It’s 8.45am and I’m in the bar of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. I’ve signed up for Sauces and Stocks — one of the many courses run by the in-house cookery school. As anyone with a casual interest in food knows, the French take their sauces very seriously — and they don’t come more French than the charismatic Raymond Blanc (or his maman) whose secrets we’ll be privy to today.
We drift towards the kitchen, and so begins the first of many demos that’ll form the basis of the numerous plates we’re cooking today. A heady scent’s emanating from a tray of crushed roasted wings, which are used to make a light, fragrant chicken stock.
Cookery tutor Michael John follows this up with a fish version, which we’ll later add to a Gewürztraminer wine sauce to serve with pan-fried salmon. For this, he uses a mixture of fish bones chopped into small pieces to help flavour the broth more readily, and a little pre-boiled white wine to remove any acidity while keeping the freshness. The key to a good fish stock is to nring it to the boil from cold — this forces all the impurities to the surface for easy skimming, explains Mark.
It’s not yet 10am, and we’re three stocks and a pistou in. Huge handfuls of basil are blanched in boiling water for five seconds before being plunged into a bowl of ice water, helping the herb to retain its vivid green colour. The flavoursome, garlicky pistou (a bit like pesto but without the cheese or pine nuts) is stirred into a simple soup of garden vegetables — onions, peas, broad beans, carrot, tomato, fennel. It tastes like health in a bowl, but the less virtuous cook can add croutons or grated parmesan.
Next up is a classic dish of chicken with morels in a sherry sauce. The rich, creamy sauce is given extra depth with the addition of chopped leeks, which are cooked in foaming butter alongside the chicken. It’s quicker than you might expect and tastes even better than it smells.
The day is wrapped up with two steak dishes, which reminds us all that, yes, butter’s always necessary and most crucially that it would be very bad to be a vegetarian today. While, at first glance, the dishes on our itinerary all seem very different, their commonality is that they’re all underpinned by great stocks and sauces.
If you love to play around in the kitchen, you’ll leave with plenty of tricks to try out at home; I depart with a mental list of ingredients to keep in my fridge in order to rustle up Le Manoir-standard dishes at all times. No excuses. Stocks and Sauces cookery course from £365 per person, B&B doubles from £635.
Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food