Finer ElementsGreat RestaurantsLe Manoir Oxford

More than Twenty-five years ago, Raymond Blanc first opened the doors of his new venture, Le Manoir Oxford, one of the greatest dining experiences in Britain.
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More than Twenty-five years ago, Raymond Blanc first opened the doors of his new venture, Le Manoir Oxford. Le Manoir Oxford instantly became one of the greatest dining experiences in Britain and since then it has become known as one of the world’s greatest hotels, winning all the major awards including two Michelin stars as well as Winner of Condé Nast Traveller, UK 2007: Readers’ Travel Awards – ‘Best UK Leisure Hotel’, and also Condé Nast Traveller, UK 2007 Gold List – ‘Best Hotel in the World For Food’. Raymond is keen to acknowledge the support from his partners Orient-Express Hotels who, he says, truly understand his excellence. But it is the huge effort, perseverance and inspiration from Raymond and his team that lie behind this success, as our story reveals. BY CHARLES FORD

 

“Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons is the fulfillment of a personal vision, a dream that one day I would create a hotel and restaurant in harmony where my guests would find perfection in food, comfort, service and welcome.”

— Raymond Blanc, OBE

 

More than twenty-five years ago the British public was surprised to hear that a well- known French chef had taken over a manor house in deepest Oxfordshire. Together with his wife Jenny, Raymond had turned it into a haven of French gastronomy and culture, Le Manoir Oxford. How could this happen in the English countryside? How could it possibly succeed?

“Here was a self-taught chef, a French Republican, and a commoner at that,” says Raymond, “taking over a grand house that had controlled three villages and was always run by the aristocracy since 1356. It was a shock! I liked that.”

But, as Raymond recalls, from the very start he soon discovered just how huge this task would be: “The grounds of this ancient manor house had become a wilderness over-run by ground elder, with rabbits running everywhere. The wonderful mellow-stoned ancient buildings themselves needed extensive renovation. There was dry rot, wet rot, a decaying grandeur, not to mention a collapsing roof and foundations— pretty much every horror in the book, and made all the more complicated through being a Grade 1 listed building!

“I don’t mind telling you, my then-wife, Jenny, and I had many sleepless nights. We had worries about investors and funding, council regulations, planning permissions, landscaping, not to mention the renovation and building works, on and on it went.”

Transforming this neglected period house into an exquisite hotel was no mean task, with Jenny and Raymond continuing to run their Oxfordshire based restaurant Les Quat’ Saisons as the first Le Petit Blanc Brasserie as well as their patisserie Maison Blanc. Jenny picks up the story: “It was an amazingly creative time. We were so sure of what we were doing that we persuaded friends to invest in the idea, and we mortgaged our own house up to the hilt. We poured over plans and ideas for months—I had a tiny office where I was surrounded with table settings, china, bed linen, towels—everything with which we were planning to make Le Manoir Oxford exceptional. I also concentrated on all the business side of things and the interiors with our designer Michael Priest, while Raymond concentrated on the culinary skills, service and front of house. We passionately wanted to create a restaurant that was also an exceptional place to stay, with every comfort you would want from an elegant home, but better.”

Raymond adds that, “thus it was that our Oxford-based restaurant, Les Quat’ Saisons, was reborn as Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and our vision was starting to take shape.”

Very quickly the word soon spread that the transformation of the property and its surrounding acres had been achieved to a remarkably high standard, while the dining experience itself was rumoured to be possibly the greatest in the land.

With an eye on the current times we live in, Raymond comments: “It’s interesting to note that all this happened during a time of recession, much as the economic downturn we currently find ourselves in. And it is often said that, with good fortune and a following wind, as a recession bottoms out, this can be a positive time to launch a new venture. I’m not recommending that anyone should take on a project quite as ambitious as ours was at that time, however, although I didn’t know it then, these economic troubles can also present opportunities. But, my God, how hard those times were, fully stretched as I was between coping with a great many business pressures while finding inspirational creativity as a chef at the same time!”

 

First impressions

People began to flock to this mysterious part of France in the heart of the English countryside to find out for themselves. And they were not disappointed. All that they had heard about was true: the beauty of Le Manoir Oxford and the fine food and ambience created by Chef Patron Raymond Blanc cast a spell over them as guests experienced innovative menus and dishes of the freshest produce that to most, twenty-five years ago, were a revelation and a novelty. Raymond did what he learnt from his native France; he linked gastronomy with the soil and all that has blossomed from that association, including Raymond’s two coveted Michelin stars, which moved with him from Les Quat’ Saisons to Le Manoir. And in the following years there have been yet more prestigious awards.

