The Gardens at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Just because I’m terrible at gardening doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the talents of other people. This week I spent the day at Raymond Blanc’s magical Oxfordshire hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, learning how to make pistachio souffle with a cocoa sorbet interior, basil and lemon granita, macarons with liquorice ganache and a perkily cute fraisier cake filled with kirsch-flavoured patisserie cream. While waiting for my cake to cook and the granita to freeze, we explored the vegetable and herb gardens.

There are nine full-time gardeners at Le Manoir. Speaking as someone who struggles to stay in control of a single herbaceous border, they appear to do the work of twice their number. Just like the kitchens, the gardens are blissfully quiet. Apparently it’s a rule that there must be no yelling, tantrums, or high-octane drama. There are more squabbles in my kitchen over who has which breakfast cereal than there appear to be at Le Manoir.

I grow fresh herbs in a few terracotta pots by my back door. At Le Manoir there are acres of herbs, some miniature ones crammed into boxes the size of filing trays and arranged like luxuriously soft, patchwork blankets.

The micro-leaved coriander, sorrel, basil and a host of other varieties are harvested with scissors while still miniscule, to decorate plates and perk up tired palates. These tiny flavour-filled leaves make their fully-grown relatives taste tired and flabby.

Perfect, exquisitely-perfumed wild strawberries

An expanse of floppy borage plants, with their vivid blue, cucumber-flavoured flowers

Once I’d seen the courgettes I understood why the word ‘vigorous’ is sometimes applied to plants

The bronze scarecrow is modelled on Raymond Blanc himself

Le Manoir’s golden beetroot is much sweeter and less earthy tasting than the traditional red variety – I ate it for lunch

Everything about Le Manoir is part of an elaborate, glorious fantasy. The food is exquisite, the gardens perfect, the staff unfailingly charming. Just for one day I inhabited their escapist heaven. I learned how to make the kind of cakes and tarts that until now seemed to belong behind glass in the finest patisserie shop; I discovered that sweet pastry made with icing sugar is crispier, that baking a hot souffle with sorbet inside really is possible and that chefs’ jackets are designed to fit people with bodies the shape of cereal packets. And just in case you’re wondering how much salt to add to my sugar, this wasn’t press-trip paradise – I paid my own way.

Read My Cheese

The British artist Stanley Spencer once said rather ruefully that he wished ‘people would read my pictures.’ A book holds the reader in its own atmosphere, he argued, and ‘this same absorption is possible in pictures.’

This may take a little leap of faith and it’s altogether a more mundane, possibly even banal example. But I would like you to read my cheese. Cheese is one of the oldest foods in the world, dating back to before the Roman Empire. This dome of creamy deliciousness holds everything within it that is good about food and cooking. And I’ve just made it for the first time. So thrilled was I when it emerged from the fridge that I needed to invent a new word for thrilled. Fromagicated seemed about right.

Ancient alchemists who tried to turn base metals into gold were crazy. I can’t understand why they weren’t satisfied turning yoghurt alchemically into cheese. If I were to read my priceless cheese I would say that it is majestic, simple, exquisite, nourishing, satisfying, clever, ancient, unassuming, atmospheric, exotic, comical and historic. And the great thing about reading cheese is that you can eat it afterwards.

Fresh Cream Cheese

500g authentic Greek yoghurt

Three quarters teaspoon fine sea salt

Stir the salt into the yoghurt, then turn the mixture into a small sieve lined with muslin. Allow the yoghurt to drip into a bowl in the fridge overnight and the next morning you will have the most exquisite, creamy cheese as if by magic. That’s it. And this is what I did with it next…..

Home-Made Cheese, Ham and Peach Bruschetta

Toast slices of firm, chewy white bread. Spread thickly with cream cheese, lay a slice of Italian dry-cured, smoked ham on top, followed by thin slices of ripe peach and a handful of rocket leaves. I’ve just bought blackberry vinegar online from Womersley and once I’d reduced it a little in a pan, I spooned it over the bruschetta. The saltiness of the cheese and ham, combined with the sweet, fruity peaches and vinegar were sensational. The cheese would also work well with my black garlic and beetroot bruschetta.

