MAXINE GORDON spends a day at Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School to discover his real-life kitchen secrets.
IT’S not every day you make lunch for Raymond Blanc – and “la poule au pot” simmering away in a large soup pan is just what the French chef is after.
We are in the kitchen at the cookery school at Monsieur Blanc’s gastronomic hideaway, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire.
The setting for Blanc’s restaurant/hotel/cookery school is idyllic; part English manor house, part French country retreat. In spring, the heady orange scent of Choisya consumes the air; in high summer it is lavender.
There are formal gardens, large allotments and a new orchard for guests, diners and cookery students to explore.
I arrived the afternoon before my day in the kitchen, and was thoroughly spoilt by a night in the rather grand Citronnelle junior suite and dinner à deux in the two-star Michelin restaurant.
My husband Nick and I opted for the nine-course “menu découverte” which lived up to its billing as a “voyage of discovery… of flavours and textures, matched with lightness, seasonality and best produce”. It’s difficult to highlight a specific dish, but the mackerel with soy jelly and apple purée the sea bass fillet with smoked mashed potatoes and the fruit ravioli with coconut jus were the stuff of food memories.
Fans of chef Blanc’s TV show, Kitchen Secrets, will already be familiar with the 61-year-old’s culinary approach. Flair, oui, passion, absolument; but there is also an insistence on the freshest produce, which translated into any language means working with the seasons and what is close to hand. This is super-trendy now, but this philosophy has guided Blanc for more than a generation.
Cookery tutor Steve Lyons leads a tour of the allotment on a break from the heat of the kitchen. “As a child, Monsieur Blanc spent Sunday mornings with his father on the allotment and Sunday afternoons with his mother in the kitchen,” he says.
Maman Blanc remains a guiding figure to the celebrated chef. The cookery school was set up to teach people how to cook decent, home-made dinners in the style of Maman Blanc.
There are ten dishes on our menu to get through on today’s course, called Blanc Vite, and inspired by the best-selling 1998 cookery book of the same name. The emphasis is on preparing fresh, tasty meals in haste (sorry Jamie, but RB was there first with his 30-minute meals).
There’s a lot to get through, and we begin by preparing a breakfast of poached eggs with asparagus. Top tip is to add white wine vinegar to the water to help the white set; it should also float to the top of the pan when ready.
Next, we mastered sabayon. This is a basic technique necessary for making mousses, iced parfaits and fruit gratins. It’s tricky in that you have to whisk a mixture of egg yolks, sugar, wine and lemon juice over a bain-marie (pan of simmering water) until it goes light and fluffy – and avoid it curdling.
You need a larger bowl of crushed ice on the side on which to place the sabayon dish to cool before adding whipped cream. Finally, we added a strawberry fruit purée to make a light and airy mousse.
It’s a long day in the cookery school – from about 9am to 5pm – but time whizzes past. Steve Lyons earned his credentials working in Le Manoir kitchen, but displays as much skill as a comedian. His dry humour and quick wit make the day all the more entertaining.
We make delicious salads: a favourite being sautéed squid with chickpeas and pack choi. The chickpeas are lovely, served in warm tomato vinaigrette infused with ginger and chilli. I make this at home a few days later, replacing the squid with slices of chorizo, and it’s just as good.
Another dish that has been replicated is the pan-fried salmon with spring vegetables. The salmon is cooked in a little olive oil, skin side down until almost done, then turned over for a flash fry, before being rested and squeezed with lemon. The greens – try a medley of asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, peas, broad beans and spinach – are cooked quickly in an emulsion of butter, water and salt. Spoon the veggies and juices into a bowl and place the salmon on top. Dinner done!
Around 1pm, Blanc enters the cookery school kitchen, smiling, and happy to sign autographs and pose for photos. He checks with Steve what’s cooking, before selecting the “la poule au pot”, literally a whole chicken cooked in a large pan with vegetables. Steve snaps: “Yes chef!” and artfully begins to carve a piece for the boss.
A couple of hours later, Blanc appears again in the neighbouring kitchen, surrounded by his young team of development chefs, including Adam from the Kitchen Secrets series. “They are working on recipes for the next series,” explains Steve. “They are off to France next week to start filming.”
