Cooking lessons at Quat’Saisons
Mariella and Molly
There’s only one thing my daughter likes better than eating cake, and that’s making it. As Absolutely Fabulous famously illustrated, daughters tend to use their mothers as role models of how not to be. My nine-year-old’s reaction to a non-domesticated, working mother has been to model herself on a cross between Betty Boop and Nigella Lawson – all hair dos, dressing-up boxes and home-making.
Living with a pint-sized domestic goddess who rifles through your make-up bag and never does the dishes can be a challenge. Most weekend mornings her dad and I rise to a kitchen that’s already a hive of activity – pancakes being mixed, chocolate sauce being prepared for Rice Krispie cakes and perhaps even some cup cakes beginning their journey from bowl to mouth with our beleaguered seven-year-old son co-opted as sous chef.
With such a committed cook in the family, an invitation to attend a parent-and child cookery course was irresistible. Our venue was the beautiful Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisions in Oxfordshire, a one-time stopover for Mrs Oliver Cromwell and synonymous with the pioneering beginnings of the British Food Revolution. Back in the early 1980s, when bad pasta and grey egg sandwiches were our national cuisine, Le Manoir shone as a beacon of what might be possible, under the reign of the feared but much followed double-Michelin-starred Raymond Blanc.
More recently, a TV show and a slew of cookery books have brought him much wider acclaim. These days Le Manoir is celebrated for its enduring and well-deserved food stars and its wonderfully opulent accommodation.
Journeying by car to our 24-hour cookery sabbatical, I decided that the dynamics in a family are like a recipe. Remove a couple of essential ingredients and it’s all change. Without the influence of the men of the house, Molly and I discovered a mutual taste for eclectic musical style, tuning out of Radio 2 and Radio 1 on our drive cross country and finding consensus on Radio 6 Music. Happily singing along to early Eighties The Cure, Specials and Lou Reed and listening to my daughter’s anecdotal tales was a rare pleasure.
So much of a parent’s time is spent just making sure their teeth are brushed, their homework is done and there is food on the table. Trapped in a confined space for two hours, minus technology and other voices, can be a revelation in what’s gone unsaid. I found out about naughty adventures on the school trip, a friendship gone sour and was even asked about my own feelings about a particular job loss – a revolutionary experience, as most parents will attest.
The drive flew by and we arrived at 8pm ready for dinner. The suite we were shown to drew gasps of delight and couldn’t have been designed better for us luxury-hungry ladies. With a nod to Art Deco, Chinese silk lined the walls, full-length mirrors glittered, the giant, crisply white-linened bed beckoned, and Molly fell in a frenzy on the homemade chocolates and fabulous fruit basket.
What to eat: At dinner, among the gentle burble of sophisticated adult diners, my nine-year-old impressed me with her adventurous palate by trying a tomato gazpacho with accompanying baby tomatoes in fragrant citrus jelly, crab salad and some melt-in-the-mouth Cornish lamb. She pronounced it all delicious (apart from the gazpacho), which she confided, in horror, ‘is COLD!’ But she earned my admiration by bravely soldiering on until the tiny glass was emptied. Tasting it myself, I found it an explosion of summer flavours.
After a cosy night cuddled up together on a generous cotton thread count, we rose to breakfast in bed before scurrying over to the champagne bar for coffee and introductions. Our chef du jour was Jason, who’d spent two decades cooking for the RAF before refining his techniques in more commercial establishments. He was recruited to Blanc’s school via Twitter, proving that social media can be good for more than just spreading malicious gossip and self-aggrandisement.
Jason outlined what we’d be doing and asked us all our reasons for being there. It turned out all the adults had been persuaded by their companion child’s love of creating recipes. Gathered around us were our fellow students: Percy, who runs a jazz club in London, and his grandson; Sarah and her daughter Izzy; and Margaret and her son Adrian. It was an intimate and friendly gathering of aspiring chefs of all generations.
We kicked off with bread, kneading dough to create a loaf and a focaccia. Molly, with her rolled-up chef’s coat sleeves looking every inch the professional, refused any aid in working her dough. I couldn’t help thinking that if she approached her homework with as much enthusiasm she’d be a straight A candidate. There were a few raised eyebrows as she gave the focaccia copious salt coverage, but she and I do share a predilection for savoury.
Leaving our dough to rise, we began work on a chocolate and vanilla charlotte. This was a showy dessert created and layered in three stages – first, chocolate sponge, then vanilla mousse and finally, chocolate mousse.
It is too rich for most children andway too labour intensive for most parents. It was a true Michelin moment. Molly and I decided piping the sponge was without question our favourite stage, particularly when we were allowed to use leftover goo to make the initials of all the family.
By the time we embarked on poached eggs with tomato fondue, trying our best not to splat them as we cracked them into a large pan of boiling, vinegared water, we were already peckish, and positively ravenous when we got to our favourite dish of the day, Shetland organic salmon with spring vegetables.
This simple recipe was perfect for busy families, taking just 10 minutes to rustle up, yet so pretty on the plate it was worthy of a portrait. Jason taught us to cook our salmon 90 per cent with the skin down to make it deliciously crispy and maintain the juice in the fish.
Meanwhile, the veg, simmered in an inch of water and butter, were crisp, tasty and perfect. It was our favourite sort of food – quick to make, fresh to taste and full of goodness. We guzzled it up as we sat around the cookery counter with our fellow cooks, sharing stories of kitchen adventures and disasters. The lunch break concluded with a welcome blast of fresh air as Jason walked us around Le Manoir’s dazzling kitchen garden full of herbs, vegetables and wonderful edible flowers.
Top tips: To close the session, he taught us two indispensable techniques. 1. The 45-minute, high-temperature roast chicken, which you then leave standing to cook in its own boiling juices and thus maintain moisture. 2. The way to make a perfect crunchy crumble, by baking the topping on a flat baking tray and cooking the fruit separately, only combining the two when you plate it.