As I mentioned in my Smoked Bacon, Courgette, Mushroom, Chive and Mozzarella Quiche post, this year I was lucky enough to win a bursary from the East Dulwich WI to attend a course at Denman College near Didcot in Oxfordshire. Luckily for both of us, my friend and former president of EDWI; Kirsten won the second bursary. Whilst our bursaries were sufficient to cover us financially to attend a day course, it seemed churlish not to chip in the bit extra to go for a full weekend (£330 with course ingredients included) – the college provides accommodation and food as part of the package. Our bursaries handily also covered our travel costs (£27.50 return train from Paddington)
After much perusing of the college brochure (it was a given we’d head to the cookery school rather than for a craft or ancillary course), and swearing at the website when the vast majority were fully booked or not available until late next year, we ended up booked on the “Pastry Weekender” course described as:
“If you are a fan of the Great British Bake Off or have always found pastry challenging, why not join our masterclass and take your skills to a new level by learning how to avoid crumbly pastry, soggy bottoms and shrinking sides? You will perfect pate sucree, shortcrust, choux, puff and hot water pastry, which you will turn into an array of delicious goodies to take home”
This post is primarily some information about Denman College itself, our experience of the facilities and the food we were fed. I just about managed to remember to take photos throughout the actual baking sessions so I will write further posts about how we made Lemon Tart, Bacon and Gruyere Quiche, Crème Patisserie, Choux Buns and Sausage Rolls.
The pertinent question is really ‘Would I go Back?”. The easy answer is yes – next October as we’ve already booked up another course with the same tutor – Bring on Viennoiserie: Breakfast Pastries! (I believe there are still 3-4 spaces left if you fancy it!)
Denman College is owned by the National Federation of WIs, having been bequeathed to the organisation by a former president, Lady Denman to be utilised for education purposes. The campus is relatively small but provides quite a lot of surprisingly modern facilities. Some of the décor and furnishings aren’t really to my taste and I think I little bit more could be made of the drawing room (not pictured) and bar, etc but the organisation is a charity and funds to keep up such a large and old building are obviously limited.
The college is just south of Oxford and they offer free taxi pickups from both Oxford bus and rail stations and Didcot rail station. We went for Oxford as I thought it was closer but in hindsight, actually Didcot would have been nearer. Never mind, it was no big deal. A Toyota Prius was a little bit snug for 4 of us but we made it there in one piece!
The timetable is a little odd. We obviously plumped for a weekend course as we both work full time and didn’t want to be taking too much time off work to attend, but as our taxi pickup was scheduled for 3.45pm from Oxford (not flexible), we both had to take an afternoon off work. No biggie but as the course finished at lunchtime on Sunday, I’d have preferred to be able to arrive later on Friday and leave later on Sunday. The college, like most of the WI is still biased towards the retired community and us younger workers do seem to get shafted sometimes but I’m learning to live with it!
The good news for equality and non WI members is that both men and the hoi polloi can book onto courses, you don’t need to be a WI member.
The rooms are split between the main house and purpose built modern ‘cottages’. I can’t comment on the cottages but these are 2 storey buildings consisting primarily of single en-suite rooms with a few disabled accessible rooms and a few for people to share. We had rooms on the top floor of the main building – about 3 flights of stairs were involved and we were puffed when we finally got up there. I was pleasantly surprised to have a room to myself – I wouldn’t have minded sharing with Kirsten but there is something welcome about your own space at the end of the day!
Most rooms in the college have been ‘adopted’ by a WI and decorated/accessorized by them. My room was based around the theme ‘Indiana’ but the WI or person that came up with the theme is unknown! It was however well sized with a massive bathroom with walk in shower and an abundance of white Ikea furniture. The bedspread was probably handmade and the artwork, reading materials provided, chair and cushions were room specific. I was quite pleased with my room except for one thing – boy oh boy was it hot! So hot! First things first I turned the massive radiator off and cracked the sash window. At least I thought I’d turned it off – at 6am Saturday morning, I discovered my lack of success as I melted awake! I eventually found the main plug and it eventually stopped giving off heat about 14 hours later…..
On our weekend course our timetable told us to expect an afternoon tea, 3 course dinner, buffet breakfast, elevenses, buffet lunch, afternoon tea, 3 course dinner, buffet breakfast, elevenses and a 2 course self service Sunday lunch. Sounded good to me. I made sure to keep reminding myself that this was mass catering and overall the food wasn’t bad. It wasn’t amazing or overly inspired but for mass catering, it was pretty decent.
The dining room is supposed to be homely with big sharing pine tables and some modern prints. In reality it felt like a slightly naff tearoom but the biggest issue was like in the bedrooms, the sheer heat of the place!
