Oxford OX44 7PD
For those who love motorbikes, your dream may be to ride the Ducatti 848 EVO with Valentino Rossi as pillion singing a Rossini number made famous by Mario Petri. For flavour editor Nick Gregory however, a trip to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons could happily fill his eight hours of slumber, but he found it infinitely better when that dream became a reality…
Working in the food industry has been somewhat of an exponential journey. I was grateful and impressed initially with a bag of crisps and a pint of bitter at the local, moving on to two-course meals at wellknown Italian chains and then progressing upwards during my career through the sushi bars, gastro pubs and then country house hotels – all with their merits and none to be sniffed at.
But perhaps now my graph has finally plateaued? If I were to live and die by The Sunday Times then it most certainly has. Voted the best place to stay in Britain and coming second in the paper’s Food List 2011 (The Ledbury headed the field), the two Michelin-starred Le Manoir is, for most of us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The nine-course Menu Découverte, with a selection of wines chosen by the sommelier for my friend and I, was the must-have option for first-timers, offering an encompassing insight into what executive chef Gary Jones can and does do on a daily basis. The bread of course was beautifully made on site, complementing our first two courses of spiced velouté of cauliflower with roasted scallop, and duck liver, quince and gingerbread’. The butternut squash agnolotti with wild mushrooms that followed was both delicate and boisterous, but the star of the show for me was the wild Cornish brill with native oyster, Oscietra caviar, cucumber and wasabi beurre blanc. It is a dish that improves and exceeds with every mouthful and at this point my friend and I were wondering what could possibly follow. In fact, the assiette of Oxfordshire lamb, quinoa, onion and garlic purée kept us at the same level and the Ardrahan cheese, apricot and vanilla chutney that concluded our savoury choices only compounded our school-boyesque delight.
Our three puddings of exotic fruit raviole, kaffir lime and coconut jus; Williams pear Almondine, caramel croustillant and ginger sauce and the tiramisu flavours, Coeur de Guanaja chocolate cream all were superb, even though feeling a little ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’.
Needless to say the accompanying wines matched perfectly – the Champagne beforehand alongside elegant canapés beginning now to take their toll – and so, after petit fours, a coffee and a cognac in the drawing room, our evening’s indulgence came to a close.
Le Manoir was not voted the best place to stay in the UK on a whim. The Lavande suite was perfection, it really was. It’s the little things that make the biggest statements and within the walls of that first-floor enclave the attention to detail leaves no cliché unturned. The grounds too are immaculate, lending extra gravitas to the stay and providing an outer sanctum to the inner beauty of the mellow stone manor house.
Walking through the kitchens and sharing an oyster with Monsieur Blanc after breakfast the next morning, he talks continually about ‘striving for excellence’, and both encouraging and expecting his formidable team of staff to share those same ideals. You see Raymond lives by his own ‘bible’, a comprehensive reference book he has built up over two decades listing all the produce he uses, where it is sourced from, who it is sourced by, its production process, what it has for dinner and its political views. This thoroughness and dare I say compulsiveness is, I suppose, how the greats become great. All we need to do is judge, or more so revel in, the end product.
It’s been two months since we visited Great Milton in Oxfordshire for a night’s stay at Le Manoir. Since then I have been out in my camper van, been whisked away to Venice, eaten at several wellestablished restaurants and had a couple of decent nights’ kip in first-class hotels.
But, like the one that got away, Le Manoir comes back time and again and reminds me of what I had, where I had once been and where I am unlikely ever to go again. But I think that may just be a good thing. I liked the fact that I was akin to a giggling child, that the wonder and awe was a constant adrenalin rush and the feeling that things didn’t get much better than this. It was my Charlie and The Chocolate Factory moment and I appreciated every single bit of it.
Raymond tells me he is not quite there yet with Le Manoir, as he kisses another member of staff in the French way (no, not that way… you know what I mean), but it’s the best I’ve come across and it’s hard to imagine there is something out there that supersedes it.
Pies and pints have their place and we can enjoy them every day, but if you can afford it – and there’s no doubt you need deep pockets – Le Manoir should really be on your bucket list. Swimming with dolphins, scaling the Matterhorn or going toe-to-toe with Jenson Button are all very well. A stay at Raymond Blanc’s tops the lot.
But, like the surfer searching for that ultimate wave, what next when he finds it?