Now I hate to sound unforgiving, but Monsieur 2’s culinary contribution to our lives stops abruptly just after fresh coffee and toast. So I decided to brush up my skills with a skillet, and booked onto a day-long whisk-bearing course at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s fabled 15th century manorial slice of Oxfordshire.
I crunched up the gravel drive for muster at a punishingly early 8.30am, thankfully over a hefty shot of caffeine, cake and introductions. There were seven of us – five women, two men – who mostly unfurled CVs of previous culinary coursery and brushes with Michelin stars. We whipped on white chef’s jackets (ours to keep!) and wriggled into aprons (on sale at reception), then strutted through the kitchens like we owned the place and settled into Cookery School HQ, a large and sunny space that’s all Smallboned and Gaggenaued.
La leçon commence!
Our tutor Marcus Pepper certainly knew his onions. He started off by giving us the juice on the Blanc Vite course, which was based on the chef’s 1998 cookbook of nutritious seasonal fast food, a revolutionary take on cuisine at the time. Like so many great chefs, Blanc came from a poor but well-fed family, with an experimental cook for a mother and a gardening-mad father, the perfect combination for devising fresh, flavoursome dishes. It duly shaped his view of the kitchen, where simplicity and maximum flavour dominate everything he does, along with championing the organic movement for almost 30 years. And Marcus did RB proud. No Gordon Ramsay-style Tourette’s outbursts; just clear instructions, insights and a bit of a push if you talked too much over the hob.
In the vein of quick but tasty, each of the 10 dishes in our course used just a handful of ingredients, and took 15 minutes or under to prepare; perfect for those with low concentration spans (a group whose values I thoroughly… sorry, what was I saying?). The first casualty was the humble egg, and a lesson in crafting the perfect poach, whizzing the water around, dropping the egg in (at 63°C precisely) and watching a small masterpiece emerge. Then it was briskly on to the omelette. Pale and interesting on the outside, gooey on the inside, filled with salmon or mushrooms and cheese. A true instant meal, accompanied by a feeling of supreme confidence, and the knowledge that cordon bleu gets the green light.
Eat it up
Marcus then threw an unexpected into the mix: a nutrition consultant, the chic, wafer-thin Natalia, who talked us through fat, salt, GI levels, the hidden sugar content in food – and most accusingly, the British tradition of snacking, ie. eating complete rubbish. Then it was swiftly on to the butter, the starting point for every French gourmet dish. We were guided through a rich, milk-based pumpkin soup, spaghetti vongole (home-made spaghetti with clams), moules marinières, and poached chicken with a fricassee of wild mushrooms, accompanied by a warm salad of leeks and Jerusalem artichokes. Everything simple to make, exquisite to taste and beautifully presented.
Best of all, as we were guided through the menu, we were treated to expert insights into the gymnastics of cooking by Marcus and his sidekick Jason, as well as countless product placements; it seems RB has dipped his toe into everything from cookbooks and TV shows to ranges of professional-standard knives and saucepans. With every sizzling knob of butter, Natalia took a sharp intake of breath.
The good earth
As the maître himself points out, “Flavour alone would be a reason to buy organic food, quite apart from its freedom from additives.” So, in his 27 acre estate, Blanc’s six gardeners have planted 70 varieties of herbs, 90 different vegetables, micro-herbs in a temperature controlled greenhouse, a Japanese tea garden, a Chelsea award-winning Malaysian Garden, a mushroom valley and an apple orchard.
It’s all bang on trend, and best seen in their ‘Garden To Plate’ course that gets participants knee-deep in the veggie patch, ripping up their own ingredients and turning them into gourmet dishes. There’s an immediacy about the fact that the chefs are informed what’s good to go at the beginning of every week, and create their menus around it, mirroring RB’s reminder that “life is rooted in the changing seasons”. As far as possible, they source other ingredients locally and ethically, looking for guidance from such bodies as the Marine Stewardship Council.
After yomping around the grounds, it was back to HQ for the most serious part of the day: puddings. Between the thin apple tart (to take home in a little box), a plum crumble to die for, and exquisite roast figs with blackberries and port, we were riding the crest of a sugar wave.
It left me thinking, while I was untying my apron, that cooking is really a precision sport, right up there with the parallel bars (though usually without the sweating); it’s about focus, knowledge and application that even Tom Daley could learn from. I emerged from the day not only a better cook, but with a more confident and inspired mindset. At last, the time is ripe to unleash my experimental coffee-flavoured chicken or mustard ice cream on Monsieur 2!
I had a quick poke around the rest of the hotel for maman, who is trying to wing a stay from mon perè. It really is the last word in what RB describes as Le Manoir’s signature style of “elegance rather than ostentatious luxury.” The 32 guest rooms and suites are individually designed to be an individual experience, studded with artwork and starting at £515 per room per night, with Junior Suites from £785 per room for one or two guests.
But naturally, it’s the three dining rooms that take the biscuit. The kitchen won its two Michelin stars just a year after opening in 1985, and has held them ever since, producing a series of tasting menus, starting at £75 for a five-course lunch to £150 for a nine-course dinner. There’s a private dining room, La Belle Epoque, an elegant space that comes with its own 16th-century private walled garden to spill out onto.
Learning the Blanc way
People with a passion for food can pick up the art of cooking the Maman Blanc way in one of the one-, two- or four-day courses; it’s not a training ground for chefs, course leader Mark Peregrine points out, but for those who want to build confidence and learn new techniques.
One-day courses such as Bread Making, Patisserie and Food for Body and Mind, start at £350, with residential one-day courses from £550 (partners stay free); two-day non-residential courses in Fish and Seafood and Advanced Bread Making from £960, with a two-day residential Food and Wine course from £980.
The five-night residential Stage course starts at £4,000, and children’s classes during April and July start the next generation of Masterchefs on their way from £280.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxfordshire OX44 7PD.
Tel: +44 (0)1844 278881. To find out more or book, choose a course to suit you.
Nearest station: Haddenham & Thame (though helicopter transfers can be arranged).
Tips From RB’s Kitchen
- Don’t cry when cutting onions; use a super-sharp knife so sulphur particles don’t become airborne.
- Wrap vegetables and fish in damp jaycloths and meat in dry ones and put in the fridge; plastic packaging makes them sweat and go off quicker.
- Store porous eggs with onions to give them extra flavour.
- Lemon juice does the same job as salt in bringing out flavour in food.
- To crush garlic, place the clove on coarse sea salt and flatten with a knife.
- Use unsalted butter; it’s easier to control as it has no water in.
Roast Figs with Blackberries and Port
360g / 12 large black figs, crossed, sprinkled with caster sugar
30g / 2 tbsp caster sugar
250ml ruby port
400g blackberries (or raspberries, peaches or nectarines)
20g / 4 tsp butter, unsalted
- Boil the port in a large pan and reduce by just over half.
- Add the blackberries, remove from the heat and leave to macerate for an hour or so.
- Place a dot of butter on top of each fig. Roast the figs at 170°C in a pre-heated oven for 8-10 minutes depending on the size.
- Remove from the oven and serve with the warmed blackberries and a ball of vanilla ice cream.