"My dream, my vision, my life." states Chef/Owner Raymond Blanc. "Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons is the fulfillment of a personal vision, a dream that one day I would create a hotel and restaurant in harmony where my guests would find perfection in food, comfort and service." His Relais & Chateaux Restaurant and Hotel, opened in 1984 and retaining 2 Michelin Stars for 14 years, is set on twenty seven acres of grounds with a 17th century water garden, a Japanese Garden and vegetable and herb gardens.
When Raymond Blanc's cooking school, Ecole de Cuisine was established in 1991, I was invited to participate as their United States representative. To say I was in the "lap of luxury" is an understatement. Approaching the Manoir House through the gates I was enthralled with the large sand colored brick house surrounded by a riot of color in the lush flowerbeds. Entering the front door, I was greeted by a friendly staff and the soul-warming aroma of wood-burning fireplaces.
My "bit of heaven" for the week was the Fuschia (or Honeysuckle) room in the then newly renovated stable rooms. Up a short flight of stairs I entered what appeared to be a magical floral garden. The inviting four poster bed with its honeysuckle spread had honeysuckle vines painted on the posters. Tea set on a honeysuckle draped table also boasted a fruit bowl, a decanter of Madeira and a candy dish filled with Jordan almonds. In front of a cozy love seat graced with an afghan was a coffee table with a second bowl of almonds and a wide selection of current magazines. A cozy window seat overlooking the herb garden beckoned curling up to study the weekly recipes. And the luxurious bathroom was large as my bedroom at home.
This past spring, as part of a multi-million pound improvement program, the cooking school was moved into a state-of-the-art kitchen capable of holding ten students under the tutelage of Chef Alan Murchison. In October I was invited back to see the new kitchen and experience the redesign of Le Manoir.
Dick and I spent several days in London enjoying the theatre before boarding a train at Paddington Station for an hour trip to Oxford and an 8-mile taxi ride to Le Manoir. We were warmly greeted by General Manager Philip Newman-Hall and shown to the sophisticated Anais suite in the newly designed wing of the hotel. This tasteful modern suite consisted of an entry room, living room, bedroom and bathroom in golds and creams with dark lacquered tables, contemporary paintings and sculpture, mirrored walls and luxurious wallpapers. Finishing touches included a fresh fruit bowl, a decanter of Madeira and my favorite Jordan almonds. The fireplace opened between the entry and living room. The enormous mirrored bathroom highlighted a bathtub surrounded by candles and large bottles of assorted bath oils and salts. As we unpacked, we wondered if we ever even wanted to step outside this incredible suite. However, this was a "business trip" and we needed to get down to work!
Gathering in the drawing room for an orientation, we were then escorted into the dining room for our first experience of the renowned food of Raymond Blanc. Our group consisted of a Japanese housewife living in Portugal, a young Scottish chef, a Dallas business woman, a Welsh accountant, a retired New York commodities trader, a British television director and a Chicago attorney with his wife. As we became acquainted, we relished in the Soupe de Haddock Fumй, Supreme de Canette a la Cannelle, Tiramisu Tia Maria et Nougatine Concassee, Petits Fours and Chocolats du Manoir accompanied by Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 1997 and Friuli 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. With an opening meal like this, we all knew we were in for a fabulous culinary experience.
Born in Bescancon France, Monsieur Blanc arrived in England in 1972 to work as a waiter. When the chef took ill, Mr. Blanc took over and two years later, he obtained his first Michelin Star. At the age of 28, Raymond Blanc opened his first restaurant, Les Quat' Saisons in Summertown, Oxford. Today he is acknowledged as one of the finest chefs in the world. His cuisine has been described as intelligent, daring, imaginative and adventurous. "To me, cooking is a pure expression of art: it involves all the senses of a craftsman taking the elements of earth, sea and fire and transforming them into a palette of flavors and textures. It is momentary and short lived, but the memories are everlasting".
Bright and early Monday morning, we ate breakfast in the dining room. Room service is available but we decided to enjoy the view of the gardens. This fabulous array of delectables was the finest continental breakfast we had ever seen; freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juices, poached pineapple, apple compote, macerated prunes, fresh fruit salad, an assortment of cereals and yogurts, home-made rolls served with honey and jams from the gardens of Manoir along with the most delicious pastries including croissants filled with chocolate, my favorite!
Donning our "chef's whites", we made our first entrance into the new teaching kitchen. Scots born Alan Murchison, our instructor, awaited us to explore the world of cuisine through the vision of Raymond Blanc. He began his culinary training at the age of 15. Alan worked under Chef Blanc as Senior Sous Chef after training at the 2 Michelin Star L'Ortolan and the 1 Michelin Star Inverlochy restaurants. Vivacious and witty, this accomplished chef introduced us to the art of cooking. "The cookery school is not about teaching with an iron rule, but about helping the guests understand. It's not religiously following recipes but learning techniques that can be adapted to your home whilst having enormous fun".
We gathered around a large island to begin our week of non-stop cooking and eating. Each day Chef Murchison gave lessons in chopping and knife handling accompanied by loud, lively music setting a rhythm and pace to sharpen our skills.