Meanwhile, more kitchen secrets are about to be revealed, like how to make a French-styled rhubarb crumble. In the forward to the recipe Blanc boasts: “A classically typical English dessert; perfected by the French.”
Improve on rhubarb crumble? Can it be possible? In Raymond Blanc’s hands, you bet it is.
• A visit to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is a treat indeed. Rooms start at £480 per night, with mid-week breaks that include the five-course classique menu starting at £680. Day cookery courses are £335. New at the cookery school for 2011 is a vegetarian course. Find out more online at manoir.com
Recipes from the master himself...
Green papaya & pomegranate salad; chilli & lime dressing
An exotic fresh, clean and vibrant salad with a Thai influence. The success of this dish depends on the ability to balance the strong flavours of the dressing.
Preparation time: 30mins
Special equipment: Pestle and mortar
Planning ahead: Make the dressing a day in advance.
Ingredients for the dressing
10g/1 Red snap-nose chilli
10g/2 cloves of garlic
30g/2 limes, juiced
30g/2tbs fish sauce (Squid brand is the best, or use light soy sauce)
30g/2tsp palm sugar, grated (can use brown sugar)
Ingredients for the salad
120g papaya, unripe green, peeled and sliced into fine thin strips (can use beansprouts or celeriac instead)
120g/½ cucumber, deseeded, sliced into thin strips
50g/2 Spring onions, finely sliced on a bias, 2mm
10g/1 handful coriander, roughly chopped
10g/1 handful mint, roughly chopped
80g pomegranate seeds (40g reserved for the garnish)
60g/4 tbsp peanuts, unsalted, dry roasted, roughly chopped (20g reserved for the garnish)
Method: In a pestle and mortar, purée the chilli and garlic together, add the palm sugar and stir in the remaining ingredients to make the dressing, taste and adjust the seasoning to balance the flavour. In a large bowl, toss the ingredients for the salad with the dressing, taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
To serve: Arrange the salad in the centre of a large white plate with some finely sliced papaya on top, spoon the pomegranate seeds around and sprinkle with the roasted peanuts, serve to your guests.
Variations: Add stir-fried thinly-sliced chicken, crispy duck or tiger prawns to make a more substantial meal.
First you have to make the sabayon, then add the fruit purée and chill.
Preparation time: ten minutes
Cooking time: eight mins.
Special equipment: Electric mixer or large balloon whisk, thermometer
Planning ahead: The sabayon can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated.
3 egg yolks, organic, free-range, medium
95ml Muscat or other sweet dessert wine
1tbs lemon juice, or to taste
110ml whipping cream
Method: In a large heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, wine and lemon juice together for one minute.
Stand the bowl over a bain-marie of barely simmering water making sure it is not touching the water and whisk for 7-8 minutes until reaches 78C resulting in a light fluffy sabayon.
Remove the bowl from the heat and place over a large bowl of crushed ice. Continue to whisk till the sabayon is cold.
In another bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks and then fold into the cold sabayon.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Making the mousse
Preparation time: Ten mins
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Special equipment: Blender or food processor, presentation glasses or ramekins
Planning ahead: This dessert can be made a day ahead and kept covered in the fridge overnight.
2 gelatine leaves
300ml sabayon, pre-prepared
To serve: 300g Strawberries, crushed or puréed
To make the mousse
Purée the strawberries in a blender or food processor and pass through a sieve into a bowl; you will need 300ml purée for the mousse.
Soak the gelatine leaves in a shallow dish of cold water to soften for five minutes or so.
In a small saucepan, bring a quarter of the purée to the boil and take off the heat.
Drain the gelatine leaves and squeeze out any excess water, then add to the hot purée, stirring until dissolved.
Now stir in the remaining cold strawberry purée.
Add the strawberry mixture to the sabayon in a large bowl and carefully fold together.
To assemble: Divide the crushed or puréed strawberries between the glasses and top with the mousse. Cover each glass or ramekin and allow to set for about four hours.