Over-nighters: Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Jessica Carter isn’t sure exactly the nature of the special occasion she went here to mark, but she didn’t half mark it well…

This famous Oxfordshire hotel and restaurant, founded and run by Raymond Blanc, is a mecca of special occasion. This is especially obvious, pre-dinner, in the lounge, which is filled with birthdays, anniversaries and family celebrations. Our excuse for partaking in two-Michelin star extravagance out near the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is, too, an anniversary. Although, not one that F and I can claim for ourselves. See, this year marks 35 since Raymond Blanc opened the doors to his ‘Four Seasons Manor’, where he has held two Michelin stars for the same number of years.

(This month, the restaurant shall appear in its 36th consecutive Michelin Guide – unless I’ve just jinxed it, of course – with the publication of the 2020 edition.)

It’s also exec head chef Gary Jones’ 20th year in his post and Blanc’s 70th birthday happens to be next month. I think you’ll find that’s justification enough. Le Manoir is one heck of a country pile, the 15th-century manor house now 32 rooms and suites strong, sitting within 27 acres of private gardens. Traditional in style, it avoids feeling stuffy or old fashioned – helped in no small part by the largely young, friendly (although mighty professional) team.

Cutting to the chase, then, it’ll come as no surprise that this place – with its marble en suites, landscaped grounds and flock of vintage Bentleys parked out the front – ain’t cheap. There’s a difference, of course, between cheap and good value, though, and for the two days we were there we saw no-one sporting a look of regret at having dropped some serious dollar on their stay. In fact, there were notable smiles slapped across guests faces – ours included – as we all sat tucking into canapés and aperitifs before dinner.

The operation here is slick, with the flow of guests into the lounge perfectly countered by the stream being shown out to the restaurant. And the impressive logistics continue through dinner – more than once F looks up confused as to when, exactly, his wine was topped up (and it is, generously) or his empty plate swiped away. In the evening there’s a seven-course tasting menu for £190 (add a wine flight for £125), or three-course a la carte at £175. (There are daytime options too, though, like the five-course lunch for £150.)

We eat from the former, which begins with a muddle of pickled seaweed and garden vegetables. Tangy and crunchy, the bowl had an umami kick from wisps of dried seaweed and roasted-sesame dressing. Not a dish I was waiting for with particular excitement, but one that I’d eat again, 20 times over.

This becomes something of a recurring theme. A heap of white Cornish crab meat rests on silky brown-meat purée and a quenelle of kaffir lime and coconut sorbet sits to the side. Fresh and aromatic South East Asian flavours permeate the plate, which is given zing from vibrant passion fruit. Next up are earthy British flavours in the chargrilled beetroot with walnut pesto (paired with a brilliant Chardonnay that’s all savoury, nutty and smoky) and then braised Cornish turbot with deliciously tangy pickled cockle and seaweed sabayon.

Roast grouse is gamey and tender, slicked with a rich, dark jus and sitting alongside braised red cabbage, a cube of crisp hashed celeriac and beautifully fat and sharp blackberries. A pre-dessert of coffee and chocolate – not exactly what we think we want after seeing off that lot but, once again, the kitchen knows best and we lap it up – is followed by wonderfully gooey-in-the-middle blackcurrant meringue, paired with a light, sparkling red wine that echoes the fruitness and scrubs the palate between mouthfuls with its bubbles.

Le Manoir’s surrounding landscape has been a huge influence on the food ever since the restaurant’s conception. (Such focus on locality is a character trait that was, of course, less common 35 years ago, and was shaped by Blanc’s upbringing in rural, postwar France.) The landscaped grounds, then, are well worth a pre-dinner stroll – pick your way down the windy stone paths of the Japanese tea garden, stare across the 15th-century, lily-adorned pond, investigate the ‘Maman Blanc’ herb garden and visit the beautiful 12th-century church of St Mary.

There are on-site cookery and gardening schools to take classes at as well, should you be looking to expand your culinary skillset as well as waistline.  Not got a special occasion coming up to book in for? Come on, use your ingenuity.

Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD; 01844 278881