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It’s not gone unnoticed that Raymond Blanc and I share the same(ish) name. Having grown up on a diet of his many TV shows – the repeats of which I still watch at the weekend – I delight when friends and family call me Chef Rae-mond as I chop and sweat and saute. “Oh la la,” I reply.
You can imagine my unbridled joy then, as I approach the celebrated chef’s eponymous cookery school. Travelling through the chocolate-box village of Great Milton, I pass undulating hills, manicured lawns and thatch-roofed pubs. It’s quintessential rural England; a place of fetes and bulletin boards, bell ringers and badminton.
Here, the 15th-century manor turned award-winning hotel Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has been the benchmark of haute cuisine for over three decades. With honey-hued walls framed by Provencal lavender, it’s a happy marriage of Oxfordshire heritage and French fancy – which comes as no surprise when you consider that its maître de maison is Raymond Blanc OBE. You can feel his passion throughout, from the individually designed suites to the restaurant’s seven-course tasting menu. “The good does not interest us,” says Blanc, “only the sublime.”
The restaurant is Le Manoir’s crown jewel. Just one year after Blanc created the hotel in 1984, it was awarded two Michelin stars. Today, it is Britain’s only country house hotel to have held this badge of honour for over 30 years. Ingredients reign supreme. All produce is local, much of it coming straight from the hotel’s two-acre kitchen garden, which has over 90 varieties of vegetables, 70 herbs, a mushroom valley – yes, you read that right – and heritage orchards. In the kitchens, some 28 Michelin-starred chefs including Ollie Dabbous, Michael Caines and Marco Pierre White have been trained. And now it’s my turn to join their ranks.
Keen to share his expertise with kitchen novices and budding chefs alike, Raymond opened his cookery school at the hotel in 1991 – the first Michelin-starred restaurant to do so. “It’s a tool to teach people the skills that I have learnt over the years and to relay the passion I feel when it comes to food,” says Blanc.
Guests can discover a whole repertoire of dishes with over 40 inspiring courses. A Taste of Wellbeing taps into the current trend for holistic health and nutrition while Blanc Vite teaches guests how to master gourmet meals on the fly. The Magic of Vegetables, Herbs and Pulses proves that no meat is no problem when it comes to creating exciting dishes. Whether you’re an aspiring Masterchef or a kitchen novice, there’s something for everyone including half-day introductions, residential programmes and children’s courses.
Today, I’m taking part in the one-day My Garden to Your Plate course. Like many courses, it’s one driven by the seasons, by provenance and by sustainability; “you shall waste not!” is among Blanc’s mantras. Guests are invited to harvest their own produce from the sprawling kitchen gardens before heading inside to learn the secret to Blanc’s culinary magic and create (and eat) a vibrant lunch.
On arrival, a cosy group of eight students are welcomed with tea and coffee, the expected introductions and an exchange of epicurean tales, as we don chef whites and aprons – the former of which we get to take home at the end of the day. So far, so good.
Of course, it’s when I get down to cooking that things get really exciting. Passing the gleaming counters of the hotel’s restaurant kitchen, I ogle a rainbow of produce and feel a blast of warm air radiate from a distant stove as an army of chefs dice and slice faster than asparagus goes in and out of season.
Thankfully the heat of the kitchen doesn’t permeate the Cookery School. The room is stage-set like a country home – albeit one armed with a library of Blanc’s books and cookware. It’s a fitting backdrop considering the familial zest with which the celebrated chef flavours his food. “Food is about family and friends,” says Blanc, whom the team affectionately call RB. “The ethos of the Cookery School comes from the lessons my papa taught me in the garden about growing and nurturing food, and from my mother in the kitchen.” Indeed, all afternoon a picture of the transcendent Maman Blanc watches over the class as we cook.
As with most courses, the itinerary focuses on the recipes close to Raymond’s heart, on those dishes that have led him to become the Michelin-starred chef he is today. The standout has to be the tomato essence risotto. Taking cue from Maman Blanc’s tomato salad, we pulverise the ripe, freshly picked fruit and gather the pulp in a muslin bag and hang over a bowl. Several hours later, a clear nectar has gathered and we gently cook it with Arborio rice. Quite opposite from the stodgy, cream-based affairs so often associated with risotto, the finished dish is delicate with an almost leafy perfume and I’m left feeling light and satisfied.
It’s a sensation I get throughout the day. I’d gone to the school wearing my slack-waisted trousers in anticipation of an afternoon of pure gluttony. Instead, we prepare and feast on confit artichokes with mustard dressing, pan-fried salmon with beetroot salad and horseradish crème fraîche, and assiette de crudités – a rainbow of vegetable dishes using produce we pick from the garden. A rhubarb souffle satisfies the sweet tooth and I take home a carrot cake, which goes down particularly well in the SUITCASE office. It feels like a celebration of food, rather than gorging. And thankfully the washing up is left to the kitchen porters.
I pick up tips all afternoon. I learn how to crisp salmon skin without overcooking the flesh. I use a fresh egg yolk to rescue separated mayonnaise. I blanch basil for an intensely coloured pesto. Yet my biggest take-home of the day is that emotion plays as big a part in the outcome of a dish as any fancy knife skills or high-tech equipment. “Food is about celebration and love,” says Blanc. “The best education comes when you can laugh and have fun while learning.” By the time the course finishes I’ve laughed as many times as I’ve tasted.
It must be said, however, that this isn’t the kind of cookery course you’d come to on a whim. Prices start at £185 for half-day courses and climb to £4,500 for a four-night residential programme. Among my fellow chefs – yes, that’s what I’m calling myself now – there was a couple celebrating their silver anniversary, another on a visit home from Dubai, a girl whose family surprised her that morning for her 30th birthday and a woman who tells me her dad wrote the theme tune for James Bond.
The following weekend, back home, I ceremoniously buy a bag of locally grown artichokes from Herne Hill Market. I carefully pare off the leaves, remove the chokes and set aside in lemon water before crafting a cartouche and gently poaching. I make mayonnaise from scratch. By the time I sit down to eat it’s way past lunchtime, though I hadn’t noticed. Bon appétit, I say to my cat, Henry. Now, if only I had a kitchen porter to tackle my dishes.
From half-day introductions to residential programmes, courses range from half-days to a four-night residential programme. Many courses at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons focus on recipes important to Raymond Blanc, showcasing dishes that inspired him to become the Michelin-starred chef he is today. Courses are suitable for all experience levels.
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