Raymond Blanc has come a long way since he was dispatched to England with little knowledge of the language after offering to give his former head chef advice on how to cook. Having first plied his trade in Newbridge, Blanc has made Oxfordshire his culinary home – here he talks about his famed New Milton hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and the importance of embracing local produce and English heritage.
Since the moment a young Raymond Blanc pitched up on the shores of Blighty, he has completely immersed himself in the foodie fabric of Oxfordshire. After being let go for having the temerity to give his head cook advice when he was a whippersnapper waiter back in his native France, Blanc first found himself at The Rose Revived in Newbridge. It was the beginning of a culinary love affair with England that has lasted to this day.
“When I came to Great Britain in 1972, England was in a hole in terms of food, but it has moved on so much and it’s very exciting,” explains the 67-year-old. “British chefs are now mature and have a true connection with gastronomy. They connect with their region, their heritage and their history. Food is chosen carefully and it’s about quality. British chefs have creativity and are more open to new ideas – they compete with the best in the world.”
Blanc made his way from Newbridge to his current base in Great Milton via Oxford High Street, the two Michelin-starred Les Quat’Saisons in Summertown, and a chain of boulangeries and patisseries under the La Maison Blanc umbrella. His last project, however, was his most ambitious: Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – a hotel and double Michelin-starred restaurant situated in a sprawling English manor house.
It was here that Blanc combined his love of British produce with his culinary education on the Continent. “The first thing I did was create a garden,” Blanc reveals. “In France you have a big vegetable garden and a tiny little lawn, but in England it’s exactly the contrary. In England you have a big lawn and a horrible little vegetable patch. From the moment I came over 40 years ago, I wanted to create a garden.
“We now have 11 gardens at Le Manoir. I brought with me my culture that my mum taught me, which is to buy locally. That’s why I grow English food as much as I possibly can. If I was in France I would grow French food, and in Italy I would grow Italian food. So I really loved creating this environment because it fits so much with what I’ve done throughout my whole life. I enjoy being able to pass on knowledge to young people about provenance, about the quality and freshness of the food, the nutrients, and to connect food with everything – with love. Yes! This way you understand your soul, your heritage and your history.”
This connection to our gastronomical ancestry is something that Blanc strives for in his cooking and hopes to promote through his shop chains and the private lessons Le Manoir offers. It is an ideal that he sadly misses in the 21st century world of supermarkets and mass-produced food.
“When I go to a supermarket, I can see that each apple has been designed to be the perfect shape and form,” he remarks. “They are perfectly red – not a single blemish. It’s resistant to any known disease and it’s packed, completely packed, with sugar. I would like to see more British-grown vegetables.
“Before we grow any vegetables at Le Manoir, we will try maybe six or seven times using 10 vegetables over several years. Maybe 10 garlics for example; one early, one late. And then we look at flavour – it is an imperfect science, but it creates a connection between the earth and yourself.”
And when it comes to dishing out some advice for cookery enthusiasts across the country who hope to emulate his successes – it’s fair to say he’s earned that right now – Blanc recalls a culinary catastrophe from his formative years.
“My greatest disaster was when I was 12-years-old, when I cooked Crêpe Suzette for my mum,” he laughs. “I got the right, even heat and I folded them up and mixed them with syrup and Grand Marnier. I put a Pyrex dish onto the gas and flambéd the Grand Marnier and... whoosh! An explosion in the kitchen! Have you ever cooked with Pyrex? Don’t do it – unless you want your ceiling coated in caramel!”