Courses for Cooks – Q&A with Jenny Thomson

By Derek Swan (@hungry_swan


I’ve been the fortunate recipient of vouchers to various cook schools across Scotland in recent years, all of which have been enjoyable but involving a bit of a trek from my home in Pittenweem.  I hadn’t been aware of one right in the heart of Fife until being introduced to Jenny Thomson via the Crail Food Festival.

Jenny owns and runs Courses for Cooks from her family home at the edge of the Lomond hills.  The classes are held in the kitchen of a former Victorian Manse, where small groups can take full-day or half-day classes across a range of cooking styles and cuisines, benefiting from Jenny’s 20 years’ experience as a profession Chef and Cook.

In advance of her appearance in the Chef’s Demo Theatre at this year’s Crail Food Festival, I had the chance to speak to Jenny about her background, motivations and, of course, about the classes.

D. How long has the cook school been running and how did you start out?

J.  After training at Leith’s School of Food & Wine in London, I went on to work as a Private Cook, travelling around Scotland, France, Canada and the USA.  After that, I ran the Butterchurn for 15 years, a farm shop, restaurant and craft centre promoting Scottish produce and located in West Fife. Courses for Cooks has been running for 2 years now.

D. From all your travels in your early days, what was your favourite location?

J. Probably France.  I worked there at Chalets during Ski Season, so you got to get out for some skiing and prepare food for people who’d really built up an appetite!  I’d really recommend it to anyone starting out in their food career.

D.  How does the food you prepare now differ from that at the Butterchurn or during your time as a Private Cook?

J.  No matter where you are, I think that most people are looking for good, home-cooked food made from fresh, local ingredients treated well.  Over the years, some of the trends in cooking and access to ingredients may have changed, but the desire is the same.  More recently, people have definitely become more interested in local produce and the economy of home cooking.

D. Who typically attends Courses for Cooks?

J.  A wide range, really – students to older people.  I think that there are more men than before showing an interest in cooking, maybe looking to take up a hobby in retirement.  That could be the Paul Hollywood effect!   There’s also an increase in much younger people, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, taking an interest in cooking.

D.  And how do you think the wives of the retired gentlemen will take to their sudden interest in cooking?

J.  I’m sure that they’ll welcome the help!

D. You’re very kind!  And great to hear much younger people taking an interest too.

J.  Yes – I think that the younger kids are now benefiting from the increased interest in recent years in cooking and availability of local produce

D.  With that increase in interest, there’s also been an increase in the number of cook schools in Scotland – What differentiates Courses for Cooks?

J. We really focus on cooking from scratch and very seasonal cooking.  For example, we’ll not just teach how to cook, but how to de-feather and joint a game bird in season.  Also, with a maximum of four people in a class, everyone gets a lot of individual attention, working to their pace of learning to make sure everyone gets the most of their time.

D. You offer a wide range of cuisines and cooking styles at your classes.  Do you have a cuisine or style of cooking that you’re most passionate about?

J. I like all cuisines, but am most interested in how the change of seasons influences what you cook and eat – from slow cooked curries in winter time to fish and seafood in spring and summer.  And I try not to cook the same thing twice, always changing what I eat.  Unless it’s practising a dish, which I may do several times over.  Then I’ll get ‘not this again’ from the family!

D. They are lucky guinea pigs, I’m sure!  What do you think is the most common skill gap that you come across?

J. It’s mainly pastry and cooking with eggs that people struggle with.  For example, when it comes to poaching eggs, making soufflés or whisking egg whites to the correct stage, people get scared and make mistakes.


D.  Can you give me a recipe to try that works with both?  I’ll promise to share my results, whatever the outcome!

J.  Yes, of course!

D. And one last thing – what one bit of advice would you give to any aspirational cook, young or old?

J.  Never give up.  Don’t get put off.  Always keep trying.

Jenny Thomson will be appearing at the Chef’s Demos on the 15th June at the Crail Kirk Hall as part of the 2014 Crail Food Festival ( . Chef’s Demos run on both 14th and 15th June at 11:45 – 13:00 – 14:15 -15:30 in our 80-seat Chef’s Theatre.

