The French-est of Frenchmen can be found in the English-est of English countrysides. Great Milton, a half-hour drive east of Oxford, plays host to Raymond Blanc OBE and his Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which has accomplished a feat matched by few others in retaining its two Michelin stars for more than three decades. The village, with a population of under a thousand, might seem too small a canvas for this bastion of gastronomy but the vast picturesque grounds hold the crown jewel of the 32-room manor house hotel and restaurant: A two-acre vegetable garden where 90 varieties grow, cultivated herb beds and orchards with fruit trees.
A self-taught chef — also an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire and a Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur — Blanc credits his parents with teaching him about seasonality, terroir and home-grown produce: His father organised all five children to work the one-acre garden at home in Besançon, eastern France, while his 94-year-old mother, affectionately known as Maman Blanc, created wholesome dishes that became his inspiration.
The face of BBC programmes such as The Very Hungry Frenchman and author of Kew on a Plate, a collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Blanc has guided a generation of noted chefs through the hallowed kitchen of Le Manoir, from Heston Blumenthal to Michael Caines MBE. Since launching The Raymond Blanc Cookery School in 1991 he has gone on to introduce generations more to the bounty nature can offer. Blanc is in no hurry to return to France: He will open a new gardening school at Le Manoir in June, expand the orchard and plant a vineyard.
What do you think of the trends of organic and local produce and farm-to-plate dining?
For more than 30 years I have been championing local organic produce, long before it was a widely discussed topic. Using seasonal produce truly means better tastes, textures and flavours, but it also provides us with better nutrients and means we are respecting the environment in a more sustainable way. When sourcing food for Le Manoir, we make sure we know everything about its provenance. It is important, for example, that we can tell our guests which herd of cows provided the milk for
Tell us about foraging in Besançon in eastern France during your youth.
We hunted everything! My papa had given me a little book with a calendar and maps of when and where to forage the best seasonal, wild produce — mushrooms, asparagus, berries, snails, flowers and more. We would hunt frogs, which would take place in the middle of May. There had to be a full moon, and my papa would invite me at 9pm to collect the frogs with him. We would go through many fields before reaching a lake. First, you could hear them, an enormous chorus of frogs croaking and ribbiting! Then, you could smell them and there would be thousands in clumps around the lake, especially as it was reproduction season! We picked them up by the dozens and came home, but that was when the romance ended and I had to prepare them. I would sell my foraged goods to restaurateurs as they gave me the best price. I remember having around 300 francs saved up at the end of December.
Your first brush with gastronomy was at the Besançon restaurant Le Poker d’As.
I was 15 or 16 years old and feeling rich with all the money I made. It was noon, and a Frenchman at noon always feels hungry. I happened to be outside that restaurant and the beautiful smells coming from the kitchen were too much. I walked in and despite my size I was welcomed. I had never been in such an expensive place before. The dish of the day was veal kidneys with red wine and the sommelier recommended a half-bottle of E Guigal Cote Rotie 1952. In this little restaurant, the oldest in Besançon, I discovered gastronomy! My mum’s cuisine was wholesome and delicious, but this cuisine at Le Poker d’As was more layered, with so many little bursts of different flavours. I left the table slightly tipsy and richer, even though I had just lost my hard-earned cash in a moment.
What brought you to Britain?
[I was a waiter at Le Palais de la Bière in Besançon when] I approached the head chef to tell him that his sauces were a little bit too rich and he answered with a heavy copper pan thrown in my face. I crashed to the floor, lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital with a broken jaw and missing teeth. The boss came to see me and instead offered me a job in England. That day, I was injured, was given a seriously bruised ego and to make it worse I was then exiled to Great Britain. So I didn’t come to England like Napoleon would have loved to, all conquering on his white horse. I came with a lot of humility, a little suitcase, but a huge dream of creating something beautiful.
How was your first brush with English food?
I endured fish and chips for the first time when I crossed the Channel in 1972. It was dreadful — and I still shudder when I recall the harsh acidity of the malt vinegar hitting my nostrils. Since then I have been lucky and have enjoyed some of the greatest fish and chips the country has to offer.
How has English cuisine changed since then?
When I came here in the 70s, Britain was on its knees, seemingly doomed by a poor economy, strikes and general gloom. The restaurant scene was at its worst. Over the years I have seen British gastronomy transform from truly desperate and depressing to sheer magnificence. We should all be extremely proud of what has been accomplished, and I am proud to have played a part.
Now that you’ve lived 46 years in England, do you see yourself as French or English?
Zut alors! I actually feel 150 per cent a Frenchman. The 100 is because I have stayed completely loyal to my tradition, to the simple philosophy that my mum passed on to me. However, the other 50 comes from living within a multicultural environment. I also have enriched my food through travel, discovering other landscapes and other cultures, reading, and at all times being curious. I can tell you that I am by far a better Frenchman. Do you know any Frenchman who can laugh about himself, queue like his British friends, or has a sense of humour?
Owned by the Belmond Group, which also operates the British Pullman luxury rail service, Le Manoir features twice a year on its travel itineraries that offer the best of the English countryside.