Raymond Blanc is doing the rounds over breakfast. He welcomes most guests with a warm handshake while a lucky few are endowed with hugs and kisses (they turn out to be returning guests who are greeted like old friends). There’s a discernable frisson of excitement in the air.
I’m at one of the UK’s most celebrated hotels – Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire – and the famous chef has popped out of the kitchens to see who’s ‘in’. Despite it being bought out by the Orient Express Group (now rebranded as Belmond) in 2002, this noted country house with its infamous Michelin-starred restaurant is still very much Blanc’s baby.
“Over the past 30 years, I have had an input into every inch of every wall here,” he says over a strong espresso. “Being part of Belmond can only be a good thing. Despite having poured myself into everything – from the gardens to the interior design – I see myself simply as a caretaker of a beautiful place.”
And what a beauty it is. First of all are the rambling grounds, which Blanc maintains are very much a part of the Le Manoir experience. Dating back to the 15th century, the honey-coloured manor house in Great Milton in Oxfordshire is found in the most idyllic setting – largely down to the foresight of the chef-patron. Manicured lawns, lavender fields, wild flower meadows, orchards and serene Japanese gardens are dotted with bronze sculptures by Judith Holmes Drewry and Lloyd Le Blanc and are the perfect haven to while away the hours. A highlight is the two-acre walled kitchen garden – providing some 90 plus vegetables and 120 different herbs – which will have you salivating at the culinary possibilities that lie in store.
Talking of which, it wasn’t always thus. The original idea in 1985 was for ‘Le Manoir’ to be simply a restaurant with rooms. It quickly gained two Michelin stars, just a year after the first meal was served (and has uniquely held them ever since), and the vision for something much larger was ignited. Bringing his passion of locally-sourced, organic cuisine to light, Raymond Blanc set about developing the gardens with a view of sourcing much of his ingredients from his own land. He is, of course, regarded as one of the first chefs in the UK to endorse seasonality and to champion locally-sourced gastronomy – now a must-have ethos for any modern-day chef.
Needless to say, Blanc has played mentor to a great many of our most-noted chefs and over recent months he has presided over a calendar of special dining events, the Diner des Protégés, in which he has welcomed back past members of his team to conjure up a special menu. While Paul Heathcote, Adam Simmonds and Eric Chavot have already hosted, there’s still time to book for Bruno Loubet (21 October) and Alan Murchison (25 November) who will be back in the kitchens this autumn.
It goes without saying that – pristine gardens and charming interiors aside – it is the restaurant here that is the pull. An elegant dining room and a choice of à la carte or tasting menus means that this is a place for special occasions. Service is exceptional but that’s not to say it’s stuffy. Look around the dining room and you’ll see couples celebrating special anniversaries, newly weds and extended families who have saved to celebrate something special. Unlike many gastro establishments, Belmond Le Manoir is also wonderfully welcoming to children. There are special children’s menus with adaptations willingly made to suit the whims of the young and staff have a warm and friendly approach to little ones. In fact, it turns out that the younger generation is another passion of Raymond’s. He has worked with his son to launch a child’s healthy food app – Henri Le Worm – and a Henri Le Worm children’s garden is in the planning. At Blanc’s revered cookery school, there is a wide selection of courses aimed at children based on the chef’s memories of learning to cook with his mother.
“It is important to teach the basics to the younger generation,” he says. “For instance, gardening and growing your own food is very important. Creating something from plot to pot should be a way of life. It is the essence of my son’s healthy food app – Henri le Worm. We have been working together on it. It teaches children, in a fun way, about planting, nurturing and creating recipes for all to try as a family.”
While it is certainly family friendly, Belmond Le Manoir nevertheless prides itself on its sophisticated approach to hospitality. Here each of the 32 rooms are individually designed – a combined effort of Blanc and interior designer Emily Todhunter. From the luxurious, all-white Blanc de Blanc (maybe not one to be booked with kiddies) to the rustic Provençal charm of the Garden Suites, décor is chic yet cosy.
Best of all is the continued presence here of Raymond Blanc. “I believe that my name is intrinsically linked with the place. People want to see me here and I want to be here,” he says. As enthusiastic as he was when he first opened the hotel, he is brimming with plans for the future with rumours of an organic spa in the pipeline.
Next up is the Raymond Blanc Festival of Music in the intimate setting of the neighbouring 12th century St Mary’s Church and now in its 24th year. This year, sees performances by jazz artists Courtney Pine and Madeleine Peyroux and – much like how Raymond Blanc operates in his hotel – offers the rare chance for guests to mingle with the artists after their performances. Illuminating stuff.
Courtney Pine will perform on Wednesday 30 September and Madeleine Peyroux will perform on Thursday 1 October 2015. The evening begins at 6.45pm and dinner is served at 9.15pm. Tickets start from £350 per person. For further details and reservations, telephone 01844 277484 or email email@example.com
The Dining Experience costs from £930 per room. This includes overnight accommodation, dinner for two from any menu, half bottle of champagne in the room on arrival and breakfast the following morning.
For further information, visit www.belmond.com/lemanoir or call the team on 0184 427 7484.