“Remarkably,” says Jenny, “there was just one week between us closing Les Quat’ Saisons and us opening Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. It was the beginning of an amazing journey. Over a period of six years we worked every waking hour to improve on everything we had started. It was those early days at Le Manoir Oxford that shaped everything about the interior design company I went on to create, at the time when Raymond and I sadly parted. But we have those memories, and our children, still very much in common.”

 

Vision and inspiration today

Isn’t it true to say that first impressions count the most? Isn’t it also true to say that our eager anticipation of that dreamed of destination or experience rarely matches what we’ve imagined? But all this is blown away as you drive through the stately entrance and into the courtyard of Le Manoir Oxford. It’s here that reality surpasses your imagination.

What is less well known about Raymond is that he is as involved with the interior design at Le Manoir as he is with the food and the garden. Today, Raymond’s touch is apparent everywhere at Le Manoir. He’s very involved and passionate about it all. “I didn’t want a pretentious country house,” he says, “I wanted quiet luxury, and to embrace the feel-good things in life. Away with the severe cold look! The outside of the house is quite masculine, with its fabulous yellow stone and its robust strength; so, inside I wanted to achieve a more feminine identity, with some subtle modernism going on. Most of the works of art, for example, in the suites and elsewhere have a feminine voluptuousness, even a suggestion of the erotic here and there, and why not? And each room at Le Manoir has a story behind it which why all the rooms and suites are individually named and designed accordingly.”

When Raymond talks about the interiors he’s inspired, you feel he could write a book about it, and what a fascinating book it would be.

An intense amount of creativity has gone into the interiors, including, says Raymond, invaluable input from professional designer Emily Todhunter of Todhunter Earle Interiors, who talks of working with Raymond as follows: “Since 1994 I have worked for Raymond Blanc and his beloved ‘Manoir’; it has been the most rewarding relationship, he is obviously a fascinating person, his passion for life and especially for Le Manoir is infectious.

His mission is to create the best food and gardens, the best hospitality and the best hotel.

My job is to realise his dream – and dreams they are! For each and every room there is a different inspiration; yet, the grand design retains harmony.

In Raymond’s words, ‘be honest, intelligent but not clever and above all no statement of design—they usually are short- lived and are also the enemy of joy, comfort and celebration’.

Never had I been given a brief that was so varied or specific and underlying it all was one common thread—that anyone walking into these rooms was to leave the humdrum of their lives behind and enter a new world of complete pleasure and refinement.

This underpins every one of the thousands of decisions that we make. Not even the smallest decision is made without Raymond’s input. Raymond’s style was responding to aspirations of the modern guest. His cuisine was evolving towards an even more fresh and cleaner style; so the design had to follow.

In the lounges and bar, I had to bring a subtle modernity to the old house, in-keeping but yet contemporary in feel and also to interact with the garden. I had to think ‘hot, spicy, Oriental’ for the ‘Opium’ suite. For ‘Snow Queen’, he was inspired by reading the Hans Christian Anderson story with its frosty landscapes. I translated his imagery into cool shades of blue and grey, to create a beautiful room. ‘Anaïs’ became a complete study of femininity and sensuality. The ‘Lemon Grass Suite’, created in June 2006 is the piece de résistance and the most spacious and magnificent suite. He was inspired by the gentle curves and intense colours of the Thai padi fields.

The food remains the heart of Le Manoir Oxford. We have just finished La Grande Salle restaurant, which was designed around the painting of Eric Rimmington that he chose. It is now as romantic and elegant as the Conservatory.

Raymond wanted rooms that give you the message that you are here to enjoy yourself, your loved one and celebrate life—but most of all I was to create a ‘feeling of enjoyment and celebration of life’.

I have truly enjoyed working creating for him, with him, his modern classic. In my career he has been an inspiration.”

 

Restaurant and cuisine

Today the restaurant at Le Manoir is the busiest Michelin starred restaurant in the country. The main dining area is a very grand conservatory, L’orangerie—a spacious, and well-lit restaurant area, oozing style and comfort. From the atmosphere alone, you know you’re going to enjoy a great dining experience. And Raymond is at pains to point out that the gastronomic experience he and his team provide is inclusive not exclusive—“it’s not just for an elite section of society, it’s for everyone! My main aim of Le Manoir is to offer intelligent luxury for all, at all levels, and this is one of the reasons for Le Manoir’s great success.”

