Mary Wilkins partner in Wilkins Fine Dining and now owner of the Mary Wilkins Cookery School is a true Northumbrian whose love of food is a direct result of her local roots. Growing up in lovely Coquetdale, surrounded by plentiful supplies of local meat and fish, she spent much of her childhood foraging for wild herbs, berries and mushrooms. Mary trained at the Savoy under the guiding hand and perfectionist eye of Anton Edelmann in the great Escoffier’s Savoy kitchen - classical 5* hotel food of the very highest standards with a client list to match. Then followed a short spell at the Dorchester from where Mary was head hunted to work with Jean-Christophe Novelli in his Notting Hill restaurant W8. The food here was rustic, French, nose to tail eating – high on flavour, low on formality – duck rillettes and stuffed goosenecks.
Last week I spent a glorious autumn morning with Mary and eight other people in the lovely surroundings of Cragend Farm to learn from all of her knowledge and experience. The day began with the most delicious scones and shortbread served with locally roasted coffee in the newly restored farmhouse’s dining room. A great start! We then moved into the enormous farmhouse kitchen and watched while Mary prepared canapés of duck breasts with plum sauce and cucumber.
Throughout the demonstration Mary shared skills and tips, gave alternatives to ingredients and money saving hints. So savoy cabbage and kale were used as seasonal substitutes for crispy seaweed and dry frying and baking were explored as low calorie alternatives to the deep fried option.
Mary moved on to prepare a starter of roasted wood pigeon with pears, hazelnuts, chicory and gin vinaigrette. We all learned how to prepare and roast these toothsome little birds without drying them out. A quick lesson in skinning hazelnuts is going to save me hours in the run up to Christmas and the resultant plate – so pretty, so tasty – will certainly make it into my list of favourite dinner party recipes.
Our main course was roasted grouse with celeriac puree, wild mushrooms, game crisps and wilted chard. I have never had the courage to cook grouse always fearing that I would over cook them but Mary showed us how to protect them from the heat and time them to perfection. She had hints for those cooking on an aga as well as those of us with conventional ovens and her results were perfect: pink, juicy, flavoursome and tender. The celeriac puree was a flavour revelation - like essence of celeriac - and the sauce, flavoured with shallots and brandy, was both intense and subtle – a truly delicious accompaniment to the bird.
Pudding was warm, spiced local plums with a infused cardamom Indian ice cream called kulfi. Mary demonstrated how this version of ice cream does not need churning and in a very few minutes produced a delicious dinner party pudding that would be a life saver to any busy cook.
Throughout the morning Mary gave tips on portion size, knife skills, presentation and plating up. We sampled a Cotes du Rhone specially selected to go with the food and even had a tour of the historic farmhouse originally built by Lord Armstrong as a show case for his stock. It was a wonderful day and further dates planned throughout the autumn will cover warming spiced recipes for the winter, party drinks and canapés, Christmas recipes and much more.
Highly recommended. Proof of the pudding? I have booked onto the October class already.