In need of no introduction is Oxfordshire’s home of gastronomy, two Michelin starred Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons by Raymond Blanc OBE. In fact, the hotel was awarded it’s two stars only a year after it’s open in 1984, and 20 years later, it fails not, to entrance.
First impressions, as we crunched upon the gravel of Le Manoir, must be how set apart it is from the isolate area it is located in. There is nothing isolate, and everything abundant, as you take in the country-manor like luxury it beholds. From the organic gardens, and conservatory which home-grows as much of the fine ingredients it can, so tantalising and bursting with flavour in each miniature plant and herb, we can understand why Blanc refers to his expert use of seasonality as “sustainable harmony.” As you walk into Le Manoir, and indeed as you regrettably leave it, you find yourself holding onto that sustainable harmony as long as you can.
Guests are of a higher age group, and walking in I feel as though I ought to be visiting on an anniversary, which needing no reminder of which, I am not. Straight to business, the stupor of first walking into our room will have to wait, as I have enrolled into the Raymond Blanc Cookery school, for the Blanc Vite class. Scuffling into the class (late), I am welcomed into “Blanc Vite” warmly by young chef “Mikey”, leading the class of 7. Here you will learn quick dishes to prepare to completion, in less than 30 minutes. More importantly however, everything you ever thought you knew how to prepare (poached eggs, roast chicken, salads!), you will actually learn to prepare correctly.
Mikey, the young talented chef, embodying zest, leads the class, with professional nutritionist Natalia guiding us on the health benefits of each ingredient, scores of interesting facts on nutrition, and the interplay between hundreds of foods and their metabolism in our body. If solely for the devotion displayed by the protégé leading this class – I suggest you attend one Raymond Blanc cookery school session. The commitment, labour of love, and passion for the cuisine which they create osmoses into your veins. This is no exaggeration. The process became emotive. The ingredients are personal; here you are taught if your palette doesn’t accommodate rosemary, allow us to suggest thyme; your feedback is welcomed, your tastes individualised, characterised and taken into account. It was apparent as well by the end of the class that none of us wanted to lose merit with Natalia by finishing our desserts (even here, excessive sugar consumption is labeled with “caution!”), but rather to show that we were newly reformed ex-sugar addicts.
I left with a renewed sense of interest in the organics of ingredients and their raw input through to their nutritional influence in your cooking. I left with a hundred more questions than the hundred I’d asked. Moreover, I left, chastising myself for looking in bewilderment when we had been introducing ourselves, at the twenty-seven year old young man who had attended the Blanc Vite course six times. It was supposed to be “vite”, I’d thought, why hadn’t he understood it ‘vite’?! All I wanted to ask on exit, was when there would be a repeat course, or as I bashfully put it: “if there was a follow up class to Blanc Vite.” Dinner at Le Manoir punctuates every taste bud you own. From the vigorous flavour each of their home grown ingredients will enhance your scallops to your lamb with, to the wonder at how such a micro-herb could burst with such poignancy on your palette, the combination of textures and taste are creative for their extreme effectiveness. With every dish, you come to feel that you are sampling precisely the tastes this Chef wishes to deliver to you. It is too astonishing, hard-hitting, this discovery of flavours, to have not been calculated to perfection. Dessert will lull you into a light coma, which is absolutely fine, if you’re to fall into one in a room at Le Manoir.
Of the 32 individually-designed guest rooms and suites, we stayed in the South-East Asian themed suite, evoking the exoticism mixed with an old-world feel, notwithstanding the luxurious breadth of space and relaxation which the dark bamboo and fresh scents of the suite meld, into one.
From the oriental opulence of the rooms and the contemporary chic of the hotel itself, to it’s lawns, flower borders and orchards, the idyllic Manoir experience is a difficult one to walk away from. And as I crunched back along the gravel toward our car the following afternoon, M. Blanc himself rushing out to take both my hands, ask over my stay, and share with me his favourite aspects as though they were secrets he hadn’t yet told, was humbling to say the least. I journeyed home grateful for 24 hours of real edification in this English – yes, really, Blanc does well to keep Le Manoir’s setting, ever so English – haven.