How to cook Christmas dinner
All the trimmings: Daunted by the prospect of cooking a traditional Christmas dinner for the first time, Rebecca Rose goes on a one day course.

For as long as I can remember I have been allocated the same tasks on December 25: laying the table, preparing the Brussels sprouts, organising the starter (always smoked salmon on brown bread) and generally being on hand in the kitchen to smooth my mother's brow.

I have never really had to contend with the turkey, although one year our oven had a breakdown on account of an especially weighty bird and I had to break into an absent neighbour's house to use theirs.

Nor do I have any real concept of turkey timings, other than a guilty knowledge that my mother is the only family member obliged to get up at dawn on Christmas morning.

So, when my younger brother volunteered this summer that he and I would "do Christmas" this year, I immediately felt a rising panic. This may be a rite of passage that happens sooner or later, but if you can count the number of roasts you have ever cooked on one hand, how are you suddenly supposed to know how to pull off a turkey and all its trimmings for 16?

Help is at hand from Delia, Constance Spry and the experts at Good Housekeeping, but their chapters are so reverential about the Christmas ordeal that they can instil yet more fear. My brother and I considered a trial run in the autumn, but soon decided against it once we totted up the cost of doing the whole thing twice. So, when I found out that Raymond Blanc's cooking school at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons was doing a one-day Christmas Dinner Party course, I put Delia back on the shelf and breathed a sigh of relief. The leaflet made all the right noises: "Learn how to create a banquet that you and your family will remember for years to come. This course is a must for anyone who is entertaining this Christmas," so I signed up at once.

Seated in the teaching room of Le Manoir's kitchens, decked out in chef's whites and aprons, the head of the Ecole de Cuisine, Steve Bulmer, asked each student how many they were cooking for this Christmas. Responses ranged from three to 12, so when I announced that I was catering for 16, there was an audible gasp. The rising panic returned. Bulmer began by listing all the things we would be proficient in by the end of the day: how to prepare and cook guinea fowl in such a way that its juices run into the breast, how to quarter and portion it and serve with fondante potatoes; make Escabeche, a refreshing, fragrant fish starter; a brilliant way to make sweet pastry with a filling of frangipane and Armagnac-soaked prunes.

Stomachs gurgled around the table as Bulmer described each dish with plenty of lip-smacking sound effects. "What about how to cook a regular turkey?" the voices in my head demanded. Bulmer was getting carried away describing a nine-bird ballotine royale he once made on New Year's Eve - an extraordinary Russian-doll type creation made of birds stuffed inside birds. I couldn't help but feel as if I had been wrongly streamed and ought to be taken down a set. Bulmer, who has been running the Manoir's Ecole for four years, must have sensed that some of us were getting jittery as he quickly reassured us that there is always a mixture of abilities in his classes, from semi-professionals down to absolute beginners.

We began with the guinea fowl, and within minutes were learning a nifty technique for whipping out the wishbone and how to truss with one basic stitch to hold everything together - thus quadrupling my previous experience of handling raw birds. Bulmer was brimming with tips about how to prepare and pre-cook things in advance: the fowl can be semi-cooked and "portioned off" the day before and then put in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving. Red cabbage, he assured, can be made at least a week or so before Christmas day, and the best way to cook it is to steam it with a sheet of greased proof paper directly on top, to keep the syrupy liquid from evaporating. Excellent, just the sort of information I was after.

Just before lunch came the turkey talk, and first of all, the importance of choosing a good bird - Bulmer recommended the Kelly Bronze variety, and there was a chorus of approval around the room. There wasn't time to discuss timings, and I got the feeling that I should probably be able to work that out for myself, but Bulmer did give us a few valuable instructions: cover the turkey with strips of bacon, including across its stomach, and then truss it afterwards with string, to stop the bacon from falling off half way through; devise a special cross-shaped tinfoil covering designed to stop the juices from escaping.

Lunch was a relaxed affair. We congratulated ourselves on our guinea fowl dish and then devoured it, while in the charismatic company of Raymond Blanc himself (who sensibly ate something else). I would have liked to have talked Kelly Bronzes, but Blanc was busy diverting the conversation to the more pressing issues: the state of food and farming in Britain today and how to tackle obesity. Back in the kitchens that afternoon Bulmer showed us "cheffy" tricks with pastry and clingfilm and an easy way to avoid over-cooking fish fillets (put them skin down and then watch the flesh turning opaque). He finished with a demonstration of how to bone and roll a chicken. It was so swift and painless that it looked strangely like removing a baby from a Babygro. I left the Manoir feeling confident and armed with my prune tart, a certificate and a tome of recipes covered in my desperate scrawling. When it comes to Christmas, it will be back to the books for the basics, but getting up close to game and poultry that day was a good ice-breaker for my forthcoming rendezvous with the biggest, baddest bird of all.