A shiny, iridescent blue and green striped mackerel has just been produced from a bag, and placed on the butcher’s block trolley, ready for filleting and skinning.
In the capable hands of cookery demonstrator Christine Pike (aptly named for today’s demo) she makes it look so simple for the half dozen women gathered for today’s masterclass on fish.
After carefully filleting – all fingers and thumbs intact – she finishes off by skinning the mackerel.Related content
This is followed by a demo on how to fillet a flat-as-a-pancake lemon sole, deftly performed by cooking partner Judy Walker.
The dynamic cooking duo are hosting a cookery demo and lunch with the theme of Fabulous Fish, consisting of demos on two starters and four fishy mains.
The large kitchen of Judy’s splendid Edwardian home in Hexham, with its focal-point Aga and quarry tiled floor, is soon filled with the most tantalising smells.
Starters of smoked mackerel and cheese pate and smoked salmon savoury custard (a kind of soufflé) and mains of salmon and sugar snap laksa, Asian-style mackerel, baked stuffed lemon sole and fish pie with spinach and sweet potato, are all dishes on today’s demo menu.
Attendees, including retired teachers and a lecturer, all keen home cooks, are eagerly digesting all, from the techniques on filleting and skinning, as well as inspiring recipes and tips on what to look for when buying fish.
Bright shiny eyes, smells of the sea, and intact scales being just a few of the pointers.
“It’s very informal, just ask questions as we go along,” we are urged, as Judy says: “There’s a slight element of Blue Peter as we go along, with some bits prepared before we start.
“Our philosophy is keep it simple, not too expensive, but you can make these dishes look really nice.”
Fabulous Fish is the title of today’s course – and none of us can find fault with that description, after a sit-down lunch in Judy’s dining room, to sample the delicious creations.
Judy and Christine, both in their 50s, set up their cookery demo and catering business, The Secret Ingredient, about a year ago and hold courses in Judy’s home about once a month.
Judy, who is married to Peter, a professor of architecture at Ulster University, was prompted to start up the business after being made redundant from her last marketing job.
She has worked in public relations for about 20 years, even having her own consultancy for a long time, but struggled to find another job after being made redundant.
A mother of three grown-up children, Laurence, 23, and twins Phoebe and Angus, 20, Judy has always been a passionate home cook. She decided to capitalise on her love of cooking and took the plunge, enlisting her friend Christine’s help.
“We used to go to cookery demos and we came away saying, ‘we could do that’.”
So they did precisely that.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking and eating and going to each other’s houses. There wasn’t much in the way of cookery demos in this area.
“I was made redundant, then reassessed. I had applied for other jobs. There’s an age thing. There’s no doubt about it. So I thought what else can I do.”
Judy, who is also an Aga-authorised cookery demonstrator and demos for Walter Dix & Co in Team Valley, Gateshead, says: “I started thinking about what I love doing. That’s when I started badgering Christine – and it was fortunate they wanted a demonstrator at Walter Dix.
Christine says they started out doing demos with friends at first.
Judy says: “We did a taster day and asked people what did they like, what did they not like, and based on that research we set up.
Cooking themes include preparing ahead for a dinner party, Easter and family suppers. Upcoming lunches include a veggie-themed course and a Christmas demo.
Christine says they are conscious of money being tight so are only charging £30 per person for the demo and lunch.
Judy says: “We aren’t pretending to be chefs or anything like that. We want people to come to the courses and really feel they will cook what they have seen. We want to make it accessible.”
Christine, who is trained as a schoolteacher, also lives in Hexham, and is married to John Pike, one of the founder directors of Derwent Valley Foods, makers of Phileas Fogg foods.
A mother of three grown-up sons, she says: “John’s been in the food industry forever. He’s retired several times!”
After Derwent Valley Foods he set up Union Snack. “Then he’s helped set up Trees Can’t Dance (chilli sauce company at Haltwhistle) with Dan May.”
Judy and Christine know each other from when their children went to school together at Dame Allan’s in Newcastle. “We used to share lifts.”
Christine says: “I would describe myself as a home cook. We have 70 years’ experience of cooking between us! It’s been a lot of fun setting up the business. It’s great fun practising together. It’s an interesting sideline.”
Judy, who is also a member of a writing group, Carte Blanche, which meets at the Brunswick Methodist Church beside Fenwick in Newcastle, has just won a £200 prize in a short story writing competition.
Two of her friends from the writing group have come along to her course today.
One of the demo attendees is Sue Rylance, 70, of Cullercoats, a retired history lecturer, who taught undergrads at Durham Uni for 12 years, and also taught on Teesside.
She, too, is part of the same writing group as Judy, as is her lunching friend Louise Hislop.
Sue has three children, son James who lives in Peru, daughter Kate, a nutritionist, and Nick, who works in publishing in London.
This is the third cookery course she’s attended at Judy’s house. “I love making soups and I like fish. This is where today’s course has been so good. Living so close to the fish quay you get wonderful fish. I love the mackerel pate and I love the Asian-style mackerel.
“I find the demos fascinating. I love the tasting lunches and I leave full of enthusiasm.”
Her friend Louise Hislop from Wylam last attended the Easter themed demo.
Louise, who works part-time as an administrator on the apprenticeship side of North Country Leisure, said: “I have enjoyed this more than the first one. This is more useful. I have picked up lots of tips and we get to see how to fillet the fish.”
Next demos are on October 23: Vegetarian Cooking for all, and November 20: Easy Entertaining at Christmas.
4 fillets mackerel
Salt and pepper
Grated zest of lemon
1 clove garlic, grated
1cm piece fresh ginger, grated
1 spring onion
1 fresh red chilli
Coriander (couple of sprigs)
4 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp runny honey
To serve: coriander, mint, spring onion
Start with the sauce. Put the garlic, ginger, spring onions, lime zest and chilli into a small bowl, then roughly tear the coriander leaves and add the sesame oil, soy sauce, honey and lime juice.
Add a little olive oil to taste. Reserve.
Put a griddle pan/frying pan on the heat to get hot, add a small amount of oil, then fry the mackerel skin side down. Press down with a fish slice, then add seasoning and lemon zest.
Cook on a medium heat for about 5-6 mins. Flip them over for the final minute. Serve with the sauce drizzled over and top with spring onion, mint and coriander.