Star Q&A: Raymond Blanc

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Liz Nicholls asks star chef Raymond Blanc about feeding the soul in isolation, finding your calling & his surprising favourite foodstuff…

Q. Many of us parents have been home schooling, or stressing about home schooling over the last few months… Being self-taught, do you have any encouraging words about how youngsters can find their calling, school or no school? “The key is to find your passion and follow it. I am self-taught in the sense that I didn’t ‘study’ my craft but I did ‘learn’ my craft from the best. This includes my maman who taught me so much as a child about taking the best local, seasonal ingredients and turning them into wonderful, hearty, family dishes. I learnt from great chefs who I worked under – I paid attention, I practised, I pushed forward and made my own way into a world that inspired me so much.”

Q. Your childhood sounds idyllic. What’s one thing parents can do to nurture their children’s love of food? “There is nothing that will inspire children more or make them want to try new tastes and textures than to have been part of the creative process of preparing and cooking the dishes. To this day certain dishes like a simple and delicious apple tart evoke such strong and joyous childhood memories of being in the French country kitchen, cooking with my mother.”

Q. Is there anything you don’t eat or drink? “I do all I can to avoid processed food. I once bought a processed loaf and could not believe that after two weeks there was no mould on it! In France, every little village has a boulangerie and the French buy fresh bread sometimes three times a day. Today there are a wealth of wonderful artisan food producers in the UK and they must be supported.”

Q. What’s the one food or drink that you just couldn’t do without? “Not a food I can’t do without but one I have only recently discovered – brown sauce! Yes, who would imagine a Frenchman loving the humble brown sauce. I had been Living in England for almost 40 years when one day a friend offered me a bacon butty with brown sauce. I can tell you now, it was a revelation. I cannot believe I waited so long!

Q. What’s the most useful kitchen gadget or kit no kitchen should be without? “I think most chefs would agree when I say a great set of kitchen knives. Having the correct sharp knife for each and every task in the kitchen will make everything so much easier and so much more enjoyable. Good knives are easy to handle, they are well balanced and, looked after properly, can last you a lifetime.. Another piece of kit I love is my Kenwood Chef kitchen mixer. I’ve used these machines for over 30 years, in my kitchens and cookery school, and the precision and durability is fantastic.”

Q. We’re supporting our hospitality heroes – how important it is this industry? And do you have any words of solidarity for your fellow hospitality heroes? “The UK hospitality industry employs over 3 million people, many of them just starting out on the career ladder – young, eager and full of high hopes and expectation. For them, and for the whole of the hospitality sector I say try and stay strong. It has been such a hard year but we are all in this together and we know that once this if over our restaurants, pubs, hotels will be the first places people will want to visit to reclaim some normality and joy. We live to deliver those special moments of magic and will be back to doing what we do best very soon.”

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to anyone wanting to start out as a chef? “One route is via apprenticeships. There are very many excellent apprenticeships that will give you a superb introduction to commercial kitchens. We run them at both Le Manoir and at Brasserie Blanc and can take someone with basic skills, give them the best training they could hope for and set them up for a successful career with no limits. Some of the best known chefs in the UK started this way, including Michael Caines and Ollie Dabbous who were both apprentices at my Le Manor!”

Q. How have you coped throughout the last year & what have been your go-to sanity savers? “I was at home, and isolated from most of my family – as well as my team of chefs at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Brasserie Blanc. My way of keeping sane was to cook and cook! I chose simple dishes that evoked happy memories and provided the connection to those who I missed so much. I used ingredients that were easily-available and needed only basic kitchen equipment and out of this came the inspiration for my new television series and book Simply Raymond.”

Q. Who would be your five dream dinner party guests, living or dead, real or fictional? “Other than friends or family, of course, what could be better, I think it would be amazing to have one big table with all the great chefs I have been lucky enough to train over the years. What great things they could teach me now.”

Q. Like me, you eat regularly at Brasserie Blanc… What are your favourite dishes on the menu? “Yes, I live very close to our Brasserie Blanc in Oxford so I am in there at least once a week. I help to create the seasonally changing menu with our Executive Chef Clive Fretwell who learned his craft under me at Le Manoir – we have worked together for over 30 years now – amazing! I know all of the dishes very well, every season I have a new favourite but some dishes are classics and stay on the menu throughout, including our very special cheese soufflé. I enjoy this as a starter but also on its own for a light lunch – it is so incredibly light in texture that you can almost imagine it is calorie-free!”

Q. What other exciting plans do you have on the horizon? “I currently have the new television series Simply Raymond Blanc running on ITV on Saturdays mornings. This will be repeated over the summer on weekday evenings so if you have missed any of them don’t worry! My new recipe book is also coming out any day now – Simply Raymond. Like the television series the book is a collection of my favourite, simple home-cooked recipes – nothing fussy or over-complicated. These dishes are the ones that mean the most to me; the ones that connect me to my dearest family and friends.”

