A cookery class, particularly one as popular and well respected as those offered by Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, is the perfect gift for the foodie in your life – especially if that foodie is yourself! It’s something that one can spend weeks looking forward to, fantasising about the mouthwatering recipes and useful techniques that are to be learnt. Yum.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was a gift I received a mere hour before the class was about to start and, while I was denied months of anticipation, I was very excited to be able to take part. Conveniently, I was already a resident at Blanc’s Le Manoir in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, on the eve of the class and it took me less than five minutes to cross the courtyard from our room, L’Orangerie, to the meeting point in the bar. My unfortunate benefactor, suddenly struck down with flu, had the pleasure of lounging in these delightful lodgings for the entire day but, since the classes are streamed live to televisions in all the hotel rooms, was able to get as close as health and safety would permit by watching the cookery school from her bed.
It can be daunting embarking on such an experience with nine strangers, but we were able to get to know each other a little over a reviving tea or coffee before our tutor, Marcus, arrived. Marcus Pepper has been a chef for 26 years and has been at the cookery school for the last two. His sense of humour and banter with the other tutors, Steve and Jason, instantly put at ease students who, like me, were unsure what to expect.
We all introduced ourselves and, decked out in our whites (complete with Raymond Blanc logo), headed to the cookery school kitchen, which is located between Le Manoir’s main kitchen and the separate Belle Epoque function room kitchen, where Blanc films his TV shows. Staff at Le Manoir refer to the chef patron with varying degrees of familiarity; to some he is Monsieur Blanc but, in the kitchens, where a bronze bust of the man himself watches over everything as a reminder of his exacting standards, he is known as ‘RB’ – an excellent combination of initials, in my opinion.
The class I took was the patisserie course, a full day experience which includes a buffet lunch (prepared by others!) and an intensive succession of sweet recipes, most of which are produced by the students but some of which are demonstrated by the tutor. All the recipes, naturally, have to be tasted too.
Marcus was an excellent teacher, explaining something about each ingredient – did you know it takes 3-4 weeks for eggs to reach the supermarket shelves? Buy fresh from a farmers market! – and process in such a way that even the practiced amateurs among the students picked up some ingenious tips.
The day was arranged to squeeze in a large number of recipes and this meant that we were often leaping from one to another with some items in the oven. Although this might have been confusing, working in pairs helped to keep track of what was happening, alongside Marcus’ steady guidance and the booklet of recipes that we were able to take home afterwards.
At lunchtime, we sat around the workstations with a glass of wine and enjoyed a divine buffet of salads, meats and cheeses, along with the same breads that had appeared in the two Michelin star restaurant the previous evening (including the heavenly roll with bacon pieces!).
This lunch was prepared by tutors Steve and Jason, who had somehow managed to do this at the same time as making sure that we were constantly stocked with ready-weighed and measured ingredients and making sure that we had not burnt our tart pastry. After lunch, Marcus showed us around the grounds and explained how a great deal of the food for the restaurant and cookery school is produced on-site, ensuring the best quality seasonal produce.
At the end of the school, we all received a certificate to say that we had taken the course, a huge box of the sweet treats that we had made, a Raymond Blanc chef’s knife and were even able to keep our whites! I am not going to divulge all the secrets to making a fantastic fraisier, a delicious coffee and liquorice macaron (it works, trust me) or the tips that will help you recreate Le Manoir’s famous lemon cake. Certainly, the pistachio soufflé with bitter cocoa sorbet will be making an appearance at my next dinner party, but I prefer to wow guests with my new culinary prowess than to reveal that, actually, it only takes the best ingredients, enthusiasm and my notes from a day at Raymond Blanc’s Cookery School to cook perfect patisserie.