Monday, 6 April 2009

Cooking with J-C

Saturday was a special and unusual day.  For my birthday last November, Mr HenHouse presented me with a voucher to attend a "Tasting and Demonstration Day" with none other than the French chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli.  I had met Jean-Christophe at a book signing he was doing in John Lewis on Oxford Street a while earlier so I was looking forward to this day (and particularly that devastating French accent!)

J-C (I'm not trying to pretend we are bosom buddies, it's just easier to type!) lives on a farm in Hertfordshire which is not only his home but the base of the Novelli Academy, where I presented myself on Saturday morning.  The farm is in the countryside but only a 5 minute drive from Luton Airport so was quite handy to get to by my private jet. (Ha ha! Make that "by rail".) There is a lovely courtyard area in the front and a great patio area with a yurt, chiminea, bbq, fountain and goodness knows what else.

The "Academy" is through this barn door...

It is dominated by the most massive Lacanche range cooker in a very subtle shade of canary!

To each side, were two sets of granite topped bars with stools where we 16 "pupils" sat, except we actually stood for virtually the full day. My feet still haven't recovered! It is fair to say that Novelli is obsessed with food and cooking. He whizzed from one dish to the next, never measuring anything, flinging the ingredients in, bashing garlic, banging pans and so on. His passion for his craft was completely evident and it's fair to say he was very inspiring.

We were given a copy of the menu for that day but warned that he was likely to veer off and do all sorts of other things as he fancied and we weren't given copies of the recipes as he apparently changes them as he goes along.  (We are going to receive them by email apparently.)

True to form, we started off with bread which doesn't seem to be on the menu!  He showed us how to test the feel of the dough and add more water to ensure a crisp crust but airy centre and then demonstrated making various shapes: baguettes, rolls, croissants and cute little loaves cooked in terracotta pots, adding various herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, fruits, tomato sauce and so on.

He whizzed on through each dish whilst we students started to wilt a bit, standing on that unforgiving flagstone floor and being surrounded by the sight and smell of amazing foods...but not actually eating anything.  1pm came; no lunch.  2pm came; no lunch. 3pm came; no lunch. Getting the picture?  Every time J-C offered to let us taste anything, we fell on it greedily.  It's fair to say we completely demolished the chicken fricasee with chocolate!

We moved on through braised organic belly pork, pommes daupinoise, pommes boulangere, spinach, mushrooms, making caramel, tarte tatin, spiced berries, soup, mussels in thai sauce.  Phew!  Finally, we sat down to eat - at quarter to five!  J-C is apparently legendary for over-running on these courses.  We were meant to have finished the whole course at 5pm.  I don't think anyone minded in the least finishing late but we were damned starving by then!

The delicious pea soup with pancetta...

The Thai mussels...

The divine belly pork cooked with cider, honey and spices...

This was in the oven for four hours whilst we were watching J-C cooking all sorts of other stuff. The aroma was amazing but given that we were starving, it was abject torture!

The tarte tatin which went from this... this...

Oh yum!  There was also a chocolate pot dessert but I didn't photograph that because I was too eager to eat it!

Finally, J-C showed off a bit with some amazing caramel creations.  Here he is winding the liquid caramel round a sharpening steel to make a decorative spiral.  

He then used a ladle to make the sugar cage (served with vanilla bean ice cream and spiced berries flamed with kirsch).

So, it was an amazing day.  I would have to criticise the fact that we were expected to stand all day and that we didn't eat until so late but other than that, it was brilliant.  And was he inspiring?  Well, last night we had some mushrooms cooked a la J-C with our steak, this morning I've made bread dough which is rising downstairs as I type and I also marinaded the chicken last night ready to make the fricasee today!  He is a lovely guy, very genial and down to earth, happy to have as many photos taken as you wanted and full of energy!


  1. What a fantastic birthday gift, you lucky girl. Glad you enjoyed it and now feel inspired to try out all that you learnt.

