So when the opportunity came up to create a recipe and blog post in return for the chance of winning a cookery course, I decided to be a little more proactive than normal...and I only bloomin' won the competition. It was this serendipitous course of events that led me to Exeter Cookery School a couple weeks back, to take up my prize of an afternoon learning the craft of pasta making.
I've always been intrigued by the idea of making pasta. It conjures up romantic notions of black-clad Italian nonnas sitting in sun-soaked piazzas, trays resting on laps, fingers nonchalantly rolling up delicious-looking tortellini and ravioli. The idea of making pasta ties in with the whole concept of 'slow eating', a wonderfully life-affirming approach to preparing and enjoying food which offers an important counterpoint to our busy, 24/7 lifestyles where food is often seen as nothing more than fuel.
I love anything that calls for a truly manual approach to making food - for kneading and rolling, pinching and crimping. Making pasta is all of these things, and, as I found out on my course, not as tricky as you might imagine.
The school is located on Exeter's quayside, a lovely corner of the city close to the centre where you can have an amble along the waterfront and enjoy a Devon cream tea before your course. It's run by chef Jim Fisher (a Masterchef semi-finalist) and his wife Lucy who ran a cookery school in the Dordogne for 16 years before returning to the UK and opening their new venture in Devon. With experience of working alongside Rick Stein and Alistair Little, I'll admit Jim's credentials did make me worry he might be in the scary chef mold and that if my pasta failed to make the grade I might find myself expelled.
Thankfully, nothing could have been further from the truth. Our small group was assured that we'd all go home with a box of successful ravioli and no cross words were spoken during the two and a half hour course (even when I couldn't work the pasta machine in a logical fashion.)
In between demonstrations on making dough and kneading, as well as using the aforementioned pasta machine, we were let into a few tricks of the trade and shown that the key to a good ravioli is making sure there are no air bubbles in your parcel. I was also interested to hear that it's definitely worth the effort to drain your spinach properly - you need around an hour, not the hasty few seconds I though sufficed - when making a spinach and ricotta filling.
After a quick cuppa and a chat, Jim added our pasta to the pan and offered us some delicious fresh basil dressing to drizzle over our cooked ravioli. They were, I'm pleased to report, exceptional. There's something very, very satisfying about eating pasta made from just a few ingredients by your own fair hands - you simply don't get the same feeling from ripping open a packet 0f pasta from Tesco.
But the thing that I enjoyed most about the course was finding myself completely absorbed in the simple process of mixing ingredients, kneading and feeding the dough through the machine. It's pleasingly tactile, repetitive work you can really lose yourself in, the kind of activity that really does help to ease away stresses and calm an over-active mind like mine.
The school runs all sorts of courses so if pasta doesn't appeal there are plenty of other options to choose from - how about trying your hand at spun sugar, butchery, or French boulangerie? There are course for all abilities, whether you fancy learning the art of Indian cookery or just want to learn some kitchen basics.
Great fun, sociable and a really different way to pass an afternoon, my course here was everything I wanted it to be: friendly, absorbing and informative. The fact I could justifiably stuff my face with pasta at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon was just an added bonus...
Find out full details about Exeter Cookery School here.