Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hobby cooking. At first this may sound a little unlikely; after all, some of us enjoy cooking but as we have to eat every day it does tend to be more of a necessity than a hobby. Then again, you do get people who leave the day to day cooking to others, and cook once in a while, and perhaps you could call them Hobby Cooks.

Not in Holland. Here, hobby cooking is elevated to a real hobby status. There are cooking clubs all over the place, and you join one in order to, well, cook.

I was alerted to the existence of these clubs by Robert of the Cooking Dutch list. He had heard of one such club, and asked if anyone knew anything about it. Over to google, and at once I was fascinated. The nearest one to me, in The Hague, has over 274 members. They meet in groups of 15-17 a night, and cook a multi-course French meal.

Normally you should be introduced by a fellow member, but not knowing anyone I took the bulls by the horn and wrote to the Secretary. Thus I got an invitation to an introduction evening, of which I must attend two before being allowed to join. And even then, the existing members get the final say.

My letter told me to bring 35 euros, an apron, and two drying cloths. Also a contribution for the person who washes up. When I arrived I was introduced to everyone and we all had a glass of wine before starting on the business of the evening.

There were fourteen women all told, and a chef. The chef had put the menu together, I gather, and allocated teams to each course. The menu for December was:

Sardines farçies sur feuilleté à la vinaigrette bagna cauda
Stuffed sardines on puff pastry with a bagna cauda vinaigrette

Cailles à deux manières sur son nid de gousses et de choucroûte
Quails in two ways on a nest of mange tout and sauerkraut

Crème de poivrons Yin et Yang
Yin/Yang cream of paprika

Filet de sole poché dans sa sauce de coco aux légumes de mer
Poached fillet of sole in a coconut sauce with sea vegetables

Sorbet de kumquats au lavande et au champagne rosé
Kumquat sorbet with lavender and rose champagne

Couronne d'agneau à l'orientale
Oriental crown of lamb

Larmes de chocolat et griottines
Chocolate tears with cherries

As it turned out the sorbet was ditched, so we only had six courses to do. I was sent to the Quails team, which was supposed to be three people but ended up with just two.

We really just followed the recipes and the chef answered questions. For example, we had to remove the quail legs and fillet the breasts. The quails were whole. He showed us to chop off the head, and how to cut the legs and breasts.

These are complex recipes. The quail involved making a confit of the legs in goose fat, sealing the breasts in butter, then cutting them into fans, wrapping them in pork fat and leaving them in a low oven until the pork fat melted, making a stock from the carcasses and a huge mirepoix of veggies and herbs to use for a sauce basis, making the sauerkraut bed, making a complex sauce, cooking the mange touts, boiling quails eggs, and then presenting the dish according to the instructions.

The idea was to cook from 6 to 8 and then eat from 8 to 10. Each recipe comes with a time to be served.

Everybody went over time and we only started eating around 9. What you do is prepare your course as far as you can, and then finish it up just before serving. Generally everyone chipped in at this point, helping to dish up and spoon sauce and carry the plates to table.

At the end, everyone cleared up and cleaned up. People who came in cars took a (filled) garbage bag home to put in their garbage cans. If you had leftover ingredients you could take them home with you. By this time most of the dishes were washed, as the washer-upper did that as we went along. He also got served a plate of each course, and was given the champagne from the unmade sorbet to take home. And he got paid. If you don't mind washing up, this could be a very nice job.

All told, I enjoyed the evening. I wonder why this concept hasn't spread further. I'm looking forward to going again.