London’s top food classes and tours
Cookery classes or tasting tours are one of my favourite things to do when I’m travelling. I’ve tasted Guinness at their brewery in Dublin, learnt to roll rice paper spring rolls in Vietnam and toured a Camembert factory in France (holding my nose the whole way round). But some of the most interesting food and drink classes and tours I’ve done have been in London. Although the UK has historically had a bad rep for its food, things have changed and the country’s now home to a huge array of high-quality, small-scale food and drink producers. And more and more of them are offering tours, tastings and cookery classes to show off what they have to offer. Here are my picks of some of London’s best food experiences.
Taste your way around Borough Market
Borough Market is one of London’s top food markets, where you can buy produce from across the UK and beyond. But if you don’t want to just wander around in the crowds picking up a few samples, you can join a tour and feast your way around the market. Food writer Celia Brooks is the only tour guide licensed by Borough to run tours, which start early on a Friday morning when it’s quietest. The tour begins with brunch in Roast restaurant overlooking the market, while you learn all about its history. Then the tasting starts – we stopped off at lots of different producers who pulled out plate after plate of food, like rare-breed meat, freshly seared scallops, British cheeses, Spanish charcuterie and handmade chocolates.
There’s time to talk to the producers and learn about how the produce is grown or made, and you can buy as you go along or ask the stallholders to hold it for you. For a rest from the eating we also stopped off at Bedales wine bar for a wine tasting, laden down with bags. Celia really knows Borough and its producers and by the end you get a real insight into the place, as well as not needing to eat again for days.
Celia Brooks’ A Taste of Borough Market tours run on Friday mornings from 10am to 1pm, and cost £70 per person. She also runs tasting tours around Covent Garden, Marylebone and Portobello Road.
Learn to cook an Italian Sunday lunch
A piece of Italy in Marylebone, Cucina Caldesi is the only Italian cookery school in central London. In a light and airy purpose-built school kitchen behind their restaurant, the Caldesis run a variety of cookery classes, from pasta-making to canapés and cocktails. We went for their Sunday Market Kitchen course, where you learn to prepare a pranzo della domenica, aka an Italian Sunday lunch. Chef Stefano Borella took us on a whirlwind tour around Marylebone farmer’s market first where we picked up local seasonal produce. What you cook varies depending on the time of year, but on our menu was pea and broad bean bruschetta, salmon and prawn skewers, and a meringue and fruit concoction.
Everyone gets involved in preparing different parts of the menu (I’ve never shelled so many broad beans in my life…) and the kitchen was a hive of activity with chopping, mixing and blending under Stefano’s watchful eye. You’re talked through how to do everything, and a few hours later, the group gathers to taste the end results, along with a few glasses of wine. The simple ingredients come together to make something delicious, and you get copies of the recipes so you can recreate it all at home.
La Cucina Caldesi’s Sunday Market Kitchen classes run once a month and cost £95 per person. They start at 10am and finish around 3pm (though there’s no hurry – we were still sitting chatting at 4pm).
Get to grips with fish at Billingsgate
Billingsgate fish market in east London is the UK’s biggest fish market, and has been running on various different sites since the 16th century. As well as the market they also have their own seafood school, a charity run to promote healthy eating and help people learn how to prepare and cook fish. They do a whole range of courses, with one of the best-known being the Catch of the Day course. You arrive at the market when it opens at 6am and get taught how to identify and choose fish before learning how to prepare about six different species, which their chefs show you how to cook and you get to taste.
Or for a less intensive (and later starting) option, they also run an evening seafood school. Starting after work on a Friday, the focus is on easy-to-cook dishes you can whip up using just one pot, like a seafood laska or a French bouillabaisse. If like me you don’t cook fish much it’s a great opportunity to learn that it’s not complicated and to get more confident in knowing what to look for when you buy fish.
Billingsgate Seafood School’s Catch of the Day courses take place once a week on varying weekdays, they last from 6am to 2.15pm and cost £193 including lots of fish to take home. The Evening Seafood School runs once a month from 6.15pm to 9.45pm and costs £85.
Gorging on cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy
I did a whole post on cheese-tasting at Neal’s Yard Dairy a while back but couldn’t resist giving it another mention here. Neal’s Yard is one of London’s most famous cheese shops, with branches in Covent Garden and Borough Market. They stock cheeses from 70 small-scale producers across the UK and Ireland, and know who makes every cheese and how they do it. As well as selling cheese, Neal’s Yard also run tasting evenings where you can try some of their products. Each has a different theme, but our ‘Modern Traditionals’ tasting showed off modern interpretations of British classics like Red Leicester and Stilton.
With 12 cheeses to taste, as well as bread and chutneys from Borough Market and red and white wines, make sure you go there hungry. The tasting started off with goats and soft cheeses, moving on to Caerphilly, Red Leicester and Cheddar, and finishing off with blue cheeses. For each one we learnt about how it was made and who the farmers and cheesemakers were. It’s a great way to discover some more unusual cheeses – though watch out for the strange dreams after.
Tastings at Neal’s Yard Dairy normally take place in the evenings and last about two hours, from 7pm–9pm, and cost £50. They’ve also recently started Saturday afternoon tastings which you can combine with a visit to Borough Market.
So those are my picks of London food classes and tours, but do you have any suggestions for any other ones I should try out?