I don’t ever recall waking up while the dawn chorus welcomed the coming day, unless I needed to catch a flight. On a cool Saturday morning my sister and I woke with a different purpose; to learn. I seldom have the motivation to do anything ‘extra curricular’ with precious little time off but when me and my sister are together she encourages me, especially when it comes to food and fact. A day with Aldo Zilli was on the cards, a rare chance to immerse ourselves in all things food related with the likeable Abruzzan by participating in one of his master classes.
After a strong espresso we crawled into a taxi, bleary eyed and silent.
The driver also seems to be memorised by the dawn light but as we reach the old core of London all three of us awaken with anticipation. Pulling into Billingsgate car park, there are traffic jams and crowds of dedicated food lovers sporting pleased expressions and full bags. Above us, gangs of seagulls circled on the hunt for fishy morsels. It’s 6am and the market is already beyond mid-swing. At this time I’d usually be in bed, totally oblivious to the early morning and its people. Today I am living in another world on the other side of town.
Louisa, Zilli’s right hand woman, greets us and we gather around her with the other master class participants listening to her knowledge. We move around the market swept up in the hustle and bustle of a regular Saturday morning. ‘Watch your legs!‘ men call, dragging huge crates around the market’s narrow veins. Live Lobsters, squid, sea bass, huge cod fillets, razor clams, crabs, long pointed fish, small perfectly formed ones, others ugly as sin, some cute as pie are stacked all around us – Billingsgate is home to absolute abundance of underwater dwellers.
Our eyes and ears are feasting; there is so much to see and learn here that we’re all very much awake by now. Louisa thinks nothing of prodding an eye and probing a bloody gill to demonstrate freshness – her brevity is envied by the squeamish. The visit is rounded off by breakfast in the market’s greasy spoon cafe where surrounded by boisterous and seemingly ancient market characters, we tuck into bacon and egg sarnies. It’s all but 7am and I already feel enlightened.
We chatter over our coffees, each excited to get cooking. I’m nervous as always before any type of class. Will I lag behind my peers? Will I set the kitchen on fire?
Armed with boxes of fresh fish we set off to the kitchens of Chelsea Football Club where Aldo awaited us with dry wit and charm. We gathered around him as he began to take us on a culinary journey, turning this way and that, demonstrating the simplicity of Mediterranean influenced cuisine. He put us at ease with an informal style; cooking in front of an accomplished chef when I’d only ever cooked for my loved ones seemed daunting, but once the aprons were donned and a few jokes cracked, we felt comfortable enough to participate and share knowledge.
We didn’t just observe Aldo cook, our job was rather hands on too; we gutted, scaled, seasoned, filleted, kneaded, rolled, floured and seasoned. We also sampled, savoured, satisfied our bellies, learning all the while through interaction with Zilli. We even had a competition of sorts in which we chose ingredients from a range and produced our very own dish, a chance to showcase the creativity we each possessed as avid food lovers.
Aldo didn’t just share a few dishes with us, he shared many; whole sea bass baked in a salt cocoon, baked sea bass fillets with cherry tomatoes and celery, cured sea bass, grilled and fried squid, baked sardines with cherry tomatoes, fresh pasta with two sauces (Ragu and alla Carbonara), near luminous pesto, risotto with scallops and saffron, various side dishes, stocks and two desserts; a light and fruity version of tiramisu’ and stewed peaches with cinnamon.
After the cookathon we sat in the plush surroundings of The Chelsea Club, sipped vino bianco and ate the fruits of our labour, accompanied by Aldo and his amusing anecdotes. Doused in steam and pride, we listened to his feedback of the dishes we’d created in high spirits and received certificated acknowledging our participation.
You cannot put a price on enrichment or snippets of information from an absolute pro which would be invaluable for all our cooking years to come. It was around half past 2 when I left, half a day gone but absolutely worth it.
For information about upcoming classes check out the Aldo Zilli website.