The modern French menu at Raymond’s two-Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons restaurant has been described as ‘a twist of imaginative genius’ and the cuisine is undoubtedly the focus of every guest’s visit.

Front of house is M’sieur Alain: “He must take all credit for the success of the restaurant,” says Raymond, “Alain has been with me since the opening of Le Manoir Oxford. We’ve had some lively but positive debates, I don’t mind saying, and he’s a wonderful ‘mine host’!”

The high quality of the food stems from the freshness and purity of its ingredients. The two- acre kitchen garden produces over ninety types of vegetable and over seventy varieties of herbs, which of course are used in Le Manoir’s kitchen. Our Chef Patron has been a champion of the organic movement for more than twenty-five years and he comments, “flavour alone would be a reason to buy organic food, quite apart from its freedom from additives”.

Gary Jones, who trained with Raymond, became Executive Head Chef in August 1999. “Gary is a brilliant leader and one of the most gifted chefs I know today. He is also an excellent manager and, together, we have a great partnership. He’s added another layer of strength to the team. So the adventure goes on,” says Raymond.

This ‘twist of imaginative genius’, quoted above, means that Raymond Blanc, Gary Jones and the team at Le Manoir strive to make food a divine and complete experience, drawing its strength from creative use of the very best seasonal ingredients and produce.

In recognition of this, Raymond has received warm tributes from every national and international guide to culinary excellence, with the only tribute still to be achieved being a third Michelin star.

“To me, cooking is a pure expression of art: it involves all the senses of a craftsman taking the elements of earth, sea and fire and transforming them into a palette of flavours and textures,” says Raymond, “The enjoyment of these dishes may be momentary and short lived, but the memories are everlasting.”

This heightened quality is achieved not only from the chefs’ skills but also from the garden- and farm-freshness and purity of the ingredients themselves. The two-acre kitchen garden at Le Manoir Oxford produces more than two hundred types of vegetable and over seventy varieties of herb, all of which are used in Le Manoir’s kitchens.

Le Manoir’s kitchen brigade of forty dedicated professionals ensures this consistency and excellence. And the staff’s continuing commitment and dedication to guests is Raymond’s utmost priority. The restaurant is open to residents and non-residents daily for lunch and dinner. And its popularity means it’s best to book in advance.

 

In the know…

Raymond has invited the 2009 Masterchef winner, Mat Follas, to come and spend a day in the kitchens at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

Raymond invited Mat into the kitchen after watching the last series of Masterchef and being impressed by the dishes Mat prepared for his winning menu.

“Mat obviously has a flair for preparing good, honest, locally produced food,” says Raymond, “I followed his progress on the show with interest, especially because he has a passion for sourcing and growing his own food wherever possible.”

Mat will work with the whole team, including Raymond and Executive Head Chef, Gary Jones.

 

Some of Raymond’s good-bad-ugly moments (during Le Manoir’s 25 years)

“Well, I must say I’ve had a lot of these memorable moments over the years, let me see…

