Jana Jacobson explains why she set up a cookery course in Market Drayton
The cooking course came about from a one-off gingerbread making/decorating workshop I ran during the Ginger & Spice festival at The Zone ( a new community centre in Market Drayton) in 2018.
The previous year I had won first prize in the Gingerbread House competition, so the festival organisers asked me run a couple of workshops. One was at a Longlands primary school, where all 214 children decorated a gingerbread. The other was at The Zone with participants baking and then decorating a Gingerbread Christmas Tree. Everyone loved it and I got really good feedback from participants.
Following the event, I asked the Zone manager if there was a more regular slot for baking/cooking at The Zone. I explained that my passion lay in cooking simple, healthy meals.
During my childhood in the Soviet Union in the 1960s I remember eating only freshly prepared food. No one had freezers and ready-meals had not been invented. In England, we never had enough money for the ‘luxury’ of frozen or ready-meals, so never picked up the habit of buying them. Money was tight when my children were young, as a mature University student I supplemented my grant working part time only.
In the early 90s I spent the whole summer vacation with a friend in a similar position and we both had only £10 per week to spend on food for us and our 4 children. We managed, but we really had to think out of the box - getting free marrow bones from the butcher for stock, boiling our own pulses for curries, asking greengrocers (that’s when they still existed on the high street), for free or cheap fruit and veg.We’d pile the kids up in a handmade cart attached to a bicycle and gather what we could and cook lovely big portions of succulent stews or lentil curries, homemade pies and crumbles, Asking for handouts was not very dignified but we had no choice. We had to feed the kids. We were not working (both University students), so the summer was spent in pursuit of cheap food. We all remember that summer as one of the funnest one’s we ever had!
The reason I have elaborated on my background is that my passion for fresh, homemade meals comes not from a desire to follow a ‘healthy’ diet, but because it makes economic sense to eat this way. To cook meals from scratch, in big batches and then tweak them to create different flavour combinations and use different accompaniments is how one saves money on food bills.
I did not realise until recently that not everyone shares my knowledge of how to stretch 500g beef mince to feed 4 people, twice over. Or how to create three chicken based meals from one medium sized chicken. How to bulk out a recipe; how to shop effectively; how to stock an ‘essentials’ cupboard, so that even on the days when there is no money for fresh food, the ‘essentials’ cupboard will magically feed a hungry family.
So when The Zone manager and I chatted about more cooking courses, I offered to teach others what I had myself learned. How to eat well as a family on very little money. It was coming up to Christmas, so our first joint endeavour was a 6 week cooking course entitled Festive Food with Friends.
The Zone is affiliated to Market Drayton Town Council, who insisted from the outset that places on the course would be offered first to Job Centre and Food Bank clients.
The Zone kitchen was not equipped for group cooking sessions, so I provided equipment for 8 participants (mixing bowls, mixers, jugs, chopping boards, knives, aprons, hand mixers, pans and scales) to get us started. I included the set up costs and ingredients used during the cooking sessions into my fee, charging £150 per session.
I created laminated menu cards for each session and brought these and the ingredients we would use that day. Each session started at 9:30am and finished at 1pm. That gave us enough time to make two food items from scratch and have a short tea break in the middle.
Initially I emphasized hygiene and knife safety at the start of each session; washing hands (which sink to use and when and how to wash hands effectively), wearing an apron, how to hold and carry a knife, where to place knife for washing etc.,) but by week 3 the participants did so without reminder. How to freeze and defrost food items safely was also covered, as part of the course involved partially cooking and freezing elements of the Christmas dinner to be finished off on the last day of the course. We had invited the OAPs from the Fairfields estate along with some Market Drayton Town Councilors to join us for Christmas Dinner on the last day of the course.
The sessions were well attended, although not all reached capacity, so that is a lesson I took away with me - the need to advertise early and liaise more effectively with the organizations making the referrals.
The core group of participants, who came for the full 6 weeks were a lively bunch with varying cooking skills. One was an unemployed ex chef, another had never cooked before; couple had learning challenges. But by the end of the 6 weeks, all were working seamlessly as a team! During the weeks I nurtured ‘untapped’ skills in each one: the ex chef lacked confidence, but was good at reading and interpreting the recipe, so I nudged her towards helping others understand certain phrases such as the difference between zesting and grating. Soon she was helping them without prompting and her confidence grew. Another had a very common ‘fear’ of touching food (raw eggs, pastry, meat) so I let her get used to these slowly, I.e using a cup to break and separate an egg, not her hands. She was also very quick and willing to help, so she became my ‘assistant’. Another participant, was precise and meticulous, so he helped others when it came to fine chopping veg.
Finding one's’ strength gave all participants confidence and they flourished.
Yes we made some mistakes - burnt a couple of pans, curdled a custard (that was me!) missed out an ingredient from the recipe sheet, but that was a great opportunity to show how to correct these or if need be, start over. Ultimately I encouraged my pupils to have fun, enjoy the process and not stress if things didn't work out.
I can't wait to meet my next group of cooks/bakers. We will have such fun together.
The new course, starting on the 22nd May, at The Zone, Market Drayton, will focus on items typically offered by the Food Bank and very cheap supermarket ingredients. Called Family Meals on a Shoestring its aim is to teach participants to prepare wholesome family Meals for under £2 per person.