Star Q&A: Andy Triggs Hodge

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Three times Olympic rowing gold medallist Andy Triggs Hodge started rowing because he thought it would be fun, now he is sharing that sense of fun through Race The Thames 2021, we chatted to him about his career, the importance of sport and the event taking place in March

How did you get involved in rowing in the first place and why, what was it that attracted you to it?

I started rowing at Staffordshire Uni – not a typical rowing uni – because a friend suggested it would be fun. I had no idea what that innocent moment would lead to. From there I found something that sparked my imagination, passion and vitality in life as a whole, and I found myself getting better grades, improving my outlook in life, everything seemed to get better when I took up the oar. It really does conform to the saying, ‘the more you put in the more you’ll get out’.

Were you sporty generally?

I was always last to be picked for school sports, football, running, etc. I used to play a bit of rugby in the second row, but I never scored a try or flourished. I challenge everyone who thinks themselves as unathletic, I believe they just haven’t found ‘their’ sport. It’s why giving young people a chance to try all forms of sport through school is key to their development as well-rounded individuals. Sport plays such a big part in life, everyone will be good at one sport, they just have to find it. This also applies to adults.

Lewis Hamilton said winning the seventh F1 world title was beyond his wildest dreams, but that he had ‘secretly dreamt as high as this’, when you got into rowing was that your ‘secret dream’ to get to the top, winning Olympic and World titles?

I started rowing because I enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough to say that I finished rowing enjoying it. Winning was always and only a by product of the elements I held dearest – self-improvement; enjoyment and being with friends in a common goal, the sacrifice; achieving one’s potential in anything is directly proportional to the sacrifices made.

Do you miss that competitiveness now you’ve retired or are you someone who has to win at everything you do?

Winning has never been a driver for me, since I retired, I replaced my passion to achieve something (which only started when I found rowing) with two things: First, trying to be a good husband, to make up for the time my wife had to put me first despite the hardships in her life, and to my sons who saw a dad who was reduced to the knackered shell of a man each day as I returned from a training programme designed to keep the human body on the red line seven days a week. Secondly, to find a way to create something for the sport I love. Rowing needs new avenues and opportunities as the sport risks becoming obsolete. Now my focus is on Race the Thames – an event for London Youth Rowing. I’m very excited and can’t wait to see how it lands in March!

Tell us about Race the Thames 2021, how can people get involved?

The event is trying to be as open and inclusive as possible, primarily an indoor rowing event, but you can also contribute to the challenge on any indoor machine. There are two challenges for the teams of eight (male, female or mixed) to choose from; the Race the Tidal Thames, 72km completed in a week or a day, and the Race the River Thames, 342km completed in a week. The ‘field of play’ is an amazing online map that we’re going to bring to life in an exciting way. We’re looking for teams of rowers and non rowers alike: friends, families and colleagues, schools and places of work, across gyms, home machines, anywhere people can access a machine, and any time in the week of 19th to 26th March.

And it’s in aid of London Youth Rowing, what’s that all about and who does it help?

Teams choose their own charity to support, as well as LYR with proceeds split 50:50 – I’m really proud to be able to support many charities through this event. LYR supports young people from backgrounds and communities that would make it very difficult for them to find rowing. I had a comfortable up bringing and I discovered rowing through luck and my ‘privilege’, and it still had such an impact on me it’s hard to comprehend. So many young people who are trapped in the hardest walks of life won’t have that chance without LYR, and knowing the benefits it could have on those individuals, not necessarily to achieve Olympic success, but simply to improvements to life by just participating like I had at uni, is motivation enough for me to live through LYR.

The LYR website says one of the aims is to ‘help young people recover their physical and mental health in 2021’ – with the events of 2020 just how important is this for everyone and how can exercise play its part in this?

Sport is so important at many levels, lockdown has decreased sport across the board. Rebuilding that is essential to getting back on track to increase activity in young people and adults alike, but also to recover our sense of wellness and vitality in our communities. I hope Race the Thames is the motivation to our participants to keep our spirits up and the inspiration to those who LYR help to keep striving and pushing forward.

To find out more and get involved visit www.londonyouthrowing.com/event/racethethames2021

Unique moment of time

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Professor Stephen Hawking had a fascinating relationship with time and this year Bremont are marking that and honouring the eminent scientist with the launch of its Bremont Hawking watch collection.

The brand has worked with the Hawking family to create something unique and special dedicated to the British scientist whose stud of time enhanced our understanding of the universe and beyond.

The classically styled Bremont Hawking Limited Edition watch features a retrograde seconds hand and grand date and contains four wooden discs inlaid into the back of the watch taken from the desk at which Hawking contemplated the mysteries of the universe.