  • My second Michelin star, that was something very special. As mentioned previously, this was the evening when Albert Roux called me to give me the good news. My God! We were in the middle of a hectic dinner service at my little Oxford-based restaurant—I snatched up the phone and said: Albert, I can’t speak now, I’m in the middle of service!
  • The trip to Japan with my Executive Chef, Gary Jones. That was a remarkable experience – to eat live octopus and eels – a true voyage of discovery that influenced my cuisine, design, and garden.
  • A very memorable Head of Department reward trip! We went to Amsterdam where I quickly lost half the team… so many diversions in Amsterdam, so many! It took me two days to get everyone together.
  • In 2007 came a crowning moment – Le Manoir winning the Condé Nast awards — UK 2007 Gold List ‘Best Hotel in the World For Food’, winner of Condé Nast Traveller, UK 2007: Readers’ Travel Awards – ‘Best UK Leisure Hotel’. This put us on the map as a world- famous establishment. I owe thanks to my former General Manager Philip Newman-Hall.
  • Then there was that toe-curling moment when I congratulated a pregnant guest at Le Manoir. Except she wasn’t! And, despite lavishing Champagne on her, she never forgave me!
  • Tasting a fabulous English-reared roast chicken in 2004 (yes, we waited that long!). Now of course great free-range chicken is more readily available from places like Laverstock Park and Rugg in Wales, and at last we’re beginning to see farmers on a broader scale responding to these demands.
  • Winning that Gilt-Silver medal at the Chelsea Flower Show for the creation of the South- east Asia Garden at Le Manoir. We were all very thrilled about that because we’d put so much work and inspiration into it. We were the very first to bring vegetables into the Chelsea Flower Show.
  • And of course many great moments when we complete the individually designed suites at Le Manoir. The interiors are very close to my heart and I’m passionate about it. When you get a room right, it’s as exciting as getting a fabulous dish right.
  • Always a great moment for me is going home to my Natalia and finding she’s prepared a home-cooked meal, along with her Russian jokes (I would never dare to complain…).
  • Oh, and the fantastic moment when, Head Gardener Anne-Marie and I, after many years of trial and error, raised a lemongrass plant. We literally jumped for joy! We’ve done it!… It failed the following year!
  • Creating a beautiful dish, following an intense amount of work and creativity—that’s always a great moment. When the late Queen Mother graciously visited Le Manoir, we actually sang La Marseillaise together. How remarkable is that?
  • Is that ten or eleven great moments I’ve covered? I don’t want to tell you too much about the not-so great moments. There are too many of these! But I’ll tell you one more, here goes.
  • I do like to pay particular personal attention to guests if I’m about when they arrive at Le Manoir, I think it’s important to do that. So, I’d just greeted a guest who had traveled half way around the world to come and stay at Le Manoir. She was travel-weary but very charming. I then got into my car and backed away before driving off. I felt a couple of bumps and heard a high-pitched cry. To my horror, I had backed right over our guest’s Louis Vuitton luggage that had literally exploded, scattering her most personal possessions for all to see across the entrance to Le Manoir.”

 

What Piers Morgan said…

The best meal I’ve ever eaten

On arrival at the Le Manoir’s restaurant, Piers Morgan offered Raymond a challenge he couldn’t possibly turn down — was his cooking as good as Marco Pierre White’s? Piers Morgan’s piece that follows gives the answer (first published in “The Insider”, Mail on Sunday, 6 December, 2008).

Most chefs live utterly crazy lives, driven to excessive behaviour by the outrageously tough demands of running a successful restaurant and by the insane, competitive war that exists between them all. It’s not good enough to be called a great cook, they all want to be Number One, Top Dog, King Of The Kitchen. It’s an accolade that remains the subject of ferocious debate. The best meal I’ve ever had was cooked for me by Marco Pierre White at The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel in 1995, just after he’d won a much-coveted third Michelin star.

It’s the only dinner I’ve had where each course evaporated in my mouth. Recently, while interviewing Marco, I asked him who had cooked the best meal he had ever eaten. ‘Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons,’ he answered without hesitation. By coincidence I was dining at Le Manoir Oxford for the first time tonight, in a long-planned visit. Raymond greeted me in the bar and I told him about Marco’s tribute.

‘That’s very nice of him,’ he replied. ‘Marco’s a bad boy but he is the best British chef and I love him.’

‘He also cooked me the best meal of my life,’ I said, tossing out the bait. Raymond sat bolt upright, like I’d shot a dart through his heart.

‘Really? How good was it?’

‘Amazing. It’s hard to imagine anyone cooking better food than that…’

I looked at Raymond and raised an eyebrow. He smiled and shook his head. ‘I know what you are trying to do but it is not possible. I’m not cooking tonight.’ ‘Fine, no problem, I understand. Marco’s a pretty tough act to beat…’ Raymond stared at me for a few long seconds then jumped up and clapped his hands.

 ‘OK, I accept the challenge. I will cook for you.’

And with that, he raced off to the kitchen. My plan had worked beautifully. Half an hour later, a small plate of Loch Duart salmon, dosed with caviar, Waterperry apple and lemon verbena, arrived at my table. It looked so simple but it was, unequivocally, one of the greatest things I’ve ever tasted. The gastronomic orgy continued all night: confit of Landais duck liver with pineapple and vanilla chutney; risotto of wild mushrooms with mascarpone cream; braised Cornish brill with Cancale oysters, cucumber and wasabi beurre blanc; roasted wild partridge with beetroot and mousseline potato; Valrhona Araguani 72 percent cocoa chocolate mousse with lemon butterscotch sauce and almond milk crème glacée; and, finally, Le Manoir tiramisu.

