Make a vegetarian Christmas meal to savour with Mersea Island Cookery School’s help

The Mersea Island Cookery School is based in a traditional Essex barn. Picture: The Mersea Island Co

The Mersea Island Cookery School is based in a traditional Essex barn. Picture: The Mersea Island Cookery School - Credit: Archant

Make a vegetarian Christmas meal to savour with Mersea Island Cookery School’s help.

Butternut squash and chestnut soup. Picture: Mersea Island Cookery School

Butternut squash and chestnut soup. Picture: Mersea Island Cookery School - Credit: Archant

When it comes to serving up a vegetarian Christmas dinner you don’t have to plump for predictable fake meat dishes. If you are short on ideas on how to create a meat-free three-course meal that really makes an impression on the big day, the Mersea Island Cookery School is here to help.

The school, set up by Ben and Amanda Woodcraft, who also run the thriving seafood suppliers Ben’s Fish on the island, is hosting a workshop on creating the perfect vegetarian Christmas dinner on Wednesday, December 13.

Running the event will be top chef and award-winning cake maker Ilia Makri. Ilia was born in Greece, but came to Colchester in 1992 to study at Essex University. A decade later she ditched the successful computing career in the city of London she had established to follow her passion – cooking. She graduated with merit from the prestigious Leith’s Cookery School in 2003 and went on to work in top London restaurants such as The OXO Tower, The Savoy and Chez Bruce as well the White Hart, in Nayland.

Ilia says her homeland still heavily influences her style of cooking and Greece has a food culture in which vegetarian meals are eaten regularly, even by meat eaters. She says: I’m not a vegetarian but every two days I will have a vegetarian meal. It is part of the Mediterranean diet. We have always had great vegetarian dishes. It is part of our culture.

“My family always has lots of vegetarian dishes at Christmas… and a turkey!”

In England it seems it is not such second nature and Ilia says she has met plenty of people through the courses who are “struggling to replicate meat dishes with vegetables. They want to introduce vegetarian dishes into their diet two times a week and expand their repertoire of exciting dishes.”

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The Mersea Island Cookery School prides itself on using seasonal and local produce in its entertaining classes. Students are shown how to select fresh ingredients and how to prepare them for cooking. Ilia says these seasonal products make for singular, exciting dishes.

She says: “We make use of winter vegetables such as cabbages and pumpkins and use different things to add flavour, such as nuts, spices and herbs. They can transform the flavour of a vegetarian dish and make it amazing.”

At last year’s vegetarian Christmas dinner workshop at the school students created a three-course festive meal, starting with butternut squash and chestnut soup, a main course of mushroom and leek en croute with Savoy cabbage and swede gratin and rounded off with bitter chocolate and chestnut cloud cake with chestnut cream. Not a nut roast in sight!

And such amazing results are possible even for those who are novices in the kitchen, Ilia assures me. Beginners are welcome and the classes - held in a restored, listed, traditional Essex barn, with views across the Blackwater estuary - are designed to put students at ease from the start and create a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

Ilia, who lives in Wivenhoe, says: “The day starts at 9.30am and we all sit and talk over coffee or tea and freshly baked buns. People can socialise and learn about each other. It’s very down to earth.”

This connection with the students and the ability to share her skills is what Ilia most loves about her role. She started at the school in 2014, teaching classes and the following year she was asked by Ben and Amanda to run the whole school. Such close relationships with her customers were missing during her days as a professional chef.

She says: “It’s great to do fine dining and present food very nicely, but you have more of a connection with the customer when you are teaching. You see people’s faces lighting up when they get the dish out of the oven or take some food they very proud to have made back to their family at home.

“I love being involved in the meal the students are creating. We become almost friends. It’s so nice to be a part of a snapshot of their lives.”

If you would like to join the class for the December 13 workshop, you can book here

Places are filling up last so if you are unsuccessful, take heart the school is running a vegan food workshop in January and another vegetarian-themed class in February.

Can’t wait to try a festive vegetarian dish? Ilia has kindly supplied the recipe for the butternut and chestnut soup – a perfect winter warmer.

Butternut squash and chestnut soup

Serves 4

500g (prepared weight) butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm dice

1 tablespoon olive oil

30g unsalted butter

1 onion finely chopped

1 cinnamon stick

100ml dry white wine

1 litre vegetable stock

25g Roasted Chestnuts, peeled

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the garnish

25g Roasted Chestnuts, peeled

25g pumpkin seeds

2 slices white bread cut in 1 cm cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil


1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 8 and line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper.

2. Spread the butternut squash out on the prepared baking tray. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with the olive oil, then toss gently to mix. Cut half the butter in small cubes and dot around the squash. Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes or until lightly brown but soft all the way through.

3. Meanwhile, melt the rest of the butter in a large saucepan and once it is foaming, add the chopped onion, cinnamon stick and salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a lid and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent it from catching. When the butternut squash is ready, add to the pan, remove the lid and increase the heat to medium. Add the white wine, bring to the boil and cook for 2 minutes. Add the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the butternut squash begins to break up. Add half of the chestnuts, simmer for a further 10 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick.

4. Carefully transfer the soup to a blender and purée until very smooth. Return to the pan and if the soup is a bit thick for your liking, stir in a little more stock. Reheat gently until hot, then taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

5. While the soup is reheating, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and add the bread cubes. Toasted evenly for a few minutes and then add the chestnuts and pumpkin seeds. Continue toasting until the seeds start to pop and then remove from the heat.

Serve the hot soup in bowls, garnished with the croutons, chopped chestnuts and roasted pumpkin seeds.