If you’re in the restaurant game, the pandemic has been particularly brutal, and for Blanc, 71, it took a directly personal toll too. Following a cough and a positive Covid test result, he found himself admitted to the Covid high dependency unit at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and was there for a month.
“The first two weeks I was completely out, it was extraordinary,” he recalls. “You didn’t know which way it would go.”
Having spent much of the pandemic up until that point “cooking my heart out”, you’d think the shift to hospital food and being unable to fix his own dinners would’ve added to an already scary and difficult situation, but Blanc is pragmatic.
“It was really, really very severe Covid and that means you didn’t think of it,” he says now. “Hospital food reminded me maybe that I missed my own cooking, but Natalia [Traxel, his long-time partner] would always bring me some lovely food from home” – but this was only after three weeks, when Blanc was more “with it” and able to appreciate eating properly again.
He is not remotely scathing about the hospital fare he encountered though. It is “not renowned and I can understand it, there is so little budget,” he notes, but as a patient, “you’re not looking for a three-star Michelin meal, you just eat whatever is in front of you. And I must say, some of it was very, very good, especially the desserts.
The flavour of his new book, Simply Raymond, is very much tinged by his and the collective experiences of pandemic life – be it how many of us have become increasingly connected with what we’re eating, where it’s come from and who grew it, or just the fact we’ve done so much more cooking than before.
“This little book is really all about the joyful experience of cooking – it’s my cooking, from my home to yours,” explains Blanc with real feeling. It is full of “unfussy recipes. They are driven by simplicity, by seasonality, by real values. And you don’t need expensive gadgets, no sous vide machines or anything like that. It’s enjoyable.”
Slow-roasted shoulder of lamb recipe with harissa
1tbsp sea salt
1tbsp ground cumin
100g rose harissa
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
2.5kg new season’s shoulder of lamb
For the chickpea salad:
1 jar (230g) piquillo peppers
2 beldi preserved lemons
A large handful of curly or flat-leaf parsley
2 tins (400g) chickpeas
Sea salt and black pepper
- Mix together the salt, cumin and harissa, and then add the extra-virgin olive oil. Place the lamb in a roasting tin. Lightly score the skin of the lamb and rub it all over with the salty harissa mixture. At this point, you can leave the lamb for an hour, allowing the harissa flavours to infuse, but this is not essential.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.
- Roast the lamb for 20 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 150°C/130°C fan/gas 3. Cover the lamb shoulder loosely with foil, and return it to the oven to roast for a further two hours. Now baste the lamb, add the water and return it to the oven for two hours, again loosely covered with foil.
- While the lamb is roasting, chop the piquillo peppers, finely chop the preserved lemons (skin and pulp) and coarsely chop the parsley. Put them to one side; you will need them to finish the dish.
- Remove the lamb from the oven. Spoon out most of the fat from the tin, leaving the roasting juices. To the warm roasting juices, add the chickpeas, peppers and lemon. Add the parsley too and season with the salt and pepper. Toss together and bring to the boil on the hob. Place the lamb shoulder on a platter with the chickpea salad.
- Bring the lamb to the table and invite your guests to help themselves. The lamb will be tender enough to fall from the bone with a spoon, though it can be carved if you prefer.
Flourless chocolate mousse cake recipe
For the flourless chocolate sponge:
Butter, for greasing the tin
4 medium eggs (preferably organic or free-range)
125g caster sugar
35g cocoa powder
For the chocolate mousse:
160g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
25g cocoa powder
1 medium egg yolk (preferably organic or free-range)
3tbsp hot water
6 medium egg whites (preferably organic or free-range)
25g caster sugar
To serve (optional):
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Grated dark chocolate
A handful of pistachio nuts or almonds, chopped and toasted in a dry pan
- Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C fan/gas 3½.
- Begin by making the chocolate sponge in a cake tin (preferably a springform one, 15cm diameter). Cut a circle of greaseproof paper to cover the tin’s base, and lightly butter the paper on both sides.
- Separate the eggs – yolks in one bowl, whites in another. In a food mixer on full power, whisk the egg whites to firm peaks, adding the sugar little by little. Take a third of the whisked egg whites and whisk them into the egg yolks. Once incorporated, gently fold in the remaining whisked whites. Now sift and fold in the cocoa powder.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread it evenly with a spatula or palette knife. Bake for 18–20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow the sponge to cool before removing it from the tin. Leave it to cool on a wire rack.
- Clean the cake tin. Carefully remove the paper from the base of the sponge. Now put the cooled sponge back in the ring, ready to have the chocolate mousse mixture poured over it.
- Chop the chocolate into bite-sized pieces and melt them in a large heatproof bowl in a saucepan of gently simmering water. The melted chocolate should be hot to the touch to ensure it is well incorporated in the next stage. Sift the cocoa powder into a separate bowl and whisk it with the egg yolk and hot water. Pour this onto the melted chocolate but do not mix.
- Next, whisk the egg whites and sugar to medium peaks. Briskly whisk about a third of the whisked egg whites into the melted chocolate, and then fold in the remaining egg whites.
- Pour the mousse mixture onto the chocolate sponge in the ring. Transfer it to the fridge to set for at least three hours.
- To remove the flourless chocolate mousse cake, heat a palette knife in a bowl of hot water, wipe it with a clean tea towel, and then slide it around the inside of the tin. Before serving, decorate with a dusting of cocoa, a sprinkling of grated chocolate and chopped toasted pistachios or almonds, if using.
Simply Raymond: Recipes From Home by Raymond Blanc is published by Headline Home.