I’M cautiously chewing the pulp of a tamarind pod. I’ve tasted the fresh stuff once before, as opposed to the dry date-like blocks or gooey concentrate in jars you find in Asian stores. I recall that first encounter with this more sour than sweet fruit. An eco warrior plucked a pod off the tree for me in tropical Queensland. Tasting it feels much odder here in bosky Oxfordshire at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a 15th century manor house that is the culinary bastion of all things French.
'I saw her as an invaluable, tidy backstop – I was praying she had first-aid skills, too, in case I sliced myself with a knife far sharper than my blunt instruments at home'
It is 30 years this year since the legendary Raymond Blanc took over the house and demesne and created perhaps Britain’s best country house hotel. Thirty fertile, certified organic, acres supply raw materials for its two Michelin star restaurant.
The seven-course “Menu Decouverte” there the previous evening featured Filet de Loup de Mer (Cornish sea bass), Noix de St Jacques (scallops) and Chevreuil Rotie, Celeri-Rave and Truffe (roast Shropshire venison, celeric and truffle). All very French – or certainly Franglais. Only curry oil with the scallops and star anise jus with the bass hinted at an infatuation with Eastern flavours.
So next morning’s Raymond Blanc Cookery School offered Le Choc Culturel. My course’s title, “Tastes and Textures From Around The World”, should have been the giveaway, of course, as I strode through the morning fog for my date with the dozen other amateur cooks who had signed up for the day. In truth, I was feeling a mite foggy myself. But strong breakfast coffee was banishing the after-effects of a selection of matching wines with that tasting menu.
Ahead lay an intensive day in an apron under the tutelage of Mark Peregrine, head tutor of the Cookery School, who goes back all the way with Raymond as a chef. Mark was the first apprentice he took on when the Quat’Saisons was a small restaurant in an Oxford shopping parade. A peripatetic career followed cooking at top establishments in France and eventually teaching at the famed Cordon Bleu School. His track record shows in his presentational skills and the sheer amount of technical nous you learn quite incidentally along the way.
But that was all to come. Members of the class were instructed to pair off into working teams. I was lucky enough to get Hazel, a battle-scarred veteran of a variety of Blanc courses. I saw her as an invaluable, tidy backstop – I was praying she had first-aid skills, too, in case I sliced myself with a knife far sharper than my blunt instruments at home.
As it happened, the only blood I drew was a mere prick from a crab shell as I scooped out the flesh for a curry featuring the aforementioned tamarind. For our lunch, the crabmeat also joined scallop in a ravioli we made (confession: my pasta parcels, right, were clumsier than most), while the crushed shells made the base for the accompanying bisque (confession: I used too much liquid and had to boil it down too long).
But enough of self-flagellation. Mark put us at our ease at once. It wasn’t Masterchef. The day’s toil wasn’t going to qualify us for a professional career. We were going home with a goodie bag and a certificate, whatever happened. An end-of-course glass of Champagne awaited us. too.
Actually, it all got off to a bubbly start. Raymond is hands-on across the Manoir – even with the cookery school, which is housed discreetly in a separate, homelier (think Smallbone of Devizes and Gaggenau) kitchen attached to the hotel’s private dining facility. So before we got underway, he arrived to give a larger-than-life team talk. Not as many “voilà”s or “oo là là”s as on telly, but the passion is genuine, the gesticulation natural, as is his fascination with Asian ingredients and spicing. Apparently, he was off to Bali on a trip soon. As a Frenchman more acclaimed in his adopted country than in his homeland, he is well aware of how Britain’s magpie approach to the world’s cuisines has created a strong open-minded food culture today.
Hence Raymond’s manifesto for the course: “There is always this danger if tradition remains static it will congeal, shrivel and eventually die. Tradition can also choke creativity, imagination and impede a free mind. In that sense, French cuisine may be threatened.”
And there was me just wondering if I’d be better off learning some posh Parisian patisserie skills. After all I’d made my own Thai green curry paste from scratch before, even rolled my own sushi (though the bamboo roller, a foodie present, sits forlornly at the back of the store cupboard with the rice vinegar and the crusted-over wasabi pot!).
When a day course costs £356 a person you have to think carefully about what exactly what you want from it. I decided to chill out, not make too much of a mess and just aim for maximum fun – with Hazel as my reassuring, naturally assistant. As Raymond himself told us: “I know how to laugh at myself. I have eaten so many humble pies.”
Chop chopAnd it was great fun with a good crowd.The day flew past in a flurry of activity – a scallop mousse here, a slurp of miso there; pounding the spices in a pestle and mortar, squeezing fresh pasta through a mini-mangle, stir-frying veg and dipping fritters. One criticism, not quite enough hands-on for us. Still, I learned that egg whites freeze well, as does white crabmeat; strong flour in dough is higher in protein, so needs to rest a little longer; fresh herbs keep better in the fridge wrapped in a damp J-cloth; only ripe red peppers have nutritional value – they are rich in vitamin C, as are vine tomatoes... and lots more.