Each course, just as with Marco’s all those years ago, evaporated in my mouth. It was staggeringly, eye-wateringly good food. Raymond reappeared.

 ‘Well?’ ‘Not bad…’ ‘NOT BAD!?’ ‘I’m joking! It was incredible, extraordinary, exquisite.’ ‘Yes, yes—but was it the best you’ve ever had?’ I put down my brandy, stared Raymond in the eyes, then announced my decision. ‘It was… without a doubt…’ Raymond was now leaning in so close to my face I could feel his hot Gallic breath burning on my cheeks.

‘Unquestionably… indisputably…’ ‘Come on!’ ‘…as good as the best I’ve ever had.’ Raymond burst out laughing and slapped me on the back. ‘Ha, ha, ha! You were never going to let me beat Marco.’ ‘Of course not. He’d kill me!’ I got back to my room and rang Marco. ‘Raymond cooked for me at Le Manoir tonight, Marco…’ ‘And?’

‘And it was very, very good.’ ‘How good?’ ‘Possibly the best I’ve ever had.’ Long menacing silence.

‘But not the best?’ ‘No. It was as good.’ Marco laughed. ‘That’s OK, I can accept that. Raymond is the only man I’d want to share the title with.’

 

Raymond Blanc’s Menu Découverte

“In a response to what the modern guest wants, I have created two menus for two specific experiences; one is all the classic dishes from Le Manoir ‘Menu Classiques’, the other ‘Menu Découverte’ a multi course menu of discovery: highly creative, light, fresh and at all times with clear flavours. It is lead by the season.”

—Raymond Blanc

 

Sample menu

  • Beetroot terrine; horseradish and dill cream
  • Confit of Landais duck liver, rhubarb compote; toasted sour dough bread
  • Salad of Cornish crab, curry and mango; natural yoghurt and caviar
  • New season asparagus, coddled gulls egg; crisp pancetta bacon
  • Pan-fried sea bass, Scottish langoustine smoked mashed potatoes; star anis sauce
  • Roasted “Anjou” squab, celeriac choucroute; juniper sauce
  • “Carpaccio” of blood orange with its own sorbet
  • Tiramisu flavours, cocoa sauce and coffee bean ice-cream
  • Valrhona “Araguani 72%” chocolate mousse, lemon butterscotch sauce and almond milk crème glacée
  • Café “Pur Arabica”, petits fours et chocolats du Manoir
  • Cheese may be taken as an extra course

 

Where it all happens

The kitchens of Le Manoir Oxford are, as you might expect, a state of the art setup. And, with the brigade of forty chefs, lead by Gary Jones and Benoit Blin, it all needs to work like clockwork (“Well, it does,” adds Raymond, “our guests expect the best all of the time!”). The brigade works like a good ship’s crew, with everyone knowing their specific tasks, and when and how to do it. Everything that reaches the guests’ tables is produced in the kitchens, from the finest freshest breads right through to the amazing sugarwork concoctions created by Chef Benoit Blin. It is a remarkably quiet kitchen with no threats or abuse, yet you feel focus, concentration and passion… then the glorious food leaves the kitchen.

And were the kitchens always thus? “Of course not, I did not have the management skills 20 years ago and neither did I have a good role model—kitchens were a different place back then. I learnt many years ago that success is drawn through empowering young people and training them. And what about your opening night? “For me it was a catastrophe, I found myself in a space ten times bigger than I was used to. I remember how terrified I was and of course we had no experience of this particular kitchen. Whilst I was used to forty guests, sixty guests turned up. I was already exhausted from the previous months of cleaning, setting up a kitchen, training staff and of course worrying about cash flow and budgets. But the guests were kind – they waited and waited while we struggled to get our first service out. And I remember the last main course went out at 1am! At that precise moment I felt I had created something that was becoming a monster.”

 

The Raymond Blanc Cookery School

The Raymond Blanc Cookery School is not for professionals, it is for anyone who has a passion for food and wish to know more about it and have fun preparing it. It is inspired by Maman Blanc’s home cooking and of course seasonality.

You can take one-, two- or three-day courses—but it’s not like school at all! If you love cooking and want to improve your skills, you’ll find Raymond’s carefully planned courses both entertaining and extremely informative. This is a pretty special experience. And because Le Manoir was the first hotel to establish a cookery school, by now, a great many have returned home with fresh inspiration, knowledge, skills— and joie de cuisine!

