By now, there aren't many foodies in Britain who don't know who Chef Raymond Blanc is. Having now had three series of his cooking competition show The Restaurant, where couples compete for the opportunity to go into business with Raymond, he is well known for his exacting standards and passion for sustainability. (Don't get me started on JJ and James winning last season..) Now, with his BBC 2 show Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets, we're learning about some of the methods Raymond uses in his two Michelin star restaurant Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, which has featured in both series.
Almost two weeks ago, we had an incredible evening at Le Manoir and ate some of the most beautifully prepared food we've ever had. From the hors d'oeuvres served in the lounge before we went to our table, to the five course seasonal menu, absolutely every bite was a delight, as were the staff, and the setting. I was most excited because I knew I would be returning ten days later for a day-long cookery class.
Le Manoir is only a 45 minute drive from my home, which is incredibly lucky for me. I gave myself an extra hour to account for morning rush-hour traffic but there was none on Monday, so I arrived over an hour early. I had a little wander around the same gardens we had seen at dusk on our previous visit, then I went to reception, where I was greeted and taken through to a small lounge with a burning fire and a cup of coffee.
After my fellow classmates arrived, we were joined by our tutor Joel Moroney, a gregarious and patient American chap who has been with Le Manoir for three years, working his way up to Chef Tournant before becoming a cookery school tutor six months ago. Joel distributed chefs' whites and aprons to us all and took us back through reception and the courtyard to the purpose-built teaching kitchen. The class I was attending was the Blanc Vite, which is aimed at cooks with at least basic kitchen skills and general enthusiasm for cookery and like everything else at Le Manoir, is geared around creating seasonally relevant dishes.
We were paired up into teams and were taken through the schedule for the day. We were shown how to poach eggs properly, which is something I've never felt completely confident doing, so it was brilliant to see it done in front of us and then turn around and do it ourselves. We made our own breakfast of poached egg, asparagus and spinach and were served teas and coffees while we ate and watched further demonstrations by Joel and Junior Tutor Emily Sneddon, who showed us how to make a rough puff pastry that we were to use for a tart later on.
Over the course of the morning and earlier part of the afternoon, we learned some beautiful seafood techniques, including pan-frying the perfect piece of salmon and sauteed squid and steaming mussels in a coconut broth. Not only were we shown some lovely recipes and able to ask all kinds of questions, but were given the scientific reasons behind why you must do certain things in a specific way.
The passion of Raymond Blanc and the chefs for the highest quality, ethically-sourced food rings through everything you see and learn. A massive binder on the shelf houses lists of the producers he uses for everything from the pine nuts to the name of the fisherman who caught the squid and the farmer who makes the buffalo mozzerella in Wales.
We put all of our veggie scraps into a compost pot in one corner, and when I asked Joel "Should I compost the egg shells?" He said "No, because they encourage rodents."
So THAT explains why I have an uninvited guest (or two) living in my freaken compost bin! The little bugger moved literally three bucket-fuls of compost through a tunnel and into the greenhouse yesterday. I don't know whether to be outraged or grateful!
So we had a lunch that we cooked ourselves, consisting of a fresh and zingy Thai green papaya salad with a firey dressing and then a wonderful piece of pan-fried salmon over spring vegetables from the garden outside. Joel showed us how to make a perfect roast chicken, as well as poaching one gently in aromatics. We drank a lovely glass of wine while we ate our own creations and both of Joel's chickens and were then taken for a walk through the gardens.
We were able to talk to Jo the head gardener about what is growing in the vegetable patches and the poly tunnels, all of which are completely organic, learned about the history of some of the many beautiful bronze sculptures around the grounds and saw how they grow the incredible micro herbs they use in the kitchen.
After returning to the kitchen for the remainder of the lessons we were shown how to make a beautiful caramelized banana souffle and crepes. Two things that were fairly simple but that I had never quite mastered before.
We made a small cherry tomato tart with the puff pastry we'd made earlier and some onions which had been confited in olive oil.
We boxed up our tomato tarts to take home with us and were presented with certificates for completing the course. We also got to keep our chef's white jacket and were given a 12cm santoku knife from Chef Blanc's range for Anolon, which is fantastic.
Before leaving, Joel took us for a proper tour of the restaurant's kitchens, which made me drool with equipment envy, especially the sous vide baths and circulators.
Our day was over and I was so sad, because I'd had such a lovely day. I learned how to poach eggs properly and why my pancakes were never quite right (I was cooking them in butter) as well as why I have a family of rodents chillin in my compost bin. It would have been nice to work individually rather than in pairs and to have done more of the cookery ourselves, instead of watching so much, but in reality, it would have taken two days to cover everything we did that day had it been structured any other way.
I came home with my skills refined and with a new confidence to try dishes which had previously intimidated me. I've made poached eggs for my last two breakfasts and am going to make a cheese souffle for my supper tonight.
The class is not cheap, at £325 per person, but really is worth every single last penny. The day is filled with learning, pampering and tasting, leaving you with a feeling much like when you were a kid and you'd spent all day at an amusement park, full in your heart and stomach, wishing it wasn't over yet and knowing you'd sleep like a rock that night.
I absolutely will go back when I can scrape together a few shekels for the Artisan Bread class, as the bread they make at this place is nothing short of miraculous and I've told you all about my struggles with bread making.
Now I'm off to my own kitchen for more practice, still slightly giddy from that brilliant day..