The taste of pounds 1,200

Thomas Sutcliffe, man of letters, television critic of The Independent and keen amateur cook decided to improve himself. So quaking with fear and expectation he went to Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Would four days with the great Raymond Blanc change his life? Photographs by Caroline Penn
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Two thoughts occur as you crunch over the gravel to enrol at Le Petit Blanc Ecole de Cuisine - both slightly apprehensive. First is the question of what exactly can be achieved in only four days. After all, the education of a professional chef is a gruelling affair - years of humiliation and physical threat and labour that would kill a pit-pony. The second is a certain nervousness about what sort of people will be sharing this expensive pilgrimage. Raymond Blanc's cookery course, based at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, costs pounds 1,200, a sum which suggests a certain devotion on the part of the pupils. I know what has bought me here - the prospect of five nights in a wonderfully comfortable hotel and five dinners in its excellent restaurant, interspersed by four days in the kitchens. But, much as I enjoy cooking, I'll eat baked beans if time is short. What sort of uncompromising foodie fundamentalism am I letting myself in for?

I needn't have worried. The hardest thing thrown at you on this course by the head chef, Clive Fretwell, is an amiable sidelong glance - a trademark unblinking stare, eyebrows arched, which generally follows some culinary solecism. And when we gather before dinner on the first night, it's clear that my fellow-students are not culinary extremists either. Indeed, they have brought heretical thoughts to this temple of gastronomy, alien theologies of diet and desalination.

They consist of a party of five lively Californian women (clearly planning a concerted attack on English circumspection), a golf-club owner from Sun Valley returning for a second time, and a slightly dour French girl, who announces that she "'ates feesh". At this revelation, Monsieur Blanc, tenses slightly, like someone who has bet big money that you can hit his little finger with a mallet and it won't show on his face.

We will not be learning recipes, we are told, but techniques taught through recipes, each adaptable to other ingredients and other flavours. The emphasis is on liberty and pleasure. We are virtually ordered to enjoy ourselves. Though he doesn't know it, his restraint is to face more serious provocations than hating fish.

We assemble next morning in the restaurant's kitchen, a little self-conscious in our white chefs jackets and maroon aprons. The schedule is fairly intensive (work starts at 8.30 and continues to 4.30, with an hour for lunch), and fittingly, the course is arranged like a meal itself: hot and cold starters on day one, fish on day two, meat on day three and pastry and desserts on day four. Fittingly, too, the first day's dishes whet the culinary appetite with a cunning blend of hoopla and simplicity. They look stunning on a plate but getting them there proves relatively easy. Clive demonstrates in a practised flurry of gestures and then we attempt the process ourselves, beginning with a Tartare of Smoked Haddock, bound with a freshly-made mayonnaise and topped with sour cream and horseradish and followed with ravioli of wild mushrooms. Both are astonishingly manageable but it is something of a sleight of hand, this ease - you cook like a television cook, with all ingredients on hand and most ready prepared and weighed. Even so the effect is exhilarating and inspiring.

Clive has also had an early opportunity to show off his impressive imperturbability in the face of the French girl's habit of adding a misleading commentary to his demonstrations. The other members of the group are less restrained; after she stalks out in a tizzy because no one will use the mangled vegetables she has prepared, there is a brief discussion about when violence might be justified in the kitchen. She has come here to be "finished" and, with all these knives around, the odds seem very good that she will be.

By lunchtime - at which we consume the morning's creations - bushels of aubergines and crates of courgettes have fallen beneath our awkward knives. The sense of luxuriating in quality ingredients takes a step up on the second day, when we learn how to fillet a fish - not a humble mackerel or plaice but a large turbot, less than 24 hours out of the sea.

Today, Clive moves on to sauces, demonstrating the "mothers"(foundation for any number of variations) and pressing home the central commandments of the Blanc style - freshness of taste through rapid reduction, attentiveness to the succession and depth of flavours, the insistence on freedom from the tyranny of the recipe. "We're just playing now," he says repeatedly, splashing wines and infusing herbs and constantly inviting us to dip our spoons into the evolving sauces. It is, you realise, a nursery education for the mouth. He layers and shuffles his flavours, like someone doing card tricks. "What's the first thing you get there?" he demands clanking a pan of Gewurtztraminer sauce on to the stainless steel top. "Er... fish?" we venture nervously, anxious not to let him down. "Right!" says Clive. "And what did you pay for?" "Gewurtztraminer," choruses the class. "Exactly!" says Clive. He persistently reminds us of the chemistry of cooking - its use of acids and fats, starches and proteins to achieve a predictable effect. It dawns that complicated cooking is achieved by a skilful combination of essentially simple effects.

