Treasures of the Sea: Cooking at Le Manoir
"We celebrated food as a family"
For anyone reading this magazine, Le Manoir (or to give it it’s proper name, Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons), and its proprietor Raymond Blanc, should need no introduction. An institution in every sense of the word, Monsieur Blanc’s flagship hotel, restaurant and extensive jardin potager has become a byword for the highest end of gastronomy and hospitality in Oxfordshire.
When I met Raymond for OX last year, the words that stuck in my head the most were all related to his attitude to seasonality, ingredient sourcing and terroir. “When I was a child, my parents might’ve only taken us to a restaurant perhaps once or twice a year, but we ate well every day and we celebrated food as a family,” the dual-national treasure told me.
Now, whilst Monsieur Blanc will most likely not be in attendance for a class at Le Manoir’s cookery school, the team he has appointed have absorbed his skills and share his attitude to a tee. The brigade of chef-tutors is led by Mark Peregrine who, amongst countless other achievements, has taught at Cordon Bleu and was private chef to Lord and Lady Tavistock at Woburn Abbey.
Having been given a typically warm welcome at the Manoir’s effortlessly luxurious reception area, you are led into the cookery school itself, which resembles a top-end home kitchen more closely than it does a stainless steel, working one. The first thing to understand is that this is not simply a seminar on how to cook: the first task my band of four were assigned to was gutting and filleting whole plaice and mackerel. This is not a job for the faint-hearted: sticking your hand deep into a flatfish’s guts to pull out the roe and entrails certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst my cohort of fellow students.
Thankfully, with the blood and gore out of the way and the fish filleted (or hacked to pieces, in my case), it is then time to begin preparing sauces and stocks with which you will later be using to assemble the most delicious array of seafood dishes this side of Le Manoir’s dining room proper. After extracting every piece of meat available from a whole cock crab, watch as your tutor brings together fresh taramind pulp, coconut milk and the aforementioned crab to create something that requires no more technique than you most likely already use at home, but tastes like something from another culinary dimension entirely.
Then, it’s onto your kitchen stations to cook, amongst others, mackerel (which you’ll have filleted beforehand) with shaved fennel, and rocket salad with a soy lime and ginger dressing, classic moules mariniere, and scallops “Oudille” – a marvellous invention of M. Didier Oudille (former head chef of Michel Guérard’s restaurant) in which the shellfish are opened and removed from their shells, then returned over a layer of julienned vegetables and Gewurtztraminer sauce, then encased in puff pastry and baked.
Watching that sort of dish come together, using raw ingredients that you have prepared yourself, is one of the finest pleasures a foodie can enjoy.
One difficulty with Le Manoir’s cookery courses is resisting the temptation to inhale entire platefuls of the glorious food that you’re preparing, but given that you might be cooking seven or eight dishes in a day, it’s advisable to only try a morsel of each one. (I threw caution to the wind and finished every one, and I’m still recovering from the blood sugar crash now).
After a further onslaught of aquatic delicacies, including the pre-filleted plaice served with a cream and lemon sauce, it was time to make my way home. I’ve attended various ‘masterclasses’ of a similar ilk in the past, and as you might expect by the high standards of the venue, this one really is something special. If you’re a keen home chef or even vaguely interested in cooking, eating or terroir, then a cookery course at Le Manoir is simply unmissable.
Courses run throughout the year, and not just for seafood – themes range from canapés and patisserie to soufflés and next-level afternoon teas, so if you’re trying to think of a seriously memorable gift for your partner, family member or, let’s be honest, yourself, get yourself booked in. You’d be mad not to.