My approach to the food we grow at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has always been the same: I want to understand the nuances of every cultivar in order to discover which cooking technique will suit it best, and with my team we go to extraordinary lengths to do this, whether it is tasting 50 aubergines or 40 chillies (an eye-watering experience!). The orchard is about heritage and beauty, but crucially it is also about flavour; and so we needed to discover which apples to grow for the kitchen. I have never understood my British friends’ approach of splitting apples into just two single categories – cooking and eating – or perhaps three, if you add in cider apples. The Victorians identified certain, more acidic, apples as destined for the kitchen, and other ‘dessert’ apples for enjoying raw. However, they also understood which of the ‘cooking’ apples, in which season, would make the best sauce, jellies, pies, soufflés or dumplings. But much of that old knowledge has been lost, and it is still far too restrictive for me.
So I set my own five specific tests. I wanted to know which apple would give the best juice and how each cultivar would behave when puréed, baked whole, in a tarte Maman Blanc [Raymond’s signature apple tart, based on his mother’s recipe] or a tarte tatin. I consulted my expert friends about which apples to taste, especially the most treasured heritage varieties, and then [local apple expert] Marcus Roberts scoured orchards and walled gardens around the country to assemble the very best sun-kissed examples. Over an exhausting two weeks we tested and tasted over a hundred apples and it was a huge and valuable undertaking, the like of which I don’t believe has been done in any other kitchen.
For juicing, you need a fruit with relatively high acidity and vitamin C to retain the colour. Usually green apples, like ‘Granny Smith’, make the best juices when you use the whole of the skin – although I must say the best apple juice I have ever tasted is made with the ‘Egremont Russet’. For purée, or for a pie or crumble, the apple must be very moist and have enough acidity to break down quickly, like ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ or ‘Red Windsor’. I want an appetising colour and characterful flavour that needs no sugar or hardly any at all.
For baking a whole apple, I want a fruit like ‘Chivers Delight’ or ‘D’Arcy Spice’, which will hold its shape without blistering too much or worse, collapsing, while the flesh should remain moist and become meltingly soft. For a tarte tatin, an apple must be tight enough to hold its shape and also it must have a high acidity. Why? Because we are going to add caramel, and so the apple must combat the sweetness.
Our favourites include ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’ and ‘Granny Smith’. And for a tarte Maman Blanc, I am looking for an apple such as ‘Captain Kidd’ or ‘Lord Lambourne’, with the perfect balance of acidity and sugar, and enough texture to allow the crescents of apple to keep their shape, but fluff up, and turn a beautiful golden colour.
It was most important to me that our judges were not only our chefs, but our gardeners too – and anyone who happened to be passing by: a guest, a housekeeper… we are all inclusive! For the past 35 years my vision for Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has been to bond together the garden and the kitchen. A chef needs to go out into the gardens and understand the provenance and seasonality of a fruit or vegetable, what are the best varieties for specific dishes, and how they are grown; and a gardener needs to come into the kitchen and understand how a fruit or vegetable has been affected by the weather, or its level of ripeness… all these small variables make a difference in terms of taste. When chefs and gardeners understand and respect each other and the challenges they each face, you have a marvellous creative environment and beautiful food for our guests.
So what did we learn together? Well, we found that most apples are good at something and some are good at a few. A handful, such as ‘Adams’s Pearmain’, ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’ and ‘Discovery’ are good at many things; and a few shining stars like ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, ‘Red Windsor’ and the rare ‘Cheddar Cross’ can achieve almost anything. Very occasionally an ancient cultivar turns out not to be very good at anything, as our rigorous examination exposed the truth that a romantic name and a treasured history may not always be enough to satisfy the demands of our changing gastronomy and our customers’ expectations.
Also I have to acknowledge that, since every cultivar not only has its season, but its perfect moment when the balance of sugars and acidity combine to produce perfection, we may not have done justice to every one. Flavour depends much upon the season, and many varieties require a really hot summer to develop their highest qualities. Will Sibley, who has tasted thousands of apples and other fruits in his role as chairman of the trustees at the East Malling Research Centre, is as romantic as this Frenchman when it comes to searching for that moment. “When a particular cultivar ripens to a certain point on a certain day and the sugar levels are a perfect match for the flavenoids. That is when the magic happens, and you remember it forever,” says Will.
The above is an extract from Raymond Blanc’s The Lost Orchard: A French Chef Rediscovers a Great British Food Heritage, which is published by Headline on 14 November, priced £20.