Many superstars come to the Raymond Blanc Cookery School. The roll call is impressive but for some of us it’s sometimes hard to remember who’s who.

“Actually, I made a big blunder,” Raymond admits, “because I didn’t recognise one particular cookery student. I was even calling her by the wrong name until someone nudged me and whispered ‘Her name is Kylie Minogue…’”

 

Wax lyrical

Ruby Wax attended the Raymond Blanc School of Cookery at Le Manoir, and of course she gave a bravura performance! Get to the School if you possibly can but if you can’t make the time just now, here’s Ruby’s recommendation: “Dive into Raymond Blanc’s chocolate mousse. If you can’t afford to have him show you how to make it at his cookery school, pick up a second-hand copy of his book Foolproof French Cookery and whip up your own.”

 

The gardens

There are seven gardens within one; all inspired by Raymond’s travels, other cultures, reading and of course by Raymond’s own French culture.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Raymond is fond of this piece of irony, especially when he thinks about the mid- 1980s when recalling the big plans he had for Le Manoir and its extensive grounds. “Just tackling the huge wasteland of ground elder and every variety of weed you have heard of, that was a massive task,” he says, “but little by little we won back the ground. And harvesting that first crop of vegetables, with my father helping, that was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Le Manoir’s magnificent two-acre vegetable and herb garden produces over 90 types of vegetables, many of which Raymond discovered within his mother’s garden. Together with 70 types of herb, this garden supplies the restaurant’s kitchen with its daily needs for eight months of the year.

The Head Gardener is Anne-Marie Owens, whose six-week holiday job at Le Manoir turned into a 23-year gardening career. “I first came to Le Manoir as a summer worker,” she recalls, “My mother was working for Raymond as a part- time florist and she told me about the job—and I’m still here. My mother’s a great gardener and so was my grandfather, so I guess it’s in the blood.”

Over the last seventeen years almost every inch has been irrigated, replanted, redesigned and reseeded. “I enjoy working with Raymond Blanc, he is such an inspiration to all of us,” says Anne-Marie.

Monks who occupied the site in the sixteenth century originally dug the English water garden, which is fed by natural springs. The ponds are now home to a variety of water plants and fauna.

Following his trip to Japan, Raymond fell in love with Japanese culture. He introduced a very special Japanese Tea Garden at Le Manoir, providing a tranquil setting for guests to contemplate the beauty of their surroundings.

 

The vegetable garden supplements herbs and vegetables for the restaurant during the late spring, summer and autumn months. Of the different varieties of vegetables grown, most are picked at their young and tender stage. Different varieties and types of European and Oriental leaf crops are grown to add variety to our salads. As well as the main season’s vegetables grown in the extensive main potager, tender crops such as aubergines and peppers succeed early and late salads are grown in cloche tunnels. The soil is managed organically, with farmyard manure applied during the winter months when the vegetable garden is allowed to rest. We achieved full organic status from The Soil Association in August 2000.

Japanese Tea Garden at Le Manoir is in thestyle of a Chaniwa (Tea gardens) or Roji (Dewy Path). The word Roji is a reference to the passage of the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, which depicts Paradise. In the development of the Chaniwa, one finds a fusion of Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto influences. One enters the garden via the gravel bridge, and proceeds to the water basin. Here, beneath three large stones, representing the Buddhist Trinity (Sanzon Seki), the visitor may pause to pour water over their hands in ritual ablution. Returning to the main path, the visitor has a choice of paths through the outer garden. The stepping stone paths slow the tread, and the pavement sections allow views over the garden. Viewing stones are also provided at suitable points. The pace of the garden is slow and deep. What I like about the Fugetsu garden, says Raymond, is that it is an introspective journey, quietening and peaceful.

The Tea House is the ultimate destination of the routes. At the door of the Tea House the visitors shake off “the dust of the world”. The Tea House is built of plain English oak, thatched with Norfolk reed with a bulrush ridge. Split hazel rods are used throughout. The rough plastered walls are created with lime plaster, a traditional technique, using boar and horsehair to bind the plaster. The plaster will gradually weather to a soft glow. Please remember to remove your shoes before stepping onto the Tatami mats. The front door is the low Nigiriguchi (crawling-in entrance). Its height ensures every guest offers a gesture of humility toward the Tokonoma (alcove) opposite. For the less brave, the Host door from the verandah may be used. The Tea House is named Fugetsu-An, (The Pavilion of a Deep Love of Nature). Fugetsu is composed of the characters for Wind and Moon. Fugetsu sounds like ‘forgets’, says Raymond, and the visitor is encouraged to forget the cares of the every day world and become absorbed in the beauty of nature.

