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Cordon Vert Cookery Course

Nicola Mostyn wants to make people drool – so obviously she makes off to Altrincham

Published on September 10th 2007.

Cordon Vert Cookery Course

I’m not too confident in the kitchen. I blame my Home Economics teachers, one of whom wore clogs and looked like a more matronly Victoria Wood and the other who was a coiffured, sultry brunette rumoured to be bonking the PE teacher. This gave me very mixed messages regarding what it took to be a domestic goddess, a confusion which, I believe, contributed to my many subsequent culinary disasters not to mention my deep and abiding fear of clogs.

True, I’ve had plenty of opportunity in the years since to cast my eye over a cookery book but it just never seemed to happen. Even turning vegetarian in my teens didn’t improve the situation: faced with an opportunity to embrace a new and exciting life of meat-free gastronomy I just ate a lot of toast.

So when I landed at the Cordon Vert cookery course at the Vegetarian Society, my reasons for attending were clear: “I’ve managed to survive as a vegetarian for fifteen years with only two recipes to my name,” I humbly confessed.

“They must be great recipes!” the tutors responded, so warmly that I didn’t like to point out one involves plopping chopped tomatoes onto twirly pasta and the other one is crumpets.

Other people’s reasons for attending the course were many and varied. One (meat-eating) man had surprised his new (vegetarian) girlfriend with the course after he cooked her dinner for the first time and she informed him: “This is the kind of meal which gives vegetarians a bad name.” A clear warning that a hungry vegetarian faced with a nut cutlet is a dangerous thing indeed.

Another couple who’d travelled up from London were hoping to extend their standard repertoire of veggie meals and yet another (meat eating) woman wanted to learn new recipes to entertain her veggie friends.

The Vegetarian Society is the oldest vegetarian organisation in the world and works to promote understanding and respect for vegetarian lifestyles by various approaches including this Cordon Vert cookery school which, like the society, is located at Parkdale, a mansion in stunning surroundings not far from Dunham Massey. Most of the courses are themed and some are one-day events whilst others take the form of two residential workshops.

Our one-day course was called ‘Route 66’, which put me in mind of road trip food; all perilous hot dogs, bitter coffee and dead, dusty flies. Happily the menu was rather more appetising though just as atmospheric with its deep South emphasis. It held at least a hint of agreeable peril due to the amount of frying involved.

After an informal introduction to the course the day began with one of tutors cooking a recipe - Blackened Tofu – from the Route 66 recipe folder, before talking us through several more of the meals, simultaneously passing around ingredients for us to sniff, explaining any unfamiliar herbs or oils and patiently answering our every question.

After a short break Tutor number two cooked a meal – Pinon Tarts – and then talked us through the rest of the recipes with even greater enthusiasm since she was American herself. Then…eek!…it was our turn.

For this part of the course the nine attendees were divided into three groups, each of whom had a designated work-area and a menu of four or five of the meals to cook. The aim was that between us we would cook the whole Route 66 menu and eat the results in an informal lunch together at the end of the course, along with a well-earned glass of wine

Surveying our group’s menu, I was glad not to be lumbered with the complex looking Miss Johanna’s Carrot Cake, having pin-sharp recollection of the time my fairy buns rose and merged, freakishly, to form one monstrous, tray-shaped sponge. Instead I happily (okay nervously) took on the Butternut Squash and Corn Chowder and the Blackened Tofu.

Now, of course I have cooked before. And sometimes it has even turned out okay. But my main problem is that if I have to cook for other people (and so to a deadline) I get all red faced and strung out and start hurling things around chaotically, like the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show gone postal.

But since I’d gone to the trouble of attending a cooking course, I thought it might to prudent to learn to enjoy the process of cooking and so I decided to take a relaxed approach and see if this made a difference.

Hence whilst I could feel people frenetically buzzing around me, I spent a good hour chopping my chowder ingredients and asking lots of shamelessly inane questions - what’s the best way to chop an onion? What is simmering? How exactly does one use a blender? – all of which were answered with patience and enthusiasm by the helpful tutors and which, once I’d got the answers, started to make me feel that I was getting a grounding in cooking that I had long been lacking.

And I really enjoyed the process. Okay, I got a little muppet-like when it came to frying the tofu and time was ticking on, and yes, as a result, it was perhaps a little more overdone than I would have liked but then, it was called Blackened Tofu and I am nothing if not literal.

By just after 2pm we were done. Time to sit down and enjoy what we had cooked – a menu which included Potato Kugel, Chilaqiles and Savory Banana Drop Scones - all of which looked and tasted delicious with the possible exception of the tofu which, even were it not charred to within an inch of its life, people could not be persuaded to warm to, but this was made up for by the Chowder which went down a storm.

For those already confident in their cooking the course, at £105, might seem a little expensive, though the camaraderie, surroundings, helpfulness of the tutors and opportunity to ask those nagging culinary questions make it a vastly more rewarding experience than flicking through a cookery book.

For the slightly under confident or inexperienced cooks like me, though, the course was perfect and seems to have unleashed, if not exactly my inner Nigella Lawson, then at least some hitherto undiscovered enthusiasm for cooking from scratch.

In the week since the course I have made a leek and potato soup, a ginger loaf, a lemon drizzle cake and am just about to attempt a Mediterranean Gratin. Or “Mostyn’s Blackened Mediterranean Gratin” depending on how it goes.

The Cordon Vert School one day workshops, 9am – 3pm, £105. Vegetarian Society, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, England WA14 4QG www.vegsoc.org/cordonvert 0161 925 2014.

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