Travel: Belle Isle Cookery School, Co Fermanagh

It is said that surgeons bury their mistakes. At Belle Isle School of Cookery in Co Fermanagh, guests eat their successes. Sitting at a candle-lit table, toasting my fellow students and digging into a meal which we had all prepped and cooked, the first night of our three-day Spring Dinner Party course was a happy, and perhaps surprising, end to a day.

I say surprising because the mixed skill levels to which our group of 14 confessed at the start of the course were not promising. We were not all strangers to the kitchen but nor were any of us likely to appear on MasterChef. Some of us had been cooking for our families for years; others were keen to make their first steps beyond student spag bol. Others still had been given gift vouchers by wives wanting their spouses to do more than man the barbecue.

Me? I'm confident enough in the kitchen with a limited repertoire, but my enthusiasm is greater than my skills. My herby beef olives ended up looking more like ugly beef bananas, so I take no credit for the splendid team meal that crowned our first day.

Hide Ad

That honour goes to our tutor Naseem Booth who, in a few hours' hands-on teaching, moulded a rag tag group of nervous home cooks and stove novices into a confident crew of seasoned kitchen hands. We still weren't going to be troubling Gordon Ramsay's sleep but would be dead certs for the money in Come Dine With Me.

Set up six and a half years ago, the Belle Isle Cookery School takes its name from Lough Erne island, on which it sits. Reached by a bridge, the tranquil island is part of an estate owned by the Duke of Abercorn. Most students stay in the cosy, eco-friendly cottages of the horseshoe-shaped courtyard but larger groups could take the adjacent castle.

Dating back to the 17th century, the creeper-covered castle is a quirky mix of Landseers, double vaulted ceilings and drinks cabinets made from ancient carriage doors, complete with original cloth pockets; useful for holding a gentleman's pistols or indeed a fortifying bottle of whiskey. It also has a bed which was much used by Coco Chanel. Handy for dropping into those dinner party longueurs: "Did I ever tell you about the time I spent a night in Coco Chanel's bed?"

Back in the real world, the cookery school is run by Liz Moore, a self-taught chef who has cooked for everyone from the Queen to Michel Roux. Moore is a familiar face on Irish TV but is about to become a lot more recognisable over here when Channel 4 starts broadcasting Iron Chef, a high octane cookery show whose wildly popular format has been imported from the US.

Although she is originally a Co Monaghan woman, Moore is passionate about the food produced in Co Fermanagh. She reckons that its natural produce is overlooked but she is making efforts to change that by championing local farmers such as the Goodmans of Macnean farm.

Gavin and Fidelma Goodman specialise in rare breed pork and, during a break from the cooking, we drove over to their smallholding by Belcoo to watch their Tamworths and Oxford Sandy Blacks happily rootle around. We bought some of their ruby-coloured bacon and I'm looking forward to crisping it up and scoffing it as soon as I've finished writing this.

Hide Ad

The Belle Isle School of Cookery is not a culinary boot camp but nor is it a champagne-fuelled exercise in distraction for bored trophy wives. Through a mixture of hands-on work and demonstrations, the classes cover a lot of ground quickly and comprehensively but there is plenty of time for coffee breaks and sampling sessions. The emphasis is on enjoyment.

According to Moore, people come to the cookery school for dozens of reasons but, when boiled down, they are looking for confidence and inspiration. The courses range from simple family-feeding ideas, such as the 20-minute supper course, to more advanced sauce-making courses. There are one-day, basic skills classes for people who don't know one end of a whisk from the other and there is a four-week diploma course for those with ambitions to cook professionally.

Hide Ad

Our course was pitched between those two extremes. Before going, I could tell my artichokes from my mango but had yet to tackle bread-making or bhajis. I can now expound on the differences between crme brle, crme caramel and crme anglaise while giving my sun-blushed tomato dough mixture a pounding.

If you want to know the best way to store garlic or make your garnish berries glisten alluringly then I'm your man. I'm not sure how well my lemon and fennel shortbread is going to go down with the boys at the next poker night but I won't hear a word said against my haddock and prawn gratin. Not something I would have boasted before visiting Belle Isle.

The facts Easyjet fly from Edinburgh to Belfast daily, returns from around 46 ( A three-night weekend in the two-person Oak accommodation in the Belle Isle courtyard costs between 210 and 360. Hiring the castle for eight for a weekend costs from 1,800 ( Courses run all year and cost from 120 for a day ( .com). See also

Visit for more UK holidays

• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday April 10, 2010