With its reputation for culinary excellence, and a general cultural reverence for good food, France is an obvious destination for anyone hoping to learn to cook well.
For me, the decision to apply to Gastronomicom was prompted by my own lifelong love of French food, overwhelmingly positive feedback from former students, and the bonus of swapping a winter of rain and cold in London for clear, blue Occitanie skies.
So it was that I found myself in Agde this January beginning the three month course in pâtisserie and French. What a good decision that turned out to be.
The pâtisserie course is structured so that each week has a slightly different focus, building in technical proficiency every month at the start of each new cycle. Over the last week, Chef Pol introduced us to the fundamentals of viennoiserie, teaching us to laminate dough with butter and perform the folds that give these pastries their characteristic flaky layers. As well as walking home every afternoon with arms stuffed full of pain au raisins, pain au chocolats and croissants, we have been continuing our bread-making education, preparing a pain de campagne and traditional baguettes, and using the poolish method to make ciabatta and focaccia.
Undoubtedly, elements of pâtisserie can be a little daunting, but Chef Pol breaks down the process into manageable steps to accommodate even those with no previous baking experience. I think it’s fair to say that most students come away with a real sense of pride at what they have achieved at the end of each week thanks to his patient tuition and extensive expertise.
I also elected to use my time here to refresh my mostly-forgotten secondary school French, and could not be more glad that I did – Professor Stéphane’s classes are helpful, interesting and always engaging. This is not study demanding hours of completing exercises from a textbook; instead, Stéphane takes time to delve into the historical and anthropological origins of the language to provide context and broaden our understanding. He encourages students who are familiar with a particular word to explain it (in French, bien sûr) to those who aren’t. We play games to test our vocabulary. We watch snippets of French films. Each week we get just a little more fluent and develop slightly more sophisticated grammar. Though there’s still a long way to go, for me at least, it’s come as a huge surprise to this once reluctant student that I actually really like learning French.
At the risk of outstaying my welcome with an already overly long post, I just want to add for anyone considering coming to the school that, in addition to the excellent education, studying in such an international environment is truly an enriching experience. Five weeks in and I’ve already made friends from just about every corner of the world, which has been such an unexpected pleasure. So if you’re wondering whether to give up the desk job and go do the thing you’ve always daydreamed about, just do it. I wholeheartedly recommend it.