Restaurant Review: Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire Friday, Aug 9 2013 

ruralness...

ruralness…

After working my butt off for Edexcel doing some extra marking this term, I decided the time had come to spend a proportion of it on something really cool. And that something was a meal for two at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred establishment in rural Oxfordshire. When I say rural, I really do mean it: you either have to drive there yourself (and eschew the drink – which may not be a bad thing, as I’ll go on to explain), fork out the necessary £60 for the taxi round trip between Oxford railway station and the restaurant (adds expense to an already expensive day), or get the bus from Oxford town centre to the Manoir (which only runs once an hour, and not even from Oxford station, so is most inconvenient time-wise). The most expensive option would be to stay at the Manoir itself (having driven yourself there) to give yourself a chance to sleep off the various excesses that you’re about to indulge in. Luckily, an alternative was available to us: the mothership always enjoys shopping at Bicester, which is about a forty-minute drive from where she lives, and as we were staying with her, she offered to drive us there and entertain herself at the shopping village until we were done. GOOD TIMES.

(Sorry for the preamble, but getting yourself there really is a faff and is something you need to consider.)

Getting the actual reservation itself was not difficult (perhaps because of the difficulty of getting to the location, fewer people want to go there). We rang up a mere 2-3 weeks before wanting to go there and were able to get a table easily, even though we were going at the end of July, at what I thought would be high season (surely more people want to enjoy the Manoir’s beautiful gardens in July than they do in February?). Anyway, this is reassuring for potential diners.

a light dig at our froggy friends

a light dig at our froggy friends

Staff behaviour was virtually impeccable throughout proceedings – from the friendly yet professional way with which they took our reservation and directed us around the grounds and restaurant, to the flawlessly formal service with which they served us on the day. The only slight letdown was that my (French) husband overheard some of the waiting staff insulting a couple of the diners once away from them (in French). WHOOPS. Never assume when working in service that the general public will not be able to hear your comments, even if you make them in another language.

The staff also put up with my enquiries as to whether Monsieur Blanc was in the house that day – a question they must get all the time. (I asked twice – once at the beginning of the meal and once at the end, to two different members of staff – just to be sure.) Sadly, he wasn’t – but this will be just one reason to go back another time, I’m sure, to try my luck again.

However, I don’t only suggest a return visit in order to try to meet Raymond Blanc (or even his long-suffering associate, ADAM!). The food was quite simply beyond reproach – which you’d expect after paying £79 per person for 5 courses (plus cheese, for an extra £24 per person – so make that £103 per person). The menu changes monthly thanks to its seasonality, and as a result the fresh flavours of the ingredients used simply burst onto your tongue. This extended equally to the canapés (taken outside prior to the meal) and to the petits fours (taken with coffee at the end). There is of course the opportunity to sample the drinks menu before eating, but we chose to just have tap water. And to be honest? The staff seemed fine with that. There’s no feeling of being looked down upon because you’ve effectively ordered something that’s free. And frankly, when you’re paying that much, you ought to be able to squeeze out every free thing you can get :p

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first course took the form of a stunning gazpacho, made using Blanc’s method of hanging cherry tomatoes in a muslin sheet to extract the juice. We’ve seen him do this on TV, and not only is it time-consuming (it takes around 3-4 hours for every 2kg of tomatoes used), but it’s also expensive (only cherry tomatoes are used). However, I’m happy to report that you get what you pay for. IT WAS DIVINE – beautifully clear and providing an intense hit of flavour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next course promised two things that I don’t normally enjoy: salt cod (which to me tastes of nothing) and octopus (whose texture I often find rubbery and displeasing). However, experience of other Michelin-starred establishments tells me that you sometimes just have to put yourself in the hands of the chef, even if you don’t usually ‘like’ a particular food. Was I ever glad I did when I saw and tasted this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…which, needless to say, provided a delightful combination of flavours and textures thanks to the firm yet NOT rubbery octopus, the reliable neutral background of the salt cod, the sheer variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, and the innovative addition of the olive oil jelly. Quite simply a revelation.

This was followed by something arguably more prosaic: a poached egg on a bed of spinach. Nonetheless, it was simplicity done well, with arguably the most notable aspect being the preparation of the spinach itself. This green leafy vegetable can so easily be stringy or gritty, but thanks to it being so finely chopped and beautifully cooked, it was the best spinach I’ve ever eaten.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll this was topped with crispy bacon bits, microherbs, and chopped nuts. SIMPLY YUM.