Only a limited number of watches will be made and all with unique features setting them apart as a truly stunning timepiece.

To complement the men’s watch, Bremont is also releasing a limited edition number of women’s watches, the first it has produced and around the face lies a bezel of diamonds – another first for Bremont.

Bremont co-founder Nick English said of the collection: “Professor Stephen Hawking was arguably one of the most pre-eminent scientists of the last hundred years. We wanted to celebrate this incredible man’s life and his fascinating relationship with time.”

Bremont is an award-winning British company producing beautifully engineered chronometers at their headquarters in Henley.

Journey of discovery

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Fi Harding tells us more about Chiltern Arts Festival 2020 which takes place at various venues between Friday 28th February and Saturday 7th March

As the world celebrates 250 years since Beethoven’s birth, Chiltern Arts is celebrating overcoming adversity in the arts, with its usual array of venues including those in Henley, Marlow, Wallingford and, for the first time, Princes Risborough.

‘It’s a busy year for Chiltern Arts,” says founder and creative director Naomi Taylor, “and an exciting one! I’m particularly excited to have a theme linking all events for the first time and I hope people will get on board and follow the festival as a bit of a journey of discovery. There are also lots of opportunities to get involved as well as sitting back and enjoying; a Come and Sing day, poetry competition and Youth Music and Art Day… come and join us for what we think will be a brilliant week!”

Chiltern Arts offers an array of concerts for all musical tastes: Septura Brass Septet celebrate the music of female composers; the Come and Sing Company invite you to explore Tippett’s Five Spirituals alongside Tippett’s biographer Oliver Soden; the Marian Consort uncover the Catholic music kept under wraps in Elizabethan England; the Phoenix Piano Trio present piano trios from Beethoven and Fauré, both of whom suffered hearing loss; pianist Danny Driver presents Beethoven and the loss of Vital Senses with music from Gabriela Lena Frank and Rodrigo partnering Beethoven’s impressive Hammerklavier; and the City of London Sinfonia close with Beethoven’s famous Septet.

One of the highlights is undoubtedly a mini-residency from eminent solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, performing with Trio HLK a piece called Extra Sensory Perception; and we’re thrilled to be commissioning a piece from Stephen Goss for Dame Evelyn and Matthew Wadsworth. The piece will be premiered at the Candlelit Lute recital in Great Missenden on Thursday 5th March. Dame Evelyn and Matthew both also precede their respective events with pre-concert talks.

Chiltern Arts’ popular concert and dinner event returns to The Gatsby in Berkhamsted with music from members of the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra, featuring cabaret and a seven-piece band.

Three outstanding young professional ensembles feature at the festival: the Salomé String Quartet, baroque quartet Ensemble Hesperi and wind group the Magnard Ensemble. The first entirely youth-focused event features music from several local young musicians and performers, including students from the Mary Hare School for the Deaf, Amersham Music Centre, Tring School and Chiltern Music Academy, as well as a massed choir led by the Marian Consort.

More info..

The poetry competition also returns, open to writers of all ages. There’s information about all of these events online, where you can also request a brochure, buy tickets and find out how you can get involved with Chiltern Arts. You can also call the box office on 01442 920303.

Show time

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Talented stars from Ascot, Crowthorne and Sandhurst will dazzle you this month at the 49th South East Berks Gang Show. Sandra Sidey tells us more…

South East Berkshire Gang Show first took to the stage in 1971 at Brakenhale School Theatre in Easthampstead. This premiere was produced by Richard Shirley, who went on to produce nine more. In the audience were Shirley Burns and her family who were so impressed with the show that they signed up to be in the second.

Shirley took over production for the 1982 show, which outgrew the school and moved, firstly to Camberley Civic Hall in the mid 1970s and then to its current venue at South Hill Park’s Wilde Theatre. Shirley continued as producer until 2018, passing the baton to a new team whose second show takes place this month, ahead of next year’s 50th golden anniversary.

We produce a show every year which takes place over the February half term. Our gang rehearse every Sunday afternoon from September but for the dedicated production team it is an all-year-round job. The cast averages between 90 and 100 members, both boys and girls, ranging in ages from nine to 90 years, all being current members of the Scout or Guide associations.

The team behind this community highlight includes the producer, assistant producer, director, stage manager, lighting, costumes, set production, crew manager, musical director, choreography and sound. Early in May a production meeting is held to produce a rough plan for the following February’s show including a proposed running order. They then each work on their ideas meeting regularly. By September when rehearsals start words and music are available for the cast and band. Each scene is planned and costumes designed.

The London Gang Show adopted the red scarf as its emblem and, if you were in an approved Gang Show you were entitled to the scarlet scarf with gold lettering on the back. To wear this shows you are recognised as an authentic Gang Show. The scarf was awarded to the South East Berks Gang Show in 1977 and has been re-assessed many times to ensure the high standard expected has been maintained – which of course it has.

