Mark Peregrine, the Head Tutor of the Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, is in a jovial mood. Laughing and joking with another tutor, Steve Lyons, he is going over the Menu that we will be preparing in today’s Patisserie class. Seven students, nearly seven hours to go, one tutor, many helpers and seasonal ingredients from heaven, here we all are, excited and expectant of great things to come. The list of cakes and puddings that is going to be achieved seems quite remarkable to all of us, but Mark assures us that part of the course will be hands-on participation and part of it will be him demonstrating the various techniques.
After joining Le Manoir as its first apprentice in 1979, Mark’s career trajectory has seen him accomplish many a Patisserie chef’s ambitions. He has worked internationally, at the highest levels of cookery and teaching from the Cordon Bleu School, to running his own pastry shop in London and collaborating with the Institute of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts.
And this is what we are all going to learn from him today:
Marquise chocolate crumble
Lemon butterscotch sauce
Pear Tart Bourdaloue
Pistachio Souffle with bitter cocoa sorbet
Liquorice macaroons with a white chocolate ganache
We are all seated on stools in what is, possibly, one of the most beautifully accessorised professional cookery schools in the world. All around us is Rolls Royce equipment: Smallbone of Devizes kitchen cupboards, Gaggenau ovens and fridges, Meyer pans, Amtico flooring, every Magimix appliance conceivable and Anolon knives, pots and pans from the Raymond Blanc range. There are even Bang and Olufsen sound systems, for a little light music to relax you going during cooking.
Through glass windows we can see the buzz of Le Manoir’s kitchens getting ready for lunch, a steady stream of ingredient boxes and busy chefs passing to and from our line of vision. We can see Kush and Adam, Raymond’s assistant chefs, and I take a picture of both of them. They are completely unfazed by all the attention, smiling and joking. A French lady that Mark calls “his magic fairy” flits in and out, cleaning and clearing for everyone, invisibly efficient.
Mark keeps the momentum going as he has a timeline inside his head and on paper, and he knows exactly when everything needs to be ready. In a 2 Michelin starred, 32 bedroomed, 220 people staffed institution that serves 300 meals a day to some of the world’s most discerning customers, timelines are important and we are all concentrating. Patisserie is an exact science, explains Mark, and so temperatures, weights, measures and methods are all very important to the eventual success of the recipes.
Throughout our mixing, blending and whisking, Mark teaches us both the fundamentals and the more advanced techniques. He tells us how important good butter is in bakery, which flours to work with, how to roll and move pastry, how to choose the best chocolate, how to make a really good caramel, which fats to use and when, how to use glucose in making the perfect ice-cream and the secrets behind all Le Manoir’s pudding paradise perfection, every time. Oh yes, and that includes its legendary soufflés.
As we sit enjoying Mark’s demonstration of creating the perfect Pear Tart, a sommelier, Philip Kenyon, pops in to tell us that we will be drinking an Alsace Riesling with our lunch, and tells us all about its provenance and qualities. Earlier, the Managing Director of Le Manoir, had come to welcome us and make us feel at home. The Italian lady at reception had given us coffees and the most delicious butter biscuits in one of the salons. Le Manoir is a seamless line of good manners, customer care and genuine enthusiasm. Even the cleaning ladies in the corridor greet you and want to ensure you are having a lovely time, while drawing linen dusting cloths across every conceivable inch of the building.
Through the whole morning Steve is preparing lunch, and it is a feast for all the senses. Platters are laid out with baby leaf salads, celeriac and cornichon salad, two different types of beetroot, baby carrots cooked in garlic, potatoes cooked with rosemary, Parma ham, Bresaola and Waterloo, Ticklemore and Coastal Cheddar cheeses. There are four different types of artisanal bread. The service is impeccable, the presentation artistic, the flavours vibrant. Provenance is everything at Le Manoir: they grow and purchase the best produce and it is all laid out for you to see, taste, discover and learn about.
For our pudding we eat a pistachio soufflé, the spoon prizing open its flowing chocolate interior. The room falls silent, we are quite literally speechless.
One after another, beautiful puddings, cakes, ice-creams, sauces and pastries roll out of the oven or the fridge or the freezer. Mark is in his last furlong, piping the perfect macaroons on a piece of silicon paper. He moves the nozzle with a deftness of touch and speed that makes the whole action seem child’s play. It really is not, as we come to learn when we try to copy him. He never bullies anyone, always making you feel as if you can do it, and praising you at the end. He is a natural teacher, and it is no wonder Raymond has put him in charge.
For me, the best moment of the best Patisserie course in Christendom is the tour of Le Manoir’s gardens. We went round a kitchen garden which was still quite bare in the spring sunshine, but we saw the most wonderful old rhubarb forcers, terracotta cloches, a topiary herb garden, a mushroom garden, statuary, fountains and spring flowers. As we all stood in the poly-tunnels looking at a sea of fresh, green vegetables and trays of micro-salad shoots, Mark explained that, strictly speaking, Raymond Blanc does not have to grow the restaurant’s food, but he believes passionately in the importance of freshly grown, organic, seasonal produce. “He has spent the last 25 years perfecting absolutely everything, down to the very last detail.”
We walk back to the cookery classroom to finish the last hour of our course. Families are sitting on the terrace and on the clipped lawns, sipping tea and enjoying the sunshine. We are all wearing Chef’s whites, and they probably think we have relinquished our professional duties, and are going for a leisurely walk around the grounds, abandoning service.
All that Mark has produced on the course is tasted and discussed and the fruits of our own labours are wrapped up in boxes and bags for us to take home. We are all awarded certificates and are given a Le Manoir goody bag and our file and recipes from the day are bound in a booklet with a plastic jacket. Within it are written the names and websites of all the producers, organisations, individuals and companies with which Le Manoir works. There is a conversion chart, notes on cooking techniques, health and safety, essential equipment and a biography of the team.
So would I recommend Le Manoir’s £335 Patisserie course to anyone? Well, first and foremost you really need to assess why you are doing the course, because it is specialised. The other students in the room were from a very wide and broad range of backgrounds, but each shared a desire to make cakes and pastries at home, for friends, for families and for themselves. This course is for students of all capabilities, and Mark could teach, quite literally, anyone, but to take full advantage of the day you really need to focus and work well in a team.
The wealth of training experience, the warm welcome, the team ambiance and the sheer sensory joy of being in one of the world’s most beautiful hotels makes it worth every penny. Then on top of that there is even more: the giving away of secrets and tips garnered over decades of prodigious work from one of the world’s most acclaimed tutors, the openness of the staff and the bonhomie between the ranks.
As I walked back to my car, clutching all my boxes and bags, a mother holding the hand of a young child was walking towards me, going into reception with their bags. As the boy skipped in between the pavement stones and gravel, he squeeled “This is so exciting, Mummy!” Yes, I thought. Le Manoir really is exciting.
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