Saffron, the royalist of spices

This pungent, vibrant, intriguing spice has captured the hearts and imagination of thousands before me, leaving it’s stain on a fascinating and turbulent history. The tiny thread-like stigma from a variety of crocus known as crocus sativus is the world’s most expensive spice. It is used to colour and flavour food, dye clothes and as well as having some health benefits.

The name derives from the Arabic word zafran, meaning yellow, a reference to the golden colour that saffron turns both our food and clothes. With bright purple flowers each plant only produces just 4 and each flower only 3 stigmas. It takes over 75,000 flowers to produce 500g of spice (450 for just 10g). Add to this the fact that even today saffron strands are picked and removed by hand, it’s easy to understand why saffron is, ounce for ounce, more expensive than gold.

From ancient times, it’s colour, aroma and flavour seduced royalty. Cleopatra bathed in it, believing it made her more alluring. The Romans alleged it would cure many ills. Indians used it to dye clothes whilst Buddhist priests decreed that all their robes would be dyed orange with golden saffron. Trade brought wealth and power to merchants and growers but along with that came conflict culminating in a 14 day saffron war in 1374.

Originating in the Arab world, saffron spread from India in the east and to Europe and as far as America to the west. By the 16th century it was being farmed in large quantities in England. Former geophysicist turned saffron farmer David Smale tells us “these days saffron is more associated with exotic locations such as Iran, Morocco and Spain, but in the past English saffron has been, by reputation, the best in the world”. David, among other British saffron farmers, is looking to put the UK back on the saffron map.

Above all else saffron is celebrated and loved for it’s culinary delights. The flavour is  hard to define, but I liken it to a pungent, aromatic, but slightly metallic honey with powerful overtones of hay or dry grass made warm by the sun; it is both exotic and familiar. Often associated with rice dishes such as Indian biryani, Arabic pilaf and Spanish paella this golden spice is also the star of many classic seafood soups, bouillabaisse from Marseille, being the most famous. It is just as good in sweet dishes such as cakes, breads and even ice cream. I love to add a teaspoon of strands to vodka or gin adding an aromatic flavour and glorious colour.

Dried and fresh saffron

Saffron facts you should know

Rich in Vitamins A, C and a good source of beta carotene, saffron has long been regarded as having medicinal benefits. It has antibacterial qualities and can aid digestion, help treat stomach aches and bronchitis. There are on going studies to see if it can be beneficial in helping prevent cancer.

Today over 90% of the saffron we buy is grown in Iran, often then being packaged in Spain.

Price does not necessarily indicate quality. Buy, try and find the brand you like best, from a reputable supplier.

Buy strands rather than the powder, which should be more red than yellow or orange. The redder the stigmas, the better the quality.

Add saffron cautiously, a little can go a long way and remember you can add but you can’t take away.

As a rule saffron is steeped in water or another liquid before being added to a dish as it isn’t water-soluble. However certain dishes, such as Indian biryani, Arab Pilaf and Spanish paella have the strands scattered over the top of the rice as it cooks, staining it that wonderful golden hue where it sits.

If you are lucky enough to have a saffron farm nearby, buy direct from them for freshness.

Recipes

Strawberry and saffron jam

Make: 4 x 300 ml jars

This recipe is adapted from one that is made at a local saffron fam in The Charente Maritime Safran de l’Estaire. The addition of saffron is subtle but intriguing. You will need a sugar thermometer for this recipe and because strawberries have a low pectin level the resulting jam is not as set as some, but nonetheless delicious.

2 teaspoons saffron strands

1.5kg strawberries, hulled

juice 1 large lemon

1.25 kg granulated sugar

Grind the saffron strands to form a powder using a pestle and mortar. Set aside.

Put the strawberries and lemon juice into a large saucepan and place over a low heat until the strawberries soften. Then simmer gently, uncovered for about 20 minutes until really pulpy. Carefully remove about 1/3 of the strawberries using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the sugar and the powdered saffron and stir gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and simmer without stirring for about 40 minutes or until the jam reaches 105c/221f on a sugar thermometer. Remove any scum from the surface of the jam.

