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Somewhat ironically given the name of the venue and its owner, there are few dining locations as distinctively British as Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. The breathtaking 16th century manor hotel in deepest rural Oxfordshire is home to one of the most committed and passionate Anglophiles anywhere, Raymond Blanc.
Blanc moved to Oxford from his native Besançon and in 1977 opened his first restaurant, before opening Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons seven years later. Remarkably it won two Michelin stars the year it opened – and has held them ever since.
In the early 1980s the British dining landscape was light years away from what it is today: “Back then the waiter wasn’t allowed to talk to the guests! I wanted to create somewhere joyful, fun, full of beauty. Giving guests – strangers – a true experience, a moment to remember through our garden and the little touches.”
From the outset, Blanc’s cuisine and philosophy was defined by seasonality and quality produce decades before it became fashionable – the four seasons dictated the food he ate at home, so it was a natural name for his restaurant and hotel. “From the earliest age I learnt the laws of the seasons, the cycles, the moods, the varietals. When I was seven, my mum would never say ‘get me some potatoes’ – she’d say get me some bintje, some ratte – for French fries, I knew it was Maris Piper.”
The manor’s two-acre gardens allow him and his dedicated team to produce 70 varieties of herbs, 90 types of vegetable and an orchard with more than 800 apple, pear, and quince trees. A fruit hedge contains rare varieties of sloes and plums, all grown using traditional, sustainable British methods. It’s really in his gardens that Blanc seems most in his element. Running around with youthful exuberance, stopping to pull out celeriac with his bare hands, dusting the mud off his hands as he implores us to taste its freshness.
In ‘mushroom valley,’ lined with silver birch and oak trees, shiitake, maitake and parasol are just some of the varieties cultivated. Hundreds of Nero di Milano courgettes are also grown in cloche tunnels, primarily for their flowers, as the kitchen can get through 200 a day in the summer. Aubergines, peppers and watercress add to the explosion of colour and scents, while huge pumpkins and gourds line the numerous greenhouses.
Certified by the UK’s Soil Association, the gardens supply the kitchens, but even for produce not grown on site there are frequent personal visits to suppliers on boats, farms or elsewhere, checking on quality, sustainability and animal welfare. It’s back in the kitchens that all this extraordinary bounty is put to use.
For years Blanc was in the kitchens, constantly at the stoves, winning countless awards and twice named European chef of the year. Since 1999, Gary Jones has been Executive Chef, maintaining the levels of excellence, but always striving to be better than his last dish. In doing so, Jones reflects Blanc’s tirelessness and enthusiasm.
At 66, Blanc seems to be busier than ever and even grander visions lie ahead for Le Manoir. Ultimately, however, the mission remains the same as when he first opened in 1984: “My style of cooking and hosting comes directly from my family’s very generous nature – generous in terms of food, of authenticity, of celebration – of being a ‘bon vivant’. The table is the centre of the house, it’s where you negotiate, you argue, you connect, you play. We’ve tried to make a table which is joyful, celebratory, inclusive.” There’s no doubt that this most British of Frenchman is still delivering on that promise.