Saturday, 11th July 2009 – Cookery School, le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Great Milton
Saturday morning, despite having been out pretty late the night before, I was awake bright and early and in a fever of excitement. After all, I’d been waiting for this day since January when I’d been presented with a bright, shiny certificate that said several of my friends had clubbed together and bought me a day’s course at Raymond Blanc’s cookery school at le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in rural Oxfordshire. Anyway, in a flurry of anticipation I headed off, getting there significantly too early and ending up sitting in my car in the village centre reading a newspaper for a while before I felt I could decently go and present myself at the reception ready for a day of fusion cooking, billed as “Tastes and Textures from Elsewhere”.
I wasn’t the first person to arrive (though I was second), and as the rest of the ten students gathered there was a gathering sense of awe, especially when we were issued with our pristine white chef’s jackets, and long burgundy aprons. We all looked the part even if we couldn’t necessarily prove our skills in the kitchen to justify our new garb. After a quick coffee, we were shown through to the school kitchen, tucked away in a corner of the restaurant’s kitchens. We were introduced to Lisa Witkowski, who was to be our tutor for the day, and were asked to introduce ourselves. And then the fun really started.
Lisa began by producing some scallops for us, and teaching us how to extract them from their shells. I’d been quite nervous at the idea in the past (and given how difficult it is to get fresh scallops anywhere near us I’d never had the opportunity to even try), so I was very pleased to find just how easily I could extract the little darlings using just and ordinary knife and spoon! Who knew? The freshly extracted scallops would be used to make a mousse, along with the next ingredients.
And the next ingredients were a batch of freshly steamed crabs. The meat had to be removed, separated into brown and white, and the shells needed to be saved to make a crab and ginger bisque, scented with lemongrass while the meat would go into the crab and scallop mousse, which was going to end up as the filling in some freshly made ravioli.
We were given a demonstration of how to extract the crab meat from the shell, and were turned loose, with hammers, plastic bags and a variety of other implements if we wanted them. Things got very messy, especially as two of the people at my end of the table didn’t do shellfish and thus didn’t want to deal with the crab. The third woman just claimed she’d never cook with crab so she didn’t need to know either! That left me, a hammer, and a “small” crab (small is around 2 kilos)! I had a thoroughly enjoyable time removing as much meat as possible and trying not to leave too much shell in with it, especially as Lisa had threatened a £5 fine for each piece – though how she’d know who was guilty I have no idea.
Shortly after that she decided we needed some breakfast, which turned out to be an excellent crab with tamarind and curry leaves, and then some miso soup with vegetables and tofu. Both were excellent, the curry in particular being so delicious we all dug in – at least those of us who eat shellfish – until there was none left despite trying to stop ourselves.
After that there was mid-morning coffee and some sublime little biscuits, and then it was our turn again.
We were to make pasta, turn in into ravioli stuffed with the scallop mousse, make a bisque to go with it, and stir fry some vegetables to serve the pasta on. This would be our lunch… if we managed not to make a mess of it. We were paired up and I was working with Carol, one of the non-shellfish eaters, which meant we also had to make ravioli filled with a chicken mousse so that she would have something to eat. As we all got to work, Lisa made a Sauce Epice (with cardamoms, star anise, lemon grass, cumin seeds, fennel, shallots and tomatoes among other ingredients) to go with the chicken-filled pasta.
And we made a great pair, Carol and I. We got the job done neatly, efficiently and with a minimum of fuss, as demonstrated by the fact that we were ready to eat long before the other four pairs, and we’d made less mess getting there. First the bisque had to be started, strained and put on to reduce:
Then we chopped the stir fry vegetables and boiled water for the pasta:
I also learned how to hold a chef’s knife properly and not lose my fingers… Oh, and I reckon my pasta looked pretty professional:
At least until I got to the serving part and couldn’t unstick it enough to make it look pretty!
And so we sat down to lunch at around 2pm, and very good it was too.
