Lucknam Park Hotel: A Taste Of India In The English Countryside

Nigel Tisdall, The Daily Telegraph, February 27, 2013

Street food is having a little moment. What was once treated warily by travellers is now being celebrated with a host of dedicated awards, cookbooks, websites and festivals serving up loving spoonfuls of chicken fried rice, tacos, briks, falafels and gourmet hot dogs.

Small wonder, then, that there is now a cookery course where you can learn the secrets of Indian street food without fear of getting ill, ripped off or driven to tears by a volcano of chilli. What is surprising, though, is that this takes place amid the leafy calm of a quintessentially English country-house hotel complete with wood-panelled library, Michelin-starred restaurant, spa, equestrian centre and 500 acres of perfectly groomed parkland.

Six miles from Bath, the privately owned 42-room Lucknam Park Hotel couldn’t be farther from the back alleys of Lucknow, yet it is here that I am learning about spices, marination and the secrets of a proper Sindhi-style samosa. Opened last November, Lucknam Park Cookery School is run by Hrishikesh Desai, a genial, 33-year-old chef who was born in Pune, near Mumbai. Known as “Kesh”, he teaches 24 different courses, ranging from Classic British Puddings to Michelin Star Cooking at Home, although Indian food is clearly closest to his heart.

The irony of making a humble dish such as aloo tikki − a potato cake Kesh dubs “the poor man’s burger” − in a swanky kitchen purpose-built for its 12 students is not lost on us. We’re learning new culinary tricks in a world of “InductoBase” Belgian saucepans, “tri-mode” Italian fridges and German knives sharpened using “world-edge geometry”.

Kesh’s seven-hour course offers an easy combination of practical lessons and demos, with the first provoking a frenzied game-show atmosphere as we mix and grind seeds and spices, and try to create neat cones of dough that then have to be filled with a spicy potato mixture. “Would you bother to do all this at home?” I whisper to a fellow student as my designer samosa starts to look like a snake that’s swallowed a sofa. “Probably not,” she replies. “But it’s fun to try.”

Amazingly, by 2pm everything comes together and we sit down for a feast of nine dishes paired with a chilled riesling from New Zealand. The verdict? Delicious but very filling, as street food is meant to be.

The test comes back home when I try out my new-found talents one Sunday lunch, only to find that my chickpea curry is too hot and the tamarind chutney won’t set. After a mild panic, I find YouTube videos prove a far better learning resource than the poorly written recipe book supplied by the school.

It all gets eaten, though, and such courses are not about competing for a Roux Scholarship or the National Chef of the Year Award, both of which the multi-talented Kesh has won. They are an entertaining and instructive short break, and manna to the gift-voucher buyer (hint: Mother’s Day is March 10, Father’s Day June 16). Best of all, there’s a smart hotel next door, and no one has to be washing-up wallah.

The details

Cookery courses at Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa (01225 742777; ) cost £175. A “Stay and Cook” package costs from £395 (based on single occupancy) until March 31, including breakfast and use of spa.