Molly Tait-Hyland finds the rhythms of French cooking at Thyme
It's one of those glorious early autumn days. The air is biting, the sun bright. The leaves are clinging to the trees. A lone cygnet, not quite fully grown, glides down the river. The autumnal setting feels appropriate for today’s cookery class: French bistro cooking, a cuisine unafraid of butter and fat - perfect food for the colder seasons. Marj and Daryll are taking the class, steering us through a bread, a starter, a main course and a pudding - a French meal to impress.
We begin with a white sourdough. The ‘Thyme mother’ (or sourdough starter) is brought out. The smell is funky... sour. “Is this really good to eat?” another student asks nervously. We assemble the rest of the ingredients and begin to knead. Gluten is created when two molecules forge a bond. By kneading the dough, the gluten complex is formed, this step is what allows the dough to rise. We settle into a rhythm. The Thyme kitchen looks out onto the herb garden. There is mint, curly and flat leaf parsley, oregano, fragrant lemon verbena, chives, French tarragon, marjoram, fennel, bay and an abundance of sprawling sage. Arms aching, mind still, making bread is a very cheap kind of therapy.
The chat turns to coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. Over the past twenty years, the number of diagnosed cases of coeliac disease in the UK has risen. However, no one can say exactly why. Marj explains that yes, diagnosis has improved, but the growing number could also be related to the quality of bread most commonly found in supermarkets. Instead of allowing time for yeast to ferment and dough to be kneaded, commercial manufacturers often use artificial additives and large processors in order to shorten the process. Bad bread “sits in the gut like chewing gum”. Our bread is put aside to prove, residual heat from the morning’s activity gently assists the yeast."
Next on the agenda is short crust pastry. Pastry is the complete opposite to bread. It has to be made quickly so that the gluten is not activated - the colder, the quicker, the better. Then, it’s on to the filling: dark chocolate, slices of freshly picked Conference pears and a glug (or two) of Poire William. To finish, we pour custard (made with the most luxurious unpasteurised double cream from a local farm) over the pears and voila!
We return to our bread. After the all-important first prove, we add ground coriander seeds, hazelnuts and sultanas soaked in orange juice. The bread is set aside for a second prove. There are no shortcuts to a good loaf. I am sent to harvest vine leaves which will be placed on top during the bake. Finally, our sourdough goes into the oven. A rich autumnal partridge dish is next. Sumptuous and comforting, perfect for the changing seasons. Then, its time to make la mouclade vendeénne. The lesser known but possibly more delicious relative of moules marinere. Fresh Cornish mussels, saffron, curry powder, white wine, cognac, garlic, creme fraiche... The table is laid, the meal ready, the bread is very nearly done... As Elizabeth David once said in ‘French Country Cooking’: “Good food is always a trouble and it’s preparation should be regarded as a labour of love”.