Food at 52 – Italian Cookery in Clerkenwell
To spite the recession’s efforts to make us feel dull, restaurant footfall has hit a high among 20 and 30 somethings in particular. We’re saying ‘To Hell with high rent! We want lobster, duck and waffles, macaroons and infused jellies, micro-brews and copper-stilled cold compound gin and we want 7 course tasting menus paired with wine ON A WEEKDAY! We want it all, and some of us want to know how to make it too.
Cookery classes seem to be popping up all over the place in response to the foodie revolution that has so graced this big city (Thank Gawd for that!) and with so many options – especially in London – choosing can be a little overwhelming. I am forever scouring the internet for fun, high quality, not too expensive cooking classes, so I was delighted to find Food at 52 in Clerkenwell.
Walking in the door you would think you were entering a friend’s house for dinner, which makes sense because when John Benbow started up he was teaching friends and family out of his own home.
Now he and his lovely wife Emily have expanded, opening an airy school where you can see the handy work of John’s past life as a furniture-maker in the wood and stone of a beautiful open plan kitchen designed for teaching in a communal way.
You also get to meet Roxie, the family dog rescued from Romania. She is adorable and well mannered and although she stays upstairs while you go down to cook, she is happy to give you attention if you want it.
The vibe of the school makes it an ideal place for learning. It’s not stuffy, pretentious or intimidating: it’s welcoming and exciting instead. ‘I love it. There’s not a steel table in site’, one fellow classmate noted. I feel allowed to unleash my own enthusiasm while I learn to cook new dishes, rather than being ‘taught at’ by a professor of food, which just doesn’t suit everybody.
John and Emily really have succeeded in meshing together a dinner party feel with a sound teaching plan. They serve tea and coffee at the start while everyone chats about the menu. Oh, and not that you’ll need it, but just in case you think you might want a bit of liquid courage, wine is served a couple hours in – after the lesson in knife skills. Safety first!
We learn to cook a seasonal Italian menu, which reflectsFood at 52’s style of picking ingredients that are readily available at your local market. See why it’s just my kind of place?
In our time at 52, we make the following and more, so you can see you get a lot out of 5 hours!
Butternut and Biscotti Ravioli with Sage and Lemon Dressing
Pollo Soffritto with Lemon and Capers
Umbrian Parmigiana Melanzane
Cantuccini (aka Biscotti)
I am not going to tell you every little detail of every dish because you really should go and experience it yourself if you can (trust me, you’ll want to), but I will tell you about my favourite…
So let’s make some pasta… It all starts with flour, salt, and an egg. A beautiful, bellissimo (I’m getting pretty good at Italian) Burford Brown egg.
I am very impressed to see John uses Burford Browns. They are the most wonderful eggs you can get in a supermarket, with gorgeous orange yolks that add depth of flavour and a gorgeous yellow colour to whatever you use them in. People ask me if I use dye in my vanilla cake, for example. I do not. I use Burford Brown eggs. There – maybe they will give me a PR gig…
Now, back to the pasta making. After digging a well in 00 flour (that’s special Italian strong flour for pasta and pizza dough), we crack an egg into the centre.
We stir the egg into the flour, flipping flour from the outside edge of the well until a ball of dough forms that sticks to the fork. Then you knead and knead and knead until it becomes the perfect texture – not sticky, just stretchy and smooth. We do this by rolling it between our flattened hands in a back and forth motion so the dough elongates, then fold and repeat.
The dough texture is the most important part of achieving perfect pasta and I find it difficult to explain in writing, and many an Italians might say the same, so you may want to talk to an Italian grandmother (or your local Italian restaurant?) about technique if you can’t make it to Food at 52. The point is, until you experience the feel of the dough it’s hard to understand what you’re looking for. John describes the process as being like warming up a squash ball – it takes a while but then it heats up to hand temprature and then you can play. In this case, it takes us about 8 minutes, but we are working with tiny portions of dough…
Following what feels like endless kneading (there’s my workout done for the week), we roll the dough out on a well floured surface, turning it and flipping it as we go and using lots of flour in between to make sure it doesn’t stick . Then fold each side into the centre and slice into strips with a sharp knife. Sage, John’s right hand man in the kitchen and an amazing food adventurer (see Food Pilgrimage), shows us how to slid our knife under the pasta to unfold it.
I failed to perfect this the first time, but hey, I’m not an Italian grandmother… or Sage for that matter, who has spent a lot of time in Italy hanging out with Italian grandmothers.
Anyway, the end result is soft yet chewy, flavourful and perfectly salty (John says your pasta water should taste like the sea) tagliatelle made by the whole class. I can taste the slightly sweet and tangy bite of the wheat, an entirely different experience from dried pasta, and that was just the first course of five!
I walk away satisfied, both in what I have learned to do in the kitchen and in what I have eaten at the table, and slightly tipsy from the laughter and wine.
Shortly afterward I get an email from Emily with the recipes and instructions from the day, along with any necessary home-kitchen friendly versions, so I can get cracking on trying it all out at home.
If you haven’t gleaned this from my writing, I highly recommend Food at 52 if you are looking for an unpretentious, fun, high quality and not too expensive cookery school. Personally, I can’t wait to wow my friends with home-made ravioli and biscotti.
Dear Kitchen, apologies in advance for covering you in flour…
Food at 52
96 Central St, London Borough of Islington, EC1V 8AJ
Price: £115 – £135 per class[SHARE]