IT’S A CLEAR and crisp start as I depart from London’s Marylebone station, a welcome respite from the city’s recent spate of uncharacteristic summer storms. As the train journeys towards Oxfordshire, the views quickly change from red-brick streets and glass-fronted high rises to silver lakes and patchwork fields, hemmed by dense woodland. Horse and sheep graze lazily on the greenery as we trundle past. I frequently travel outside of the capital, but I never cease to be amazed by the untamed and pastoral beauty that exists just heartbeats away from what is affectionately known as the ‘Old Smoke’.
Despite the postcard-perfect scene, I can’t help but feel a slight sense of trepidation. I am en-route to The Raymond Blanc Cookery School, one of the country’s most acclaimed kitchens. People from across the globe flock to learn the tips, tricks and industry secrets of Raymond Blanc’s restaurant, which earned two Michelin stars upon opening and has held on to them for 32 consecutive years. I’m a thorough greenhorn in the kitchen, with a technique that can be best described as ‘enthusiastic but naïve’. More Jackson Pollock than Pablo Picasso, it’s a style born from consuming countless cookery shows but having little time to put theory into practice. I’m not sure I’ll have the finesse to measure up against my fellow cooks.
The weather is still glorious as I am welcomed into Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, A Belmond Hotel, Oxfordshire: Raymond Blanc’s visionary hotel that houses both the restaurant and cookery school. My proclivity for punctuality means I am very early, probably unfashionably so, but that’s not an issue for the warm and welcoming staff. I am shown to the lounge, an elegant yet effortlessly comfortable space, and given a perfectly brewed coffee and a trio of tempting homemade biscuits. It would take an iron will to resist, whereas my resolve is paper thin: I sample all three. Every member of staff greets me with a warm, genuine smile and my nerves are already dissipating. For all the accolades and prestige, arriving at the hotel feels like a welcome home.
After a spell I get to meet my kitchen comrades and Becca, who will be leading our course today. We each introduce ourselves, and Becca tells us a little bit about her culinary past. While studying in New Hampshire, she fell in love with the clear and distinct seasons and the effect they had on the local cuisine. As her career progressed, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ dedication to seasonality seemed like an ideal fit. The Raymond Blanc Cookery School offers more than 40 types of courses throughout the year, covering topics from bread and patisserie to summer barbecues and winter dinner parties. Today’s course is titled ‘From my Garden to your Plate’, where we’ll be scouring the hotel’s extensive gardens for the freshest produce and then working it into stunning seasonal, nutritional dishes. Becca gives us a tantalising rundown of the dishes we can expect as we each don our chef’s whites, proudly emblazoned with the cookery school’s logo.
Looking and, increasingly, feeling the part, we are led through the restaurant’s kitchens into our base for the day. The space feels surprisingly homely, in contrast to the professional kitchens just outside the door, with comfortable leather chairs, sleek black tabletops and bright wooden fittings. Almost immediately we set to work on our first dish; working in reverse menu order, we begin by preparing the mix for our carrot cake. Our carefully grated carrots are mixed with soft dark brown sugar, eggs, walnuts and sultanas. Becca hands out the kitchen’s blend of mixed spice to add—the smell alone is exquisite.
Cakes happily baking away, the lessons continue as we prepare Raymond Blanc’s signature tomato essence, are shown the best way to cook a globe artichoke and how to cut and confit our own artichoke hearts. A brief pause is taken as a dapper sommelier arrives to talk us through the wine that will accompany our lunch. Even in this short time together it feels like our group has bonded. We pitch in to help each other out, and sparks of conversation erupt between questions and comments on the recipe. Friends and family, personal home cooking tips, the rise in food allergies, the problems with over-processed food, and the role of the microwave oven are all candidly discussed, sharing laughs and jokes. Gabby and Michael, assisting Becca in her leadership, also become part of our impromptu friendship group.
By midday the wonderful weather is still holding out, so we tie up our aprons and head out into the hotel’s expansive organic kitchen gardens. We meet Gardener John Driscoll as he leads us through the vegetable garden, which produces more than 90 varieties of salad and vegetable, and the remarkable herb garden which grows botanical treasures from across the globe. The sheer scale and diversity is mind-boggling, as is John’s expert knowledge. He fields questions from our group with true passion and understanding. Snipping off small leaves and edible flowers, he passes them round for our group to touch, taste and smell.