There are no photos of the arrival afternoon tea which whilst plentiful on the available tea and coffee, it was stingy as heck on the cake front. The carrot cake was all gone, there were four or five slices of a banana choc chip cake the size of a Mr Kipling’s single angel slice and some dry looking tea cake. I scoffed two of the banana cakes, neither of which tasted of banana but were at least moister (sorry) than they looked. Afternoon tea on the second day was even sadder – all of the cakes were gone when we got there and when I inquired where ours were, only an extra tray of the world’s driest gluten free brownies were provided. How do you mess up a brownie? Even a gluten free one isn’t that hard! So no cake for me. At a WI institute no less. No cake!
The first evening’s dinner was a relative surprise – I managed to swap my melon for someone else’s parma ham – win! The chicken was well cooked although it could have done with a bit more in the way of sides and the orange and cardamom panna cotta was lightly tasty and barely set – which as I generally dislike panna cotta as its too gelatinous, was another win!
Elevenses were ok especially on the second day when the WI shortbread was significantly thicker and tastier than these pictured from day 1.
I never managed to snap breakfast – anyone who knows me knows that I was much to busy troughing the available bacon. There were the usual suspects available; bacon, overly bready sausages, fried and poached eggs, boiled mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and black pudding. There was porridge which I didn’t bother trying, some sad looking thin yogurt and some basic cereal and fruit. The bread selection was limited to white and brown sliced; not a bagel or croissant in sight sadly. A waffle, pancake or breakfast Danish or muffin was absolutely not going to happen! The oddest thing however that the ‘on toast’ options were limited to butter, Marmite (but only if you were fast) and marmalade. I can forgive the lack of cream cheese, peanut butter and nutella – but no jam?! At a WI institute! Heavens to Betsy!
The second evening meal was a little sadder than the first – the butternut soup was thin and tasteless, the pulled beef brisket was surprising good and plentiful but again, the sides were minimal and the Baileys cheesecake was the sad unbaked kind with barely a hint of Baileys – I finished it mind, it was ok in the end!
Sunday lunch was surprisingly good – the dry looking turkey was quite moist, the honey’d root veg was a delight and as they’d run out of cranberry sauce, they’d dug up some kind of date chutney that was delicious!
Denman isn’t the most happening of locations. Dinner is over by 7.30pm as the old folks like to eat nice and early. Some courses have an evening session as we did on our first evening but as our Saturday was already jam packed, we had the evening off. So we hit the scrabble in the corner of the bar. Much to the amusement of some of the other
inmates residents. I’m still not sure why. Despite having never won a game of scrabble before in my life, i won all four games that we played over the weekend. Nice 🙂
There is a bar – no cocktails here but they did seem to be doing a booming trade on the sherry. I had been forewarned that the bar was quite pricey but to be honest bottles of wine started at £14 and whilst they were fairly middle of the road branded wines, I didn’t think that was too bad for a captive audience. £1.60 for a can of coke was however rather steep so I didn’t go too crazy. Kirsten may or may not have forgotten that I don’t drink red and bought a whole bottle then finished it herself. Whoops.
The Cookery School
This is what we were here for – the main event. And whilst I don’t have any experience of any other cookery schools, this did seem like a cracker. There are 12 work stations and that it always going to be the maximum group size. I’m reliably informed that most schools expect you to share workstations/fridges/ovens so this is quite a coup. A sink was shared between two that was no great hardship.
Our Tutor, Katie Johnson, formerly of Raymond Blanc’s Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons restaurant and several other high prestige patisserie chef positions was fabulous. And relaxed. I was so worried I’d spend the weekend doing battle with a dodgy old WI veteran – you know the kind that has a coronary if you put cream in a Victoria sandwich and has to have oxygen if you were to ice one. But no, Katie was spot on – happy to let us that did have some experience and confidence baking crack on, but with exactly the right level of overseeing, handy hints and teeth sucking as you finally free’d your tart from the tin.
Each recipe stage was demonstrated to us around the demonstration table – technology was high with a camera and TV set up like you find at cooking shows etc so you didn’t spend half your time standing up to peer into a tall saucepan. After each demo we went and took our pre-prepared tray of ingredients from the trolley and cracked on. I was a bit anti the pre-prepared-ness of it all but I can totally understand that it’d end up a bit of a bun-fight for ingredients and stuff would end up wasted etc. Not having to weigh everything did also give us more time to crack on with the nitty gritty too. So i’m converted. My only other gripe or surprise really is that everything was weighted into disposable plastic bags – now I am no eco-warrior but this felt rather wasteful even to me.
My only real gripe is that we had to do all of our own washing up. Grrrr!
I will be posting the recipes that we made over the weekend including Tart Au Citron, Quiche, Choux Buns and Sausage Rolls with Proper Puff pastry. Watch this space….