Words: Nigel Russell, pictures: supplied
A significant birthday deserves a significant gesture. So said my partner before surprising me with a stay at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. I didn’t realise my birthday was that significant, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue!
For a foodie like me, this Belmond hotel was the ultimate treat. Under the watchful eyes of Raymond Blanc and executive head chef Gary Jones, Le Manoir has been one of the best places to eat in the UK since it opened. I knew I was in for an amazing time – and I wasn’t wrong.
Arriving at Le Manoir is like turning up at a fancy French country home crossed with an opulent English manor house. I’d done my research and discovered the house dates back to the 15th century. Raymond Blanc transformed it into a restaurant and hotel back in 1984 and within the first year of opening had gained two Michelin stars – which it has held on to ever since.
Our Blanc de Blanc suite
From the moment we arrived in the afternoon, we were royally treated. A member of staff appeared from nowhere to take our bags as we parked our car. We were then shown to our stunning Blanc de Blanc suite on the ground floor with its own private terrace. Every room at Le Manoir has a story behind it, relating to Raymond Blanc’s globetrotting travels. Ours was inspired by a trip to Versailles, another room by a visit to Thailand, while the Jade suite was inspired by a paddy field that sparked Raymond’s imagination.
The Jade Suite
A cool and calm oasis – and all white, naturally – our suite had a sitting room with plump white sofas, beautiful porcelain and stunning fabrics. There was a king-size bed, a walk-through dressing area and a movie-star fabulous bathroom complete with bundles of toiletries, fluffy towels and thick towelling robes.
Awaiting us was a lemon drizzle cake, a bottle of Champagne and a selection of fruit. Next to it was an elegant paper carton and a note that guests should please take any cake or fruit they don’t eat during their stay to enjoy later.
My other passion (besides food – and my partner, of course) is gardening and once we’d unpacked I couldn’t wait to explore Le Manoir’s famous grounds. A map is available from reception, or you can take a guided tour with one of the gardeners. We opted to do our own thing and spent a couple of hours wandering around the truly amazing gardens, including a wildflower meadow, croquet lawn and patio area with seating where we enjoyed a drink. A winding path leads through flowerbeds and trees to the Japanese Tea Garden with a wooden tea house and a pond filled with carp. Throughout the garden are beautiful sculptures, many in bronze by Lloyd Le Blanc (a flock of birds taking flight, giant artichokes, a life-size scarecrow) and Ian Gill’s ‘Giant Bulrush with Dragonfly’ which is 6.5 metres tall and weighs 300kg!
The Japanese Tea Garden
But the two-acre kitchen garden, with its tidy rows of herbs and vegetables and a large orchard of fruit trees, was my favourite. Just steps from the manor’s back door, the garden is 100-per cent organic and supplies 90 types of fresh salads and vegetables for the restaurant, including exotic varieties from Asia as well as hundreds of courgettes grown for their flowers.
Time for dinner – and what a dinner. We had the seven-course Les Sauveurs du Manoir menu, bracketed by amuse-bouche and petite fours and prepared from seasonal, organic ingredients. Where to start…. The spiced Cornish lobster with red pepper essence? Or the delicate seared sea bass and scallop with smoky mash? Perhaps the tender new season lamb with barlotti beans and artichoke? It was all superb, accompanied by perfect wines (there are 1,000 in the cellar), and followed up with blackcurrant meringue with tonka bean and chocolate. Needless to say, we passed on the cheese.
After a blissful night’s sleep, we even managed breakfast – mouthfuls of flaky croissant with jam, fresh fruit, yoghurt and granola and eggs Benedict was all we could manage!
Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons has everything going for it. The finest food, luxurious rooms, and blissful gardens. What sets a stay at Le Manoir apart is the attention to detail and the focus on service – and the overwhelming sense that everybody who works there really loves their job and Raymond.
I can’t wait to return – but I may have to wait for my next significant birthday!