As I drive out of Ross, the market is just swinging into life - traders are setting up their stalls and I quickly stop off to buy a few bits. There is low-lying mist hanging over the Wye and the sun is a milky gold and full of promise. Spring is bursting in every direction and hedgerows and woodlands are bourgeoning with every kind of wild flower.
The woods that straggle the steep and winding road up the mountain to Blaenavon from Abergavenny are fast budding green. The once barren ground on the top beyond the trees and the cattle grids sports a richer and brighter cover each year and the sheep that graze on it look ever more affluent. New born lambs totter dangerously near the road's edge. One tiny lamb abandoned by its mother is sitting in the road chewing a long stalk. I wonder does he know how close he is to becoming Welsh lamb?
I arrive at the Chef’s Room just after eight and Chris, Vin Sullivan’s factotum has already opened up. I unload the car and start to set up. The morning is bright but my goodness it is cold up here. The snow was still on the ground weeks after it had disappeared elsewhere.
Today we have a small class, of six maybe seven. I had a call last evening from someone who had been recommended by a friend and sounded interested but could not commit. I set up for seven anyway and seven come. Johnny would be bringing the shellfish through later, a cock and hen crab, some dive caught scallops, if he can get them, squid, cockles and mussels and in the mean time I get on weighing out the other ingredients.
Very soon Franco’s smiling head appears around the door, wild garlic in hand, full of energy and enthusiasm. Our prep was soon finished in spite of the gossiping. Franco and I work together two or three times a month and we are both busy elsewhere in between so there is always” stuff” to catch up on. Franco wanders off to look for the fish and soon returned with Johnny, the seafood, an extra table to make pasta on.
Nine forty five and the first of Franco’s victims (as he calls them) arrive. Cappuccino, espresso or tea all round before the work begins - the last victim appears on the dot of ten so Franco who is always as eager as a race horse under starter’s orders to get going, can be let loose. First he walks the crabs, cock and hen around the class, pointing out the differences, their claws waving aimlessly in salute. “Always hold a crab by a claw not the big pincers – they give a nasty nip” he warns. Once everyone has made their acquaintance they are dropped into a pan of simmering court bouillon and the class moves over to make the pasta for the crab sauce and some biscotti for after lunch.
The crabs have cooled and so everyone sets to learning what is edible and what is not and picking out the white and brown meat. Back to that later - we always make something early on in the day that the class can enjoy for elevenses with a glass of Prosecco. This generally ensures that everyone relaxes and enjoys themselves, not that Franco is a hard task master - his school boy humour generally gets everyone laughing. This morning we make cockle fritters with lavabread one of Franco’s Welsh Italian fusion dishes. Salute!
Franco shows everyone how to clean the scallops and squid. The class has a go at cleaning, cutting and scoring the squid for a delicious warm squid and chick pea salad, then cleaning the mussels, chopping, parsley, herbs, garlic, chilli and so forth ready for the other seafood dishes. Franco shows how to make “cozze in potacchio” mussels Le Marche style which the class pauses and eats for “twelveses” There is then the pasta to roll and cut which with the help of Franco’s amazing electric pasta making machine everyone really enjoys making.
The home stretch now – the squid salad to finish and serve and the crab sauce to make for the pasta and everything is done. We have never yet had a group that was not sociable and fun - we attract all ages, male and female. Today three of the group are friends, one of whom had been before and talked two friends into coming along, others had been given their lesson as a birthday or Christmas gift. Franco as usual thanks everyone, no longer victims but now “children” for being a good audience and the groups heads off to the shop to buy fish before they return home.