For my birthday, my girlfriend bought me a place on the Let’s Cook course at The Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire.
I arrived early and to kill some time I was given a map of the hotel grounds, to explore, their Kitchen Garden. It was far bigger than I expected and was in use everyday by the Kitchen Team, and it was immaculately maintained. If only my veg plot looked like theirs. Serious envy!
There were seven people on that day’s course, 4 middle-aged ladies, a younger couple, myself, plus Becca, our tutor. Becca had recently appeared on the BBC2 television series Chef’s Protege and was mentored by Michel Roux Jnr. Now working for Raymond Blanc, Becca’s talents have been noticed by some rather influential people in the industry. On that basis any helpful hints and tips given during the class, would be pretty much rock solid.
To begin Becca started with one of her favourite dishes, Chicken in Vinegar. It was a braised dish, using a beautiful deep and rich red wine vinegar. The vinegar gave the finished dish a wonderful tangy sour sauce that coated the chicken beautifully. A perfect dish that would be great for an autumnal day.
Next was how to make soup that was suitable for the summer, using fresh seasonal vegetables such as baby courgettes and carrots – but with a twist. Becca started by blanching some spinach to make a Provençal pistou. Pistou is basically a cold sauce similar to pesto, but without pine nuts or cheese. After blanching the spinach for a good 10 mins, it was blitzed together with garlic cloves and olive oil, making a wonderful vivid green sauce. After the soup was made it was put into a couple of bowls. To the first bowl, the pistou was added, which gave it a fresh rounded flavour. To the second bowl, crème fraîche was added giving it a slightly sharp and sour flavour that worked with the fresh vegetables very well.
For the next dish, Becca asked us to pay particular attention, as we would be making this dish ourselves after watching her demonstrate it. It was Sea Bass with Ratatouille. Aubergine, onions, tomatoes, courgettes and garlic were sweated in a saucepan with ground cumin.
Once softened, just enough water was added to almost cover the vegetables and was left to simmer for approximately 15 minutes. Just before it was ready, chopped parsley was stirred in. At this time the sea bass fillet was placed skin side down in a hot pan for a few minutes until it crisped up nicely. It was then turned onto it’s flesh side and the gas turned down for it to finish cooking in the residual heat.
After we had eaten our sea bass dish, we were given a masterclass on the different types of oils available and how to get the best out of them. To make a point on why you should not cook with your finest extra virgin olive oil, Becca passed it around for us to smell and taste in it’s natural state. It was fruity on the nose and with a hint of pepper on the palate. The same oil was then put in a pan, heated to smoking point and then passed around again. What a difference! It had turned bitter and quite simply smelled nasty. Something you would not want to eat, or have your food cooked in. Point well made!
To finish off the afternoon, it was time for dessert – a Cherry Clafoutis. A sweet batter was made from flour, sugar, milk and eggs to a consistency similar to thick paint. Cherries that had been marinated in schnapps were added and then cooked in the oven for about 15 minutes. It came out wobblier and creamier than I imagined and slipped down very well.
The course is very good and well-paced for beginners who want to learn some excellent basic techniques. However, the confident cook will still pick up some extremely useful hints and tips to add to their repertoire. During the demonstrations we got to taste all the different components to fully understand what was going on.
The team are exceptionally professional and are passionate about seasonal food. Becca was extremely knowledgeable and set the pace according to the groups abilities.
It was a fantastic afternoon and I went away with lots of new ideas and tips and I would happily go on another course that they offer.