Every day brings surprises at Redbrook Publishing and mine involved spending a day glimpsing at the life of Raymond Blanc, the celebrated French chef. I was invited to meet him in the beautiful little town of Watlington in Oxfordshire to celebrate ‘Watlington in Bloom’. After tasting local products in two shops (the family butchers Calnan and Brothers, and The Granary delicatessen), we popped to Mansle Garden (named after the Watlington twin town in the Charente region of France) where Mr Blanc got his hands dirty by planting strawberries and talking about the joy of eating fresh products and looking after old lost varieties of fruits. The man is passionate about all that is eatable!
After a visit to the local Care Home and spending some time doing a little more gardening with local residents, we head off to the nearby Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, the incredible two Michelin-star hotel opened in 1984, and the staff greet my party and me to a champagne chat with Raymond Blanc. He is very keen to explain all his new ventures:
The new orchard, bringing old forgotten varieties of apples back on to the menu. It will have the capacity of producing 90 tonnes of fruit when complete.
The heritage garden, which will be using heritage seeds.
The beautiful mushroom valley, which has taken six years to fine-tune.
The evening cookery school, which will allow more people to discover the joys of cooking.
The scholarship for gardeners, this will allow new talents to be given an opportunity to develop further, under the watchful eye of the Head Gardener Anne-Marie Owens. Mr Blanc insists at this point that gardeners have a huge role to play as they provide his kitchens with the best products possible, and he feels Great Britain needs to start to grow its own vegetables again so that it does not rely so much on importing them. He makes sure his gardening staff have a salary which reflects their knowledge and hard work: he must be doing something right as Anne-Marie has now been with him for 26 years and has been able to bring the ‘seed to the plate’ as he puts it for all this time!
He is hoping to have an outdoor cookery school (in 2014) simply to demystify food and try to use the products from the garden to cook fresh and succulent meals.
He reminds us of all the current programs that the Manoir runs, such as a talk with guest speakers (an evening with Sir Michael Parkinson for example on Tuesday, 4th June), concerts with singers such as Lesley Garrett, local events in the village and many more which are all listed on the informative website.
Far too soon Raymond has to leave us to work on new recipes for a forthcoming book and puts us in the hands of Anne-Marie who takes us all to see the garden. Under the cover of umbrellas we discover the famous new orchard, the poly-tunnels where marvellous forgotten herbs are being grown and we taste a few unusual imports such as the sweet leaved ‘Stevia’. We visit the mushroom valley, next to which will soon be the heritage garden. We pass through paths stacked with plants and magnificent ponds before getting back to the restaurant’s front door.
Philip Newman-Hall, Director/General Manager and Tracey Clinton, Director of Marketing and Communications, greet us. They invite us through for lunch in a beautiful private room surrounded by vegetable conserves in glass jars. Every single mouthful is a wonderful explosion of tastes from the watercress and scallop starter to the glorious strawberry pudding,
All these delicious dishes are served with wines (a white Bordeaux and red Burgundy).
After two hours at the table we are taken through the warren of kitchens to the cookery school where an intensive lesson is taking place – the glass walls allow us to peep at the chefs demonstrating to avid students.
We leave the restaurant and are taken outside to visit of few of the bedrooms suites. I fall in love with the ‘Blanc de Blanc’ room – an idyllic suite comprising a sitting room, bedroom and sumptuous bathroom with all the mod-coms of modern living where everything is white.
Alas, it is time to bid farewell to our convivial hosts, who give us a goody bag with the latest edition of the Manoir Magazine, Raymond Blanc’s autobiography, and a pot of strawberry jam which I can’t wait to open!
The work which goes on behind the scenes to make a memorable day such as the one I spent at Le Manoir has to be applauded and I am in awe of what a young frenchman from Besançon has achieved; he certainly can teach us all a lesson or two on how hard work does pay in the end!
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By Jeannelise Edelsten