When I have the luxury of time, I love cooking. I'm competent, occasionally adventurous, but not so confident that I can make things up as I go along – I have to follow a recipe religiously, even if it's a dish I've made a thousand times before. So when the opportunity came up for me to improve my skills and take part in a cookery course, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it was at the highly esteemed Raymond Blanc Cookery School at the legendary Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons which included dinner in his Michelin-starred restaurant and an overnight stay at the luxurious hotel.
The cookery course
I have a faint 'back to school' feeling as I meet the other nine cookery students taking part in the day's course, on which we are going to learn how to prepare a menu for an Autumn dinner party. Our tutor for the day, Michael John, hands out our whites - which make us look as if we mean business, at least – and we're taken to the homely kitchen where we sit on stools around a kitchen counter. The day is a mix of demonstration and hands-on practice, and any nerves disappear as I realise, with relief, that this isn't Masterchef. I'm here to learn, not show off.
The menu is French, of course, but simple – pumpkin soup or fricassee of wild mushrooms to start, followed by roast guinea fowl (which I've never even eaten, let alone cooked) with braised red cabbage, and to finish tarte tatin or apple tart 'maman blanc' served with green apple sorbet. I learn some pretty basic but new things: that you can make chicken stock from chicken wings (rather than an old carcass) which can be used as a base for other meat gravies such as lamb or beef; that it's worth paying extra for good quality balsamic vinegar; and how to sharpen a knife properly using a steel rod (every kitchen should have one). I also discover that it’s easier to peel an apple from top to bottom (rather than circular) and how to chop an onion by keeping the root intact to stop it from collapsing.
We learned to cook roast guinea fowl at Raymond Blanc's cookery school
There are some surprises – we make the pumpkin soup using whole milk (making it extremely creamy); we roll out shortcrust pastry between sheets of cling film to avoid mess; and we bake it in a pastry rim with the steel bottom removed and set on greaseproof paper instead, to avoid a soggy bottom. We use a lot of butter, generous dashes of alcohol (Kirsch is added to the soup) and copious garlic. The most complicated dish of the day is the guinea fowl, which involves sauté-ing and roasting the bird and making a rich sauce (with Madeira and port). It's the one dish I'm not sure I'll be able to reproduce at home.
While things are simmering, roasting and baking, we are given a tour around the gardens and polytunnels where the fruit and veg used in the restaurant are grown. It's then back for a slap-up lunch to sample the delicious fruits of our labour. I try not to eat too much, saving room for dinner later. At the end of the day Michael, who has been informative, patient, and entertaining throughout, gives us a certificate for our efforts and we all leave with our apple tarts, fresh from the oven. We also get to keep our whites. I'm left wanting a full set of cast aluminum pans, a knife sharpener, fancy food processor and a new kitchen.
Rosalind collecting her certificate from the cookery school
The one-day themed courses, which cover everything from dinner party menus to patisserie and desserts and advanced bread making, are a perfect way to brush up on some old skills and learn new ones. For those looking for the ultimate cookery experience, there is also a four-day and five-night course.
After the day's exertions I would have found it hard dragging myself away from the comfort and warmth of the honey-coloured Manor house, a mix of country living and classic French design which has 32 rooms and several lounges all with big, deep sofas and open fires. But luckily I'm staying the night. The French-born chef bought the house in 1984 from Lady Cromwell, and a year later, his hotel was awarded two Michelin stars. The lush grounds, which include 15th century ponds, Provencal lavender rows, a Japanese garden, a kitchen garden and a wild mushroom patch, are lovely to walk around in any season.
The Japanese Tea Garden in the grounds of Raymond Blanc's hotel
All the rooms are designed with a different theme inspired by Raymond Blanc's travels around the world – such as the Jade room, designed like an Asian boudoir and Blanc de Blanc, an entirely white room. I'm staying in the Lavande room, a deluxe studio suite with a wood-burning stove, plush velvet sofa, a decadent sunken bath and in the black marble and cream bathroom and a bay window overlooking the lavender path that leads to the house. Guests are greeted with a bowl of mixed fruit, a small box of chocolates, some colourful macaroons and a bottle of Madeira.
The exquisite toiletries and room diffusers used around the hotel are a local brand, Branche d’Olive, set up by Jane Comyn and Ruthie Watson in 2001 after discovering a beautiful, handcrafted soap in Marseilles which they started selling in the UK. Orders from some of the country's most prestigious retailers, including Fortnum and Mason, soon followed. With its French provenance and delicate scents, the brand is a perfect match for the hotel.
The Lavande Room at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Gastronomic fans from across the globe travel far and wide to eat at Raymond Blanc's restaurant, described as a temple of haute cuisine. It’s presided over by head chef Gary Jones, who follows a seasonal, modern French menu using organic produce, locally sourced ingredients as well as the garden’s own produce.
Sipping a glass of pink champagne and enjoying the amuse bouches, I survey the menu and try to decide between the seven-course tasting menu, or a la carte. Unsure if I have the stamina for a big feast after my sumptous lunch, I go for (just) the three courses – langoustine, Jerusalem artichoke and autumn truffle, followed by roasted fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, braised Jacob's ladder (me neither) in a red wine jus, finished with Millionaire shortbread – soft toffee with bitter chocolate on a crumbly shortbread served with salted butter ice cream. Our attentive in-house Sommelier appears at our table like magic for each course, offering the perfect wine accompaniment, which makes me realise what I've been missing all these years with my cheap supermarket plonk. It truly is a fine dining experience, every mouthful to be savoured, and not too filling either. Although I do manage to help my friend polish off her cheese plate after devouring my shortbread.
We enjoyed dinner at Raymond Blanc's Michelin-star restaurant
Following a dessert wine and coffee in the lounge, we go back to our gorgeous room, resting our heads on the plumped up, perfume misted pillows, awaking the next morning to a magical view of a frost-covered garden. Breakfast is another treat – freshly baked croissants and pain aux raisin, an assortment of breads, cheeses, hams, and cereals, and a choice of cooked breakfast. Reluctantly we drag ourselves away from the breakfast buffet, say goodbye to our luxurious bedroom and take a final stroll around the gardens before heading home, bellies full, palettes refreshed and already planning my first Raymond Blanc-inspired dinner party.
Day courses in The Raymond Blanc Cookery School are priced from £365.00 per person. Overnight accommodation with breakfast is prices from £595 to £2360 per room, per night, based on two guests sharing. Dinner menus: seven-course dinner £162 per person and Specialities menu (3-courses) is £150 per person.
There is also a special Dining Experience: Priced from £930 per room per night.
- Luxury accommodation
- Welcome amenities
- A half bottle of Champagne Laurent-Perrier
- Daily English breakfast
One dinner for two per stay. For more info go to www.belmond.com/hotels/europe/uk/oxfordshire/belmond-le-manoir-aux-quat-saisons/
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