Everything must be done quickly, everything must be done well, everything must be done with élan.
This is as true of Raymond Blanc’s approach to cooking as it is of his attitude to fishing. In the implausibly clear water of the River Lathkill, the Peak District’s prettiest trout stream, the short Frenchman is running the river keeper ragged with his insistence on doing things his own way. Seldom has this beat seen a more determined fisherman than the man from Besançon.
Blanc, today an award-winning chef with his own restaurant, television series and cookbooks, was born into a working-class family in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. Fishing then was not always for pleasure. “Times were hard and even as children we used to have to earn our crust. We would fish, hunt, collect frogs or gather wild mushrooms. Some we ate and some we took to market to make a little extra money.” By the time Blanc was eight years old he would go fishing with his father for gudgeon in the River Doubs: “Not quite as fancy as fly fishing, but it put a delicious fritture on the table.”
Even though he doesn’t get as many days a year fishing as he would wish, Blanc’s casting is good enough to fool the beautiful little wild brown trout of the Lathkill, with their butter-yellow bellies and gem-red spots. “Let’s put her back,” he says, unhooking a small one. (Ever gallant, Blanc refers to all the fish he catches as “her”.) He insists that he taught himself to cast, inspired by watching fishermen at a lake just outside Oxford. He was, he says, struck by the elegant ritual of casting – the sinuous curves, gentle rhythms and the line slipping through the air. “I don’t claim to be a good fly fisherman,” he says, “although I have been told that I have a good technique. On its own that is not enough. The split second when a fish takes the fly is magic, it’s a fair fight.”
There have been a few fish epiphanies in Blanc’s life. As a teenager, he found himself one day observing the dining terrace of a smart restaurant and noticing an “extraordinary, elegant head-waiter filleting a fish at table”.
He decided on the spot to become a waiter. That meant spending time as a cleaner until he could be promoted to pot washer, before graduating to glass washer and finally apprentice waiter. “It was the happiest moment of my life when I was awarded my first Bordeaux jacket and became a waiter.” With characteristic curiosity, Blanc the waiter started to think about the food he was serving. After tasting the leftovers, he began to offer some advice. “I saw the head chef as a colleague so I would mention that perhaps there was too much salt; or could a dish be less rich; or possibly use less vinegar. The chef was a huge man with a bristling moustache ... formidable. Then he punched me, so I left for England.”
It was in England, Blanc’s adoptive home for the past 40 years, that his ambition to become a chef was fulfilled. In the early 1970s, he was waiting tables at a pub called the Rose Revived near Witney when the chef fell ill and Blanc took over the kitchen – untrained. Previous to this sudden promotion he had only experimented with classic dishes, including quenelles de brochet, which he made with a large pike caught from the River Windrush. It had spent several days living in the pub kitchen before it could be cooked – “It was a monster pike and time in fresh water helps lose the muddy flavour.”
When you hear Blanc extolling the joys of fishing you can hear echoes of his outpourings about gastronomy – fresh produce from the garden; responsible farming; local food; working with the seasons. “Fishing is about the ability to let go completely and concentrate on the moment. I live a very fast and busy life and there is very little time, this makes fishing the great luxury. You are in touch with extraordinary beauty and the only stress is the tiny disappointment of missing a fish that has risen to your fly.”
If you ask him for his best fishing tip, he replies with the same advice he would give a young chef: “Be curious and ask questions.”
And then he says something more revealing. “Fishing is a joy because it has ethics, you cannot be a rogue and you must respect the conventions – no maggots or worms on a trout stream, however successful they would be.” Fishing may be about switching off but for someone as driven as Blanc you suspect that part of the pleasure comes from having “ethics” and rules against which he can test himself.
After a few hours, we retire with our host Lord Edward Manners to eat our picnic lunch. Blanc seems lost in thought, gazing at the river. You can see he is planning his after-lunch sortie, checking which bushes to hide behind and how to cast so that the fly lands just in front of that monster trout. He is certainly a happy man when fly fishing – and you couldn’t find a more passionate chef to cook your catch.
Day fishing on all the Haddon Hall waters may be booked through the Peacock at Rowsley, Bakewell Road, Rowsley, Derbyshire DE4 2EB (01629 733518, www.thepeacockatrowsley.com). Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD (01844 278881, www.manoir.com)