 

Raymond Blanc, the man

OK, so we can’t really have all this 25th anniversary focus on Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons without a little eulogy about the man himself, can we? So, Raymond, perhaps you would like to step outside and admire the gardens, while we talk about you!

He’s keeping quiet about it, but it’s the big six-o for Raymond this year, another big birthday to celebrate, chiming appropriately with Le Manoir’s 25th. He’s looking pretty good, too, considering the huge stresses and strains that come with running three major brands, well, four, if you count Raymond himself which we must (Le Manoir, Brasserie Blanc, Maison Blanc, and Raymond Blanc, whose public persona continues to grow year on year), and on top of this come the TV shows and the various public appearances, a recent best- selling autobiography, A Taste of my Life, as well as a continuous quest for perfection (so evident at Le Manoir), and of course a deep knowledge and understanding of food, it’s cultural significance and how it affects society today and in the future.

And Raymond’s appliance of domestic science really does take it all a step beyond. He reminds us of the importance of understanding the roots and source of the ingredients that make up the food we eat — how and where the livestock was reared, awareness of the particular varieties of vegetables and fruits, and so on. “My purpose,” he says, “is to share with you the spiral of knowledge and understanding—about food, from the roots in the earth, the fish from sea and rivers, the animals in our fields and farmyards, to the carefully prepared dishes on our tables and the nutritious effect this food chain has on our health and on our society.” Then, of course, comes the inspiration for the recipes and the skill and knowledge required to master those recipes. Not all so difficult, some of them, for Raymond’s strongest influence, he tells us, comes from the family kitchen of Maman Blanc, where wonderful yet simple regional French dishes always appeared on the table at family meal times.

Asked what Raymond does best of all, you might guess he would say, “creating the best food experience of your life”. But Raymond has a different answer: “I inspire people. I think it’s what I do best.”

This gift of inspiration has lead to the training, by Raymond, of no fewer than thirty chefs who then went on to receive Michelin star awards. This must be a unique achievement in the world of gastronomy and for this and his wider service to industry, last autumn Raymond was awarded the OBE.

One such chef trained by Raymond is Marco Pierre White, who comments: “Raymond is the most multi-dimensional chef this country has ever seen. No one has a palate like him. He is the only genius I ever met in the kitchen— the rest do it by numbers. Every chef should knock on his door. He taught me to be wild. He dragged the personality and flavour out of me and brought my palate out of me. He was doing molecular cuisine years ago.”

Raymond himself is very switched on to inspirational thoughts and ideas, picking up, for instance, and as noted earlier, creative concepts from Japan that later inform the way culinary dishes are presented, to garden and interior design influences, to thoughts on perfect pizzas when in Italy. All ideas seem to be melted down and applied in Raymond’s own unique style.

A great raconteur, too, with an endless stream of engaging anecdotes that might typically start, “I remember one day, a horse entered the reception area of Le Manoir…”

Of course the man is a workaholic, and laughs about his fellow countrymen’s 35-hour week. “Did I tell you,” he says mischievously, “I was once faced with a revolution in the kitchens at Le Manoir? Yes, the young chefs came to me late one afternoon and said ‘These working hours are hopeless, Chef, we can’t go on like this. We want to be like you! We must be allowed to work longer hours.’ So they did.”

Despite the pressure of these long hours, Raymond does take time out once in a while, but usually it’s a means to an end — usually leading to: what simple but delicious dish can go on the table! So, he loves to fish—fly fishing the chalk streams for trout or the tumbling Scottish rivers for salmon. Foraging the woodlands and meadows for a wide variety of mushrooms, or perhaps he’s over at his friend Jody Schekter’s place for a winter shooting party. Schekter, incidentally, has by one British newspaper been dubbed as “once the world’s most dangerous racing driver”, he has since reinvented himself as a pioneering organic farmer, owner of Laverstock Park.

At a time when others might be thinking of slowing down a bit, Raymond seemed to be doing quite the opposite, and long may it last. So, we wish a very happy birthday to you Raymond, and a happy 25th anniversary to your inspiration, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.