THIS LEAN WHIPPET of a Frenchman is one of the most influential cooks in the country. Yet Raymond Blanc looks more like a fasting penitent than he does a gourmand. "You don't have to eat to excess to enjoy food," he says. According to him, the opposite is true: eating in a balanced way and being alert to the nutritional values of food is essential to a good life, both physically and mentally, he says. Not to mention spiritually. You need to pay respect to the methods in which food is farmed, he continues. This is something he feels with such passion that year on year he becomes more proselytising, seeking converts to his ways of better eating.
Raymond Blanc expounds his philosophy in a new collection of recipes, Blanc Vite (Headline, pounds 30). It carries the authoritative weight of his collaborator, the physician and nutritionist Dr Jean Monro.
All this, it has to be said, is not the sort of thing you expect from the man who runs what many critics consider to be the most elite restaurant in Britain. Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, near Oxford, is a restored 15th-century country house set in extensive gardens. It has been rated Britain's best restaurant by the top guides of both France and the US. Robert Carrier called it his favourite restaurant in England.
As far back as 1986, the Egon Ronay guide acclaimed it the best in Britain. Ronay praised Blanc's "intelligence and quite exceptional intuition". He went on: "I reserve the term artist for only a few chefs in Britain; they can be counted on the fingers of one hand - with fingers to spare."
Remarkably, Raymond Blanc, who will be 50 next year, not only lacks a French classical training, he didn't have any training at all. Yet he has spent over half his life raising food standards in this country, and has set a rare example of creative and instinctive cooking for a new generation of innovative British chefs.
Raymond comes from Besancon in the south-east of France, one of five children of a watch repairer. He spent his childhood picking mushrooms, collecting snails, chasing frogs, catching trout. His mother was a good cook, but the only dish he remembers attempting as a child was crepes Suzette (he tried to warm them in a Pyrex dish on the stove, which exploded).
At the age of 18 he was training to be a draughtsman - not his own choice. One day he found himself gazing at the town's best restaurant. Suddenly a more satisfying career suggested itself - he'd become a cook. You're too old to start in the kitchen, they told him, but they found him a job as a waiter.
It began badly, for he innocently assumed the chef would appreciate his insights - for example, pointing out when a sauce lacked a certain something. The chef responded by hurling a copper pan at him, breaking his nose. On leaving hospital, he sought new employment.
Then came national service. He worked as a military nurse, and started to teach himself English; he saw this as his first step on the ladder of in- ternational hotel management. His first job in England was pretty humble - as waiter at the Rose Revived in Witney, Oxfordshire - but he did two significant things: he made friends with the chef, and he married the manager's daughter Jenny.
Now encouraged to make a contribution to kitchen affairs, he cooked his mother's Boeuf a la Bourguignonne and Quenelles de Brochet, with pike he caught in the river. He left to become maitre d' at Oxford's Sorbonne restaurant.
Then came a call from his father-in-law. The chef at the Rose Revived had walked out with all the staff, could he take over? Raymond took on two chefs and started cooking for 70 every night, learning as he went along. His salary was pounds 13 a week, which rose to pounds 17 when the restaurant was recognised in the guide books.
Boldly, he and his wife decided to open their own place. Although they had only pounds 3,000 between them, he launched Les Quat'Saisons in Summertown, a northern suburb of Oxford. It was a modest site in a row of shops, wedged between an underwear retailer and Oxfam.
It is remarkable that Raymond Blanc should have chosen the Britain of the early Eighties to express his genius. It was hardly a milieu for the aspiring chef. "Restaurants had poor standards of hygiene, the pay was low, the hours were long, staff worked without enthusiasm," he says.
And the standard of produce was demoralisingly low. "Surrounded by oceans, you could never get fish fresher than three days old. Battery chickens tasted of nothing more than the pellets they were fed on. Ducks were fat lumps. I had difficulty obtaining the simplest ingredients. But the consumer just accepted this cycle of apathy."
Astonishingly, he still achieved cooking of a standard to merit a first Michelin star. A wild ambition formed in his head - to step into the premier league. Borrowing millions, he moved his operation to the grand manor in Great Milton, and immediately collected his second Michelin.
Bit by bit he overcame problems with ingredients, finding his own suppliers for meat, game and fish, establishing his own kitchen garden. But he still brings much of his produce over from France: the Agen pigeons which he serves with foie gras ravioli; the langoustines with their truffle butter; chickens from Les Landes prepared with morels. In haute cuisine, there are no compromises.
Raymond's reputation spread far beyond his customer base and a line of young chefs beat a path to his door, seeking inspiration in his kitchens. Among those who have passed through the Manoir are such acclaimed stars as Marco Pierre White, Paul Heathcote, John Burton-Race, Gary Jones, Michael Caines, Richard Neat and Aaron Patterson. And all have Michelin stars.
Raymond's aspirations continue to mushroom and, 21 years on, he's just completed a pounds 23m expansion: extended gardens, a refurbished kitchen, a new cookery school, new banqueting facilities and refurbished, luxury accommodation.
That third Michelin star has so far eluded him. Naturally he wants it, but Raymond knows that he must be patient. "I have been building a cathedral, not a church," he smiles.