Meanwhile, sterilise the jars. Wash and dry the jars thoroughly and sit, facing upwards, in a roasting tin lined with baking paper. Place in a preheated oven 100c/220f until required.

Ladle the jam straight into the hot sterilised jars and seal immediately. Label and date the jars once the jam is cold. Store for 2up to 12 months in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate once opened.

Home semi-salted cod with saffron aioli

Serves: 4

Salt cod with aioli is a classic combination popular throughout Spain and southern France.

4 x 150 g cod fillets

2 tbsp sea salt

750g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

350g French beans, trimmed

a handful flat leaf parsley leaves

saffron aioli

1/4 tsp saffron strands

1 tbsp boiling water

2 egg yolks

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp white wine vinegar

200 ml mild extra virgin olive oil

Place the cod fillets in a plastic container. Scatter over the salt, turning the fish so that it is salted all over. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 2 hours. Turn the fish over half way through.

Place the saffron strands in a small bowl and soak in boiling water for 5 minutes. Place the egg yolks, garlic, mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk with electric beaters until pale and frothy. Very gradually whisk in the oil a little at a time until the mixture thickens and becomes glossy. Add the saffron and the liquid and whisk again. Cover the surface with cling film and set aside until required.

Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/gas mark 6 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the potatoes in the prepared tin, season well and drizzle over 1 tablespoon of the oil, stir well to coat. Roast for 40-45 minutes, stirring halfway through until the potatoes are browned and tender.

Wash and dry the salted fish. Place the fish in a steamer, cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until cooked through. Rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, cook the beans in a pan of lightly salted, boiling water for 2-3 minutes until al dente. Drain well.

Divide the potatoes and beans between warmed serving plates and top with the fish and a spoonful of the saffron aioli. Drizzle with a little extra oil. Garnish with some parsley and serve at once.

Risotto Milanese with a twist

Serves: 4

A classic risotto Milanese is made with saffron and frequently served with osso bucco. Here the marrow bones are used on their own to add a lovely depth of flavour to the rice dish.

4 small veal bones (ask your local butcher to source these for you)

4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus a few leaves to garnish

1-1.2 litres good quality chicken stock, heated until just boiling

½ tsp saffron strands

50g butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

300g Arborio rice

100ml Italian dry white wine

50 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 225c/425f/gas mark 7 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the veal bones in the prepared tin, sprinkle the marrow with salt and pepper and top with a thyme sprig. Roast for 20-25 minutes until the marrow is hot all the way through (check with a metal skewer) and sitting in a pool of melted marrow. Keep warm.

Place the stock and saffron strands in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and in a saucepan and gently fry the shallots and garlic with a little salt and pepper over a low heat for 10 minutes until really soft, but not browned. Add the rice and stir for about 1 minute until all the grains appear glossy.

Increase the heat to medium. Add the wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes until it is almost all evaporated. Gradually start adding the gently simmering stock about 200 ml at a time, stirring the rice constantly with a wooden spoon, allowing the rice to absorb most of the stock before adding more. Continue this for about 20 minutes until the rice is al dente and the stock all but absorbed.

Stir in the Parmesan and the juices released from the bone marrow and as soon as the cheese is melted spoon into serving bowls. Place a roasted bone marrow in each bowl and serve scattered with extra cheese and some thyme leaves.

Simple lamb brochettes with saffron pilaf

Serves: 4

With its origins firmly imbedded in the Middle East saffron is integral to many of the countries classic dishes and pilaf is just one of these. Here the rice is cooked separately and served with brochettes of spiced lamb.  

250g basmati rice

500g boneless lamb neck

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp ground sumac

75g butter

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 tsp cumin seeds

4 cardamom pods, crushed

1 cinnamon stick, bruised

75g raisins

75g pistachio nuts, chopped

1 tsp saffron strands

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

juice 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

Greek yogurt and lemon wedges, to serve

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water, leave to soak for a couple of hours. Drain and shake dry.

