I have my hand on Raymond Blanc’s pumpkins. England’s finest French chef has been momentarily called away to fry an egg or inspect napkins. “Go and see the grounds!” he said, so I’m free to squeeze marrows and pinch late bean pods, wandering lustfully through the Oxfordshire gardens of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, the internationally famous hotel and restaurant that is Blanc’s life’s work.
Le Manoir has two Michelin stars and displays an exacting attention to detail and service. The huge veg patch is a little more relaxed. Daisies are pushing the last of the dill out of the way and something has nibbled Blanc’s pak choi, but it is the fresh produce in this garden that is at the heart of the endeavour.
“Of course there’s skill and art to it,” he says when we eventually sit down in his office above the kitchens, a small room into which he has somehow squeezed a desk and dining table. “But what we do is also simple – fresh, high-quality ingredients treated correctly.”
The 66-year-old who has a number of TV series to his name, most recently BBC2’s Kew on a Plate with Kate Humble, pushes a plate of plums my way. “Eat!” he says, adding slices of rosemary cake to the pile. He bought the manor house in 1983. Blanc already had a Michelin star for his bistro in Oxford, but Le Manoir, after teething problems – including the end of his marriage to Jenny Blanc, mother of his two sons, and a stress-induced stroke – has become a world-renowned shrine to Anglo-French gastronomy.
Green fingers: Blanc and Humble on Kew on a Plate
The Anglo bit is mainly the idyllic countryside setting; the cooking style – soupe de potiron et courge musquée, confit de saumon, verveine, pommes, oseille – is very much the French. “Food is tremendously important in France,” Blanc says. “We have been blessed by the gods with a country which is multicultural, has multi-climates, two different seas, many lakes, rivers!”
But we British have rivers and hills, fields and woods – why is French food so much better? “We had a revolution,” he says. “That’s where the British got caught out. It cut up the whole land in billions of pieces and they gave it to the peasants. The revolution democratised the right to eat and it democratised the right to grow.”
It’s not without irony, then, that Blanc’s HQ is a luxury hotel in rural Oxfordshire where the most expensive suite costs £1,323 a night and dinner for one is £138 or £159 (depending on whether you can eat five or seven courses). This exclusivity naturally attracts the rich and famous. Though Blanc tries not to make too much of it. “We let our guests be and just cook nice,” he says, his phraseology still that of the young Frenchman who arrived here in a Renault in 1972. “Because, if you don’t cook nice for Tom Cruise, then you’re in trouble. Anyway, can I tell you who a real celebrity is for me? It was Charlton Heston coming to my first restaurant. Ben Hur!”
When Prince Charles visited Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
This is prime Bullingdon Club country – David Cameron’s former constituency is just over the flat horizon – and not all guests are well behaved. “No,” Blanc says, with the sad nod of a Gaul still baffled by Anglo-Saxon barbarity. “We had some from the Assassins’ Club in Oxford, where they murder restaurants.” Drunk and smashing glasses, the rampaging toffs obliged Blanc to fetch the two biggest lads from the kitchen to kick them out. The face of one of the “Assassins” was so unpleasant, Blanc says, he made a sculpture of it – presumably, in case the offender comes back.
Blanc is at pains to point out he is not even slightly posh himself. “I am very working-class,” he says. “My father worked in a factory.” His father was also in the French Resistance. “It was not a big thing,” he says with some understatement. “He didn’t talk about it much.”
Blanc’s childhood was a blissfully rural one in postwar Franche-Comté in the east of the country. There was little money, but plenty of things in the forest and fields to eat. “Mushrooms and berries from the woods. We kept rabbits for the pot and we would hunt birds.” He admits this search for food could occasionally be callous. “I’m afraid we were cruel to the snails and the frogs.” Gastronomically overseeing all this was his mother, the famous Maman Blanc, now 94. “It is her cooking that still inspires me. We were poor, but we ate like kings.”
Asked if British people will ever eat like kings, Blanc is upbeat. He points out that we are increasingly turning our backs on “heavily processed food that is reduced to a mere commodity whose only virtue is cheapness”. Besides, he says, we have Jamie Oliver: “He’s been a fantastic thing for the whole nation. I have huge admiration for what he has done and it has served the industry well. In the past, to be a chef you had to be a social outcast, an academic failure.”
Nearly half a century in the UK teaching us how to eat has brought Blanc both acclaim and honours. It has made him almost British (he likes kippers and jellied eels), while remaining very French. Brexit must be particularly painful for him. “Yes, of course,” he says. “Completely, because I love my British friends and I love the qualities that the French don’t have so much. You have the tremendous resource of being able to see your own silly side. It’s an amazing gift. You taught me how to laugh at myself.”
He pushes the plums my way again. “Now go on, eat – really!”