This was my final planned cookery course of the year. The most expensive by far, but I do have to say- also one of the most enjoyable and informative by far!
Le Manoir is owned by Raymond Blanc who is one of the worlds’ truly gifted and exceptional Michelin stared chiefs. I have followed his television programmes across the years and am currently reading his very interesting biography.
I did enquire a few years ago about one of his cookery courses that appeared vegetarian, but decided against it upon finding out that they were inexplicably cooking a chicken dish it the middle of it-the lady I spoke to said if I wouldn’t mind participating in preparation and the cooking, they could still find me something else to eat...
I was therefore very pleased to hear about this new course which was said to be absolutely vegetarian...
Though I do have to say some of the recipes did contain fish i.e. fish stock, anchovies and non-vegetarian cheese e.g. parmesan...On the actual day though, no fish products were used.
Le Manoir is set in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, just south of the actual City of Oxford. The nearby village of Great Milton is very quaint and picturesque with thatched cottages and old stone walls.
I was very, very fortunate to be able to stay with a very old( but not in actual years of course!) and very dear acquaintance the night before who lives just outside Oxford and then travel the few miles then next day to the course situated at the little village of Great Milton..
For those of you that are thinking of staying at Le Manoir itself-and what a treat that would be, may I just draw your attention to the tariff...for the cheapest room and just breakfast it is £515...for one night...and I won’t even mention the prices in the restaurant for lunch and dinner...
Back to the Cookery Course...
The actual course was not unfortunately being taught that day by the great man himself as he was apparently away in the South of France filming for the BBC. Instead we had the chief tutor of the Cookery school, Mark Peregrine. Mark, I have to say was absolutely fantastic. He has been with Raymond from the beginning. He is himself, a very talented chef and one of life’s natural teachers. Right from the word go, he gently led us into the course and deftly demonstrated and encouraged us to lift our game and learn new techniques-even those of us that have been around the block one or two times!!
The cookery school itself is situated in the middle of Le Manoirs’s professional kitchen. On one side the windows open on to the glorious view of the gardens and on the other the glass fronted wall overlook the busy kitchen. The cookery school kitchen is based on a ‘normal’ kitchen and as such is not overly large and split into compact section with a hob and oven and cupboards all of which are laid out in pristine order. The very helpful kitchen staff took away our dirty dishes during the day and replenished our cupboards. Mark demonstrated the various dishes and then we cooked and ate our way through the day.
There was just nine of us on the course and we started off with a very simple ‘breakfast’ dish to quickly satisfy us –plus I’m sure it gave Mark chance to get to know us and our level (or not) of expertise! NB all recipes are taken from the Cookery Course Notes and the photographs are of my attempts of the dishes on the day.
Poached Eggs with Tomato Fondue
A delicious breakfast or light lunch, which utilizes two simple techniques; poaching and stewing. The success of this recipe depends on the quality of the raw ingredients; the variety and ripeness of your tomatoes and the freshness of your eggs.
Serves (Yield): 1 Difficulty: ●○○
Preparation time: 10 mins Cooking time:10 mins
Special equipment: Saucepan with lid.
The tomato fondue can be prepared two days in advance and the poached eggs can be cooked one day in advance if refreshed in ice water to stop the cooking then covered in the fridge.
For the tomato fondue:
15ml Oil, olive
5g Garlic, crushed
4g / 1 sprig Rosemary, finely chopped
4g / 1 sprig Thyme leaves, finely chopped
150g Roma plum or cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped
1g / 1 pinch Sugar
5g Chives, chopped
1g Sea salt
1g Black pepper, freshly ground
For poaching eggs:
10g / 2 tsp Vinegar
5g / 1 tsp Sea salt
55g / 1 medium Egg, organic, free-range, fresh (*1)
In a small saucepan, on medium heat add the olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme and the chopped tomatoes, season with two small pinches of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for two minutes, taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
Whilst the tomatoes are cooking bring the water, salt and vinegar to the boil. Crack the egg into a small bowl. Stir the water with a spoon to create a whirlpool. Tip the egg into the centre of the swirling water. Cook for 3-4 minutes just on simmering point. (*2)
When the egg is cooked pour the tomato fondue into a soup bowl, and with a slotted spoon, transfer the egg onto the fondue. Add half a turn of pepper and sprinkle with the chopped chives. Serve while hot.
