Beer, meat and erm... chocolate pots. That’s what we found on the menu when we arrived at the Outcook Home Cookery School. And we will be cooking it. It’s early on a Saturday afternoon and we’re here to try the Blokes in the Kitchen cookery course. The cookery school is right next to the medieval Bondgate in Alnwick and is housed in family-run kitchen and bathroom showroom, Outlook Home Enhancement Centre.
We’re met there by Karen Larkin who manages the school on behalf of Outlook owner Ben Keenan. Karen is also the organiser of Alnwick Food Festival and hopes that Outcook will become another reason for people to visit Alnwick, to try their courses but also book hen, stag and birthday cooking parties. The concept is simple. We’ll spend a few hours cooking then afterwards sit down with a couple of beers in the school’s comfortable seating area to tuck into the fruits of our labour.
The chef leading us is Emma Whittingham. She’s worked as a private chef in the South of France and was Duty Manager at Newton Hall. She’s also a game expert and wrote a book, Game On Northumberland, a collection of easy-to-follow game recipes. Today she’s brought some venison from legendary local butcher Turnbull’s for us to make homemade burgers with.
There are eight cooking stations in the purpose-built cookery school. Housed in a kitchen and bathroom showroom it’s no surprise to find everything is top of the range, from the gas hobs and steam ovens to the knives and kitchen gadgets. Each station is stylishly appointed and there are neat touches like soft-close drawers, flagstone flooring and solid granite worktops. I feel like I’m on the set of Saturday Kitchen. Oak beams cross overhead, music is playing in the background and cold beers are waiting in the fridge – let’s get started.
We begin by making chocolate pots which doesn’t sound too blokey but then we learn we’ll be curing them with alcohol. I opt for some Alnwick Rum while dad picks Cointreau. It was the first time either of us had made these before but they were so easy it won’t be the last. ‘I’m from the generation that went straight from mother to wife,’ Dad tells Emma. ‘I’m just a lazy chef,’ I tell her. After vigorously whisking two egg whites into stiff peaks, we melt half a bar of Bournville Chocolate, fold it into the whites, incorporate the yolks then add a shot of booze. The pots then go in the fridge to set.
Next we make homemade chips to go with the burgers. Dad picks up an early injury peeling his potatoes, a worrying sign as we’re yet to even touch the razor sharp knives. Luckily Karen is on hand to fix him up with a blue plaster. Even the utensils at Outcook are locally sourced. If you like the feel of the cutlery or are wondering where the pans you’re using come from, you can browse most of the range at House and Home which is round the corner on Alnwick’s Market Street. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never made home-cooked chips before but on my debut I make them just how I like them: thin and crispy French fries. We’re given a selection of locally produced oils from Morpeth-based producer Yellow Fields to drizzle them with. I pick their chilli-infused rapeseed oil.
With the chips in the oven and chocolate pots setting we have time to kill so Emma shows us how to make a vinaigrette from scratch. During the mini demo she passes on a tip that solves one of my most hated kitchen tasks – chopping garlic. ‘Squash the clove with the flat of the knife,’ she explains, ‘Sprinkle some sea salt on the chopping board which gives it leverage and stops it sticking. When the garlic starts sticking to the side of the knife, scrape the flat of the knife on the board and it should stick to the salt on the board rather that the knife.’
It’s time to make our burgers, and again we’re encouraged to select ingredients to our personal taste. That’s what I like about Outcook, you’re invited to personalise your dish rather than just follow orders, Emma is keen for us to experiment and add different flavours. I chop some chilli, shallots, parsley and slice a tomato to go on top. Combining these in a bowl with the venison and an egg yoke, we dust our worktops with plain flour, plonk the mixture down and shape them into thick, juicy patties. With pans on a high heat we cook the burgers for five minutes each side, then turn the gas down to medium and flip them again. I’m surprised by the lack of fat that comes off them, and am told this is down to game being a much leaner meat. When the burgers are cooked I top mine with cheese, iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato then pull my crispy French fries out of the oven and combine everything on a plate.
We’re ready to eat and enjoy a cold beer with our fellow chefs Steve and Shimmy (a shortened version of his Polish forename). They work together in Northumberland making fixed wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) – the only fixed wing UAV manufacturers in the UK apparently. We’ve got to know each other over the past couple of hours and had a laugh, but a telling silence descends over the table as we tuck into our feast. Tom Kerridge hasn’t got anything to worry about but it’s one of the tastiest meals I’ve ever cooked for myself; melt-in-the-mouth burger with a spicy kick and crispy chilli fries. The dish is as much a salute to the local ingredients as the chefs who’ve cooked them. I’ve got a bit too carried away with the Alnwick Rum in my chocolate pot though, it’s a bit boozier than I would like, but Dad has nailed it with the orangey Cointreau. We sit as a group and put the world to rights for a good hour over a few cold beers (Dad pretends to be sophisticated and opts for a glass of red wine). It’s been a great afternoon, and I think we’ve both excelled ourselves in the kitchen. Food is a great icebreaker, and I expect a lot of ice will be broken in the future at Outcook.