  2. Loved the photo's - what a fantastic present! Lucky you x

  3. Sounds like a wonderful day, I would have had a problem standing all day though. I suppose when you are passionate about something it takes over and you don't notice other peoples discomfort. Did you get a coffee/loo break? I would love a day at River Cottage. Dev x

  4. Sounds like a fantastic day, but what torture to smell all that divine food and not be fed until 4.45pm!! Looks like you had fun though and all at the Henhouse will be eating well this

    Sue xx

  5. How great. I think I'd be too excited just listening to his voice rather than cook! All looks yummy through.

  6. What an amazing day, apart from the standing for hours and not being fed, I imagine when the food hit the table there was a huge silence followed by lots of yums :)
    What a great pressie from Mr Hen House, he has such great ideas.....Claire xx

  7. What a great gift & fun day (except for the standing & starvation of course!)

  8. What a lovely gift and I bet you had a lovely day!

  9. whata fab gift. Sounds like a great day, and that Mr H-H will be the lucky beneficiary of some new tasty recipes. Think I would have wilted though standing for all that time without sustenance!

  10. Another lovely post from you. I applaud your honest reporting!

    The food does look wonderful and it's great that you learned some new techniques.

    As a shop manager who usually is on her feet all day (and never quite knows when the lunch break might be possible) I am very sympathetic to your tired feet and rising hunger. I absolutely think that Monsieur J-C should warn his pupils to bring along their most comfy shoes (stone floors are brutal for long stannding) and a candy bar or three.

    Enough carping! Cheers to you!

  11. How lucky you are! Sounds like you had a grand time! Happy B-day! :)

  12. Obviously a great birthday gift choice for you that has instantly left you inspired !
    Don't know how you managed to stand for so long, you must have been so achy.

  13. Ooh Hen, what a wonderful thoughful gift you received from Mr HenHouse! I really like Tarte Tatin. What a fabulous day you must have had. The menu looks so mouthwatering. I agree with you, I would not have liked to wait that long before eating and to have to stand up all day isn't ideal. At least it did not stop you from enjoying the experience and come back feeling inspired! Mr HenHouse must be delighted too!
    Isabelle x

  14. That sounds like an amazing experience if a bit torturous with the standing and lack of eating.

  15. Wow, that's fab. Although how you didn't fall off your seat swooning, I don't know. 30 seconds of a french accent and I'm anybody's :D x

  16. Ooh swoon - you lucky thing, and look at that final photo! That caramel basket is gorgeous. Great to hear that he was approachable and friendly, aswell as making tiptop scram x

  17. Looks like a great day out but not eating until late is not good :(
    Like the photo.
    I'm in the big city tomorrow, planning on paying Cath a visit but I've just found out they've got 15% off on weds... why can't it be tomorrow :(
    I have a 20% habitat voucher for the Easter weekend... do you want one? :)x

  18. Oooh, sounds like a fab day. I admire you're willpower too - must have been tricky to not have lunch whilst being surrounded by such wonderful smells and sights...! I'd have been in a heap on the floor!

  19. Wow, how fab! my father in law would love to do that! x

  20. Oh lucky you, I would have blushed too much to have been there!
    I think I saw him in John Lewis at a book signing in Bluewater, Katie and I were too shy to stop.
    I am sure it was him?
    Carol x

  21. You lucky thing,what an amazing day.My tummy would've told everyone in the room I was starving!
    Rachel x

  22. What a fantastic day out for you. My mum has been to smilar events with James Martin and Anthony Worrall Thompson.

    Victoria xx

  23. Looks like you had a fabulous time! How nice of him to let you take pictures. I think Tim would love something like this, might be a good Christmas present! :-)

  24. Hi Hen
    What a treat!
    I would love to have been a fly on the wall.. but without my stomach rumbling at the sight of all that lovely food... and Mr Novelli himself!!!

    Michele x
    P.s Have a wonderful Easter!

  25. A friend of mine has been and she swooned and ahhed and gasped and was very very hungry ;)


  26. Wow!!!! What a fantastic present! I don't envy your poor legs though standing all that time! Glad you had a great day. Lucy x

  27. Hi Hen,

    It's good to have you back, I've been following your blog for a while and I'm hooked! The holiday pic's are fab. Looking forward to seeing a few of your new creations now your back...

    Natasha x


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