If you make this and then read your cheese, let me know what it says.

Review: The Free Range Cook by Annabel Langbein

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Free Range Cook by Annabel Langbein

published in hardback 6th June 2011 (Mitchell Beazley, £20.00)

New Zealander Annabel Langbein radiates health, energy and optimism. She’s the perfect personification of her food – clean, wholesome and beautifully presented. I admit that I winced when I opened her latest book and read that ‘when we started planning for the television series that accompanies this book, my husband Ted and I decided to plant a big garden on a terrace in the windswept paddock that overlooks the lake at our Wanaka hideaway’. I can’t think of anyone I know who vowed to grow vegetables to accessorise a TV tie-in. But once I started to read the book properly I was swiftly won round to some great, often delightfully simple and exceptionally delicious recipes.

Annabel Langbein is clearly a formidable force. She has already self-published 17 cookbooks and sold close to 1 million of them throughout Europe, Australia and North America. The Free Range Cook is a cleverly constructed book that’s ideal to get children interested in cooking. So many of the recipes like Sticky Buns, Apricot and Custard Tricorns, Vegetable Calzone, Busy People’s Bread and Prawn and Mint Rolls are perfect to make and eat together.

The book is divided into categories such as From the Garden, From Lake and Sea and From the Orchard and includes some inspiring and clever combinations of flavours. There are scores of pictures of idyllic lakeside barbecues, which look nothing like the smokey, slightly tense and rather tiring outdoor grilling I’ve ever tried. Even Annabel’s tea-smoked salmon looks both immaculate and delicious, a million miles from the version I attempted so disastrously last summer

The Free Range Cook is the perfect coercive weapon for the New Zealand Tourist Board, crammed as it is with pictures of perfect landscapes, wonderful produce and happily smiling people. Annabel describes glorious childhood days of fishing with her grandfather in the magnificent fiords of New Zealand’s southwestern coast, only reaching the remote waters via helicopter over the mountains. Her husband Ted apparently used to ride to school on a pony. Beat that for bucolic perfection.

I’m suffering serious envy over Annabel Langbein’s lakeside cabin in Wanaka, New Zealand and I can’t tell you how much I crave her wood-fired outdoor bread oven. I will of course have to make do with her book since both the cabin and the outdoor oven are out of my league. But as replacement therapy goes, this entertaining and highly enjoyable book is fine by me.

The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett

new edition published in paperback May 2011 (Absolute Press, £9.99)

There’s an innately reassuring quality about Fiona Beckett’s food. She always has something nourishing and sustaining to suggest for dinner, while calmly and politely nudging me away from my wilder and more extravagant tendencies. She’s the wonderfully comforting and persuasive Nanny McPhee to my dafter Willy Wonka-esque tendencies.

Absolute Press have been smart in publishing this new edition of The Frugal Cook with its striking, no-nonsense cover and glossy photographs. The book is full of practical advice on how to save money and spin food out so that it’s still delicious but goes further and costs less. Some of Fiona’s more draconian tips, like roping off an out-of-bounds leftovers section in the fridge, are a little too stern for me. But suggestions such as buying food loose, exercising portion control and grating food to make it look more substantial are both wise and practical. The recipes are often fun, like Beer-Can Chicken, or tasty like Newspaper-Wrapped Trout with Lemon Butter and I could eat her Summer Sausages with Peppers and Butterbean Mash right now.

Fiona Beckett is impressively prolific. She has written 22 books in all and there are enough recipes in this newly republished book to last you a year. But if you run out, try turning to Fiona’s hugely popular blog The Frugal Cook. The recipes there will last you a lifetime, keeping both you and your bank balance happy.