The Rogue Valley could be called a cook's land of opportunity.
A new crop of food artisans and the region's agricultural traditions are fodder for countless cooking classes — many more than the newspaper can cover in its weekly food section.
In seven years as the food section editor, I've written about hundreds of these events — and received almost as many invitations to participate. However, I'd yet to attend a single one until the unlikely theme of "Downton Abbey" brought me Tuesday evening to The Willows Inn and Cooking School in Central Point.
The Downton craze had completely eluded me. Not surprisingly, my television viewing tends toward cooking competitions and anything billed as culinary travel.
But the class that Willows chef and owner Sandy Dowling had planned put me in mind of a dear friend and Downton devotee. Had Paris Achen remained a Mail Tribune reporter, instead of leaving a few years ago for the The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., I likely wouldn't have remained in the dark about Downton.
Because Paris especially loves the attire of period dramas, instructions for dressing in the fashion of Edwardian England only heightened the intrigue — a surprise to belatedly celebrate her birthday. While my friend easily assembled a vintage outfit from her extensive wardrobe, I wondered whether we'd be the only guests so fancifully arrayed. Sandy had encouraged dressing for dinner but stopped short of requiring it.
Yet plenty of lace, pearls, velvet, feathers, beaded fringe and even white neckties and waistcoats greeted us at The Willows. As promised, instructors Tina Boughey and Jennifer Aston Mills brought old-fashioned aprons and caps across the pond to play the roles of Downton head cook Mrs. Patmore and her assistant, Daisy Mason.
Costumes aside, the rapport between Tina and Jennifer was something to relish. Paris commented that the lifelong friends — one tall, the other short — even reminded her of us.
As the pair cracked jokes about the monarchy in between forming carrot quenelles, and Sandy translated British vocabulary to American vernacular ("cling" = "plastic wrap"), fare fit for a queen came together before our eyes. Cooking for Queen Elizabeth II is a distinction the duo often cite while preparing their bacon-wrapped chicken in vermouth cream sauce.
The chicken dish — the "game course" at Downton — was the most modern recipe with its pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. The evening's understated seasoning of rich ingredients didn't much tempt my friend's taste buds, oriented to all things spicy, tangy and bitter.
Even pungent anchovies and capers couldn't enliven roast lamb enough for Paris' palate. So I happily polished off her portion and helped myself to seconds of the sauces she skipped. But dessert is a course that my friend, unlike me, is powerless to pass up.
"Floating islands" — buoyed by custard, populated with raspberries — referenced the Downton episode when Mrs. Patmore's failing eyesight caused her to salt the berries instead of sugaring them. With or without the Downton tie-in, the finale to this four-course feast captivated the crowd.
And in the end, as we chatted with fellow diners, the fete revealed itself as less about Downton and more about what I hope newspaper readers gain from local cooking classes, whether geared toward gourmets or food-pantry patrons. Sharing meals, recipes and memories is another way of joining the community conversation.