Cut the lamb into small bite size pieces. Combine 2 teaspoons of the sumac with the oil, salt and pepper and toss with the lamb. Thread onto skewers and set aside until ready to cook. Combine the remaining sumac with 1 teaspoon salt.

Melt 25 g of the butter in a frying pan and fry half the onions with a little salt for 15 minutes until crisp and golden. Set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and fry the remaining onion and spices with a little salt and pepper for 5 minutes. Add the rice, stir well to coat the grains and add 500ml water. Bring to the boil and scatter over the raisins, pistachio nuts and saffron, cover and simmer over a very gentle heat for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to sit for a further 10 minutes, then stir in the coriander.

Meanwhile, char-grill the lamb either under a hot grill or on a ridged grill pan for 2-3 minutes each side until cooked on the outside but still pink inside. Transfer to a plate and squeeze over the lemon juice.

Serve the rice scattered with the crispy onions and the brochettes with some yogurt and the sumac salt.

Orange, cashew and saffron syrup cake

Serves: 10

The saffron and orange syrup is poured over the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, so it absorbs both flavour and moisture as it cools, resulting in a lovely aromatic and moist cake. It keeps well for 3 days wrapped in foil and stored in an airtight tin.

175g unsalted butter, softened

175g soft light brown sugar

grated zest 1 orange (juice reserved)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp orange flour water

225g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

75g cashew nuts, finely ground

orange and saffron syrup

pared zest and juice 2 oranges

125g caster sugar

1/2 tsp saffron strands

crème fraiche or Greek yogurt, to serve

Preheat the oven to 170c/150f/gas mark 3 and grease and line a 1kg loaf tin. Using electric beaters, beat the butter, sugar and orange zest together until pale and creamy and then gradually whisk in the eggs and orange flower water a little at a time until combined, adding a little flour each time to prevent the mixture curdling. Fold in the remaining flour, baking powder and ground cashews until evenly combined.

Spoon into to the prepared tin and smooth the surface making a slight indent in the centre. Bake for 11/4 hours, covering the surface of the cake with foil after 45 minutes if it begins to brown. Pierce the cake with a skewer, if it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place the juice of all 3 oranges and the sugar in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boiling, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange zest and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture is thickened and syrupy. Remove from the heat and stir in the saffron. Set aside to infuse, keeping it warm.

As soon as the cake is cooked, pierce holes all over the surface using a metal skewer. Spoon over 2/3 of the syrup and leave the cake to cool in the tin.

Turn the cooled cake out onto a platter and cut into slices. Serve drizzled with the remaining syrup and some crème fraiche or Greek yogurt.

First published by Food and Travel Magazine 2015

© recipes Louise Pickford

© photographs Ian Wallace


New cookery workshops

Really excited to share two new cookery workshops dates for 2020!

Photography © Lesli Lundgren

After the terrific success of this year’s workshop in June Come Cook In France and Les Soeurs Anglaises are really excited to announce a further three cookery workshop dates next year in April, June (already fully booked) and September.

Our first will take place in APRIL as spring heralds in some fabulous new year’s produce, including asparagus, spring lamb and the first local strawberries.

Then, as summer makes way for autumn we again celebrate the season’s best produce including mushrooms, pumpkins and figs for our final course of 2002 in SEPTEMBER.

Dates

Spring workshop 23rd – 27th April 2020 BOOK NOW

Summer workshop June 18th – 22nd 2020 FULL

Autumn workshop 17th – 21st September 2020 BOOK NOW

Details

Four nights accommodation and continental breakfast 

● Welcome mezze dinner with wine. 

Three fun, informative, half-day cooking sessions with after-class tasting meals 

● An excursion to a local farmer’s market and/or visit to an artisan food maker (vinegar, cheese, nut oils, mushrooms, and/or a vineyard) 

● Recipes and a Come Cook In France folder 

3 light meals including all beverages (wine, waters, etc.) 

