If, like me, your idea of a good meal out is a Sunday Roast at a country pub or a Tibetan curry from the Gloucester Green street food market, then you might find the following a slightly out-of-body experience.
A visit to Raymond Blanc’s double-Michelin-starred gastronomic paradise on the fringe of Oxford is rare, exquisite and utterly delightful. Why rare? Because the price, at £205 per head for lunch (not including drinks, tips or optional cheese) means most of us are not going to be popping in all that often (although it was completely full during our visit). But once you’ve swallowed the bill, the rest of what they offer is a pleasure to consume. In fact, the bill is part of the experience. Handing over a thousand pounds for a four-person lunch was a unique sensation: daring, insane, thrilling, almost transgressive – not unlike the horseradish sorbet that accompanied the second of our seven courses.
The Quat’ Saisons really is a country manoir, surrounded by extensive and meticulously maintained grounds. There are ornamental gardens; a Japanese tea-house overlooking a pond crammed with crayfish; charming metal sculptures of deer, gardeners, girls reading books, and even giant mushrooms; and of course the most exclusive vegetable patch in the south of England, the produce from which finds its way directly into the Manoir’s kitchen.
It’s Raymond Blanc’s turf, and it’s Raymond’s rules, so the labels on the vegetables are all in French. There are haricots of every colour: vert, jaune, blanc, violette and orange. The petits pois are popping from their pods, and there’s more Swiss chard than you can shake a stick of celery at. After trundling around the grounds for an hour we felt like we’d been fully exposed to the raw ingredients, and we went inside, ready to see what Executive Chef Luke Selby could make of it all.
Over cocktails in a peaceful eighteenth-century lounge we were treated to side-snacks of almonds and olives. But not just any almonds: these had been lightly roasted in egg-whites from the poulets du manoir, and they cracked apart in the mouth with a crispness that belied the usual slightly pliant exterior of this unassuming nut*.
The dining room itself is in a large conservatory, where wheezingly satisfied diners sit peacefully as the young, slim staff flit about them like hummingbirds servicing heavy-hanging sunflowers.
And there the wonders commence.
The bread basket contains a bewildering variety of enticingly-shaped rolls, each made with stuff that, in all honesty, should not be susceptible to being turned into bread but somehow has been. My father-in-law had a sun-dried tomato and garlic bun. I had one that was apparently made of beer and mashed potato.
A meal like this deserves more than one overture, so next to arrive, still unadvertised on the menu, was a plate of canapés. They included a crispy, tubular beetroot cracker and a tiny packet of Dorset dressed crab topped with about ten baubles of caviar. Each was a tiny burst of colour: amusing, refreshing, and gone in an instant, like a firework at an office party.
On a normal day, that would have been enough for lunch. But we were just getting started. The menu proper opened with La Betterave: a beetroot tartare sitting cosily beside a horseradish sorbet. It shouldn’t be allowed. But there it is, and it was phenomenal. The sorbet was stinging and refreshing, the tartare light and springy, like a purple mousse.
Next came Le Saumon, a confit Loch Duart salmon, with elderflower and yuzu. The seafood theme continued with Le Homard, a roasted Cornish lobster accompanied by a splodge of mango jelly and cardamom droppings. The pieces of lobster were distributed geometrically around the plate, like a dismembered sentry from the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones after meeting some White Walkers. Monsieur Blanc is ever the artist.
Each course was respectfully explained by our attentive waiter. These introductions feel somehow awkward from an etiquette perspective. How is one expected to respond when one has just been formally presented to one’s dinner? It’s like being introduced to an eminent scientist at a formal party by an over-zealous host who tells you the entire career history and achievements of Professor Homard. You nod and smile your appreciation – and then you just eat him. We felt like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, muttering, ‘Wonderful, thank you’, and then turning to each other with a 007-villain chorus of ‘Come, come, Mr Bond. You enjoy Cornish lobster, mango and cardamom as much as I do.’
If there was a dip in the relentless joy of this lunch-of-a-lifetime, then maybe it came in the L’Agneau course: Herdwick lamb, courgette, ratatouille and olive. Lamb can be the most richly flavoured and meltingly tender of any meat. But this was, if anything, too simple: a couple of bare little chops, as innocent and inoffensive as the Lakeland lamb from which they had been untimely ripped. They bespoke meat. That was their job. They did it, and left.
And all too soon, we were on to the desserts. If this meal was a symphony, it was ending like Beethoven’s Ninth: with a succession of concluding flourishes, each of which sounds like the last, but is followed by yet another chord. La Fraise (strawberries, olive oil and lemon verbena jus) were followed dramatically by le Chocolat et La Framboise, a chocolate and raspberry crumble that should be declared illegal as an addictive and mind-numbing drug; and finally we were out in the garden, munching on petits fours and mint tea.
A few guests were recovering from the the sensory overload by aimlessly knocking croquet balls around on Le Manoir’s lawn. A couple were playing backgammon. We sat and sipped our tea, and wondered at the treasures we’d just consumed. We were returning to the real world, but here, Messrs Blanc and Selby’s culinary creativity is repeated, day in, day out, in a corner of an English field that is forever France.
* I know almonds aren’t officially nuts. Don’t start.