HAVING dabbed natural yoghurt on my croissant, thinking it was some sort of cream, perhaps I should have realised the baking course I was about to embark on might be a bit of a challenge.
It seemed normal enough to me. And tasted really rather nice. But you don’t even put cream on croissants do you? Let alone yoghurt.
It turned out it was for the granola. Anyway, I quickly let everyone know at The School of Artisan Food that I am a rugby writer who knows nothing about baking. Especially Christmas baking, the workshop we had gathered for.
Still, what a wonderfully festive thing to be able to do. Especially knowing there was also a night’s stay at the nearby Ye Olde Bell - a delightful inn that dates back to the 17th century but now combines tradition with contemporary touches - once the day’s graft was complete.
I donned my apron, took a deep breath and took solace from the fact that Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, the award-winning master baker leading the day-course, insisted we would all, come what may, create some beautiful stollen and puff pastry mince pies by the close of play.
As he spoke in the School’s state-of-the-art training kitchen, within a Grade II listed building amid the splendid surroundings of the historic Welbeck Estate in North Nottinghamshire, his confidence gave me confidence. I was ready for action.
He added that, even though he was South African, and unlike most South Africans, he had no interest whatsoever in rugby. Good. I could concentrate on the matter in hand - baking.
There are countless courses available at the not-for-profit organisation from breadmaking and cheesemaking to butchery, brewing and the intriguingly titled Pig In A Day.
However, ours is an informative and entertaining step-by-step guide into how to create both these delicious staples of the Yuletide menu.
Of course, while most of the students are nodding attentively, asking questions and gleaning every morsel of advice and expertise from Hadjiandreou and David Carter - the affable Baking Co-Ordinator who swapped from life as a solicitor after first attending a course at the school - I am just trying to make sure I am on the right page. Quite literally.
But I am hanging on and rather enjoying the whole process even if David - two Daves are better than one - has to lend a hand at times to avoid disaster.
My puff pastry had been going great, with the repetitive roll, double turn and return to the fridge process well underway.
However, on the last roll it appeared I’d forgotten to sprinkle enough flour on my work surface. The pastry was stuck. So was I.
Fear not. David appeared, full of positivity, and came up with a master plan.
He reached for a piece of apparatus never before utilised in this recipe - a spatula - and, with real deft and guile, somehow managed to edge my pastry clear.
There was still work to be done; Emmanuel offered his insight and it was agreed between the pair that the wounded pastry needed to go into the freezer if it was to have any hope.
Lo and behold, 30 minutes later it returned, in pristine condition ready to be fashioned into those delicate little pies.
Every time I now take a bite out of anything puff pastry-orientated, I do remember exactly just what goes into every single one of those immaculate layers.
My wife Jodie likes to bake at home and she picked up some useful tips along the way, not least the process of flattening and squaring up the butter for the pastry, which raised a few impressed glances by the other keen bakers on the course.
And I never knew there was so much to talk about on the subject of yeast - dried, fresh, how long it lasts, when it’s at its best and worst - nor did I realise just how much butter is lashed onto a single stollen at the glazing stage. Remarkable.
The end product? Absolutely delicious. And I did it all. Well, sort of…
Afterwards, we arrived at the Ye Olde Bell in Barnby Moor with that unmistakable, lovely mince pie smell having wafted through the car and desperately trying to not devour any more.
That’s because we were booked into the warm and inviting St Leger Bistro-by-the-Bar at 7.30pm.
We felt the need to put back to 8pm just to give ourselves chance to give the food justice.
It proved a great decision; my scallop starter was delicious and the sirloin steak cooked to perfection, all washed down with what remains my favourite ale - Timothy Taylor Landlord.
Still, even with my sweet tooth (not great given I’m diabetic), I simply could not contemplate a dessert after all we’d savoured beforehand.
Well, not on my own anyway. So we shared a delicate panna cotta - and immediately wished we’d had one each.
It is plain to see why the hotel is rated as AA Four Star with a Rosette Award.
Ye Olde Belle certainly know how to get into the festive groove, too; there are almost as many fairy lights festooned outside as there is on Clark Griswold’s home in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and we, momentarily, felt guilty the kids weren’t with us.
Our superior room, which as well as being spacious with a touch of decadence, is in the adjacent Courtyard and has the benefit of a parking spot right outside the door.
Furthermore, it is just a short hop over to the luxury spa which offers an indoor-outdoor vitality pool and ten thermal experiences including a bespoke snowstorm, ‘Sabbia Med’ sunlight therapy.
For more details contact: www.yeoldebell-hotel.co.uk (01777 705121) and www.schoolofartisanfood.org (01909 532171)