A cold blustery night in November. The log fire burned brightly from inside a solid stone fireplace decorated with tea lights. Ruinart champagne flowed generously. As we awaited the arrival of our host for the evening, Chef-Patron of the two-starred Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, there was anticipation and a sense that we were guests who had gathered to toast a newly married couple. But there was no grand entrance, instead Raymond slipped in quietly alone and mingled. Every sentence embellished with his passion for food and his desire to educate and communicate. Our evening with Raymond was a Christmas present and we had waited a long time for it to arrive!
The wood-panelled private dining room seated no more than fifty with an intimate and inviting feeling. The tables were cleanly laid with freshly polished silver, deep shades of purple thistles and gleaming candelabras clutching warm flames. An extra place was set at each table, in some cultures a custom for the uninvited guest, but tonight for Raymond who would take each of his courses seated amongst his “friends.”
Raymond set his own scene for the evening; “I do not give speeches, I ramble.” A little self-critical perhaps since his stories were well-told, animated, warm and humorous. As Raymond jumped like a grasshopper from one story to the next, we sipped a mellow French 2008 Permiere Cru Grésigny from Bourgone. Raymond delved into rich descriptions of his childhood, his influences, his Maman, Grand Mère, restoring Le Manoir and the challenges he has faced. Despite a few “senior moments” as one brave staff-member joked, Raymond clearly had his audience engrossed.
Having warmed us up a little, we were served with a quail egg, spinach, Parmesan and truffle ravioli in a poultry jus and meuniere butter – a brown butter sauce with lemon. We moved onto a terrine of winter game, Madeira jelly, pickled beetroot salad and a hazelnut vinaigrette. This dish demonstrated an attentive eye for detail and the importance of presenting a clean plate balanced with flavours as well as textures.
More stories ensued; Raymond’s pursuit of his passion, his exile from France after a maddened encounter with a tempestuous chef, his escape to England and his introduction to British cuisine – “square fish, cardboard chips and a plastic tomato” on board the ferry. In extreme contrast, we were served a fish course of Confit de Cabillaud; lightly salted wild line-caught cod, Jabugo ham, toasted garlic and soubise sauce – a delicately flavoured shallot sauce. “Ask most three-Michelin starred chefs where their Dover Sole comes from and they will tell you Dover!” quipped Raymond, before coming to join our table for the conscientiously sourced Cornish cod.
As Raymond was seated on of our fellow guests asked Raymond how many evenings such as this one he hosted a year. He replied: “Very few.” We were a privileged bunch indeed! As we ate the delectable fish course, Raymond shared with us his memories of a visit to Le Manoir by the Queen Mother, who impressed him by insisting on meeting and speaking to all two hundred staff members individually. A truly humble woman, in his opinion, which was only strengthened by the fact that she sang La Marseillaise word-perfectly.
We moved effortlessly onto the most substantial course of the evening, Shropshire venison, braised chesnuts, a bitter-sweet sauce aigre doux. The meat was deep pink and tender, the accompaniments were wintry and warm, one or two deep-red cranberries adding a touch of colour and tang. The dish was paired perfectly with a 2005 St Julien Chateau Moulin Riche from Bordeaux, complimenting the hearty yet subtle tones of the rare roasted loin and a mellow celeriac puree.
As the evening gathered pace, guests began to relax more and the atmosphere became livelier. Sweetness followed in the form of a syrupy dessert wine, Charles Hours Jurançon Uroulat 2009 alongside a kaffir lime leaf and coconut tapioca with a passion fruit and banana sorbet. I will erase from my memory the fact that one guest announced in an inspired move that the dessert reminded him of “frog spawn.” It was cold, yes, but brilliantly balanced. Seedless passion fruit carried pearls of tapioca infused with the kaffir lime. The small shot-glass of flavour succeeded in taking me away, if only for a brief moment, from the coldness of Britain to a more exotic location, leaving me wanting more.
The six courses concluded with a very satisfying seasonal pear Almondine, topped with a caramel croustillant and ginger sauce, adorned with a crisp thin slice of pear and a touch of gold leaf. Coffee and beautifully made individual Chocolats du Manoir along with a few slugs of home-brewed Cassis finished off the evening respectably.
An explosion of flavours, interjected by an array of colourful stories, accented with great praise and admiration of the British and of his love for his second-home county of Oxford. Raymond clearly values his staff members and his gratitude for their faithful application of the Raymond Blanc “ideal” was evident.
There is plenty more to come from this gutsy, self-taught, Frenchman, who craves knowledge, adores fishing (though time barely permits him to indulge his hobbies) and whose passion for good food is infectious and certainly inspirational. A 2,000-tree orchard restoring rare species of apples, quince and pear to Britain, a valley of mushrooms resembling Machu Pichu and more television work.
As the evening drew to a close, Raymond took questions from his audience, my question relating to his thoughts on the blanket ban on mushroom picking in Epping Forest. This led to a very animated answer gaving us an insight into his passion for foraging, Raymond having collected mushrooms that morning on a local farm.
Raymond also introduced his Executive Chef, Gary Jones and his team, who really had delivered a faultless meal. He went on to good-heartedly sign a few books, my own copy of his memoir “A Taste of my Life” now carrying the inscription: “To Renatka, Hope this little book will make you smile like tonight!” And smile indeed I did, all the way home.
An Audience with Raymond Blanc was perhaps the most perfect present for a Fabulicious foodie!