My sauce for a main course of confit guinea fowl legs lacks depth and flavour. Not that my tactful instructor uses such explicit comments, but the message is clear! Impatience and lack of confidence mean I had not sautéed the shallots and mushrooms for long enough before adding the Madeira, port and chicken stock. Nor have I tasted as I go along, a cardinal sin in the kitchen. This, along with my heavy hand with pastry, over salting of dishes and many other shortcomings are revealed in this one day cookery course, along with – thankfully – ways of avoiding and correcting them.
Le Manoir Cookery School offers of a range of courses designed to suit a variety of interests and levels of skill. Whilst beginners should head for the “Learn to cook in one day” option, those with more developed skills might well choose a residential specialist course. The Winter Dinner Party Course – there are also Spring, Summer and Autumn versions – involves the preparation of two soups, one salad, one starter, two mains and three desserts, from which a three course menu can be devised. Pitched at competent and fairly confident amateurs, the aim is produce delicious French home- cooked dishes rather than attempt to imitate restaurant style creations.
With a maximum of ten participants, there is no danger of the revamped Cookery School kitchen becoming overcrowded. Sitting on comfortable high stools on three sides of the instructor, a clear, close up view of the demonstrations is available to all. There is ample opportunity to look, listen, smell, taste and practice, with team work being encouraged by working in pairs. Whilst accommodating state of the art technology, the kitchen is small enough to promote a sense of domestic informality and camaraderie, with everything needed close at hand. We are spared the chore of washing up by the help of a “magic fairy”, and are also assisted by Mark Peregrine, who was one of Raymond Blanc’s original apprentices in Summertown. Lunch of starter and main course, partly cooked by the participants, is consumed with a quiet air of self- satisfaction.
The emphasis is on demonstrating and encouraging essential techniques and skills across of variety of dishes, hot and cold, savoury and sweet. The making of stock, pastry, simple soups, sautéing, blanching and poaching, are amongst the methods covered. There is also a refreshing avoidance of gadgets; whilst blenders and food mixers are used in the preparation of soups and brioche, food processors were eschewed in favour of knife skills.
Teaching is at a brisk pace, the whole day being intensive but not oppressive. Course tutor is Steve Lyons, who has had considerable experience in the kitchens of Le Manoir and Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. He has a natural charm and excellent communication skills to match. He gives clear demonstrations of technique with knowledgeable and helpful commentary. Questions are answered in depth with no reluctance to refer to specialist reference books – such as an encyclopaedia of vegetables – if necessary. We are encouraged to improve our performance in the practical sessions without feeling embarrassed.
Steve’s sense of humour often enlivens the proceedings. This is shown in the light – hearted banter with his assistant Emily Sneddon, who demonstrates some of the dishes, and in wry his comments on the participants’ skills. For instance, my cooking partner, whilst making a particular mess of rubbing in pastry, was reminded that he should try to keep most of the flour and butter IN the bowl rather than on the floor.
Following the Blanc philosophy, “ethical, environmental, seasonal and regional values”, are shown in the use of “organic, free range or artisan produced” ingredients which are fundamental to the success of the finished product.
The choice of dishes avoids too much last minute cooking, the downfall of many dinner parties; indeed, this is only needed for the wild mushroom fricassee. Two soups, Jerusalem artichoke and Hampshire watercress, can be reheated and are prepared the Blanc way, with simple ingredients and without the use of stocks. Chicory, walnut and Roquefort salad has the advantage of not wilting when dressed, so can be plated in advance. The main course of confit of guinea fowl legs and fondant potatoes won’t spoil if kept warm the oven. Moreover, all three desserts can be served cold. Where one might have appreciated a little more advice was over menu composition and balance. Which starters go better with which main courses and desserts? Which combination of textures, temperatures and tastes would optimise the dining experience?
All the dishes are demonstrated and cooked from beginning to end, thus avoiding any “Here’s one I made earlier” nonsense. Gateau a la crème, involving the proving and rolling of brioche dough, takes the longest time to prepare through multi stages, whilst wild mushroom fricassee takes the shortest time of the cooked dishes. Emma makes one of the desserts, Apple Tart “Mamam Blanc,” look very easy. Following a diktat that this recipe must not be adjusted in way, she produces a delicious but simple family favourite with pastry, apples, butter, sugar and calvados.
Professional cooking tips are liberally given during the course of the day. In pan frying chicken wings for stock, avoid the temptation of turning them too quickly as they will not brown. Wet your wrists with cold water to avoid warm hands in pastry making. Use a ball of surplus pastry to help mould the pastry the closely to the ring. Raise the rim of rolled and lined pastry with pinching movements of thumb and forefinger to allow for shrinkage in baking. When skimming stock, add cold water to collect the impurities. Duck fat for confit can be used several times, provided any gelatinous juices are removed. Adding ice to briefly boiled watercress and spinach stops the cooking whilst retaining colour and nutrients.
Finishing the course with a tasting of the three desserts over tea and coffee, and with a gruyere and Swiss chard tart each has made to take home, a calm sense of achievement is felt by all. A lot has been covered in eight hours, which includes breaks for lunch and a short tour of the hotel. This is a demanding course, both in terms of participants’ attention and the ambitious coverage of a range of dishes. However, we do not feel exhausted at the end. Instead, our enthusiasm has been further stimulated and our confidence boosted. Grateful to have taken part, and genuinely appreciative of the meticulous attention to detail given by the organisers and instructors, we can depart with our easy- to- follow recipe book, Cookery School jacket and certificate of achievement, knowing that the course fee has been well spent.
-Review by Daniel Darwood, January 2010