He’s got an OBE, he sounds straight out of The Pink Panther and he’s passionate… he’s also accident-prone and a great promoter, if not of himself and his various businesses, certainly of the art of knowing what’s best to go in your mouth. As Marco Pierre White said in White Heat of his mentor in his book, “When he wasn’t being a genius cook, he was a comedy act; a funny, accident-prone figure – like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau…”
Raymond Blanc is a Frenchman of many loves – his mum, food, his wife, his children, food, his new wife, the UK and food – but mostly, perhaps, his destination restaurant/school/hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons that celebrates 30 years of taste-making in 2014. It’s been 30 years of cultural adjustment or abutment. “I have learned to laugh at myself. Which I couldn’t do before. Never! You know a Frenchman never laughs about himself,” one of the best quotes from a hilarious 2011 interview with Blanc by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer. For Blanc, “if the work itself is transient, the memory of the flavour remains”.
Emerging in 1984 before the UK became a place of interesting comestibles (learned that word from Monty Python’s cheese sketch), The Manor of the 4 Seasons is a place where it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone with money but sans taste to truly enjoy its offerings. It is impossible not to be wowed. Although it has only two Michelin stars, Blanc makes every single one of those little stars ping with quality. It is possible a buffoon with the omnivorous palate of a honey badger may not savor the beauty, nuances, the ethereal quality of the food served at Le Manoir. It is possible… but unlikely. You may think I jest. Sir or madam, I do not.
Le Manoir is the place to go if you are adventurous, discerning, able to be bowled over by quality but also capable of clocking mediocrity. The French cuisine at Le Manoir will not let you down. You may, as my dining companion did, criticise the general lighting in the dining room (next time I’ll take an actual cinematographer). You may find attractive couples have already snuggled up around the fireplaces in the bar areas when you’d like to have a spot for yourself. You may wish you’d slowed down a little with all that delicious wine, butter, bread and dessert wine. But, 9 times out of 10, Le Manoir will over-reward your time, money and consciousness. As Blanc has proclaimed, “Le Manoir is the fulfilment of a personal vision, where guests would find perfection in food, comfort and service.” For all the hype any restaurant gets, Le Manoir needs none.
Why? Not only has it scored 9 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide, its own gardens grow fresh food for its 260 guests a day. Its kitchens have spawned 28 Michelin-starred chefs via training for professional cooks. Blanc’s programmes run two and a half years, with each chef spending 6 months in a single designated kitchen area. Forget all of Blanc’s books or his 21 TV appearances, some on his own shows. Forget him clawing his way into the restaurant industry, untrained. Ignore that he is famously progressive (among many things, he is president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association). The fact of the matter is that Blanc understands a daily commitment to excellence. Two things: Le Manoir has a helipad and there are sugared almonds in a bowl in your room. That speaks as loudly as all the critical accolades. Le Manoir may be called “old-fashioned luxury” but it is only in the sense that it is really good.
Owned by same group that umbrellas the wondrous Cipriani in Venice’s Giudecca, Le Manoir evolves and emerges for each generation to experience.
Situated in an impressive but not overbearing old manse in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, Le Manoir is competitive with its events, venues for functions, private dinners. Its redecorated rooms and suites (yes, free wifi, thank the gods) are also remarkable. But it beats with a stick almost every other competitor on food and service alone. When at dinner I bleated that I loved their special olive oil and balsamic vinegar so much that I wanted to buy some, I was given some in a leak-proof bag to take home. When I stayed in one of their new contemporary suites, Arabesque – a series of spaces glimmering with dark glass Italian furniture, Murano glass, moody lighting, there was a case full of books I had wanted to read. Beside the room’s foyer is an enormous bathroom with all old and mod cons. Who doesn’t love a bidet?
A civilised checkout time of 11:30pm means you can get more done, whether that’s work or your new love. Or merely sitting in the peace and quiet before you hit the M40 back to London. Children are welcomed beautifully: at breakfast the next morning, it was a joy to see children eating happily with their parents, being treated extremely well by present and genuine staff. It is a place of achievable dreams, if only for a night, and a place there lasting memories are forged through the graft and genius of Blanc fuelled by the best food money you’ll ever spend short of heaving yourself over the snow to Magnus Nilsson’s exclusive Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden. Really, to enjoy Le Manoir, you need to not worry about the money because, as The Observer’s Jay Rayner said in 2013, “At this level Le Manoir’s customers are buying memories, not a cure for rickets.” Yes, you could invest the money lavished at Le Manoir but Le Manoir is a really good reason to have money in the first place.
So, you may wonder, what did I eat? How wonderful was it? What did it taste like? I could tell you now to go see the films 12 Years A Slave or Enough Said, but I could only begin to tell you why. Le Manoir, like a fine film, is better to experience before you read about it…. And honestly, I was enjoying the food too much to take any notes.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Visit the website www.manoir.com or call +44(0)1844 278 881 for more information. A midweek break starts from £815 (includes welcome amenities including fresh fruit and Madeira wine, daily English breakfast and a five-course “Les saveurs du mois” dinner for two).