We may have been on this course using lots of exotics, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and curry leaves (the latter not related to the inedible curry plant in your garden), but seasonality is important. Mark advises checking out what is in season via a site called www.eattheseasons.co.uk and, yes, I have, been doing since I came back from Le Manoir.
Oh, and as well as all these tips, I got my certificate, now framed, a Blanc brand kitchen knife I intend to keep sharp and a Cookery School chef’s jacket, which I probably won’t be able to keep unstained. I also rekindled a hands-on passion for food that perhaps was becoming blunted by the week-in-week-out food critic’s regime. There, I’ve said it now. Merci, Mark.
After our self-prepared lunch, which was pretty good, we were allowed out to stroll around the organic kitchen gardens, sparse in early March but destined for fecundity as spring kicked in. On past visits, staying at Le Manoir, one of the delights was to watch through the dining room windows sous chefs hastening back to the kitchens with herbs they had just picked fresh. Food begins in the garden and Raymond loves gardening with a passion, too.
'Breakfast here is a laid out like a work of art. I got in-house smoked turbot with an intense tangle of spinach. And the croissants, naturally, were benchmark'
So the Cookery School is just another part of one man’s dream to recreate the idyll of his childhood in the Franche-Comté. Famously self-taught, unusual for a Michelin superstar, Raymond has constantly paid homage to the influence on his tastebuds of his mother’s rustic but canny cooking back in Besançon. Of Maman Blanc he says: “She was, and still is my inspiration, my teacher and my muse”.
Hence in this most celebratory of Manoir years the latest addition to the course roster, Cooking With Maman Blanc, which launches in June. The recipes will use fresh, home-grown vegetables, herbs and fruit and some of Raymond’s favourite meals from his childhood will be created – stuffed tomatoes, vegetable soup, cheese soufflé and wonderful chocolate mouse or an apple tart.
The Manoir’s own fine dining experience is more intensely refined but never loses touch with the need for clear, vibrant flavours. The day-to-day running of the kitchens is left to long-time associate Gary Jones, one of many accomplished chefs developed by the great man. General manager Philip Newman-Hall is another fixture. Perfection comes from such continuity and attention to detail. Breakfast here is a laid out like a work of art. Smoked haddock with poached egg is my start-the-day favourite; here I got in-house smoked turbot with an intense tangle of spinach. And the croissants, naturally, were benchmark.
No room or suite is the same. Some are in the Manoir itself, others spread out across the glorious grounds These are Provence-themed or in Oriental style, inspired by those travels of the chef/patron. We stayed in Jade, an opulent South East Asian boudoir, on the first floor of a garden block. You enter under the canopy of a tropical tree and enter a world of dark wood and seductive silk fabrics in various shades of jade. While I “sweated it out” in the kitchen my wife chilled out here with a good book and a glass of complimentary Madeira, interspersed with a stroll round the Japanese Tea Garden.
Since 2005 the hotel has been part of Orient Express Hotels, which owns and operates 45 luxury hotels, trains and river cruises worldwide. It has just rebranded all of its holdings except the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Belmond label (it means “Beautiful World”). With the inspirational Raymond Blanc allowed to put his personal stamp on everything connected with this atmospheric and hugely hospitable hideaway – it all makes commercial, sense, too – it’s hard to see anything substantially altering. So let’s all get cooking!
The real deal – that dishy Menu Decouverte
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD, UK. Situated just off the M40 in a picturesque village. And there is a helipad – it’s that kind of place.
A day in the Raymond Blanc Cookery School includes all tuition, morning and afternoon tea, informal lunch and a course certificate. One day costs from £365 per person. Courses up to four days are also available. A Cookery School voucher would make a fine gift for the foodie in your life. It is the only ‘school’ in the world to offer visitors the chance to watch, learn and practice in the kitchens of a two Michelin starred restaurant. There’s a wealth of opportunity from specialist patisserie, chocolate and fish cooking to courses based on Raymond Blanc’s acclaimed TV series, How To Cook and Eat Well and The Hungry Frenchman.
Overnight accommodation at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons starts from £550 for a double room, including breakfast. For seasonal offers and information visit www.manoir.com or phone 01844 27 8881.
The Menu Decouverte costs £154 a guest. A range of matching wines starts at £109. More affordable options are available. The website also outlineds all the 30th birthday special events.
The Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is among 520 Relais & Châteaux properties, recognising the finest hotels and restaurateurs worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans. The concept grew from the vacationing traditions of well-heeled French society, who traveled to a variety of "relais" (lodges) and "châteaux" (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards.
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