After signing up to a cooking workshop during my French language stay in France, I received an invitation with the menu. It was all in French, and though I understood most of it, I decided not to look up the translation for the rest, so I could be pleasantly surprised when I got there. When we arrived, we were each given an apron and a hat, so we felt like proper chefs. Arthur, the man running the workshop, greeted us and began to explain in French what we would be cooking that evening: an eclair filled with tuna for entree, duck aiguillettes with a butternut puree for the main, and then to finish, the pièce de resistance, profiteroles with chocolate sauce.
I had some doubts about my cooking ability, given that normally, I tend to cook some variation of pasta with sauce. The thought of making choux pastry for the eclairs and the profiteroles in particular was a bit daunting. I had seen enough episodes of the Great British Bake Off to know that the words ‘choux pastry’ strike fear into any baker’s heart, and the added complication that the workshop was all in French didn’t do much to put me at ease.
Arthur, however, was really encouraging and explained all the steps slowly, so that we could all follow. ILA French Language School had also provided us with a list of key words for cooking and baking, so the workshop was accessible for all levels of French. We started by making the pastry for the eclairs, which was actually deceptively simple. There were four of us taking the class, and between us, we were an efficient team of chefs. Whilst one of us mixed butter and flour together, the rest of us got started on the tuna filling, adding cream cheese, spring onions and seasoning to taste. I’m a vegetarian, so I had my own bowl of filling, that I made without tuna. The workshop as a whole was adapted easily to my diet, which was great, especially given that being vegetarian does not seem to be a very popular choice in France! We then all came together for Arthur to teach us how to pipe the eclairs. This was the difficult part about making pastry, trying to pipe neat, symmetrical eclairs. After we had all had a go (and Arthur had intervened a couple of times), we were left with six slightly odd-looking lines of pastry, ready to go in the oven.
But if I had thought piping the eclairs was difficult, the profiteroles proved even more challenging. We made a similar pastry, but then had to pipe them in tiny swirls, taking care that the top of each swirl did not tumble over. Unfortunately a few profiteroles were sacrificed in this process, but at the end we had a tray full of hopeful profiteroles to join the eclairs in the oven. Then we started on the main, and whilst the others prepared duck, I fried up some tofu. For the butternut puree, we chopped up butternut and garlic and boiled it in a pan with herbs and stock, before blending it all together.
Our eclairs were ready, so we took them out, cut them open and filled them. Arthur served these with a dressed salad, and we all sat down to eat together. One of my favourite things about my French immersion stay here in Montpellier is how easy it is to make friends with the other students, during our French courses or at the extracurricular activities that ILA French Language School offers. I didn’t know the other students doing the cooking class before I went, but cooking together in another language proved to be a real bonding experience, and when we sat down to eat, everyone was chatting in French. I’m from the UK, then we had someone from Spain, someone from Germany, and someone from Switzerland so we made a pretty international group. We all had varying levels of French too, but thanks to the vocabulary list we were given everyone was easily able to follow the steps. Everyone agreed that despite their asymmetrical appearance, the eclairs tasted amazing. Arthur scolded us for having leftover filling from our éclairs, saying ‘dans la cuisine, il faut être généreux !’ (in the kitchen, you need to be generous!). The main was next, which we enjoyed with a glass of local red wine. Then, it was time to put the finishing touches on our profiteroles, which had come out of the oven golden brown and risen. Arthur started showing us how to fill them with ice cream, which I’ve never heard of before in my life – in the UK profiteroles are always filled with cream! We drizzled them with a chocolate sauce we had made earlier and then tucked in. This was definitely my favourite course of the workshop, and a great way to finish off the evening. The ice cream inside the profiteroles was a really nice touch – when I go back to the UK I’ll definitely make sure to tell everyone how to make them à la francaise!