The genteel, picture-postcard surroundings of Le Manoir aux QuatSaisons – Raymond Blanc’s two michelin-starred country hotel and restaurant in Great Milton, Oxfordshire – are a delight to be behold at any time of year. But strike it lucky with the weather, and it achieves an almost transcendental perfectness.
Such was our good fortune for our visit that, as we drove through the Le Manoir front gates, the late spring sunshine was beaming down on the pristine grounds of one of the UK’s most feted hotel and dining institutions. After brief formalities at reception, we were given a comprehensive tour of the grand old 15th century house and its various nooks and crannies (not to mention its vast garden, of which more later) before being shown to our sleeping quarters where our luggage was waiting for us.
Having dined at Le Manoir once before, we knew that its standing as the culinary flagship of the Blanc empire was well-deserved. Now we were intrigued to discover whether it also reached similar heights as a place to stay.
Our room for the night went by the name of JADE, one of an assortment of contemporary suites bordering a pretty courtyard, each with its own distinct aesthetic flavour. We learned that JADE had been inspired by Raymond Blanc’s travels across Southeast Asia, and there are several nods to the Orient including grass-paper wall coverings, a bamboo-effect ceiling, fabrics in shades of lime, grass and jade, and an imitation bonsai tree.
A spacious sitting room boasting dining and coffee tables, sofa and electric fireplace ascends to a dramatic curtained-off sleeping area, where at the press of a button a television emerges from the ceiling overlooking the super-sized bed. To the left of the bed is the bathroom, complete with its own steam cubicle and LCD television, and a walk-in rain shower large enough to fit Le Manoir’s entire roster of staff in one go.
With dinner still two hours away, we could not resist sampling some of the gastro treats dotted around the room, including a delicious fruit platter, a tray of lip-smacking petit fours, a bowl of sugared almonds, and a bottle of Madeira wine – small touches that accumulatively prompted us to agree that this was the best hotel room we had ever stayed in. Even if the very particular visual style is not to your taste, you cannot help but be impressed by the attention to detail, all the way down to the Le Manoir logo hand-drawn into the sand of an outdoor ashtray.
With time ticking on, and aware that a swift departure the next morning would deny us any further exploration, we took a stroll around the grounds. Comprising a lush two-acre vegetable and herb garden, an immaculate croquet lawn, an English Water Garden, and a tea house, it is a remarkable operation. Indeed, at time of writing, the gardens which boast over 90 varieties of vegetable and 70 types of herb, all transported directly to the Le Manoir kitchen and then onto your plate, are currently part of a major drive by Raymond Blanc to encourage horticulture across the UK.
A quick game of croquet (like so many sports relying on hand-eye co-ordination, harder than it looks) gave the appetite a gentle nudge and we made our way to the communal living room, where dinner guests are furnished with a glass of champagne, a tray of amuse-bouches, a food menu and a wine list.
For dinner, guests can choose a 6 or 9-course Tasting Menu (smaller menus are available for lunch), or a la carte options for the less intrepid. We opted for the full 9-course Menu Découverte and were shown into the dining room.
We had been told in advance that the great man, Monsieur Blanc, would be dining amongst us tonight as part of his preparations for the following day’s event showcasing food for guests from Relais & Châteaux, the prestigious collection of luxury hotels and restaurants of which Le Manoir is a member. This lent an extra frisson of excitement to proceedings as we took our seats.
The meal was sublime; every course a testament to the skill and creativity of the kitchen, composed of ingredients of the very highest quality, and all beautifully balanced. Stand-out dishes included a ceviche of scallops and oyster, yuzu granite, turnip and radish, a terrine of baby beetroot and horseradish sorbet, and a roasted loin of Shropshire venison, chicory, celeriac and Grand Veneur sauce. The venison was one of those rare dishes that you are destined to remember forever, delivering a texture and flavour that was out of this world.
So good was the food that it is tempting to continue waxing lyrical about it without mentioning the other star performer: the staff. The great balancing act in establishments of this quality is between politeness and obsequiousness, and at Le Manoir they strike it with grace, humour and tact. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the meal was the conversations with staff between courses, leading to the intriguing discovery that the waiter charged with serving our cheese did not, in fact, like cheese. It should be noted that this did not prevent him from exhibiting an exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter.
As the meal came to a close, the man himself made an appearance, approaching each table and engaging diners in conversation. When our turn came, we asked him how the venison achieved such an incredible texture, but like a magician reluctant to reveal his tricks, he merely nodded and said, “It’s a great dish”.
Retiring to the lounge for an espresso and petit fours, we posited the idea that Le Manoir has taken this kind of experience to its very limits. To imitators the world over, it is a salutary lesson in what can be achieved when you combine talent and passion. Because what they do at Le Manoir cannot be faked. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we remembered JADE.
Wine & Dine with The Raymond Blanc Cookery School
For a tantalising and enlightening evening with family, friends or colleagues, book our Wine & Dine package:
- Wine Tasting
Enter the wine cellars of Le Manoir and enjoy specially selected wines, while our Sommelier helps you hone your wine-tasting skills
- Cookery Demonstration
Champagne and canapés welcome you to The Raymond Blanc Cookery School as your tutor takes you on a culinary journey through demonstrations and hands-on tuition.
- Four-course Dinner
Savour a convivial dinner with accompanying wines at the School, followed by coffee and petits fours.
As a memento of your evening you will all receive the recipes you enjoyed and a Raymond Blanc Cookery School chef’s jacket.
Price for a maximum of 8 guests:
- Sunday to Thursday – £2,000
- Friday or Saturday – £3,000
For more information or to book, please call 0184 427 8881 or email [email protected] and mention ‘Wine and Dine with The Raymond Blanc Cookery School’.
By Paul Joseph