This was delicious! The aim had been to make a flavour packed dish very quickly. It was deliberately served without any carbohydrate to keep it light although we all agree it would be marvellous served on top of toast or a bowl of pasta or simply with chunks of crusty bread to mop up the very, very tasty sauce and runny egg yolk!
A small point though about cooking a perfect poached egg. I hate to disagree with R.B. on this but personally I prefer Heston Blumenthal’s technique-though I’ll say this very quietly in this Post...
Heston suggests bringing to the boil, a shallow saucepan of salted water.
Using a slated spoon first thoroughly drain each egg allowing the extra loose white to fall away and then gently slide into the boiling water. Boil very gently for 3.5/4 minutes then again using the slated spoon remove and dry on some kitchen paper to get rid of excess water before placing on hot buttered toast or your choice of dish. This method ensues all the excess white is removed and a perfectly cohesive poached egg is the result and without the light ‘tang’ of any vinegar.
We made about 12 different dishes during the day so it was very much full on and, thank goodness, we had the air conditioning up to maximum as it was one of the hottest days on the Summer outside. Mark and our little kitchen ‘brigade’ made sure we were well supplied with hot and cold drinks and, if we were not eating enough already, the professional kitchen would send little nibbles in for us too!!
We made three soups including Watercress, Puree of Coco Beans and the amazing Pistou Soup. Pistou is what some may call the French version of pesto.
However, never say that to a Frenchman...especially to a certain M. Blanc.
The French claim to have had ‘their’ version first...
Pistou as opposed to Pesto, does not have pine nuts or parmesan cheese in it.
The quality of this soup relies on freshly picked vegetables which should be used when at their best and in season. For M. Blanc, seasonality is crucial and as such this soup is a boon to keen gardeners to extol their vegetables. You also do not need much of any one kind so can pick your way around your plot with what is looking good on the day...
The incredible flavour comes from the cooking technique used. Mark taught us what he had been taught by Raymond. In order to capture and intensify the wonderful flavour, the vegetables are steamed, sweated and sweetened. This is achieved by using a large wide pan or skillet with a lid, a little stock already hot in a nearby saucepan and a few knobs of unsalted butter. The small amount of hot liquid together with the unsalted butter and the chopped vegetables in the covered pan, creates a temporary emulsion which cooks and seals in the flavour. I have to say this simple method is extremely effective and I have since used this time and time again and my ‘testers’ have also remarked on the intense flavour this achieves.
Mark also demonstrated the difference blanching the basil leaves first make to the final colour and attractiveness of the dish-another tip I shall remember. He also said that blanched basil can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Another tip when including tomato, was the part of the tomato used should be depending on what was required for the dish. The pulp is sweet, the seeds bitter and the skin is a combination of bitter and sweet and also adds colour to the dish.
Onions should also be chosen according to their known flavour. It was definitely a case of ‘knowing your onions’ i.e. Spanish will add more of a ‘sweetness’ etc. He also talked about the various ‘tricks’ to stop your eye watering...one person had heard of putting them temporarily into the freezer which Mark strongly vetoed as this will change the texture and resulting flavour. He simply suggested not cutting the root until the end as that is where most of the irritant vapours are stored.
Finally, the Coco Bean Soup is simply all the items in the ‘Ingredients for the coco beans section’ but with a few generous ladles of vegetable stock to loosen it up. Absolutely incredibly delicious and we all marvelled at the flavour, texture and taste and wanted more-and that saying something when we were eating all day!
Just need to now find some coco beans...
Coco Beans are officially known as Le Coco de Paimpol and have protected A.O. C. Status. Very similar to borlotti beans, they have a wonderful melt in the mouth feel. They are traditionally grown in Brittany and therefore traditionally used in French dishes but are less well known and thus not so easily obtainable here in the UK.
I have though, found one supplier whose products are in many UK Asian grocery stores and on line
And now on to this soup itself-which comes, as you will have gathered by now, highly recommended!
A truly wholesome and wonderfully delicious peasant soup. It combines all the fresh vegetables in a flavoursome broth providing many valuable nutrients.
