The Gardens at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

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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