We consumed all of this with a bottle of Fleur de Savagnin, which is a white wine from the Jura region of France. While it was a high-quality wine with an intense, oaky, mineral-like flavour, it seems a bit cheeky to charge £75 in the restaurant for a wine that can be bought for £15 online (yes, we checked). A 50% markup is normal – so it would have been perfectly usual to have been charged, say, £30 for the wine. Sadly, the price tag of £75 reflects the high markup that Le Manoir imposes on all of its wines. However, recognising that it wouldn’t go brilliantly with the meat course, we chose a glass each of a red wine from Tuscany, which we enjoyed slightly less than the white (which was just as well, I suppose). As for the meat course itself:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis lamb, on a bed of vegetables, was the ultimate in freshness, seasonality and technique. The mixed vegetables were beautifully crisp, and the lamb was perfectly cooked (you can see it’s quite pink) according to the French style of cooking. Much is made in the restaurant of the general Frenchness of the outfit, which fits in well with the whole Raymond/Maman Blanc story that the place is constructed around. By this I don’t mean that the waiting staff wear berets and your food is brought out to the tune of La Marseillaise, but more that the menu is written bilingually, your food is introduced with a polite “Madame, Monsieur…” and the waiting staff even at times speak to each other in French (even when it is clear that they are not French), which all means that formality has a slight edge over friendliness. A few baby roast potatoes, or even a miniature Yorkshire pudding, would have completed the Anglo-French fusion of this dish.

We also added cheese to our menu, and while £24 seems like a lot to pay for a plate of cheese (and I didn’t even photograph it, because cheese just looks like cheese, right?), what you pay for is the knowledge of the maître fromager, and the sheer selection of cheese on offer. Naturally there was more of a leaning towards French cheeses, but there were English ones on offer too, and the range was sufficiently vast as to cater for every taste under the sun: whether you like your cheeses strong, oozy, mild, hard, peppery, fruity or whatever else, it was all there. And of course, everything we chose was delicious.

After this came dessert. And WHAT a dessert: chocolate for luxury, and raspberry to cleanse:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I don’t like the combination of chocolate and raspberry itself much (in the left-hand picture), it proved an excellent complement the opulence of the dark chocolate (Blanc, like Blumenthal and several other top chefs, uses Valrhona). The crisp chocolate disc contrasted the soft mousse and crunchy base brilliantly, while the raspberry sorbet was impossibly smooth, with not a hint of graininess, served atop fresh raspberries.

I chose hot chocolate to end my meal, but delicious though it is, I wouldn’t recommend this: you’ve already eaten a large meal and the hot choc is a bit too rich as a follow-up (not helped by the fact that you literally get enough for 2-4 people when you order just one). Definitely go for coffee afterwards – it’s of good quality (although still not the best we’ve tasted) and you’ll enjoy the petits fours it comes with so much more:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Him indoors says the lavender nougat that you can just about see at the back of the tray was DIVINE. He snaffled it while I was using the toilet facilities, which are all very nicely furnished. Use the disabled toilet downstairs if all the vino is getting the better of you.)

All of this set us back a little over £300, and despite the expense, we would revisit, although we would probably just have two separate glasses of wine each, rather than a whole bottle between us plus an extra glass each. It is, after all, Le Manoir aux QUAT’Saisons…which means that while visiting in the summer is worthwhile just for scenes like this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…we still have three seasons to go. Nous attendons avec impatience une autre visite alors 🙂

Food TV Review: How To Cook Well (Raymond Blanc) Friday, Aug 2 2013 

Raymond Blanc’s latest series, How To Cook Well, seemed for us to be the promise of Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Cookery Course, French-style. Ramsay takes you painstakingly through a variety of cooking techniques and tips, from how to sharpen knives to how to make brilliant breakfasts. Even though Blanc’s series is shorter (6 hours as opposed to about 10), it seems on the face of it to provide more than just a whistle-stop tour, going through widely-used but perhaps less fully-exploited techniques, including baking, poaching, roasting and slow-cooking.

There are many good things about this series (which is at the time of writing is just over halfway through, with all aired episodes available on iPlayer), not least the jovial Raymond himself, who frequently enlists the help of the long-suffering Adam. Always a delight to watch, he is highly reminiscent of cartoon chef Gusteau from Ratatouille, and it’s not just the accent: at any moment he can be expected to utter something that, in essence, reminds us of Gusteau’s catchphrase: “anyone can cook”. He is accessible and encouraging at all moments, whether he’s boiling an egg or making exquisite ravioli. Equally, the recipes are built up nicely throughout each episode, ranging largely from the very simple (“anyone can cook” indeed!) to the jaw-droppingly complicated (reminding us of the sheer scale of his talent). Every episode leaves viewers feeling like they want to make – and eat – what he has made, thanks to the refreshing use of the traditional techniques explored.