After lunch, Lisa apologised for the fact that on this course you don’t get to eat much. We really hadn’t noticed, I can guarantee that! And then they shuffled us off to the lounge for coffee so that Lisa and the equally wonderful and seemingly unflappable Emily could clear the kitchen and make it all pristine before we all messed it up again…
On our return, we were almost immediately set to producing a Thai green curry paste, using one of the heaviest pestle and mortar sets I’ve ever seen, or for that matter tried to lift. We ground the ingredients (sea salt, coriander seeds, coriander root, galangal, lemongrass, green chillis, shallots, garlic and kaffir lime zest) up and added some shrimp paste, learning several very useful skills on the way and also being made to realise that there’s a correct order to doing that sort of thing. It’s one of those things that’s obvious when you are told, and you wonder why it never occurred to you before. Start with the hardest ingredients, grind them, then add the softer ones or you won’t get a proper mix…
While we were doing that, Lisa was busy demonstrating how to make Indian bhaji style Cauliflower and Potato Fritters, which she then dusted with Amchoor powder (dried mango powder) and served with a gorgeous sweet curry sauce, that really lifted the flavours brilliantly.
These were handed around in case we were hungry after lunch (!), and yet again no one hesitated. The plate was soon clear yet again, and then there were tempura vegetables with a chilli dipping sauce, but they all disappeared so fast that I never did get an opportunity to take a photo of them before they vanished. Lisa used thinly sliced peppers, courgettes and I think carrots as well, and they were light and fluffy and so very pretty to look at.
Shortly after that we got to see what we had been making all that curry paste for. While Lisa didn’t actually use any of the mixes we’d made, she uses the demonstration portion to make Thai green chicken curry, using chicken thigh meat, baby sweetcorn and the tiniest Thai aubergines I’ve ever seen. The addition of palm sugar to the recipe was an interesting touch and really brought out the flavours of the meat and the vegetables. A further plate of food was passed around, but we really were all running out of steam now, and despite our best efforts there was quite a lot left. And it wasn’t anything to do with a lack of flavour. It was really delicious and I can’t wait to make my own versions. I just hope I don’t have to buy a pestle and mortar that’s that heavy…
The curry dealt with, it was time to make Maki Sushi. Lisa cooked the rice for all of us, and mixed it with mirin, rice vinegar and sugar before cooling it in front of an open window. Then we were handed wasabi paste, along with slices of salmon, cucumber, spring onion and avocado and instructed in what to do next. We spread the rice on half of the sheet of nori in front of us, then constructed the sushi to our own tastes, rolling it neatly (or not so neatly from some of what I saw) and wrapped it in clingfilm before setting it in the fridge so that it would cool further.
And then it was time for one last dish, in this case an exotic fruit gratin and coconut rice, with a guava sabayon added at the end. The fruits were so colourful that even before it was completed the dish looked impressive with papaya, rambutans, mango and kiwi fruit alongside a serving of sticky rice that was cooked in coconut milk and sugar, much like a common or garden rice pudding but more exotic.
A light, fluffy guava sabayon was then added to the plate, and Emily scattered icing sugar over the mixture before Lisa took a blow torch to it!
We were then encouraged to eat the results, which seemed almost a shame given how good it looked. However, it tasted even better and it would have been churlish to refuse it!
And then it was all over! We were given certificates, and Lisa had a word or two for everyone, suggesting that I clearly had as bad a cookery book addiction as she did, and that one day there would be a place for people like us, and that hopefully it would have a library!
After that I took a wander to the reception, bought myself an apron, and browsed the books, eventually fixing on “A Taste Of Relais and Chateaux”, which is gorgeous. I probably won’t be using it to make Heston Blumental’s “A Taste of the Sea”, though Michel Roux’s Souffle Suissesse recipe looks very nice and very achievable.
All shopped out – and cooked out – I took a stroll through the gardens which are so lovely that even on a grey, cloudy day it’s a pleasure to be in them.
After that I reluctantly got into my car and drove home, exhausted and stuffed full of food. I had a wonderful day and would love to go again, preferably for the four day residential course. Better start doing the lottery!