More info

The show runs every night from Tuesday 18th to Saturday 22nd February, starting at 7.15pm with a Saturday matinee at 2.15pm. Ticket prices start at £13; to buy yours please call 01344 484 123 or visit

Talking Point: Nigel Havers

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Liz Nicholls chats to actor, dad, and all-round charming man Nigel Havers, 67, who is set to star in ART at Richmond Theatre.

February is here which brings Valentine’s Day! Do you celebrate?

“In a word: no! My wife is not interested in Valentine’s Day, thank God. We don’t bother at all. If that sounds unromantic, perhaps it would be to say that I think every day should be Valentine’s Day!”

Q. What do you enjoy most about ART?

“ART is my favourite play which is why I’ve done it so many times. It’s beautifully written by Yasmina [Reza] and one of the best comedies ever… Thirdly, it’s a joy to take part in because, being such a short play, you’re in the pub before 9pm!”

Q. You always have a lot on; how do you relax when you’re not working? Do you watch soaps?

“I don’t watch any soaps, no. It being panto season, I haven’t not worked for quite a while – I’ve forgotten how I relax! I tend to keep busy, but if I’m not lying down, I’m walking.”

Q. Does your dog accompany you much?

“Yes; she’s a black poodle who’s cut like a mongrel so people are always surprised when I tell them her breed. She’s called Charlie and a real character. I live between Wiltshire and London and we often take her to the pub with us. The Bell at Ramsbury is a lovely dog-friendly pub near us. In London there are several; we like Colbert in Sloane Square and a restaurant called Lucio’s in Fulham Road. I don’t know why more places don’t allow well-behaved dogs.”

Q. What’s the greatest lesson fatherhood has taught you?

“Agree with your daughter! Give them anything they want! Because they’ll win in the end so that little nugget will at least save you time.”

Q. Is there anywhere in the world you’d like to visit?

“I haven’t been to Vietnam and I’d like to explore that part of the world.”

Q. You’re godfather to Jack Whitehall, too. Do you see a hidden side to him?

“He’s a very bad influence on me! No; he’s a sweetheart; a really lovely man. There’s nothing secret about him because he lays it all bare in his acts. He’s very honest about his life. When he first started as a comedian, he performed at a pub in Putney and invited me to come along to watch and advise. My advice to him at the end of it was: look – don’t try to be a comedian! Well, that didn’t work and I’m glad he didn’t take it!”

  Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson star in ART on tour this month. Visit www.arttheplay.com for more information.

LONDON

See it at Richmond Theatre, 4th to 9th March.

For tickets, click here or call 0844 871 7651 (normal charge plus 7p per minute).

SURREY

See it at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, 18th to 23th February.

For tickets, click here or call 01483 440000

THAMES VALLEY

See it at Oxford Playhouse, 4th to 9th February.

For tickets, click here or call 01865 305305

 

Hal Cruttenden: Middle ground

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One of Britain’s top comedians, Hal Cruttenden brings his stand-up show to Maidenhead’s Norden Farm this month.

Keen to involve his family in the planning as well as being one of the subjects within the act, he asked his teenage daughters what he should call the tour. Hence “Chubster”, which also gives a clue as to other subjects – his battle with weight! Now Hal’s back on the 5:2 diet and onstage in a hilarious show that not only touches on his usual moans about being a middle-aged, middle class father of fat-shaming teenagers but also introduces us to new problems like his struggles with IQ tests, political zealots and the trauma of supporting the England rugby team.

So, who were the people who inspired Hal in his career that has often seen him nominated for awards? It seems those middle-class doubts needed satisfying as he says his inspirations were people like Eddie Izzard: “He convinced me that you could do stand-up successfully and be middle-class. I thought it was so impressive and it taught me that it was more the joke than the person telling it. I just so love Bill Connolly’s charisma, I just want to sit down and listen to him. Comedians like Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges, I think for me it is more a case of jealousy rather than inspiration.”

Having given his family the chance to name the show, do they also get a chance to see their dad in action? “Oh yes, they always see the shows. As to what they think of them, my children are now asking for a raise in their pocket money and calling it research costs!” Hal says. Speaking of research, how easy does he find the writing? Not, it would appear! “I am anything but disciplined, I am rubbish – if I did not have a deadline to work to I doubt I would get anything done. I have the upmost respect for Lee Mack, I have absolutely no idea how he writes all the comedy scripts and stand-up shows that he does.”

Having toured the world, it seems the bright lights of New York still beckon for Hal, he says: “I would really love to perform in New York, I really fancy doing Carnegie Hall or the Radio City Music Hall.” Your chance to see him at Norden Farm Arts Centre is on Friday, 11th and Saturday, 12th January.

  For more information go to norden.farm