● Local transport from and to Angouleme train station and Bergerac airport 

● *Air and train fares to and from collection points in France are not included. 

Prices

A: Single occupancy of Superior double bedroom with en suite: 1350€ per person.

B: Shared occupancy of Superior double bedroom with en suite: 1150€ per person.

C: Single occupancy of Twin bedroom shared bathroom 1100€ per person

D: Shared Twin bedroom / shared bathroom: 950€ per person 

Minimum 8 participants (max 12 residents)

  • A non-refundable deposit of 300€ is required for confirmation of booking 

Itinerary

DAY 1 Travel day, you will be sent information regarding transportation to Les Soeurs Anglaises (pick-ups are generally late afternoon) from Angouleme train station and Bergerac Dordogne Périgord Airport (EGC). Welcome, meet and greet dinner at the house.

DAY 2 Morning at the local marché. After a light market lunch, there will be an cookery class in L’Espace kitchen where the evening meal will be discussed and prepared.

DAY 3 We will meet in L’Espace kitchen where we will prepare a three course lunch to enjoy al fresco (weather permitting). The afternoon and evening will be free time for you to relax and enjoy the accommodation. A light evening meal will be provided.


DAY 4 You will have another chance to relax and have spare time to yourselves. There will be a light lunch provided. The afternoon session will be preparing and cooking the four course evening meal, again to be enjoyed together al fresco (weather permitting).

DAY 5 Brunch followed by departures before lunch.

  • Please note that this is a proposed itinerary and is subject to modest modifications, depending on available fresh produce, new opportunities, and the wishes of the workshop leader.

Take a look at some of the previous workshops


Roasted Courgette Soup with Lemon and Mint

It’s hard to bemoan the summer harvest when you have lovingly cared for your soil, seedlings, shoots, plants and finally the fruits, but given that I only planted 1 courgette plant this year, I am still struggling to use all my courgettes! I have of course travelled the well trodden path of shredding, spiralling, grating, frying, pickling et all, but just when I had got to the end of my courgette recipe tether, I remembered a truly wonderful soup I enjoyed a year or so back in a small cafe in Beckles, Suffolk in the UK. It was of course the recipe of today’s blog.

Today’s freshly picked courgettes and mint, sadly the lemons were shop bought. If straight from the garden, wash well and then pat dry.

Firstly, trim courgettes and cut approximately into 2 cm chunks. Take 1 lemon, chop roughly into abut 12 pieces. Add to a paper lined roasting tin with some, salt, pepper and a good slug of olive oil. Stir well. Then into the oven.

Meanwhile, peel, trim and finely chop some garlic cloves and an onion or too, depending on the size.

You’ll also need to finely grate the zest of a second lemon. Remember if they are waxed, give them a good wash and dry before using.

While the courgettes are roasting you can start frying the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan. Use olive oil and add some salt and pepper to the pan. I like a small pinch of chilli flakes here, but this is optional.

Once the onion has softened you want to measure your chicken stock. I always make my own stock, but you can use stock cubes. I measure the amount I need, then make sure I have a little but more, just in case I need to thin the soup down.

At this stage the courgettes should be nicely browned. Have a peak in the oven and remove them or continue to cook for a while longer, if necessary. You can see in the pic, that both the courgettes and the lemons have charred edges.

Using tongs, pick out and discard the lemons, squeezing any juice back into the pan. Scrape all the courgettes and pan juices into the waiting saucepan, then add enough stock to just cover the courgettes. Bring the pan to a simmer and cook.

While the stock comes to the boil, roughly chop a good handful of the picked mint leaves and squeeze the lemon juice.

And now for my secret ingredient – well obviously not so secret now! I like to add a good slug (about 2 teaspoons) of runny honey. The sweetness is the perfect balance for the sourness of the lemons. Add, taste, then add more if needed.

Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes you can add the remaining ingredients. The soup is now ready to blend – I like to blend it as is, check I am happy with the texture and if necessary, I will add a little more stock and heat through.