Classes for Cooks run courses throughout the year – bookings can be made at

And here’s that recipe:


Leek Souffle Tart
Serves 4 – 5
6oz/175g plain flour
3oz/85g butter
1 egg
grind of black pepper

1 medium leeks – finely sliced
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp flour
2 eggs separated
1 tbsp lemon
1 tbsp parsley
1oz/30g grated parmesan cheese
100ml milk
50ml Greek yogurt, crème fraiche or double cream

  1. Make the pastry either in a food processor or by hand:  combine the flour and butter until the mixture is like crumbs, add the black pepper and egg and bring together to form a ball of dough.  Wrap in cling film and allow to rest for 20 min in the fridge.
  2. Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas6
  3. Roll the pastry out thinly and bake blind in the oven for 15 min or until the edges of the pastry begin to turn golden.
  4. Sweat the leeks in the olive oil until soft.
  5. Add the turmeric and flour and cook for a minute.
  6. Remove from the heat, add the milk and stir well to combine.
  7. Return the pan to the heat and bring gently to the boil to make a sauce.
  8. Remove the pan from the heat, allow to cool slightly and add the parmesan cheese, yogurt, parsley, lemon juice and salt and pepper.
  9. Add the egg yolks and stir to combine.
  10. Whip the egg whites to stiff peak and fold into the leek mixture.
  11. Turn the oven down to 180C/350F/gas5 and bake tart for 20 – 30 minutes until set, puffed up and golden brown.

Crail Food Festival Cheers! with a Gin Cocktail

Last year a friend and I packed the car and headed to Crail for the food festival.

nichola fletcher cookery demo We had a wonderful weekend. Saturday we spent the day tasting and listening to various cooking and drink talks in the Community Hall.

The weather was beautiful and this carried on to the Sunday at the Harbour. We did the foraging walk with chef Paul Wedgwood of Wedgwood the Restaurant and Mark Williams from Galloway Wild Foods.

Mark WilliamsWe then headed for lunch in the harbour. We chose to feast on pizza cooked in a horsebox and other wonderful goodies that we purchased which included strawberries and crab.

doorstep bakery at Crail Food Festival As I drove away on the Sunday I had already penciled the date of the 2014 event in my diary. I booked my accommodation back in September and awaited the details of the event.

The festival has grown this year with tasting opportunities and a chefs’ theatre on both Saturday and Sunday as well as a wider range of events for children.

One of the tasting/discussions I enjoyed last year was by Edinburgh Gin.  As the event this year will be on World Gin day I asked them to share with us a Gin cocktail recipe.

Elderflower Gin for a cocktail
Elderflower Infused Edinburgh Gin Summer Spritzer

Fill a chilled highball glass with ice cubes, 50ml of Dry Champagne, Prosecco or Cava, 25ml Elderflower Edinburgh Gin and 50 ml of Club Soda. Garnish with a  twist of lemon.

As I still had some Elderflower gin and a bottle of Prosecco chilling in my fridge I decided to celebrate my birthday with this cocktail.

I hope the sun shines and some of you can join us on Saturday the 14th of June and Sunday the 15th for The Crail Food festival. Cheers

Author: Wendy Paterson
Website: Inside Out Chef
Facebook: Inside Out Chef
Twitter: @InsideOutChef

Producer: Spencerfield Spirits
Website: Spencerfield Spirits
Twitter: @Edinburgh_Gin

Give Me Lemons and I’ll Make Lemonade

Who could have failed to notice these wee beauties at the many Scottish foodie events?

Berry Scrumptious

When you grow amazing strawberries like Claire and Ross Rennie do on the family farm in Aberdeenshire, besides picking and punneting them, what else can you do? Cover them in chocolate of course. Berry Scrumptious is the brainchild of Claire and Ross Rennie but it doesn’t stop with chocolate-jacketed berries, they also produce fudge and chocolates. Since they started their company back in 2005, they haven’t let the grass grow under their feet.

Like many small companies, innovation comes from necessity, passion or filling a niche, which is where the Rennies new venture has sprung from. Summerhouse Drinks came to fruition (pun intended) because Claire, in her own words, said,

“As I’m always the designated driver when we go out, I noticed that most of the ‘posh’ lemonade sold in Scotland is made in England and a bit of further research with the customers who buy our chocolate, showed that there was a demand for a Scottish made lemonade range. Never one to pass up a good opportunity, we decided to go for it!”

Not that life gave Claire lemons, she couldn’t resist an opportunity to let her creative streak loose and she decided what better way to showcase her drinks than from a summerhouse on the back of a van. Bonkers you might think, yet brilliant.

