By Joe Alexander
From Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Victoria Beckham to Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson and Woody Allen, the cognoscenti have all made the hour and a half trip from London to the fabled country house and culinary oasis of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, tucked away in the quiet hills of Oxfordshire, England. This two-starred Michelin restaurant and luxury boutique hotel in the village of Great Milton near Oxford also has its own helipad. This center of gastronomy is located in an historic manor house built in the 17th century and is next to a church that was visited by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.
The master of the manor is the legendary French Chef Raymond Blanc. He moved to Oxfordshire from France and opened a small restaurant in 1977. Within a year Le Manoir had been awarded two Michelin stars and captured the attention and respect of foodies from around the world. He has maintained those two Michelin stars for 30 years, a triumph of skill and love due in part to his mantra of “Always say yes.” Blanc is also a British TV personality and the author of Cooking for Friends, Foolproof French Cookery and A Taste of My Life. As to England’s reputation for having less than glorious food, Chef Blanc says, “Everything changes. We can’t say that France is dead. One eats very well there, just not as well as one used to. The French, more than any other nation, have exported their food culture across the world. But creatively what is happening is that both consumers and chefs are changing, and that’s an exciting moment because British gastronomy can now match the very best of France, and that is new. It is not just about cooking; it is craftsmanship, turning raw materials into something extraordinary. It’s about connecting people and reigniting the French culture for feasting and sharing, not just for special occasions, but for every day. Gastronomy for me is a simple tomato salad as much as a five-course meal.”
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is set amidst ten manicured acres. It has 32 unique rooms that offer a romantic ambience that transports guests into a Blanc’s world of tranquility and exceptional cuisine. We stayed in the White Suite, a beautifully appointed two room cottage where literally every thing from the plush furniture, canopied bed and candy covered almonds on the table were white. There was a spacious modern marble bath with a tub for two and a private patio a short stroll from the main house. Other rooms that are named after flowers include Bluebell, Orchid, Mimosa and Passion Flower that have its own terrace leading to the hotel’s gardens. This room has a contemporary twist with bold stripes and dark-wood antique furniture that contrasts with the pale marble of the bathroom. Another favorite is Emily located in the oldest part of the house that dates back to the 15th century, sunlight streams through the twin windows that open onto a courtyard.
The 11 extraordinary gardens are all filled with whimsical sculptures and fountains. This includes five water gardens that are fed by natural springs. They were originally dug by monks who lived here in the 16th century. There are three flower gardens and a two-acre organic vegetable and herb garden that supply 90 types of fresh salads and vegetables to the restaurant during the spring, summer and fall. Blanc says, “90% of all our food is organic. That started about 13 years ago.” The site is guarded by a bronze scarecrow, modeled after Chef Blanc. In the manor’s Mushroom Valley, you will discover a variety of edible fungi, including shiitake, maitake and parasol. As you wander the grounds, cross the oak bridge and find sanctuary at the Japanese Fugetsu-An Tea House a perfect blend of Taoist, Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Stepping-stones lead you past an impressive rock garden replete with miniature waterfalls to a basin where you can clean your hands in ritual ablution. Over the last 20 years, Raymond has created orchards full of unusual species of fruit; over 800 apple and pear trees have been planted in the last three years.
Le Manoir may be the most expensive restaurant in Britain but its well worth every pound. Double entendre intended. Savor the tasting menu that includes fish, fowl and meat. Try the delectable beetroot terrine served with a horseradish sorbet quenelle. For the finale have the poached meringue and fried apricots inside a globe of nougatine. Sip fine wines and champagnes from Blanc’s extensive cellar. This is culinary Nirvana.
Blanc is a wonderful storyteller and a meal with this animated host is a rare treat. He debunks the image of a chef as an eccentric control freak. “It’s nonsense that you have to be some sort of fierce, controlling chef – it’s yesterday’s cliché – those people will end up in prison because that’s where they belong. The world is changing – we need to create a modern business in which young people will be empowered and treated with respect. We have devalued food; food should connect everything. It’s connected to health, our environment, sex and consciousness. When we sit down and relax at the table it’s a time to let go. Every day people feel like they have to be someone else. We have to meet deadlines, and our bosses want more and more. At the table we can be silly; we can be ourselves. I have learned to laugh at myself, which I couldn’t do before. Never! You know a Frenchman never laughs about himself. It is always, ‘We are the best!’ And I was exactly the same.”
Summing up his mission Blanc said “Le Manoir is the fulfillment of a personal vision, where guests will find perfection in food, comfort and service. Humility is so important to me. I have a lovely life. I live in a fantastic world. That’s why, when I cook for strangers, I give them my heart. ”
For more information: manoir.com