RECIPE

Roasted Courgette Soup with Lemon and Mint

Now we are ready to eat. I thorough recommend drizzling another good slug of olive oil over each serve – don’t forget to the bread to mop the bowl clean. Enjoy

Serves: 4

4 large courgettes, roughly chopped

2 lemons

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1-11/4 litres chicken or vegetable stock

A large handful roughly chopped mint leaves

2 teaspoons honey

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220c. Cut the courgette into 2 cm chunks and place in a roasting tin lined with baking paper. Cut 1 lemon into similar size chunks and add to the pan with half the oil, salt and pepper. Stir well and roast for 30-35 minutes, stirring halfway through,  or until the courgettes are browned and softened. Discard the chunks of lemon.

Finely grate the zest of the remaining lemon and squeeze the juice into a separate bowl. 

Heat the remaining oil in a saucepan and fry the onion, grated lemon zest, garlic and a little salt and pepper for 5 minutes until soft. Add the roasted courgettes and any pan juices and pour in the stock. 

Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, mint leaves and honey. Process with a stick blender or in a liquidiser until really smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot, or if preferred allow to cool, chill and serve cold. 



Recipe of the week – beef

Beef with salt roasted celeriac and walnut Gorgonzola pesto

Delicious combination of earthy flavours and textures in this quick and simple mid week supper – photo Ian Wallace

Serves: 6

1 large celeriac, trimmed (about 1kg)

2 tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp sea salt

1kg piece beef filet

pesto

100g walnut pieces

1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley

2 tbs green olives

2 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

55g gorgonzola cheese

2 cups Autumn salad leaves, such as radicchio, red oak leaf, red chicory

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 200c/180c fan-forced and line a baking tray with baking parchment. Make the pesto. Place the walnuts, parsley, olives, anchovies and some pepper in a food processor and blend until smooth. Blend in the oil, half the balsamic vinegar and then stir in the gorgonzola. Season to taste and set aside.

Peel the celeriac and cut in half, then cut each half into 1 cm thick slices. Combine the oil and salt and rub all over the celeriac pieces. Arrange on the prepared tray and roast for 30 minutes until charred and softened. 

Meanwhile, season the beef fillet. Heat an oven-proof frying pan over a high heat and when hot add the beef. Sear for 5 minutes until browned all over. Transfer to the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and rest for 5 minutes.

Cut the beef into 6 thick steaks and arrange on a second baking tray. Spoon the pesto onto each steak and return to the oven for 5 minutes until the beef is cooked perfectly and the pesto golden.

Divide the celeriac between plates and top with the beef steaks. Spoon over any pan juices and serve with some mixed salad leaves.

© photo Ian Wallace

© recipe Louise Pickford

First published by Taste.com.au


2019 cooking courses

So looking forward to a whole new year of exciting cooking classes at Come Cook In France. As well as some of my regular classes, this year I am adding some full day and residential courses, hosted by the wonderful Les Soeurs Anglaises in The Dordogne.

Dinner is served at Les Soeurs Anglaises after a wonderful day of cooking

The Cook Club courses are held in my kitchen at home and run from 9.30am to 2.30 pm. We cook up until about 1 pm when we sit down and enjoy the fruits of our morning’s labours. I run approximately 2 Cook Clubs per month.

23rd February – Japanese Cooking

The first course of the year is a fascinating look into some of my favourite Japanese dishes. I will be explaining some of the more unusual ingredients. I will demonstrate prepare and cook gyozas. Then together we will make Udon noodle soup with salmon and a tataki of beef.

6th March – Pasta Making

This is always a hugely popular course and this year we will be stuffing lasagne sheets to make cannelloni, hand-cutting pappardelle and using a pasta machine to make different flavoured linguine. You can then make one of 3 different sauces to serve with your own home made pasta.

23rd March – Fish Cookery

So many people seem a little fearful of cooking fish, yet are huge fans of eating it. This course is perfect as we look at some of our favourite whole fish and get to grips with scaling, filleting and cooking several completely different varieties.

