There is really a log fire blazing in the hearth, and jugs of coffee and trays of miniature pistachio shortbread are free flowing – away from rain is gently falling around the famous gardens of Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons where we're get yourself ready for a day long cookery class celebrating ‘The special moment of vegetables, pulses and herbs’.
In spring, using the first peas and broad beans already appearing, the brief excitement of morels and wild garlic, and also the prospect of asparagus on the way, there may hardly be a better time for it. And just what a location to prepare; the sheer luxury of this place is nearly overwhelming, however in the perfect way – nothing is an excessive amount of trouble, but there is nothing over complicated – it turns out to be one of the friendliest and relaxed cooking classes I’ve ever done.
Our tutor during the day is Becca Boast, an already accomplished young chef who was mentored by Michel Roux Jnr and it has been at Le Manoir for 5 years, and she or he explains recption menus we’ll be making and learning; from a breakfasty dish of poached eggs on tomato fondue, to a white bean salad with a wild garlic pistou, a heartier wild mushroom risotto and a carrot cake to complete. We are trying everything once we complement: we'll certainly not leave hungry.
We begin with breakfast, and Becca is full of advice for the perfect poached egg – surprisingly she puts three into one bowl before dropping all right into a pan of boiling water to prove that they won’t all stick together, but somehow separate perfectly into individual eggs.
Get the water to a good roiling boil, she says, stir it briskly, then pop the eggs in carefully and switch it off. Walk away. About three minutes later they will be done, with the the least fuss. Perfectly poached eggs, runny yolks and none of that horrid uncooked white, served on the rich, herby sauce of cherry tomatoes. Not necessarily a bad start to every day.
Obviously i believe that now effort, it’s time for you to relax – therefore we watch while Becca knocks up a couple of soups before we go back to our work stations to somewhat inelegantly juilienne some raw carrots, spring onions and chard to stuff inside Vietnamese rice paper rolls, dunked into a soy and garlic dipping sauce. All of this, obviously, a pre-lunch snack before we cook our main dish, the risotto.
The stock, which Becca made earlier from simple button mushrooms (suprisingly no need for expensive wild ones, given lots of time to get the flavour from ordinary ones), has been on the go since first thing. Here we are at another brilliant cooking tip: as it happens you don't have to constantly stir a risotto in the outset in order to achieve that perfectly creamy finish. We start the rice with onion and garlic, add water – leave it to cook gently – then add almost all the mushroom stock (leaving a spoonful or two for that end), leave it again, then two minutes before it’s done, stir fairly vigorously to release the starch in the rice.
We do as instructed, frying handfuls of buttery wild mushrooms to stir through and pile on top, with parmesan along with a genius addition of truffled whipped cream. (Sadly I fail completely to understand the skill of quenelling. Becca suggests practising while watching telly having a tub of margarine, until then a dollop will need to do.) We end up tucking into bowls of glorious, perfectly cooked risotto. The dream.
Time for any rest, obviously, as we watch the making of a white bean salad with this pistou – more beans pureed into a velvety, yet dairy-free soup – and it’s on to carrot cake. Definitely another recipe I will make again and again at home – that one uses Cotswold Gold rapeseed oil, with a light clean flavour which doesn’t hinder the cake, and lots of golden raisins and chopped walnuts along with mixed spice.
It smells amazing even before it comes down from the oven. Luckily Becca has made one slightly earlier, cooled off enough for a thick layer of orange zest spiked cream cheese frosting, and as when we had not been eating constantly all day long, we slice up large wedges from it with cups of tea. There is another cake too, those we made ourselves, boxed up to take home for the next day. There is just time for a last walk around the beautiful gardens, which even in the rain are a joy to determine, before reluctantly heading home.
The entire Le Manoir experience is one of incredible largesse and generosity; otherwise the most hands-on, it was definitely the most relaxing and stress-free cooking class I’ve ever done, and combined with the cake, a host of tips and new techniques and veg-based recipes to make use of again. One to save up for, if you are able, for a big birthday, or perhaps a special treat.