Monsieur Blanc is a presence today, discernibly upping the pace in the kitchen. Robin, one of the Americans, is unwise enough ask him about salt and butter. She has already taken a little amiable heat from Clive over this, but now she gets the open-oven blast of Gallic culinary passion. "You Americans are paranoid!" exclaims Monsieur Blanc, his accent thickening in exasperation. He commandeers a pan of tomato coulis from Clive, sprinkling and mixing salt and sugar to demonstrate that careful seasoning allows the natural flavours to bloom. I am ordered to close my eyes and discriminate between two spoons of sauce. It is a terrifying moment. They taste identical, but thankfully Blanc has galloped on and is taking the heat out of his tirade with practised charm.

A calmer tuition in taste continues when Clive arranges a row of olive oils and balsamic vinegars, ranging from the down-and-outs of the vinaigrette world to royalty. I suspect for a moment that there might be a democratic twist on hand, that the moderately-priced condiments will be elected king. I have forgotten that the notion that price-tag might bear no relation to quality is not one which finds much expression anywhere else at the Manoir. The 36-year-old balsamic vinegar, cossetted in a tiny bubble-wrapped bottle, tastes like an expensive liqueur. It costs pounds 850 a litre.

Across the kitchen, meanwhile, an entire bird-sanctuary of wildfowl is going under the cleaver, ready to be reduced for stock. One of the great pleasures of the course is catching the strange medley of flavours that wafts through a working kitchen, but will never make it through the dining room doors - a heady olefactory cocktail of raw carcasses, unpasteurised cheese, wet vegetables and caramelising meat.

On day three, it is our turn for butchery. The preparation of our own lunch is relatively placid - a best end of lamb with Provencal breadcrumbs and a timbale of roasted vegetables - as well as lessons in making stock. "Which end is the best end?" asks David, the golf-club owner, turning the rack in his hands and earning another of Clive's level stares. After lunch, things are more challenging. We are taught to bone a quail, a fist- sized maze of stockinette skin and delicate bones. Clive does his in under a minute and then it is our turn. There is a sudden shriek from the French girl. "This ees disgusting," she wails, "I quit!" She hurls her apron to the counter and flounces out. The students giggle and return to the oozing giblets - it is a small price to pay for such a delivery.

She returns unperturbed at dinner, along with the quails, trussed by now, and stuffed with a forcemeat of quail flesh, heart and liver, back fat and sultanas soaked in jasmine tea. They taste gratifyingly good, though if you don't want to be haunted by your own handiwork, there is always an alternative on the evening menu. Pan-fried fillets of sea bream with a fricassee of squid, perhaps, or ravioli of quail eggs, spinach and black truffle; followed by souffles of pistachio and chocolate. Forkfuls are exchanged and diets largely forgotten, though Robin is determined before she leaves to create a chocolate chip cookie consistent with her Californian rectitude. That afternoon Clive stopped the chef-patissier as he passed by. "Benoit," he said with a sly smile, "this is Robin. She wants you to help her make chocolate chip cookies tomorrow. No sugar, no fat." Benoit stares back impassively. "No sugar, no fat... No cookies," he says, disappearing into his own domain.

What do you take away from Le Petit Blanc Ecole de Cuisine? A pear tart and a chocolate truffiere for a start. And many nuggets of information, from the merely useful (boil an avocado, whole and unpeeled, for a minute to prevent it browning in a salad) to the revelatory (rest meat for at least as long as it has been cooked then reheat briefly in the hottest oven). But above all, you leave with a paradoxical combination of increased discrimination and greatly decreased anxiety. Perhaps the best tribute to the school is that the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was start cooking again.

So far I have ventured a ravioli of salmon, ricotta and dill, and variations on the goat's cheese souffle and the pear tart. I can't be the first to have found that the weird infallibility of the Manoir's kitchen has somehow begun to evaporate on the way home. Pasta sticks, sauces separate, but failures have suddenly become less dispiriting. What remains, is the inspiring belief that one day, quite soon even, I might be able to do the trick again

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