When it comes to cookery classes, I have to admit I am a bit of a veteran. I have more than a couple of stints with the Allen family in Ballymaloe under my belt, I have had a nose around Paul Flynn's Tannery School in Dungarven. I have even tucked my knees under the bountiful table at River Cottage HQ with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, still possibly the happiest day of my life (sorry kids).
Nearer to home, and if you like to do things in style, we have Aniar Cookery School, which is now firmly established in the Michelin-starred restaurant. As such, this is no ordinary cookery school. Aniar Restaurant is counted among one of the best in the country, and owner JP McMahon with head chef Ultan Cooke has created a terroir-based menu focusing on fresh, foraged, and wild ingredients sourced locally, and still retains the only Michelin star in the west. The school is run in the restaurant kitchen and all classes are taught by the apparently inexhaustible JP.
There is a smorgasbord of one-day classes at the school, which include workshops covering subjects like planning a dinner party – everything from menu planning and timings to wine pairings for the wannabe 'host with the most'. Another, The Whole Hog, teaches you how to use every part of the pig, distinguishing the different cuts of pork and best uses for them, and preparation of a pork dinner to impress your foodie friends and family.
Aniar’s courses are always in development – new themes and recipes are added regularly. Just starting in May is the new How to be a Better Cook, a course covering all the basic cooking techniques - frying, roasting, braising, boiling, and smoking. It aims to show how to source better produce and cook them in different ways. Curing your own meat and fish, pickling vegetables, preserving herbs, and making your own butter and cheese are all on the agenda. You will certainly have to look elsewhere if you want to learn how to decorate cupcakes.
Having the good fortune to go on a cookery course here to improve my skills, and because I like to do things in style, I headed straight for the six week Understanding Food course which covers bread, beef, pork, fish, poultry, and vegetables. Our group was to learn new and creative techniques and traditional methods for cooking and serving these. At 7pm on a miserable Monday I gathered with the other students. Classes are limited to six, an assortment of men and a lovely, rather competitive, couple — all of them keen to roll up their sleeves and all of them absolutely charming.
We were issued with our smartly branded Aniar aprons and a booklet of the night’s recipes. This weekly evening class starts with a coffee, a short discussion, and a little demo, followed by lots of hands-on participation and loads of questions. After much measuring, mixing, kneading, and baking we had produced a table full of warm brioche, focaccia, and baguettes, even finding time to make some butter and flavoured salt. We could then enjoy a well deserved glass of wine and tasted a little before taking our fresh, warm, bread home.
The next five weeks proceed in a similar fashion, after the initial divvying up of recipes and chores, and the scramble for ingredients and pots, the fun part begins. The idea of local sourcing at Aniar is part, but not all, of the cookery school ethos. The recipes are a mixed bag of styles, drawing from the pub-style food at EAT and many Spanish style stews and slow braised dishes from Cava Bodega. Risotto rice, chorizo, and ketchup are among the speciality, non-Irish ingredients called for. We chop, fillet, and fry, and everyone has a lot of fun doing it. I enjoy a good old rummage in somebody else's kitchen, particularly one with a Michelin star. The kitchen, like the restaurant itself, is small but perfectly formed with a place for everything and everything in its place. I even discover that the staff here are still partial to a custard cream and the odd packet of Haribo jellies.
There are lots of delicious results, with some less to my taste. I will never look at black pudding again without remembering boiling it in stout and passing it through a sieve. I learned the most from the fish class, but the main difference between a restaurant kitchen and home is a mountain of butter, a mandolin, a Thermomix, and cling film. Then it is just knowing what to do with them.
The restaurant is still working while we are there, with Alex McMahon stocktaking and looking a little traumatised by us going through the drinks fridge looking for a splash of this or that as called for. Lovely kitchen porter Tony arrives to clean up after us, we having used every pot, pan, spoon, and sieve in the place. The website advises you to bring a lunchbox to bring home samples of the day's produce, I advise you to bring two, there is usually an embarrassment of riches to take away.
JP is a natural teacher with a relaxed, friendly, style who makes the classes informative and enjoyable at the same time. There are lots of anecdotes and gossip around the table after classes. Talented and all though JP is, he needs a memory jog in the name department, may I respectfully suggest name tags, sir? Groups are small — a maximum of six people, which means more concentrated attention for participants and you will surely meet some like minded people into the bargain. The most fun you can have with an apron on.
For more information on the school’s ever evolving courses, check out www.AniarRestaurant.ie or give them a shout to ask about bookings on 091 535947. Aniar Cookery School, 51 Lower Dominick Street, Galway.