What do you need to be able to do in order to make life worth living, according to Raymond Blanc? Find out...
How did a Frenchman become a British cooking institution? It isn’t fair to consider Raymond Blanc anything less, or other.
His famed Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons opened in Oxfordshire in 1984 and since 1985 has held two Michelin stars. Its cookery school celebrates 20 years in business this year, then there are the 14 Maison Blanc patisseries and nine Brasseries Blanc.
If you can’t get to any of these, he’s currently on our TV screens in the second series of Kitchen Secrets, in which Blanc instructs the home cook in complex kitchen techniques - with a light touch and a good sprinkling of humour - and there is an accompanying book.
Blanc’s style is unmistakeably French and he devotes many of his best recipes to his beloved Maman Blanc, who raised him in the region of Franche-Comté on classics such as Cherry Clafoutis, Rice Pudding and Chocolate Mousse.
He credits both his parents and his grandmother for making him the chef he is today. On his tenth birthday his father gave him a handmade calendar explaining the treasures the garden and the wild would yield with each season.
“This voyage of discovery undoubtedly gave me the passion and inquisitiveness to find out more about the magical world of food and the seasons,” says Blanc.
“My amazing maternal grandmother was never a good cook – always a magnificent one! She always knew when the food was right, ready, perfect just from looking, touching and smelling it. She definitely passed on the cooking DNA to Maman Blanc, who in turn passed it to me – the first male chef in the family.”
Complex food at home
No doubt Blanc doesn’t want to deter diners from spending a small fortune at Le Manoir by spilling all his secrets on tv. But his belief that we mere mortals can recreate some of his trickiest dishes at home, with a little patience, is convincing.
Little special equipment
What sets him apart from other chefs known for their complexity, is that Blanc’s recipes demand very little professional equipment. He recommends using a meat probe to check the temperature, and you will need special moulds to make some of the fancier desserts. Otherwise the cost all lies in buying good quality, seasonal ingredients.
He has also developed his own range of kitchen equipment.
Work with the seasons
What’s more, not all Michelin chefs work with the seasons, because that would keep some of their favourite dishes off menu for much of the year.
Blanc grew up eating the seasons from French produce markets instead of large supermarkets, so it is part of the way he cooks and he sticks with it, even at Le Manoir.
His top tip for lovefood readers is to “work with the season”. He says: “We are, thank goodness, starting to reconnect with food culture and actually thinking about what we cook and what we eat.
“I realize that we have proven through science something that out grandmothers always knew through a connection with nature and with life – that every molecule of food we consume relates to our health, to our relationship with others, to our relationship with the world and with ourselves.”
Reinvention of British classics
In Kitchen Secrets he admits that he has taken certain very British dishes to heart, such as a Steak, kidney and oyster pudding, which he could not imagine working until he tried it.
But he is also brazenly cheeky with his interpretations of our cuisine. Take crumble, the holy cow of a good Sunday meal. Blanc does away with stewed apple to make a Strawberry crumble, with the fruit macerated in sugar, and even cooks the crumble separately, serving it in discs on top of the strawberries, because he wants it to stay crisp and light.
Can we forgive him? His approach to food is not always as complicated as this deconstructed crumble would suggest.
There are plenty of simple recipes in Kitchen Secrets as well, such as the Chicken with morels and sherry wine sauce and Pollock (a great and sustainable alternative to cod) fillet grenobloise with pomme purée.
His desert island foods, I’m afraid, are a little less kind to the waistline than fish and chicken. While his favourite meal is a decent breakfast, he chooses the Roquefort soufflé from the Le Manoir menu as his perfect dish and also loves patisserie.
“To me,” he explains, “desserts represent the priceless opportunity to win the heart and soul of your guest, your family, your loved one.”
Indeed, if you’re a MasterChef wannabe and wonder where contestants learn to make such pretty desserts, Kitchen Secrets would be a good place to get some tips.
Don’t be put off if you know you’ll never attempt his Pièce montée croquembouche, an elaborate tower of choux pastry buns. Blanc also champions the plainest foods, as long as they are good ones. “I like to eat simply and well – food is not about snobbery or eating dishes that you deem to be “fancy” or complicated.”
His comment on a TV “omelette challenge” says it all: “One contestant managed to ‘cook’ their omelette in just 19 seconds, but mine took three minutes exactly. It was fluffy and fat, with a generous grating of truffle. I decided that if you do not have three minutes to cook a perfect omelette then life is not worth living.”
Photo courtesy of Jean Cazals
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