Just because I’m terrible at gardening doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the talents of other people. This week I spent the day at Raymond Blanc’s magical Oxfordshire hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, learning how to make pistachio souffle with a cocoa sorbet interior, basil and lemon granita, macarons with liquorice ganache and a perkily cute fraisier cake filled with kirsch-flavoured patisserie cream. While waiting for my cake to cook and the granita to freeze, we explored the vegetable and herb gardens.
There are nine full-time gardeners at Le Manoir. Speaking as someone who struggles to stay in control of a single herbaceous border, they appear to do the work of twice their number. Just like the kitchens, the gardens are blissfully quiet. Apparently it’s a rule that there must be no yelling, tantrums, or high-octane drama. There are more squabbles in my kitchen over who has which breakfast cereal than there appear to be at Le Manoir.
I grow fresh herbs in a few terracotta pots by my back door. At Le Manoir there are acres of herbs, some miniature ones crammed into boxes the size of filing trays and arranged like luxuriously soft, patchwork blankets.
The micro-leaved coriander, sorrel, basil and a host of other varieties are harvested with scissors while still miniscule, to decorate plates and perk up tired palates. These tiny flavour-filled leaves make their fully-grown relatives taste tired and flabby.
Perfect, exquisitely-perfumed wild strawberries
An expanse of floppy borage plants, with their vivid blue, cucumber-flavoured flowers
Once I’d seen the courgettes I understood why the word ‘vigorous’ is sometimes applied to plants
The bronze scarecrow is modelled on Raymond Blanc himself
Le Manoir’s golden beetroot is much sweeter and less earthy tasting than the traditional red variety – I ate it for lunch
Everything about Le Manoir is part of an elaborate, glorious fantasy. The food is exquisite, the gardens perfect, the staff unfailingly charming. Just for one day I inhabited their escapist heaven. I learned how to make the kind of cakes and tarts that until now seemed to belong behind glass in the finest patisserie shop; I discovered that sweet pastry made with icing sugar is crispier, that baking a hot souffle with sorbet inside really is possible and that chefs’ jackets are designed to fit people with bodies the shape of cereal packets. And just in case you’re wondering how much salt to add to my sugar, this wasn’t press-trip paradise – I paid my own way.
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