there was preparing the bourride, which is essentilly onion, leek, fennel, garlic and orange peel fred gently in a pan without colouring and then adding tomato, bay leaf, thyme, fish stock salt and a pinch of saffron. The fish was eventually added and simmered for a short time. The fish pieces were removed and then the stock was pressed through a sieve. Aioli was added to a large bowl, with a splash of the stock to start and then all the rest as the chef whisked constantly. It was a good work out … No wonder Keith didn’t think the students would be up for it after the wine. It gains the texture of a light custard and is poured over the fish with a bit of chopped parsley and some croutons. Delicious, I’m told.

The day goes from 9 to 4 and there’s no need for a lunch break, because it’s essentially one long lunch break. Asked if he would be happy to return, gluttonous husband thought for a nanosecond before a resounding: ‘you bet’.

He came away with lots of tips and techniques and renewed confidence about dealing with fish of all persuasions. Greedy Girl is looking forward to the future output.

Padstow Seafood School

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