"There’s a joke that, before a meal, the French wish their fellow diners “Bon Appetit”. The English say “Bonne Chance”.
It seems old stereotypes never die, so you can imagine the look that flashed across the face of a French friend when I told her my daughter was being taught to cook by a Brit. And, what’s more, a Brit in France.
The cook in question is Midge Shirley, a Liverpudlian, who is running residential cooking courses for kids - Teencooks - at her splendid country house just inland from La Rochelle.
Before moving to France, Midge spent most of her working life in Brussels, where she ran a cookery school for adults and children.
My daughter Holly and her friend Sarah were already dab hands in the cake making stakes but hadn’t really graduated beyond that on to the tricky business of actually feeding people.
At the end of a week with their aprons on in Midge’s gleaming kitchen, the girls were turning out blue cheese and cherry tomato tart drizzled with home-made basil oil, steamed fish parcels and chicken with red pepper sauce. There were plenty of desserts too, including cherry clafoutis and strawberry marble mountain.
The girls loved it. “We learned a lot of recipes, went swimming every afternoon- that was really fun - and in the evening we got to try the food, which was even better”, Sarah tells me.
Midge insists she is a cook, not a chef. “I’m self taught and I just love food and I want all the children to like good food as much as I do”.
When she moved to France with husband Barney three years ago she’d always intended to launch her cookery school but there was just the small matter of renovating the house. That done, TeenCooks was ready to roll, offering week long courses for 15 to 18 year olds- boys or girls.
“When they arrive they may have no kitchen skills whatsoever. This is the problem - lots of parents are so busy,” Midge says. “Most adults don’t have time to have a 12-year-old spend two hours to get their act together. I hope I send them away after a week and they can make one or two courses and do it competently.”
Although she has co-written a recipe book, many of the recipes taught on the courses are not entirely original but they are given a TeenCooks twist. For instance, the tomato soup with a puff pastry lid (Soup in a Huff). “I pinched it from Bocuse from thirty years ago. He did it with truffles and wild mushrooms - we make it a little more everyday”, Midge tells me.
The ingredients are not necessarily organic but they are free range or locally grown. In the week Holly and Sarah were there, they made two trips to the market in Niort, 20 kilometers away. One of the best markets in France, according to Midge. The girls picked out their own ingredients, learned how to recognise the ripest fruit and the freshest fish and then took it back home to cook.
Chocolate features quite prominently on the cooking menu. They made “Berry Good Cake” - a fatless chocolate cake with mascapone icing and berries on top. “Really yummy” was the verdict on that one. There was also a home made chocolate spread which was brought back home in a jar as a present for younger brothers at home.
Kitchen etiquette is very important. The girls were told to bring long sleeved tee-shirts to cook in and shoes must cover the feet to protect against burns and spills. They were taught how to use kitchen knives safely and were achieving some pretty professional looking chopping by the end of the week. They learned how to skin tomatoes, marinate meat and how to cook in a bain-marie. Midge may be from Liverpool but not too many chip butties are being made here.
The students are not expected to cook all day. Midge reckons about three hours is enough- usually split into a couple of separate sessions. For the rest of the time, there’s a glorious swimming pool when the weather is good, market trips, walks or bike rides round the village. And, when they are ready to flop, the young cooks have their own floor at the top of the house, equipped with a DVD player.
The Teencooks courses are available during school holidays, with a maximum of four students at a time. The next course is in the February half term (dates are flexible to suit different school holidays). The price for a week is £525, excluding travel costs but including airport pickup. Ryanair flies from Stansted to La Rochelle, Poitiers, Nantes and Angouleme.
Ryanair also goes from Liverpool to Nantes and Limoges. Easyjet from Luton to Bordeaux.