The one disappointment (possibly due to the length of the series) is perhaps that the individual techniques used (within the broader category of roasting, baking et cetera) are not fully explained – but for this, one supposes, purchase of Blanc’s books is necessary. The devil’s in the details, and so, it seems, is the money, but that’s usually the case with cookery programmes. In any event, the series comes highly recommended – and with episodes on frying and grilling still to come, he should have some French ideas that are perfect for a British summer.

Ferret Food Monthly (November 2012) Friday, Nov 30 2012 

Feeling hot?

We love a good curry here at the Ferret homestead (even to the point of contemplating a pheasant korma for our Christmas meal this year) and it would seem we’re in good company: a new survey conducted by MU and Mumsnet has found that 57% of children are partial to a curry whilst 66% even enjoy the spicy dish from below the age of three, with the biggest fans being in the Midlands, Scotland, and North East. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me, as I was a lover of Bombay mix when I was not even two years old. Long live the spice! (Oh, and PS: we’ll be in London this March, so if you have an Indian restaurant in the capital that you love, let us know.)

Getting kids in the kitchen this Christmas

If you need a few tiny minions to help you in the run-up to your Christmas meal, children’s cookery school Splat Cooking could help you to train your little ones thanks to their Christhttps://i0.wp.com/www.sudocrem.co.uk/antiseptic-healing-cream/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/unique-birthday-party-idea-for-kids-sudocrem.jpgmas cooking workshops. With courses taking place in Princes Risborough and Silverstone, adults can even join in the fun too, with courses ranging from gingerbread chalet workshops to edible Christmas presents. I’m glad to see them making one of my seasonal gift favourites: lavender cookies, which I make with cooking lavender and lavender syrup. Happy tasting!

Sweets for the sweet

I already wrote about Swizzels Matlow’s Halloween collection of candies (even though they refused to send me some on account of my living in the land of the surly – boo hiss!), and now that Christmas is nearly here they’ve pulled out all the stops yet again, putting their https://i0.wp.com/www.femalefirst.co.uk/image-library/land/500/l/love-hearts---gift-guide-image-3.jpgmost iconic brands into 750g tins. Their Sweet Shop Favourites tin (£5) is fab for the whole family, and exclusive to Tesco is the Superstars tin (also £5). Their 324g Selection Pack is even more affordable at £3 and includes such classics as Love Hearts, Drumstick lollies and Refresher bars. The 108g tubes of Mini Love Hearts, Refreshers and Drumsticks are also set to be excellent stocking fillers at the great value price of £1.49. Here’s hoping that Santa will slip a few under my tree!

Win Christmas treats with Visit South Devon

From December 1st until Christmas Eve, you can win a whole host of festive treasures thanks to Visit South Devon. Follow their Twitter and Facebook pages for your chance to win sumptuous Christmas hampers and Mitch Tonks’ book Fish Easy, and benefit from seasonal promotions, such as free mulled wine when you dine at Lyme Bay House Hotel in Dorset. I love Devon thanks to my special university years there and envy anyone who manages to make it there for the county’s traditional Christmas fairs (trust me when I say the French offerings on this front are pitiful).

https://i0.wp.com/www.londonconfidential.co.uk/i/H7K/40V5_M.jpgRaising a glass

Alcohol is often a popular Christmas gift, but you can go one step further with Alchemist Dreams, which allow you to design your own signature flavour of liqueur and give it to everyone you know. You can even tailor each bottle to suit the recipient – and with prices starting at just £15, there is no excuse to not bestow this on the foodie in your life. They can be enjoyed neat (*responsibly!) or lengthened with soda or champagne. House blends can also be ordered if you don’t know where to start – and with names like Jade Dragon and Winter Warmer, what’s not to like? All bottles are topped off by a red ribbon and handwritten message. I’ll definitely know where to order from the next time I don’t know what to buy my dad.

Be mine (and Tesco’s)

You wouldn’t believe that the shops are already thinking ahead to https://i0.wp.com/img.thesun.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00985/SNF12LOVET-180_985264a.jpgValentine’s Day, but they are. Tesco’s offerings in particular are extremely affordable and wide-ranging, with their milk chocolate rose costing £1 and gingerbread hearts costing 90p each. For those who like to get passionate in the kitchen, there’s also their heart-shaped cookie cutters and frying pans, which are also priced from just £1 – so it couldn’t be easier to treat your loved one.

