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English Home Houses a French Cooking School : Owners Restore 24-Acre Estate From the 18th Century and Put It to a New Use

December 05, 1985|KAREN GILLINGHAM

LITLINGTON, England — Just past the pub, follow the first tar road to the left. At its end stands Clapham House, an 18th-Century country home sheltered in this tiny village beyond the velvet hills that roll past the lush Cuckmere Valley.

Once the residence of Lady Fitzherbert, mistress to George IV, the 24-acre estate was purchased in 1978 by the current owners who restored the house and grounds not just for their family home but for a cooking school as well.

"All the fabrics in the house are English," boasted Patrick Brassart, describing the care he and his wife took to restore the home to its inherent style.

Indeed, whereas the room where Brassart spoke was pale with delicate English prints, his accent, the Champagne his son poured and the cooking school are all as French as some of the Provincial pieces that have found their way into the decor.

Brassart is the son of Elizabeth Brassart, directrice of the famed cooking school, Cordon Bleu de Paris, from 1945 until it was sold last year. (The London Cordon Bleu is not associated with the Paris school.) In part, it was through Madame Brassart's influence that her son's wife, Sabine de Mirbeck, conceived L'Ecole de Cuisine Francaise at Clapham House.

An Apology in Perfect English

"Oh, but I should have made you a proper French lunch," Madame De Mirbeck apologized in perfect English. C'est la vie, they had returned only the day before from holiday in Southern France. She had time only to present five American visitors, who came for a peek at her school, with just a simple lunch: a tray of figs with prosciutto, gossamer slices of smoked duck with cucumber, tabbouleh translated into French with fresh herbs, a just-picked garden salad in herb dressing and grainy dark rolls, all set out on a marble-topped cart in the rare English sunshine.

Two bottles of 1978 Chateau De la Rolandiere, heavy streaks of sediment forming patterns to show through from the inside, were poured.

But madame, about the school.

A third bottle of wine. Conversation is overflowing about the historical ups and downs of the French, playful ghosts that may inhabit the house, the importance of evolution in cooking as in all other arts, the weather.

Madame, l'ecole.

A crock of Stilton, a bowl of fresh fruits, pencils of chocolate in gold wrappers and cafe .

"Now, I will give you a look."

Through her own surprisingly modest kitchen, over a few stone steps, concave and polished by footsteps over the centuries, is the dining room. Here the students take their meals--lunches and dinners that are the daily lessons--at a long 300-year-old Spanish oak convent table in front of a massive open fireplace that houses a rotisserie known as the "17th-Century microwave." A Louis XIV game table is to one side, a French Provincial tapestry covers a wall.

"Many of our students will finish their training in fine restaurants," De Mirbeck said. "We want them to know how to respect beautiful furniture."

Chef on Tape

Through the door, a roomy, old farmhouse kitchen, with copper pots lining open shelves, was quiet, summer session having just ended and chef Christophe Buey off on holiday before fall classes began. But a tape was played of Buey, formerly of the Four Seasons in New York and a graduate of Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland, in a segment for a BBC series, "The Taste of Health." Buey demonstrated the preparation of "non-cranky" dishes, a carrot soup with yogurt replacing the cream, a spinach-stuffed grilled trout and a fruit gratin.

"We spend one week each term concentrating on health," De Mirbeck explained, "and Christophe works out alternatives to our recipes to make them lighter for those interested in healthful cooking."

Next, she guided her visitors through the two-acre kitchen garden that supplies fresh ingredients for classes. Over to the greenhouse to check the grapes; from tree to tree to taste Victoria plums and mulberries, which the students transform into sorbets, mousses, jams and jellies.

Then back down the tar road and a short walk through the village to a second kitchen used for demonstration classes at Litlington Tea Gardens and Nursery, the oldest tea garden in East Sussex and owned and operated by the Brassarts.

A few students who need a little extra pocket money can work at the Tea Garden in their spare hours.

The 40 students per term are accommodated in surrounding cottages and two double rooms in Clapham House itself.

"We wanted to start a school in the countryside where the accommodations are easier than in Paris," De Mirbeck said. "My own feeling is the younger students especially have (a hard time) finding hotels and getting around in the city."

De Mirbeck, who holds a degree in English, said: "We wanted to start a French cooking school in an English-speaking country. Ninety-five percent of our students are (non-French), and half of those are Americans. All our lessons are taught in English."

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