We review Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred hotel & restaurant Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in an incredible gastronomic experience
Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons has everything going for it. The finest food, elegant rooms combining tradition with high tech and luxury, blissful gardens full of rose beds, herbs and organic veg, and it’s all masterfully executed down to the smallest touch. Even the dates in our bedroom’s fruit bowl were the best I’ve ever tasted, I swear. But perhaps the most remarkable thing is the atmosphere and the overwhelming sense that everybody who works there really loves Raymond.
Since the acclaimed French chef founded the restaurant and hotel near Oxford 30 years ago, it has won and, most impressively, retained two Michelin stars (though it wears its accolades lightly – we are told Raymond is not interested in a third star or chasing more glory). Most people in the industry who have had the same level of success have also created an angry or egotistical reputation for themselves as not being the easiest to work for.
But not Monsieur Blanc. He is not a shouter or a bully, as TV chefs often seem to be. With the utmost sincerity, each member of staff would sing his praises; “Oh yes, Monsieur Blanc is passionate about apples. Get him on the subject and he can talk for hours”, or “He is so knowledgeable,” and “working in this kitchen is always calm.”
And dipping into his latest book, Kew On A Plate, during our stay, his love of and curiosity about food seems very clear and genuine. He talks about his admiration for the humble potato and the most incredible potato experience of his life, in a small, rural French restaurant, which inspired his quest to find and grow the same variety that he had tasted.
Suffice to say, the dinner we had at Le Manoir was a testament to this passion. Like a true artist, his menus are driven by imagination; we had Les Saveurs d’avril – five courses including a melt-in-your-mouth risotto of spring vegetables, Dover Sole with cauliflower, scallop, brown butter and rosemary, and ‘La Gariguette’ – a strawberry dessert featuring the most sublime real strawberry flavour and textures.
We were equally impressed by the wine – carefully selected to complement each course – and the cheese, one of which is made very specifically from cows that live in the mountains in France that have to be taken to town at a lower altitude to be milked.
Everything seems effortless here, luxurious in the most tasteful sense. There’s a ratio of four members of staff to each guest, and they consistently amaze us with their finely honed ability to make every situation feel easy, comfortable and welcoming. Every interaction we had was slick and every course presented with perfect timing, though by the sixth we were running seriously low of superlatives to respond with when asked whether the dish was ‘to our tastes.’
When visiting Le Manoir, it’s crucial to leave enough time to explore the gardens, of which we were given an inspiring tour with the head gardener, Anne Marie Owens. More than just a restaurant and hotel, Le Manoir is a national institution thanks to its horticultural work – recently collaborating with the world-famous Kew Gardens, which apparently has been a real career highlight for Raymond. Fighting for a revival in public interest in gardening, the gardens here strive to build up enthusiasm and reclaim horticultural knowledge lost during both world wars, when many skilled gardeners went to war and never returned, and the onslaught of mass agricultural one-cropping, to produce quantity over variety.
As we’re all too aware, our culture is experiencing an increasing detachment from nature and Raymond, Anne Marie, and their team are working hard to combat this. Among other projects, Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons’ Adopt A School policy invites children from local schools to take part in gardening and cookery workshops.
Anne Marie has been working at Le Manoir since the very beginning and knows the gardens down to the minutest detail, including where all the frost pockets are. The gardens work hard to grow a variety of genus and to experiment – this year, they are only growing black tomatoes and their love of ‘heritage seeds’ is an attempt to preserve important species for future generations. They’re also investing in the future by growing exciting plants such as Stevia rebaudiana, from whose leaves a natural sweetener can be extracted that has been used by the Aztecs for 3,000 years and has the potential to solve the diabetes epidemic as well as become a billion dollar industry.
Working for Raymond does sound like it’s sometimes quite a challenge, thanks to his tendency to dream up ambitious projects – apparently he returned from a trip to Japan determined to create the Japanese Garden at Le Manoir (incredibly, it was completed in four months) – and the orchard, borne out of his fascination with apples, has been seven years in the making and still has a little way to go. But his curiosity, joy and intelligence seems infectious, flowing down through all the staff; in Anne Marie’s words, ‘who comes into work in the morning and has to try Tarte Tatin?’ Taste tests are a regular part of the daily routine here, and the apples, for instance, will be cooked in five different ways and then judged according to their performance in terms of texture, taste, appearance – no stone is left unturned.
Needless to say, there isn’t enough produce from the gardens to cater for all of the kitchen’s needs – it feels like the gardens are partly a labour of love for Raymond while also an important contribution to the gastronomic experience. And certainly even more valuable in terms of restoring the world’s love of gardening.
Long may Raymond Blanc’s culinary adventures and his search for perfection continue.
Visit Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons website for more information.
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