Everybody look left

As possibly the world’s biggest Simpsons fan, I’ve often marvelled at the sheer range of products available in Flanders’ Leftorium. Anything Left-Handed is possibly the next best thing, existing in real life online, and now selling the Left-Handers Kitchen Essentials Set, which contains left-handed kitchen shears, a swivel blade peeler, tin opener, corkscrew, and bread knife.  At £41.95, this promises to be a gift for life, not just for Christmas.

https://i2.wp.com/raymondblanc.com/Portals/14/images/Eurostar/Photo-approved-1-from-Eurostar-Raymond-Blanc-New-LR.jpgGastro-star

Shoddy train food may now be forever a thing of the past aboard the Eurostar thanks to the new appointment of Raymond Blanc as culinary director. Aiming to share seasonal and sustainable food with the train company’s Business Premier passengers, the Michelin-star chef wants to transform travellers’ perceptions of on-board catering. Several Blanc family recipes will feature, including mackerel salad, and chocolate delice with praline custard. I’d hit it…not least because it might be the least expensive way for Mr Blanc to feed me.

Who’s the biggest tosser? Wednesday, Feb 22 2012 

 

At our place, it’s me 🙂

I LOVE pancakes and especially Shrove Tuesday, as it gives me a chance to eat nought else all day should I wish. While I have managed full Pancake Days before, I didn’t quite manage it yesterday, with lunch consisting of a tuna, sweetcorn and Philadelphia bake. HOWEVER, we did have pancakes for breakfast (got to love that classic lemon and sugar topping). At my husband’s request, the breakfast pancakes were American (the smaller, thicker types, as opposed to French-style crêpes). I can’t say I really enjoyed making these much: even if they are easier to turn in the pan, they’re also easier to burn – it’s much trickier to know when they’re done.

For dinner, we plumped for Raymond Blanc’s baked pancakes with spinach, mushroom and Gruyère. I tweaked it a bit, leaving out the chives in the pancake mix (we were all out) and making a Béchamel sauce for the topping rather than the cream sauce he recommends (I prefer Béchamel, and in any case, cream supplies were depleted at the Ferret homestead as well). The recipe is from his Foolproof French Cookery book, and happily even with my adaptations, the recipes are certainly idiot-proof. However, purely out of personal preference, in future I would stick with my fave ham and béchamel filling, and have the spinach and mushrooms as a raw side salad.

(I did take pics, but my bitch of a Kodak is refusing to upload them.)

For dessert, I followed Raymond’s pancake mix recipe, making sure to add a little melted butter to the mix to make the pancakes lift off the pan a bit better (it’s seriously the best tip ever, people. Your pancakes will NEVER stick again. Unless you’re a complete moron of course.). For the topping, I made Tamasin Day-Lewis’ chocolate sauce, which was ridiculously simple to make but tasted divine. You could probably make half the amount for two pancakes; currently the other half of the mix is in a cup in our refrigerator, waiting for me to give it a good home (in my tummy).

Other good pancake toppings (included chiefly so that this post will at least have some pics until I work out how to configure my camera) that I always enjoy come Pancake Day include:

Palm Honey: This is a Canary Island speciality. I tasted it when in Tenerife in Christmas 2010 and had to have some. I bought it from the airport at an extortionate price, but it can be found cheaper online. It basically tastes like maple syrup, but stronger. It’s less watery, too.

Maple Syrup: The famous Canadian condiment, with its sweet, mild taste, is now a staple of pancake-eating across the Western world. Note: don’t eat a pancake with maple syrup on it right after you’ve eaten a pancake with palm honey on it. YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO TASTE IT.

(Other variants on this theme include normal honey, and Golden Syrup, but I don’t want to bore you.)

Nutella: I’m not sure if I’d come across the concept of Nutella on pancakes until I came to live in France, but it’s definitely a popular option here and not without good reason. A decadent but affordable choice that is best consumed while walking down the streets of Paris on a cold day.

Oranges and Grand Marnier: Not an at-home option unless you’re a particularly confident (or crazy) cook. Commonly known as Crêpes Suzette, this is usually a more expensive crêperie option, with the flambéing of the alcohol often taking place at the table with great ceremony. Totally delicious and fruity, and knocks me for six every time.

Jam: We are lucky enough to usually have a selection of home-made jams in our fridge thanks to my mother-in-law. At the moment we have redcurrant and plum jams, but to be honest any type of jam is fine spread on pancakes and allowed to melt a bit in the warmth. You might even be able to kid yourself that you’re getting one of your five a day this way…

Sugar and lemon: Of course the great classic has to be included. In France, sugar on its own is popular for reasons I can’t fathom. The lemon, for me, adds classic acidity and a certain meltiness which seems all the more heightened by the heat of the pancake.

As I’m off to New York in two days’ time on holiday (am I excited? HELL YES), I look forward to tasting the wide variety of pancake toppings that are popular there, including blueberries, applesauce, cinnamon, peanut butter and icing sugar.

If you feel affronted by my not including your favourite topping, feel free to list yours here! Share the Mardi Gras love 🙂