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.