Unless you have bottomless funds, unlimited time and a team of trained professionals at your disposal, we can't pretend that you can replicate the dishes served at the Manoir. But for the first time, Raymond has devised a set of modern recipes which reflect his thinking, are within the reach of the home cook, and don't even take very long to make. Here, then, is a selection of recipes from his new book, Blanc Vite.
CARAMELISED APPLES IN SPICED WINE
4 large Granny Smith or Bramley apples, peeled, cored and cut into 8 segments
40g/112oz unsalted butter
250ml/8fl oz full-bodied red wine
1 vanilla pod, halved and scraped
1 cinnamon stick
1 small unsprayed orange cut into 12 very thin slices, skin on
20 Cape gooseberries, husked
Planning ahead: this dessert benefits from being marinated so, as long as it is heated gently before serving, it may be made a day in advance.
Sprinkle the fructose over the base of a large, preferably non-stick frying pan and place it over a high heat for about three minutes until the fructose turns a dark caramel colour. Add the butter and combine well.
Place the apple segments into the pan in a single layer and caramelise over a medium heat for three to four minutes, until soft but still holding their shape. Remove the pan from the heat.
In a saucepan, bring the red wine to the boil and allow to boil for three minutes. Add the vanilla, cinnamon, orange slices and gooseberries. Bring back to the boil, then add to the pan with the caramelised apples. Heat slightly so that you dissolve all of the caramel in the pan, then transfer to a large bowl. Allow to marinate for at least two hours, then serve, still slightly warm.
Very pleasant served with cinnamon or vanilla ice-cream.
'GIGOT' OF MONKFISH WITH TOMATO & PEPPER SAUCE
4 200g/7oz pieces of monkfish tail
6 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
salt and freshly ground black pepper
50ml/112fl oz olive oil
For the tomato and pepper sauce:
100ml/3fl oz olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 large courgettes, trimmed and sliced
2 red peppers, seeded and sliced
a 400g/14oz tin of tomatoes, roughly chopped, plus their juice
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
200ml/7fl oz water
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4.
First prepare the monkfish: make three small slits at regular intervals across the back of each piece of monkfish and insert one halved garlic clove into each slit. Set aside.
For the sauce, heat the oil and sweat the sliced onion and garlic without colouring for about three minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the courgette and pepper and sweat for two or three minutes more. Spoon in the chopped tinned tomatoes with their juices, the herbs and water. Bring this to the boil and simmer gently for about five minutes. Taste the sauce and season if necessary with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Pour the sauce into an ovenproof dish, season the monkfish pieces and place them on top of it. Pour over the olive oil and place into the preheated oven. Allow to cook for 12 to 15 minutes, basting regularly with the sauce. Once cooked, remove from the oven and allow to rest in a warm place for about five minutes. Serve in the dish.
GLAZED LAMB SHANKS
4 lamb shanks, weighing 350g/12oz each
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 medium shallots, peeled
4 small turnips, peeled
2 medium carrots, peeled and halved
Planning ahead: the entire dish may be made in advance and then gently reheated.
Season the lamb shanks, then sear them in the oil in a large pan for six to eight minutes until golden brown. Drain off all the fat, then add the vegetables and cover with water. Bring to the boil, skim off all the impurities and as much of the fat as possible, then cook at just below simmering point for two and a half hours. Make sure they remain covered with liquid. Very gently, as the shanks will be extremely delicate, transfer them and the vegetables to an oven dish or tray with a slotted spoon.
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Skim the fat off the top of the stock and boil to reduce by two-thirds, skimming frequently. Pour the stock over the top of the shanks and vegetables, then place in the oven for 20 minutes, basting regularly until they have a shining glaze. Serve with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Ten favourite Blanc gourmet choices which taste good and do you good.
Oysters. Iron, calcium and lots of trace elements (including the kitchen zinc).
Salmon. One of the so-called oily fish, with the very, very, very essential oils.
Eggs. Especially when organic and very fresh. A complete food source on their own.
Salad of leaves. So healthy, and don't forget to add fresh herbs with all their traditional medicinal and germicidal properties.
Grilled and lightly cooked vegetables. A favourite is spinach, along with carrots and cabbage, which contain vitamins A, C and E - all antioxidants.
Risotto. Wholegrains (with their unrefined carbohydrates) are best.
Veal. Favourite cut is the carre, between the shoulder and neck. White meat provides valuable protein.
Beef. Wonderful protein, especially from organic animals. Favourites for flavour are shoulder, shin, ox cheeks (which were binned by the BSE ban) and ox-tail (ditto).
Desserts. Enjoy foods with natural sugars, such as roast figs and blackberries. Along with salt, sugar is the worst health abuse, over-used in factory- made foods and snacks.
Anything with chocolate, unless eaten to excess - best quality chocolate, mind. He won't hear a word against it: "Chocolate can improve mental performance, memory, alertness, provide feelings of well-being and delay physical fatigue."
Blanc Vite: Fast Fresh Food from Raymond Blanc is published by Hodder Headline at pounds 30, but IoS readers can buy it for the special price of pounds 25, including p&p. To order the book, telephone 01235 827750 with your credit card details; please remember to quote the reference 50VITE. Details of where to send a cheque can be obtained on the same numberReuse content