Should you ever have seen the irrepressibly French chef Raymond Blanc on TV, you might well have thought he hammed it up for the camera; in fact, the director had probably just told him to “tone it down a bit”. Enthusiasm and passion, mostly expressed in Franglais, bubble from him like water from an especially ebullient spring.
Seventy next year, he came to the UK in 1972. Since 1983, his home has been Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, holder of two Michelin stars for 34 years, and the family tree of British gastronomy has more than a few roots in his Oxfordshire soil. Marco Pierre White and – briefly – Heston Blumenthal are both alumni; more recently so are Texture’s Aggi Sverrisson and Hide’s Ollie Dabbous. While his trusty lieutenants, head chef Gary Jones and pastry chef Benoit Blin, now run the kitchen day to day, he remains an exuberant, avuncular presence.
That soil is important to Blanc, as the 11 gardens and orchards at Le Manoir show, and while their flamboyance is muted this time of year, there are fine consolations. Fires roar in every grate, lights twinkle merrily and the menus turn to the autumnal delights of game, truffles and shellfish.
All bells and whistles are present too. On my most recent visit, bonnes bouches included sea trout and yuzu jelly on a toasted wafer of sourdough and nicely marbled beef carpaccio, topped with herby mayonnaise; then a biscotto scattered with pumpkin seeds alongside an intensely flavoured soup of roasted pumpkin.
Scottish langoustines, quickly bronzed on a plancha, were as sweet as any I had tasted; Jerusalem artichokes, both puréed and crisped, added a resonance of earthiness; black truffle was shaved luxuriously on top. Cornish crab, meanwhile, was fresh as a daisy and politely tropical, with flavours of passionfruit, coconut and kaffir lime.
A supremely tender fillet of venison was wrapped in smoked pancetta and roasted pink, braised chicory giving a gentle bitterness to the rich jus. And woodcock – a generous three breasts of the gourmand’s favourite bird – had a very fine flavour, the flesh’s gentle tang of liver offset with a red wine sauce and celeriac fondant, again smothered in black truffle.
If anything, the kitchen raised its game with dessert, a superlative almond pudding whose many elements – raw, cooked, hot, cold, smooth, crunchy – conspired (with chopped, candied ginger and wafers of pear) to offer the perfect end to a meal. Service was friendly, unstuffy and professional.
Le Manoir offers various diversions over the Christmas period, some of them including a concert at St Mary’s, the medieval church next door, followed by a black-tie dinner, while the eight-course Christmas Day menu features truffles (bien sûr), turbot, goose or turkey, and “le Christmas pudding” – or, for Francophiles, a Grand Marnier soufflé. Le Manoir cannot promise a dusting of snow, but a Blanc Christmas is guaranteed nonetheless.