There have been some great food programmes on TV over the last few weeks, but I felt a special excitement (yes – food programmes do get me excited!) at the promise of this new series with Raymond Blanc, in which Blanc goes back to France to rediscover his French heritage and cooks professionally in his home country for the first time. Raymond Blanc is one of the most engaging and natural chefs on TV and I always find his passion and enthusiasm infectious. And if the first programme in this new series, shown tonight on BBC2, is typical of what’s to come, then my own excitement and enthusiasm was well founded.
In this series, Blanc will visit different regions of France and suitably, he starts off in the area he was born and raised in: Franche-Comte and the town of Besancon. Anyone who follows anything Blanc does knows his strong love and attachment to his mother – Maman Blanc. Seeing her in the modest home where Blanc was brought up and still tending her kitchen garden at the age of 90, one can see where Blanc’s own passion and strong character come from. What a wonderful lady Maman Blanc is!
Blanc takes us on an entertaining tour of Besancon and shows us the restaurant, Poker d’As, where he enjoyed his first gastronomic experience. The young Blanc, just 19, was enticed into the expensive restaurant by the smell of the cooking and spent a small fortune – he couldn’t really afford – on enjoying his first fine dining meal. Another restaurant gave him his first job – as a cleaner. But Blanc, ever the perfectionist, was determined to be the best cleaner ever … and was soon promoted to waiter.
He came to the UK at the age of 22, barely speaking the language and with no formal training. Ten years later, self-taught, he had earned the coveted 2 Michelin stars. Many of the big name chefs around today started in Blanc’s kitchen and what comes across in all his TV programmes, including this new series, is that Blanc is a natural teacher. When I interviewed Shaun Dickens at Fallowfields, who trained with Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, he talked about Blanc’s passion, and this passion for good food is what Blanc brings to the screen. How can anyone who loves food not be delighted by someone who obviously feels such joy for everything he eats and cooks: from the growing of the finest vegetables and rearing the best animals, to the preparation of that food. Even the way Blanc speaks bubbles with happy excitement and a touch of the poet as he talks about how his grandmother ‘made food sing’.
In the first programme of the new series we see Raymond, with the help of two of his young Manoir staff, prepare a feast for the local people. The guest list included not only the infamous Maman Blanc, but other family members, friends and local gastronomes. For Raymond, this was a momentous occasion: not only the preparing of his first professional meal in France – 40 years after he left home – but for the people he loves and cares about the most. We see him sourcing the best ingredients, from his favourite local Comte cheese (to make the most gorgeous looking cheese souffle flan), to choosing vegetables for Salade Maman Blanc in a local organic farm and the perfect wines in local vineyards both to cook with and as an accompaniment to his food. This, as one expects from Blanc, was French cooking at its best.
By the time I’ve watched the next four programmes in the series I’m sure I’ll feel inspired to want to take a month off and travel round France in Raymond Blanc’s footsteps. Vive le Blanc!