Chef Raymond Blanc offers lessons in his mother’s rustic cuisine

(Bloomberg) — Raymond Blanc is so upset he can hardly speak.

That’s rare: The French chef, who holds two Michelin stars at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, is normally garrulous, waving his arms as he expounds in heavily accented English on anything from obesity to the quality of eggs.

At the end of this month, the restaurant in Oxfordshire, England will introduce a new one-day class, Maman Blanc, celebrating his mother’s simple, rustic cooking and teaching how to make the dishes he enjoyed as a boy in the village of Saone, in the Franche-Comte region of eastern France.

In a preview course for journalists, Blanc offered some cooking tips that might have surprised his mother. For shortcrust pastry, he favors the convenience of a food processor over laboriously mixing flour and butter by hand. Then he advises rolling the pastry between sheets of cling film.

Yet the recipes and cooking are classic for everything from a vegetable soup that features chervil, an herb that Blanc says the British should use more, through to a cherry tart with almond cream that he says takes about 40 minutes to prepare.

Today’s crisis centers on the Comte cheese souffle he’s made for a class at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School. It’s dense and hasn’t risen properly. There’s too much flour in the recipe.

Blanc, 64, shakes his head, orders another one to be made and pushes the first away in disgust. The students tuck in and polish it off while he laments such a serious error.

Easier Nuking

“I cook from my heart so I get very upset when something like this happens,” he says in an interview. “Cooking is an effort. I’m not going to hide it. It’s much easier just to put a bag in a microwave than to cook something.”

“But the rewards are multiple that you get from the satisfaction of having made your own food, whether it is a simple new potato with a bit of butter or an omelette with smoked salmon.”

Blanc moved to England in 1972 to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived restaurant in Oxfordshire. He tells the story of how one day the chef fell sick and he took over the kitchen, though he has had no formal training.

He says he only realized how bad English food was at the time when he went into a branch of the Wimpy, a casual restaurant chain that was a feature of British high streets.

Square Fish

The fillet of fish was square, something he had never seen before.

Blanc has won accolades for his food at Le Manoir, but it’s his television appearances in shows such as “The Restaurant” and “The Hungry Frenchman” that have won him a wider audience.

His warmth and passion are infectious.

The Maman Blanc day starts with a visit to the gardens of the hotel, set in a 30-acre (12 hectare) estate. Two acres are devoted to growing more than 90 types of vegetables. Blanc gets to work ripping beets from the ground and digging potatoes, providing a running commentary and stopping to wave his arms.

There are about seven journalists for this preview of the course, which will normally be led by the director of the school, Mark Peregrine, or his colleague Marcus Pepper. With Blanc in charge, it’s a bumpy ride as he dispenses cooking tips and philosophizes about the meaning of life, the universe and all that while tackling a range of dishes.

These include watercress soup; poached artichoke & mustard vinaigrette; grilled spiced asparagus with courgette and cauliflower crumble; and that cheese souffle.

Low Salt

He stresses the importance of seasonality and also likes to focus on nutrition: With the correct ingredients, there is no need to add large quantities of sugar or salt to season.

For each dish, there is a full recipe and an indication of the degree of difficulty, as well as the preparation and cooking times. These prove optimistic during the class. Lunch is set for 1:45 p.m., though the clock ticks on, which is a little troubling for those of us who skipped breakfast after a late night.

Suddenly, the talking briefly stops and we are required to split into pairs to cook Lapin au Vinaigre Maman Blanc, with sauteed potatoes, broad beans and persillade — parsley and garlic.

The last time I took a cooking course was for Chinese cuisine at Towngas in Hong Kong in 1985 so this is all new to me, particularly having to butcher the rabbit. We then fry the meat in a large chef pan for about 10 minutes until golden brown and bake for half an hour with onions, garlic and wine.

We sautee the potatoes and mushrooms — first girolles and then trompettes — with lemon juice. School tutor Michael John and his apprentice Rebecca Boast are on hand to help. They advise on how to cut up the rabbit (after I have raggedly hacked at a leg) and in about 45 minutes the various components are ready.

My rabbit is overcooked. I am still looking for someone to blame. It can’t be me: I now have a certificate signed by Raymond Blanc saying that I have learnt to cook.

Maman Blanc takes up to 10 people for a course and costs 365 pounds ($621) each on weekdays and 385 pounds at weekends at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. The first class is July 26.


(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)

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