Surrender to the slow seductive pleasures of Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in rural Oxfordshire
About an hour’s train journey from Marylebone station, sits a romantic idyll where the faithful have been making a pilgrimage to Raymond Blanc’s mecca, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Members of the cult of Blanc come to the country house and hotel not just for the fine dining, which is purposeful in its relaxed pace; they come for an afternoon or evening’s escape, where generous and gracious staff swaddle guests in a cocoon of genuine, intuitive, and light-hearted hospitality.
A meal at Raymond Blanc’s country hideaway doesn’t come cheap. In fact, some would spend the same amount on Eurostar tickets, or flights to Rome, but a visit to Le Manoir is about much more than the food. It’s a slow seduction, starting with a welcoming stroll around the acres of organic gardens from which vegetables and fruits are picked according to the kitchen’s daily needs. It’s also where we spot Monsieur Blanc showing guests around the pond.
Canapés are served in the garden on a summer’s evening, and by the fire in winter. Clever mouthfuls are delightful contrasts of hot and cold, crunchy and soft, savoury and sweet – each a thoughtful surprise. They set the scene; encouraging us to enjoy the moment, yet anticipate something even more wonderful in the distance.
We surrender to the sommelier who, course after course consistently delivers diverse, and perfectly paired wines. A Lanius 2013 from Spain carries aromatic complexity with vanilla and fennel on the nose, balanced with a hint of oak on the palate. Westhosner Riesling surprises with its fruity, but dry balance of honey, pear and mango. The standout is an Australian Pinot Noir by Ten Minutes by Tractor. It stuns with cherry, plum, herbs and smoky oak flavours all competing competently in a heady mix of aromas.
Inside the observatory dining room, we drink gazpacho from a shot glass filled with deep, rosy pink liquid full of peppery sweetness. The marinated baby tomato on the side limbers the palate for the exercise to follow.
Confit of salmon is beautiful, rich, fleshy fish set perfectly against the clean tastes of home grown summer: radish, elderflower and yuzu.
An elegant courgette flower is the belle of the ball. Stuffed with Dorset crab, lightly dressed in lemon verbena; it’s a stunner for its aesthetic, but also for its combination of two treasured ingredients.
It takes only a fork to cut through tender Aberdeen Angus with a flavour that is all the best beef you’ve ever tasted. The unusually delicate red wine jus allows the wild mushrooms to shine through. It’s a classic dish executed with sensitivity and sureness of hand.
A palate-cleansing marriage of raspberry and beetroot is surprising and effective.
It’s worth skipping dessert to go straight to petit fours served in the lounge. Any menu with four different kinds of hot chocolate begs to be sampled. The result is a tall carafe of thick, almost bittersweet drinking chocolate. It’s so dark; milk and sugar accompany it. Petit fours are the sweet mirror of the amuses bouches, smart tiny takes on childhood favourites. A miniature Magnum with liquorice ice cream covered in a milk chocolate shell is pure grown-up indulgence, as is a chocolate tart so petite, it would fit into a dollhouse.
Service never loses its way, from the minute one sets foot on the grounds, to checking for the last train back to London, crucial during the week, as it’s easy to lose all track of time. It’s easy to see how Blanc’s stewards are all part of that slow, successful seduction.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
Church Road, Great Milton
Oxford, OX44 7PD, UK
Image credits: David Griffen Photography