As we pursue our roving retirement around the world, we periodically indulge in a cooking or tasting class to further understand what a given locale has to offer. We have enjoyed learning about Italian, Balinese, Mexican, and Thai cuisine, so it felt like a given to try more cooking and tasting experiences during our extended stay in Paris.
French Sauce-Making Class
I love sauces; I put them on everything. It’s a bit of a joke in our family. French cuisine revolves around sauces, so I was compelled to find a sauce class to begin improving my game. We opted for a class at Cook’n With Class and it was very good.
A key aspect of French cooking is the concept of a Mother Sauce, i.e. a sauce that can be used as a base for derivative sauces. We used brown chicken stock to make Bordelaise and sweet ‘n sour sauces, fish stock to make velouté and sorrel sauces, mayonnaise to make herbed mayo, and Hollandaise to make Maltaise sauce. It was fascinating to see how minor variations could have such large impact on consistency and taste.
Our class went through techniques and tricks for getting results. Our instructor was committed to his craft. He even related a story about how a debate led to a cookoff with a friend over how best to incorporate the oil into eggs to make mayonnaise. The handmade mayo was amazing, but I would need to use a machine. I lacked the dexterity to execute the sauce manually. Another surprise was peeling grapes to make the sweet and sour sauce. I probably wouldn’t try that often either, if ever again.
We got to sample all of our sauces with fish, chicken, and potatoes. A lovely, sauce-driven lunch. Honestly, although this was an entry-level class, I could barely keep up. All the other students seemed to have better skills. Another pass at this class is probably in order. I can’t think of a better subject for summer school.
Croissant Making Class
Having enjoyed prior pasta-making classes, Diana was very interested in taking a croissant class and I decided to join her. Again, Cook’n with Class was up to the challenge. Chef Sarah was equally committed to her craft and made the experience approachable and enjoyable. Similar to the concept of a mother sauce, our croissants were driven by creating base dough with a lot of butter incorporated into layers. The whole process takes 3 days. Of course, we did it all in a morning using dough created by the last class, just as we made dough for the next.
Day 1 is simply about weighing out the flour and incorporating enough water to form a dough. After a spin in the mix master, form a ball and throw it in the fridge to proof overnight.
The work for Day 2 isn’t long. You simply roll out the dough in a fairly precise rectangle with uniform thickness and spread a thick layer of butter. Then you fold the dough on top of itself and roll it out again twice. Just twice is enough to create those flaky, buttery layers that make croissants the cat’s meow.
Put the dough back in the fridge to rest overnight.
Day 3 involves rolling out the dough in a rectangle once more. Simply cutting and rolling the dough into a crescent and baking for a short time is enough to yield awesome croissants. We also made a number of fillings and formed the dough into a variety of shapes to make the following pastries: croissant, pain au chocolate, Kouign-Amann, pain au raisins, roulé framboise (raspberry roll), and pain Suisse (a twisty pastry with pistachio cream).
Effectively an unpretentious, butter-soaked, cinnamon roll, the Kouign-Amann was the surprise star. It was light, flavorful, and a bit sublime. Totally worth the effort. You can see the group produced a lot of pastry. We shared some the next day in our French language class. The staff was only too happy to help unburden us.
Making the dough for croissants wasn’t difficult but making all of the fillings and rolling and twisting was time-consuming. But, ultimately worth doing it at least once from scratch. We have a much better appreciation for the process.
Tasting Class at COW
How can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese? – Charles de Gaulle
Experts believe there are really somewhere between 1000 and 1600 distinct varieties of cheese in France. I love cheese almost as much as I love sauce, with the exception of blue cheese. It was only natural that I sought out a cheese-tasting class, which was my first such class.
Cheese of the World Shop
Admittedly, the Cheese Of the World (COW) shop had a lot fewer than 246 cheeses for sale. But it did have an interesting selection from which to sample, and that created the basis for an informative cheese-tasting class. We tried cow, sheep, and goat cheese. Some aged and firm, others soft and even a bit runny. The runny cheeses come from washing the rind in a salt bath, which curtails the formation of bacteria, making the cheese not firm up as much.
I asked when it was ok to eat the rind, and the teacher said you can eat any rind that isn’t wax, no matter how, shall we say, rustic it looks. Sure enough, one of the other students ate every rind. I tried a few and was surprised to find the rind mellowed the flavor of some of the goat cheese we tasted. It really comes down to how rustic is too rustic, I guess.
While I enjoyed the class, it left me wanting more, figuratively. I feel that I only scratched the surface of learning to identify cheeses and understand how they are likely to taste and be used in cooking. Further research is in order. I imagine there is a cheese sommelier program somewhere, where they certify Maître du Fromage, no doubt. One other interesting takeaway was that Compté, a firm aged cheese, is the most popular cheese in France, not camembert as we had thought.
Wine Tasting and Cheese Pairing
Of course, if one is seeking out tasting experiences, tasting wine in Paris seems obvious. But, despite all of the wine shops, there are not many places that offer tasting classes. We were able to find one and we did have a lovely time… However, the class was geared more toward inexperienced tourists than the wine snob I aspire to be.
Still, the variety of wines was nice, as was the cheese pairing. I did pick up a tidbit from the teacher that may explain why such classes are not popular in France. Basically, since wineries in the various wine regions in France tend to grow the same varietals in the same manner, the wines from a specific region tend to taste the same. As such, the French simply try wines from a given region to see if it suits their taste and if so, buy wine from that region in the future. To them, the varietal is irrelevant as long as the region is the same as what they have enjoyed before. So, a wine-tasting class to the French just means trying wines from different regions to see which ones you like. No further education is needed.
What type of class appeals to you when you travel?