Warning, lengthy post ahead!
For my birthday, my utterly wonderful Sarah organised a joint present from my family – dinner and a cookery course at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons. I’ve hugely enjoyed watching Blanc’s TV series over the years, Kitchen Secrets being the one that sticks in the mind most, and being given the opportunity to visit one of my all-time food hero’s restaurants would have been amazing enough, but learning from one of their chefs the next day was the real icing on the cake.
Over the course of the cooking course – A la maison with Maman Blanc, we were guided through recipes by the senior tutor, Michael John, ably assisted by Rebecca Boast. We covered 7 recipes during the day, but the course participants only made all (well nearly all) of three of them, so I’m going to use those three as my next few recipes!
Recipe #12: Potage aux Quat’ Saisons/Maman Blanc’s vegetable and chervil soup
A beautifully simple, light soup, made very simply by sweating the vegetables in butter (with a pinch of salt to draw the moisture and create the steam) until tender, then add water, a few sliced tomatoes and plenty of chervil. Season with lemon juice and more salt if necessary (it wasn’t for ours). The prep time listed in our instructions is 30 minutes – I don’t think it took us more than 15 in reality. The chervil gives a really fresh zing to this soup, and I particularly enjoyed the way the vegetables speak for themselves. This has definitely inspired me to add chervil to the herb bed this year!
Recipe #13: Poulet aux morilles/chicken with morels; sherry wine sauce
I was particularly interested to see this on the list for today, given that this is a very similar end product to the Blumenthal recipe #10. This recipe uses skinless chicken breast, and is cooked quickly in a pan (as opposed to skin-on thigh, cooked low and slow in the oven). Apart from the soaking of the morels overnight, this whole recipe takes less than half an hour, with a small amount of prep, and yet the depth of flavour and richness is fabulous. Combined with the moist chicken, and some wonderfully cooked leeks (which Michael cooked for us), this made for an excellent lunch. We learnt about cooking the wine separately before adding to recipes as a general point today, and having smelt the difference in the vapours at the beginning of the wine boiling and the end, I can entirely understand the logic behind this idea – I will have to reorganise my risottos, paellas and bologneses in future! I suppose the question is, how do the two recipes compare.. A tricky on this. Heston’s did have an extraordinary richness to it, but was that richness worth the huge amount more time and effort expended (and I didn’t even do the “optional 4-6 hours brining”)? Maybe, but I know which version would be the one I am much more likely to knock up of a weekend when we fancy a treat – this one. Also worth noting Michael’s suggestions of using this with steak or pork, as a extremely decadent pasta sauce, or even with some turkey leftovers as a pie filling.
Recipe #14: Apple tart Maman Blanc
I remember seeing this appear in Kitchen Secrets, so it was brilliant to be tutored through making it ourselves, and this included one of the techniques from the day that will certainly be added to the repertoire – rolling pastry between layers of clingfilm. As soon as Michael showed us, I knew I’d seen it before, and I really wish I had remembered it, particularly when I think of some of the hashes I’ve made of pastry in the last few years. I suppose you might not think it from this blog, but I make very few puddings, so I don’t practise my pastry nearly often enough. Anyway, rolling the pastry (incidentally, unsweetened – the apples provide easily enough sugar by themselves) this way allows you to roll it outrageously thin, and the use of a pastry ring rather then a pie or cake tin ensures no soggy bottoms (Mary Berry would be so proud). Apples arranged artfully (by Michael at least, slightly less so by some of us), then brushed with a glaze before baking, and voila (as RB might say..). Delicious. Next time I’ll try the variation of adding a custard filling for the last ten minutes of baking, just in case this version isn’t decadent enough.
A la maison with Maman Blanc, a note:
I suspect regular readers of this blog may well see the other 4 recipes from today’s course feature at some stage – French Onion Soup, which was my dish of the day – utterly sensational.. Pate de campagne, crème caramel and gateau la crème. The last one features an extraordinary brioche dough, and how Michael hand-shaped his into a tart shape, I am not quite sure – that is the one thing from today that I am almost certain will prove to be somewhat harder than it looked, although the recipe does give the easy option of using a tart tin… For anyone interested in cooking, I cannot recommend the cookery school at Le Manoir highly enough. Excellent food, explained and demonstrated in a beautiful kitchen by friendly and knowledgeable chefs. We ate a huge amount – tasting every dish, and eating a whole bowl of soup and a chicken dish that we had cooked ourselves, bringing home a whole apple tart. Coffee or tea three times during the day, each time accompanied by more delicious and different biscuits or cakes, and a couple of rather nice glasses of chardonnay with lunch. What more could one possibly ask for?
Photo #9: The Japanese Garden at Le Manoir
After a late frost, it was clear that Spring is definitely on its way in the Manoir garden, but I imagine that in a few months time, the whole thing will look absolutely incredible. Perhaps we need another visit… The Japanese garden is a relatively new addition, and it is sensational. Perfectly proportioned trees and water features!