Again I feel astounded at the flavours we are presented with; things I had never expected to taste from flowers. Sea kale flowers provide a punch of moreish allium flavour, similar to mild sweet garlic. Leaves from the oyster plant, much to the amazement of all assembled, actually taste like oysters—mildly briny and with a hint of the ocean. John makes it clear that ‘garnish’ is a word best avoided amongst the entire team—there is no need for pointless green flourishes. Every leaf, herb and flower in the courses prepared must and do add something substantial to the dish, if they are not themselves the star attraction.
What I find particularly endearing is the rapport between John and Becca as they lead us around. Becca confesses to me that the herb and vegetable gardens are an absolute priceless asset to the kitchen teams, with many things sometimes being grown to order. Moreover John’s passion for his garden extends into the cuisine which represents the final destination for each of his blooms. Once again I’m struck with the sense of family; it’s clear that the reliance, respect and camaraderie shared amongst the team is the oil that keeps this amazing machine running at such a stellar level.
Well stocked with pallets of freshly cut herbs, vegetables and salad items we return to the kitchen to resume the practical aspects of our day. Becca sets us to work on ‘Assiette de Crudités Maman Blanc’, a selection of salads. Like many of M. Blanc’s recipes, this is inspired by his mother. In the notes that accompany our recipe, Raymond Blanc explains: “My father would grow these vegetables and my mother would place them on the table on Sunday—the simplest, purest transition from earth to the table.” We work together to create a compendium of dishes with beetroot, tomatoes, pink fir potatoes and celeriac, married perfectly with simple vinaigrettes and a divine home-made mayonnaise—all of which we are, of course, shown how to make in minutes. The whole time I cannot help but picture my next picnic, eager to show off these easily applicable skills to friends and family.
The dishes are then served as the first course to our informal lunch, accompanied by freshly baked bread. We are shown the secrets to impressive plating, using the gathered microherbs along with colourful beetroot carpaccio in shades of purple, pink and white. This becomes the stage for a fillet of Shetland salmon, pan fried to perfection, which in turn is the main course of lunch. I tuck into my creation, beaming with pride, thrilled that it tastes every bit as good as it looks. After lunch we resume our tour of the decorative gardens—including the water gardens and the evocative Japanese tea house. Ever temperamental, the British weather begins to falter into a light drizzle, so our tour continues inside with some of the hotel’s stunning, individually-themed suites.
Back in the kitchen, we ice our carrot cakes with a cream cheese frosting; a perfect tangy accompaniment to the rich, sweet and spicy cake. We box these up to take home, and one is saved for us to sample later. The tomato essence, rich and golden, is also ready to use. We sample it in its pure state before Becca whips it into the hotel’s signature pristine-white but intensely flavoursome tomato risotto. Each given a small bowl to enjoy, I am incredibly aware of how full I am, but the dish is too delicious to pass up.
Throughout the day Becca gives us top tips on how to make the most of every ingredient. The leftover tomatoes from the essence can be given a second press which results in an entirely different flavour profile. It’s not ideal for the hotel’s white risotto; “However, you can add a splash of vodka” Becca grins, “and you’ve got a wicked Bloody Mary.” Later on we prepare a very quick and simple strawberry crumble, streamlined by pre-baking the topping separately, which can be stored and used on yoghurt and sundaes. There is a lot to admire in its simplicity and versatility.
All too soon, the day has come to a close. It’s a strange feeling; it has gone so quickly, yet I also am brimming with knowledge. We are each presented with a framed certificate, and our chefs jackets are ours to keep. We depart through the kitchens as a final tour, which are so large they feel almost labyrinthine. We greet the numerous chefs at work, sending them our compliments.
Bidding a fond farewell to fellow guests and tutors, it’s time to depart from this culinary paradise. It feels like a shame to leave it all behind, but thanks to Becca and her team, I am confidently equipped and excited to recreate it at home. The only question is who will be lucky enough for an invitation?
By Daniel Hayden
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