Give Me Lemons

“We’re making real lemonades and soft drinks with 100% natural ingredients sourced from as close to home as possible. We will have some berry flavours but not enough for it to be called Berry Scrumptious. So we’re calling our new range ‘Summerhouse’ as, let’s face it, you generally need a Summerhouse to be able to enjoy a normal Scottish summer (and escape from the midges at the same time).”

I asked Claire what the biggest hurdle was.

“Finding the right machinery to make our lemonades. It’s very specialist equipment and has a long lead time from the factory to being installed and we didn’t have months and months to wait, we wanted to be launched for this Easter at the latest.”

Product development isn’t a quick process. Claire has been working on the drinks for over a year. Most of that time was spent doing research, writing and rewriting business plans before purchasing their first piece of equipment … a Soda Stream! Claire found that this ordinary piece of kitchen kit was a great way to test out recipes. It soon became apparent that that they needed to try the recipes out on a bigger scale and last December they trundled down to Edinburgh to spend a day at the Brewing Lab of Heriot-Watt University to try out a carbonating and bottling machine.

First bottles being filledThe first batch got a big thumbs up and the second test of the day was a ‘pink’ lemonade, which (at that point in time) needed a bit of work.

Since then everything gathered pace with pallets of bottles arriving in December. While most of us were patting our over-stuffed bellies between Christmas and New Year, Ross and his dad dashed off on an overnight jaunt to Keighley to collect some bits of production kit that they had bought only the week before.

They were now the proud owners of tanks, a bottler and carbonator, capper, labeller and a lot of pipes. All this gubbins was plumbed in the kitchen unit that was originally used for storage. New drains were put in, then a new floor and a wet wall.

Work still to be done here!

As if this wasn’t enough, there was branding, label and website design to be done; recipe development; planning a programme of festivals and foodie events to attend.

Labels for Summerhouse

By April, Claire had three flavours bottled and labelled! The initial range consists of Misty Lemonade (a cloudy version), Scottish Raspberry Lemonade and Hint O’ Mint (a firm favourite with the team) made with lemon juice that has been infused with natural mint leaves. Their first wholesaler started stocking Summerhouse Drinks, which meant that their beverages could be delivered throughout the UK on a weekly basis.

Never one to stand still, once again Claire’s creativity came into its own – getting the funding for the mobile summerhouse that could be driven around Scotland, dispensing lemonades and mocktails at festivals, fairs and foodie events.

One way of funding that has been popular with many small businesses, is crowd funding; this is the route that Claire opted for.

Why crowd funding?

“We decided to crowd fund for our van as we had spent all our resources on purchasing the equipment to make the lemonade and needed some funding. However, our avenues were limited. If you went to the bank or finance company and said ‘I want to build a van that looks like a summerhouse’, I doubt we would have got a positive response.”

This proved to be an excellent resource for finance for the company and within few weeks, Summerhouse Drinks had over 170 contributors, raising almost £5,000. And what do they funders get for their dosh?

“They get a range of rewards depending upon how much they pledge, including discounts on the Berry Scrumptious website, free drinks and VIP invites to events.”

To see how Claire managed to raise her funding and the wee video she made to generate interest in the mobile summerhouse, have a gander at the Bloom VC project page.

I asked Claire, what advice would she give to other small producers who want to diversify?

“Do a lot of good market research first and never stop innovating; new products are the lifeblood of a business.”

If you have an idea, take the plunge and you too could be winning awards like Summerhouse Drinks; they have won the Best New Retail Product for companies with less than 25 employees at the Grampian Food Innovation Awards with the judges liking their Hint O’Mint lemonade. They will soon find out how they got on in the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards. They were one of only three companies shortlisted in the Best Retail Product – Non Alcoholic Drinks section.

Unfortunately, there are no images of the van yet but it will be ready for their first event at The Taste of Grampian on the 7th June and, of course, you’ll be able to see it and try the lemonades at the Crail Food Festival.

If you fancy seeing where Claire’s design inspirations came from, then look no further than her Pinterest board. I’m sure many of us would like one of the gorgeous summerhouses featured in our gardens.

To follow the journey of Summerhouse Drinks stop by the website blog and to keep up to date with what’s happening with the van, they are on Facebook

All images © of Berry Scrumptious, reproduced with kind permission.

Author: Lea Harris
Website: Off the Eaten Track
Twitter: @BakersBunny