By Ella Walker
Raymond Blanc is in excellent spirits. Outdoor dining is back on the menu, meaning the chef’s Brasserie Blanc restaurants have reopened.
But he is cautious too. “There’s some reserve because, as you know, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“We all pray on the wing, so to speak,” he continues. “We pray we’re going to learn to live with Covid and it’s not going to destroy people’s lives nor businesses anymore.”
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.
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 180C/160C fan/gas 4.
Roast the lamb for 20 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 150C/130C fan/gas 2. 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.
Simply Raymond: Recipes From Home by Raymond Blanc is available now