An escape to Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin-star retreat in Oxfordshire should be your first calling place when restrictions allow
Words Jonathan Whiley
Raymond Blanc is not a man who does anything by halves. Father Time may have whispered away his hair a touch and left flecks of icing-sugar white, but his zest for life remains as undiluted as the zingiest tarte au citron.
I’ve met him twice; the first time he was in his element, guiding me around the gardens of his cherished, honey-coloured manor house, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. We passed rows and rows of organic vegetables and herbs with the heady scent of rosemary and thyme perfuming the pathways as he pointed out Swiss chard and bay leaves.
On the other occasion, he confessed his culinary guilty pleasure to be humble Nestle chocolate (“I often have, not every day, a KitKat. A black one. But don’t tell anyone!).
Everybody loves Raymond; a bundle of child-like enthusiasm and palpable passion, the joie de vivre is certainly no pretence. Le Manoir, in the Oxfordshire village of Great Milton, has been his pride and joy since opening in 1984.
As well it might; since that very first year when the hotel restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars it has held on to them every year since. It’s a world of abundance and joy and the precision and perfectionism is evident at every turn.
Service is slick and attentive but never over familiar; a touch of formality, however, creates an irresistible sense that you are in for quite the experience.
After months of upheaval and uncertainty, a classic touch and a little old-school magic is very comforting indeed. Much like the entire tasting menu which kicks off with champagne and rhubarb cocktails in the lounge to Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable and continues with delicate canapes in the dining room.
It’s a sublime showcase of seasonality; dishes of garden pumpkin broth with butternut agnolotti, hand-dived scallop with clementine and Oscietra caviar, truffled hen’s egg with mushroom ketchup and wild mushroom tea and venison with spiced cranberry, chestnuts and gingerbread.
For extra indulgence, try the additional course of fromage and swoon at a glorious selection of French and British cheeses accompanied by quince paste to cut the creaminess and freshly-grated Perigord black truffle to dream about long after you have left.
Naturally, Covid concessions have been made; a speedy temperature check on arrival (via a state-of-the-art machine in the reception), face visors worn by staff, an in-room ‘protection kit’ and complimentary Madeira is now served in small glass bottles rather than its traditional decanter.
It’s reassuring but mercifully, ensconced amid the cosy festive decorations and genteel ambience, you can escape all thoughts of the pandemic and kick back in one of the 32 individually-designed rooms.
Ours, Blanc de Blanc, one of four ground-floor garden suites, is beautiful. Said to be Raymond’s favourite room, it has a palette of elegant snowy white and exudes all the charm of a chic Parisian apartment with its own little terrace.
For a completely contrasting vibe, try deluxe studio suite Lemongrass, a homage to Asia with dark bamboo and lime-green silk and its very own steam room.