Tricia Welsh joins a cooking school that dishes out seasonal produce for cafe consumption.
Not every cooking class starts with a visit to the vegetable garden but at Bella Vedere at Coldstream in the Yarra Valley, it's almost a given.
Inevitably, what's fresh and seasonal in the restaurant garden dictates the day's menu – both for the cooking class upstairs and the casual daily lunch menu in the cafe downstairs.
A visit to the garden might be to pick lettuce, eggplant or blood plums but today we strip corn plants of their mature cobs and pluck tomatoes from their vines – “gleaning”, suggests executive chef and co-owner of the culinary complex, Gary Cooper, as we set forth into the garden lorded over by a couple of well-stuffed scarecrows.
We're a mixed bunch as we don wonderful industrial-strength baker's aprons Cooper found years ago in Paris. There are seven old Merton Hall school friends who lunch together each month, another two female friends – one who is celebrating her birthday – a lone male who was given a cooking school gift voucher for his 60th birthday and me.
In the light-filled cooking school, we pair off to be allotted chores. Walls are adorned with diagrams of the various cuts of meat and chalk illustrations showing how to bone and dissect a hare. Two huge locally made pine tables that “had to be lifted in through the windows”, according to Cooper, form the central work area.
Cooper is no stranger to cooking classes, having been the star presenter at Melbourne Food and Wine Master Classes, demonstrating his skills garnered over many years in kitchens from the two-Michelin star Terrace Room at the Dorchester Hotel in London, under chef Anton Mosimann, to his time as sous-chef at the former Fanny's and more recently as executive chef at Chateau Yering Historic Country House restaurants at Yarra Glen.
There are no themed classes and all dishes prepared are destined for the restaurant ovens – ending up on the cafe menu downstairs for our lunch as well as public consumption. Pastry is rolled, plums sliced, lemons squeezed, eggs beaten and the firm fatty confit flesh from duck legs removed ready to go into a duck pie.
We scatter succulent Hervey Bay scallops with breadcrumbs, grated parmesan and top with a white anchovy ready for oven-baking. We learn how to remove the backbone of plump Wandin quails “squashed frog-style” before marinating them in a mix of chillies, garlic, soy, vinegar and lashings of maple syrup.
We help prepare three desserts: a decadent lemon pie with home-grown lemons; an almond frangipane and blood plum torte; and an apple tarte tatin – the original upside-down tart made famous in 1889 by the French sisters Tatin.
Halfway through the morning, co-owner Tim Sawyer arrives to pour us a sparkling wine to jolly us along – and at the end of our tour, we descend to become diners at the cafe's large communal table downstairs – savouring what we helped prepare.
For Cooper, the opening of the cooking school late last year has been the natural progression of what has become a culinary destination in the Yarra Valley, with a bustling casual cafe open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday, a bake house producing an array of bread and Cooper's a la carte dinners on Friday nights and five-course degustation menus on Saturday nights.
In fact, the whole gastronomic experience at Bella Vedere celebrates everything that is organic, fresh – as much as possible from the kitchen garden and the immediate region – and seasonal.
Tricia Welsh was a guest of Bella Vedere Cooking School, 874 Maroondah Highway, Coldstream (Melways reference 277 B9), see bellavedere.com.au. Cooking classes are every Thursday and Friday, 9.30am-12.30pm, followed by lunch. Cost is $150 a person, which includes lunch, wine, class notes and recipes.