Serves (Yield): 2 Difficulty: ●○○
Preparation time: 30 mins Cooking time: 15 mins
Special equipment: Blender
The pesto and the coco beans can be prepared 1 day in advance and kept cling filmed in the fridge. The soup can be prepared a few hours in advance and finished at the last moment with pesto.
Ingredients for the pistou sauce:
30g /1 handful Basil leaves, blanched for 5 seconds and refreshed (*1)
5g /1 clove Garlic, puréed
100ml Olive oil, extra virgin
1g /1 pinch Sea salt
1g / 2 pinches White pepper
Ingredients for the coco beans:
200g Fresh coco beans (*2) or haricot blanc (if dried soak for 12 hours and discard water)
30g / 2tbsp Olive oil
50g / ¼ Onions, roughly chopped
5g / 1 Garlic clove, whole, peeled
1 Bouquet Garni (1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs of thyme, a few stalks of parsley strung together)
4g / 4 pinch Sea salt
1g / 2 pinches Black pepper
Ingredients for the soup:
30g / 2tbsp Olive oil (*3)
30g / ¼ small Onion, chopped finely
45g / ½ medium Carrot, peeled and chopped finely
25g / ½ stick Celery, peeled and chopped finely
45g / 1/6 Fennel, chopped finely
60g Turnip, peeled and chopped finely
400ml Water, boiling (*4)
30g / 2tbsp Peas, fresh
25g Broad beans
25g / ½ Courgette, finely diced
30g / 2tbsp Fresh cooked coco beans or soaked dried beans
50g / 1 Tomato, vine ripened, diced
5g / 5 pinch Sea salt
½ g /1 pinch Freshly ground white pepper
50g Fresh pesto sauce
20g Grated parmesan
20g Croûtons (optional)
Making the pesto sauce:
Purée all the ingredients in the liquidiser, taste and season with salt and pepper, reserve. Keep in the fridge until required.
Cooking the beans:
Sweat the onions, garlic, and bouquet garni in olive oil for 4 minutes.
Add the beans and continue to sweat for a further 2 minutes. Add the water, bring to the boil; season to taste and simmer gently for between 40 minutes and 1 hour until the beans are tender. Allow the beans to cool down in the cooking liquid.
Making the soup:
In a large pan sweat the vegetables (*5) except the peas, courgettes and tomatoes in the olive oil, for 4 minutes. Add the boiling water, season with salt and pepper, and simmer (*6) for 10 minutes.
At the last moment add the peas, courgettes and the cooked beans; cook for a further 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, taste and correct seasoning if necessary.
Serve in a large warmed tureen, pour in 50g of pesto sauce and serve to your guests. Place parmesan and croûtons on the table so guests may help themselves.
Chef’s Notes (*):
Blanching the basil retains its vivid green colour.
This variety of bean has a wonderful texture but can be replaced by haricot blanc beans, flageolet, butter beans or borlotti beans.
When you cook olive oil most of the molecules of flavours go away, so use a good but inexpensive oil. Only use extra virgin olive oil for dressings or added at the last moment to finish your dish.
I use boiling water to shorten the cooking time, which preserves the vivid colours, nutrients, clear flavours and textures of this soup.
The sweating process will bring the sugar out of the vegetables and enhance the flavour of the soup.
Cooking too aggressively will destroy the texture of the delicate beans; they will burst and be very powdery.
Any summer vegetables such as broad beans, spinach, or young cabbage could be added to this soup.
These beans would be lovely if used for a salad; dressed still warm with shallots and a mustard dressing.
The addition of 20g parmesan & 5g pine nuts would give you a pesto sauce.
Do give this soup a go-you will not be disappointed and it is a great showcase for your veggies from the garden-just use what you have available on the day-that way it is absolutely seasonal-just as Chef requires!
Back to the cookery course...
As I might have mentioned, we did not go hungry at any point during the day...
As Mark demonstrated dishes, we were strongly encouraged to taste, taste, taste...
We also had a very nice glass of white wine introduced by one of the young Sommeliers when we sat down and ate at lunch time.
And a quick but highly enjoyable stroll around the grounds...
Including the fabulous vegetable gardens...
I hope everyone has enjoyed this as much as I did on the day. I do have some more recipes and glimpses of the day if anybody is interested...
Until then, eat well and heartedly!