4th April – French Classics Revisited

This is one of my favourite courses as I like to take some of the classic French dishes such as duck confit or tart tatin and give them my own twist. So duck confit could be spiced with star anise and hoisin sauce before roasting, whilst fresh mango makes a quite delicious tart tatin, especially with home-made palm sugar ice cream.

17th April – Thai and Vietnamese Cooking

As a huge fan of South East Asian cookery I love introducing people to the amazing flavours and unusual ingredients of this fascinating cuisine. We chop, slice, crush, pound and fry some of the most yummy dishes you can imagine.

18th May – Pizza Workshop

The first day course of the year is such an exciting one. Hosted by Les Soeurs Anglaises we will have access to a pizza oven in order to cook up some truly awesome pizzas. After an introduction of how to get your pizza oven started up, we will make pizza dough, allowing time for it to rise. In the meantime we will crack on with all the yummy toppings, finishing the afternoon off our wood smoked pizzas, fresh from the oven.

13th-17th June – Cookery Workshop

I am super excited about my first residential cookery course at Les Soeurs Anglaises. After a meet and greet welcoming dinner we will spend 3 days preparing, cooking, eating, dining, relaxing and sharing foodie stories in the beautiful surroundings of our accommodation. Using locally produced and sourced ingredients we will cook French inspired dishes with a nod to modernity.

Please email me at louise@comecookinfrance.com or go to my contacts page for more details.


Looking ahead……summer 2019

Beef with pangrattata copy

Thyme beef fillet with anchovy dressing and pangrattata

 

I am really excited to announce a 3 day / 4 night cookery workshop next June, to be held in one of the most beautiful locations in the region. I have recently begun collaborating with Katie and Mike Armitage of Les Soeurs Anglaises in the Dordogne, where together we host pop up dinners and have formed a private dining club we call La Tablée (the sharing table) for local residents.

Katie has been hosting creative workshops at L’Espace, a superb barn conversion turned workshop venue, so it is the ideal place for me to run my first residential course.

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The long weekend will kick off with an evening meal, prepared and cooked by me, welcoming you all to the course. On the first morning you can accompany me to the largest weekly market in the region to discover the season’s best local produce. If you like, this could include a pastry and coffee at the market rather than breakfast at the accommodation.

Light lunches will be provided each day.

After breakfast, on mornings two and three you are free to relax and spoil yourself in the beautiful surroundings, by one of the two pools, or take a walk through the stunning countryside. Extra cookery classes can also be arranged as can visits to local producers or food stores.

All three afternoons will be spent with hands on cooking, where we will prepare our evening meal. I will demonstrate some of the more complex dishes teaching you how to prepare meat, fish, seafood and vegetables. It will be all hands on deck, slicing, chopping, searing and roasting.

Each evening we will sit down to share the wonderful meal prepared together, accompanied of course with complimentary wines.

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The workshop includes

  • 4 nights accommodation
  • 3 days of L’Espace workshop with me
  • All breakfasts, lunches, dinners (served with wine) and refreshments
  • Snacks and beverages throughout your stay
  • A morning visit to local market
  • Pick-up and drop-off at arrival airport Bergerac / train station Angouleme (at allocated times)*
  • *Air and train fares to and from collection points in France are not included.

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Pricing for this 3 night/4 day workshop varies depending on your choice of accommodation. Please see prices below or click here to see our accommodation photo gallery.

A:    Single occupancy of Superior double bedroom with en suite: 930€  per person

B:    Single occupancy of Twin bedroom shared bathroom 750€ per person

C:    Shared Twin bedrrom / shared bathroom: 620€ per person

In order to secure your place on this course we require a 170€ non-refundable deposit to secure a booking, the full balance being payable two months prior to the start of the workshop.

Limited to 10 places

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For further information or to book your place on this exciting weekend of cooking, please visit http://www.lessoeursanglaises.com/food-styling-photography

 

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