Photo #10: Sarah and Me at Le Manoir
Friday had been rather grey and overcast, so although we were dressed in our finery last night, the photo opportunity was nothing compared to today’s sun and blue skies. Here I am, modelling my complimentary chef’s whites, which obviously I wore with pride all the way home! Le Manoir is a beautiful building – it is easy to see how RB fell in love with it, and it has been cared for with enormous pride – what a triumph.
I cannot let this opportunity to describe last night’s dinner pass. On arrival we were ushered to the lounge, where we enjoyed an apertif, a brief glimpse of the great man himself as he passed in the corridor, and 4 exceptional amuse bouches (a curried vegetable ball, a beef carpaccio, a smoked haddock on crouton and a goat’s cheese with honey on a cracker). We both agreed we could have tucked in to them many times over.
We decided on the 7-course tasting menu, but opted not to have the wine flight that went with it. At another £125 a head, we decided that we could probably have quite enough to drink for the two of us for a bit less than £250, and still thoroughly enjoy it. This gave me the opportunity to get lost in the 600-strong wine list for quite some time. Apparently this is the slimmed down version – there used to be over 1200! On the sommelier’s advice we plumped for the Pierre Précieuse by Alexandre Bain. A declassified Pouilly Fumé, this is a stonker of a Sauvignon Blanc, and it fitted our first 4 courses perfectly.
Those first four were… (I am sure that I will not have remembered exactly all of the accompaniments, and I’m not a massive fan of photographing food so I didn’t. Perhaps I should have photographed the menu!)
Garlic and Potato soup, with an asparagus spear in a sweet potato crisp, decorated with aioli (I think) and wild garlic flowers. Stunning. I love soups, but the creaminess of this one was exceptional, and the bursts of flavour from the garlic flowers as you nibble on the asparagus were wonderful.
Sea trout, cured and smoked, with a sorrel sorbet, horseradish cream and beetroot. The sorbet was a tiny, vibrant green, perfect quenelle sat in the middle of the plate just begging to have the glorious trout dunked in it. The earthy beetroots and gentle hint of fiery horseradish really grounded the dish.
Hen’s egg, slow cooked and served on a bed of white asparagus, with more wild garlic flowers and a parsley (I think) velouté. Cutting in to the egg and watching the yolk spread over the plate was glorious. I couldn’t make myself eat this plate slowly – it was begging to be gobbled. Simply perfect.
Halibut, with crispy skin, roasted red pepper, octopus and tiny morsels of fiery chorizo. There was also a wilted green leaf, and a long green thing that I think was a wild garlic stem, but I couldn’t swear to it and I didn’t ask. Fabulous. Unbelievable amounts of flavour coming out of the tiny chorizo – I’d love to know where they get them, and therefore setting off the perfectly flaky haddock brilliantly. The baby octopus tentacles and single ring were soft and delicious, and the sweetness of the pepper gave yet another dimension (as did the garlic stem(?)).
So then to the red wine – we plumped for a single glass of the Haut Faugères Saint-Émilion. One sometimes worries about wine by the glass. Not here – it was a new bottle, and absolutely delicious, the perfect accompaniment to the…
Duck. Served with pickled mouli, and two other things. Annoyingly, this is the course my memory falls down on. One of them was a salad, and the other is escaping me. Asian-influenced flavours, I remember that. Perhaps the switch to red distracted me, but I know I enjoyed this course!
Obviously the change to pudding required a different wine, so on the advice of our excellent wine waiter (or perhaps he was another sommelier, but his uniform was different. Martin, anyway – thank you if you are reading this!) we plumped for a half bottle of the Jurançon ‘La magendia de lapeyre’, Clos Lapeyre. Given Sarah doesn’t normally like dessert wine I was a delighted that she hoovered this up with gusto.
Having declined the optional additional cheese course, we moved on to:
Rhubarb and custard. Obviously not just rhubarb and custard. Carpaccio of rhubarb (how?! – I presume sliced and pressed for a good long while before being cut. Hints of ginger cut through brilliantly. There was also a rhubarb moussey-type thing and some compressed rhubarb, all served with a delicious ice cream. Dessert heaven.
Except then there was more heaven. A tea-infused chocolate mousse with passion fruit. (And for me a candle and a sugared happy birthday tablet). Biscuity bits added texture, a chocolate disc for richness. Second heaven.
A port and an armagnac in the lounge finished us off for the evening, after one of the most memorable meals of my lifetime. It wasn’t just the food – the setting is extraordinary, the staff are attentive, helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. The pacing of the meal was perfect – never waiting too long, never feeling rushed. All in all, an absolute belter, so thank you to the whole Manoir team!
And finally, for those of you who have waded this far, some more thank yous. To Mum and Dad, Elita and John, Stephen and Susan-Jane and Kathy and Matthew for contributing towards the weekend. To Lou for looking after Thomas for a day and a half (sorry about the lack of sleep!). And finally to Sarah, whose brainwave this was, and who organised it all secretly, without my having an inkling as to what it was going to be. Nearly all of the above will feature elsewhere on this blog as they have also chipped in with book recommendations, so more on them anon!