I’ve always been a bit of a cooking ‘geek’. I cannot resist trying new ideas, techniques and flavours. So when I went to France in May for a gourmet cooking course my knives were (metaphorically) sharpened ready for a culinary extravaganza.

I calculated at least 21 hours in the kitchen chopping, slicing, filleting, sautéing- Deborah Ratcliffe

Tucked away deep in the Languedoc countryside about an hour from the airport of Toulouse, a converted barn, The French House Party, has been turned into an activity holiday experience with various courses on offer including mine on cooking.

For the next few days I was in the culinary hands of the masters: Robert Abraham and Jean-Marc Boyer. Each chef had his own style – but each was passionate, committed to innovation yet followed tradition.

Imagine mussels (or cockles) in a green apple and wasabi jelly, pigeon with sweet clover, salted cod with aioli à la Languedocienne and an utterly decadent brioche stuffed with chocolate then topped with caramelised raspberries... These were some of the dishes we learnt to cook. Other recipes were incredibly rich with the generous use of foie gras, butter, cream…

Don’t come here to diet.

It is literally a hands-on experience; I calculated at least 21 hours in the kitchen chopping, slicing, filleting, sautéing. However, don’t worry about being tied to the kitchen as the course is peppered with trips to the nearby market, outings to a vineyard to imbibe the regional wine, and to taste the local olive oil under the tutelage of a connoisseur.

A wine tutorial is arranged at the house with a meal cooked to complement the selection. Finally, guests visit the gorgeous old-walled World Heritage City of Carcassonne to explore and to dine in alocal restaurant.

The kitchen of the converted barn is light and bright, overlooking the swimming pool – a temptation on a hot day in the kitchen. With only one large cooker, hob space is tight so guests tend to be given parts of the three-course meals to prepare. At times I lost where we were on certain dishes as I was busy ensuring the bones from the duck didn’t burn or was preparing the ice-cream for churning.

However, everything came together in the end. It’s useful if you know some French as the chefs are not totally fluent English speakers. Regine, the incomparable assistant, is a real treasure – without her the smooth running of the kitchen would surely crumble.

Moira, the owner, is a lady as bubbly as the fizz she merrily pours to the guests. She writes books ‘on the dark side’ – and is usually on hand to help out with translations.

The 10 ladies in my group (usually a 60 to 40 gender split) were quite amazing – suchvaried personalities from the US, Australia, South Africa, Ireland and the UK. We slipped immediately into a delightful camaraderie, chatting and swapping hints and tips like old friends. I think this was due to the relaxed ambience and Moira’s liberal distribution of vino!

Days are long and busy so a morning swim in the pool, a bike ride to the Canal Du Midi or an evening jog to the local village help keep the calorie count at bay. Sadly for me, we had some of the worst weather imaginable and few of us managed to get out and about in our shortfree time.

The house is furnished in a simple yet pleasing style, more a family home than a grand hotel – and this is what it is – a house party with like-minded people coming together to learn the secrets of one of the world’s finest cuisines.


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