I’ve always thought that hell might not be quite as black as it’s painted. If you have to spend eternity somewhere - then why not with all your reprobate friends? So discovering that Le Baou d’Infer, the cookery school just 20 km from San Tropez, translates in old Provencal as The Plateau Of Hell, warms my heart. Literally. Even at the end of the school’s season, which runs from mid May to the end of September, the weather is still hot enough for Factor 15. Not fire and brimstone hot, but laze by the pool, south of France languidly hot. Though, I add hastily, at this cookery school - not much lounging goes on.
Le Baou d’Infer is actually a heaven for food lovers. The café au lait house, covered with Ivy and Wisteria, is set in a working vineyard, surrounded by a rich verdant garden stuffed with perfumed herbs and plants which those with green thumbs will recognise the way philatelists do stamps, but reduce people like me to pointing at ‘sweet, red trumpetty things’. Tall cypress trees soar up into the perfect duck egg blue sky, while the spreading branches of lime, fig and mulberry offer shade over the baking hot, crunchy gravel where a table is already set for lunch. It’s hard to imagine that when owners Peter and Di Knab first bought the house in 1986, ‘it looked like Colditz’, or that the building they use for food storage was originally a pig sty. Now, it’s picture perfect Provence and as far as the eye can see, total wraparound bucolic bliss with rows and rows of neat vines slumped like a well-orchestrated army, too tired to march on under the summer heat.
Peter and Di, who both had successful careers in fashion photography, originally came to France to look for a small holiday cottage. After extensive renovations and the addition of a specially built studio, Peter often used the house for fashion shoots. It seemed to make perfect sense when moving into food photography with Delia Smith’s Summer Collection, to shoot the food outside, in natural light, where it was going to be eaten. More cookery books followed, but it was while shooting Raymond Blanc’s Blanc Vite, under the supervision of effervescent, New Zealand chef, Alex Mackay who was then Director of Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School at le Manoir de Quat’ Saison, that the cookery school was born. The idea came up during a conversation over dinner and within seven months Peter’s studio had been turned into a teaching kitchen, the house had been prepared for guests and the dream was a reality. Five years later their cookery school partnership is a marriage made in heaven. Or rather hell, in this particular case.
The school is small, with only 6 people cooking in the kitchen. Partners are welcome, however. The house has six beautifully decorated bedrooms, and non-cooking bed fellows can find a wealth of things to do locally, from golf - there are six championship courses nearby - to wine tasting at local vineyards, or even just lying on the beach in nearby San Tropez. For the energetic, there are great walks – don’t miss the trudge up Heart Attack Hill for the fabled sight of the sea, and bring-your-own-biking is also popular. Otherwise, you sweat it out over a hot stove for a week. And be warned, though the setting may be right out of Full-on French Fantasies, the cooking is not stirring for softies. The course kicks of at 9.30 after a breakfast of bread, croissants and home made preserves, and aims to provide a good basic, broad knowledge for beginners, as well as offering skills for the more experienced cook. It’s intensive, focussed and ideal for people who really want to cook, not just shimmy about wearing an apron ‘That’s why I chose it,’ said one guest, an ex stockbroker who was given the course as a gift for her fortieth birthday and whose home life already sounds like a recipe for exhaustion – four kids, two dogs and regular impromptu supper parties for dozens of her closest friends. ‘I wanted something with as much hands on cooking as possible,’ she said. Oh, and she got a pasta machine for her birthday – she really wanted to learn how to use it.
Alex is happy to oblige – it’s part of the roll call of dishes on day 3’s programme. An irrepressible shaggy dog of a man, he doesn’t just bounce from place to place, but slams, swerves and ricochets around his kitchen like a squash ball, kicking oven doors closed and tossing the contents of saucepans, both at the same time. “Oka-a-ay,” he drawls, producing a roll of dough that, like Blue Peter presenters, the class prepared earlier, and which looks, frankly, a bit grey. ‘It’ll be fine – watch it – whenever I start working with it, the colour comes back,’ he insists, all cheeky charm and deft hand movements. And he’s right. Of course. It does.
Now I’ve done pasta. When my kids were small I bought the pasta machine, to complement the icing set for the elaborate Jane Asher cakes I never attempted, and the ice cream maker for the healthy sorbets I never made. Pasta always seemed like a faff too far. However, after watching Alex fold the dough and feed it through the pasta machine like my grandmother used to squeeze her washing through the mangle (maybe that’s why I never caught the bug?) I saw that it wasn’t such an onerous task. And watching him join the ends of the pasta together to whiz it round on the thinnest setting like a roller towel finally made the whole ungainly performance achievable. Within minutes I was spinning that dough through my hands like I was winding wool – if I had been playing the Generation Game I’d have walked off with the whole damn conveyor belt. Afterwards, you name it, we made it – tortellini, ravioli, cappaletti (sp), and later that morning, like a big, happy Mediterranean family, we sat at a long table underneath the Mulberry tree and ate it all for lunch.
Despite a couple of glasses of wine, the kitchen crew were back inside by 2.30, keen as mustard and raring to work through until 5pm. In one day the range of dishes they made was breathtaking – foccacia, Lemon Curd, Lemon verbena crams, glazed lamb shank, rack of lamb and risotto, to name but a few. You can see why partners are welcome, they’re needed to help eat the food. It’s not all Pastis, canapes and a game of boules – there’s serious eating to be done.
Dinner, where cookery students reluctantly take off their aprons and wash the flour from their hands, offers a chance for everyone to get acquainted and another chance to sample the fruits of their hard labour.
“We love it,’ said Peter and Di with an enthusiasm not usually found in people who have a succession of strangers tramping through their home all summer, ‘We meet so many really lovely, interesting people, some of whom come back year after year.’ ‘There’s a certain synergy about it,’ claims Peter, ‘you’d be amazed how often people discover they have things in common and everyone always gets on.’ ‘There was only one tricky guest – he was so tense that he complained about the machinery noise at night.’ adds Di. ‘We couldn’t understand what he meant as the place is so quiet. Turned out it was the buzzing of the bees in the wisteria outside his window.’
Cooking enthusiasts flock from all over the world. Making up the rest of the cast are Patrice and Florence who wash dishes and pick up after you like the 1950’s mother you never had, and Mary, Alex’s assistant measures and prepares all the ingredients. It helps if you love dogs as well as cooking. Peter and Di’s Labrador, Rosie, spends her day between snacks, napping, being patted by guests and dreaming of more delicious ways to get fat. It’s definitely a dog’s life.
Classes are a good combination of example and execution. You watch, you learn, you practice it yourself. Alex keeps things simple and unpretentious but is not above showing you a few ‘cheffy’ tricks to impress your own guests. However, no matter how professional the dishes invariably look, things still go wrong here with the comforting regularity that all distracted cooks will recognise. People forget to put things in the over, to turn it on, and even on one famous occasion when dinner was stuffed fish, forget to take it out. The most valuable lesson you learn is that mistakes are redeemable.
Oh, and chocolate fondant – that’s a pretty useful skill. On day four, after a master class in custard and pastry making, we made and devoured/italics/ 8 different desserts. After five days of eating at this level your next holiday may need to be a visit to a health spa. But that really would be my idea of hell.