Monday's classes featured hot and cold starters including making fresh pasta for Ravioli with a wild mushroom filling, a Tartare of Haddock that was Dick's favorite and the Soufflй Cabecou with goat cheese (these will definitely be on our holiday menus). To say we just made these dishes minimizes what we actually accomplished. Alan carefully explained all steps and demonstrated techniques and variations for each recipe using a variety of sauces and accompaniments. He explained how to prepare the dish to your individual taste, how to season properly, and even explained what procedures could be followed in case of a failure. There was non-stop of tasting along the way. We were then paired up and ushered to our individual workstations to prepare the demonstration dish in our own way, choosing which ingredients to use to enhance the specific dish. Alan encouraged us to experiment making our own signature dishes. His enthusiasm allowed us to be free in our interpretations and gave us real confidence and a sense of accomplishment. After preparing our own dishes, we sat around the table and discussed the class, what we liked or disliked and our preferences and Alan answered any questions we had. It was then back to the kitchen for the afternoon session of demonstrations, tasting and cooking. At 3:30 we broke for afternoon tea in the garden and ended the daily session at 4:30.
Tuesday was a full day of working fresh Turbot and Salmon and making a fresh fish stock. Dick even learned to skin and bone his own fresh salmon! We used a variety of vegetables to accompany the fish such as leeks, wild mushrooms and sauces including mustard seed sauce, crиme de Gewirztraminer and Buerre Blanc. The technique of making a mousse culminated in a grand Mousse de Coquille St. Jacques and Mousse d'Epinards. The spinach mousse was the perfect color contrast to the salmon and turbot as an accompaniment.
Wednesday we prepared Gateau d'Aubergine to serve with Lamb Provencal and then learned how to bone and stuff a quail. We will definitely use both of these meat dishes with me being the lamb lover and Dick bringing home more quail than we know what to do with during hunting season.
Thursday was delectable patisserie day, including making the short crust pastry for a Tarte aux Poires and refreshing our Soufflй skills on a Soufflй au Malibu containing coconut and served with pineapple salad. Through Alan, the art of tempering chocolate was nearly made to look easy. After practicing, we tackled a superb La Truffiere au Chocolat with a sponge base layered with an extremely rich chocolate mousse. We also made sugar syrups flavored with our choice of liqueurs to specialize our own creation.
We were also taken on a tour of the gardens and restaurant kitchen in the afternoons. Free time was for relaxing, enjoying the property or walking around the small village of Great Milton until 7:30 when we gathered for dinner in the dining room for the menu du jour with wine.
We wandered in the gardens, so lovingly tended by Anne Marie Owens and her staff, which are an integral part of the Le Manoir experience. The two-acre herb and vegetable garden supplies the kitchen throughout late spring, summer and fall with 70 varieties of herbs and 90 types of vegetables, all picked at a young, tender stage. The extensive potager section includes aubergines, peppers and brilliant red rhubarb, at least two feet tall. The soil is managed organically with farmyard manure applied during the winter months when the vegetable garden is allowed to rest.
The Tea House of Fugetsu-An, "Pavilion of a Deep Love of Nature", composed of characters for the Wind and Moon, is reached strolling along gravel paths surrounded by ponds and lush gardens that were designed to make you forget the cares of the every day world and absorb the beauty of nature. The Tea Garden represents movements through space in the physical sense and interior space in the spiritual sense. The pace of the garden is slow and deep. Peace transcended us as we slowly wandered.
For an experience in Monsieur Blanc's French Brasserie in Oxford, Le Petit Blanc, we dined on quintessential traditional French cuisine, enjoying a fabulous goat cheese soufflй and Lapin a lа Moutarde while relaxing with our fellow students.
Our final evening and the highlight of the week featured the presentation of our diplomas and the Celebratory Gourmand dinner. With much celebration and many photographs, we relished an incredible menu of Mosaique Terrine of chicken, duck, guinea fowl, foie gras and sweetbreads followed by quail egg, spinach, parmesan and truffle raviolis in a poultry jus and meuniиre butter with Swiss chard. The fish course was a Tian of crab with fillet of sole and Gewьrztraminer sauce. The roasted breast and braised leg of wild duck with braised chicory and red wine sauce was followed by mango soup with fresh peppermint and passion fruit sorbet. Farmhouse cheese from France and Great Britain were served with almonds, dried apricots and raisin walnut bread. Hot chocolate fondant, pistachio ice cream and Amaretto sauce completed the gourmet delight. Coffee was served with an incredible array of petits fours and chocolates. Several of the men retired to the bar for a glass of port and a cigar presented with elaborate ceremony. I opted to walk in the moonlit gardens for my final "taste" of the week as our departure was to be after breakfast the next morning.
First time students at Le Manoir Ecole de Cuisine attend the Stage 1 class followed by Stages 2 & 3. These will be included in our future visits. One special perk of Ecole de Cuisine is non-participating partners can stay free, paying only for the meals they eat. Each room has direct dial telephone, radio, hair dryer and bathrobes. Most rooms have a direct modem access for those who just can stay away from the office. If you spend a few extra days at Le Manoir, you can enjoy croquet, golf, horseback riding, fishing and clay pigeon shooting nearby. You can also visit Blenheim Palace, Stonor Park, Waddesdon Manor, Windsor Castle, Oxford and the Cotswolds by car.
The combination of Raymond Blanc's cuisine, the elegance of the surroundings and the warmth of the hospitality makes Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons one of the most beautiful places to stay in the world. We will certainly return.