Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons country house hotel is a foodie haven – and pure heaven when it comes to a sophisticated and relaxed family break.
Exuding an idyll of pastoral perfection combined with French sensibilities, it is a testament to its founder Raymond Blanc’s impeccable taste, vision and skill that this luxury manor is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014.
“I had in mind a small house in the country,” recalls the superstar chef as he considers his modest dreams of opening a country hotel back in 1984. “But I fell in love with Great Milton Manor, set in 30 acres. With the help of a few friends, it was transformed into a magnificent country house hotel.”
And “magnifique” it truly is. Built in 1470, the mellow stone 15th-century manor and its outbuildings are grand. The décor is luxe yet homely, while its lush gardens combine decorative charm with functionality:
The herb gardens feature year-round borders of clipped box and lavender, an exquisite Japanese garden adds a touch of tranquil Zen, and a Malaysian garden offers a range of exotic plants: tamarind, ginger and lemongrass amongst them
The two-acre kitchen garden produces no less than 90 types of salad leaves and vegetables, providing fresh-from-the-field produce for the venue’s two Michelin-starred restaurant. It is also 100% certified organic by the Soil Association and there’s even a bronze scarecrow, fashioned after Monsieur Blanc himself, casting a watchful eye over proceedings, just in case!
It offers multi-award winning gastronomy (it has maintained its two Michelin stars for three decades) and is celebrated the world over for its foodie reputation – which doesn’t always go hand in hand with a family friendly welcome. Yet child-friendliness is one of Le Manoir’s star attributes, as proven by the flurry of friendly staff who greet us upon arrival, opening the doors of our taxi, offering assistance and whisking away our luggage.
With Grace, then 11, and Joe, two, already cuddling their gift – a Raymond teddy bear – and sporting chefs’ apron, hats and checkerboard trousers, we were off to a promising start.
As we were escorted to our Garden Suite, the daffodils were prettily in bloom and, as if to add to perfection, a flurry of fluffy chicks were perfectly on cue as they followed their mother across the manicured lawn in the shade of a big old tree.
Our ‘Lace’ room, one of the superior suites in the garden wing, was a charming split level abode, with a grand dining table (laden with a bowl of fruit and almond dragees) and sofabed, overlooking a private patio garden. Upstairs, there was another living area with sofas and television, a magnificent four-poster bed, adorned with lace cushions, and a bathroom with enormous sunken bath (complete with steps leading up to it and huge candles on the ledge). The suite itself had a touch of Parisian oh la la decadence about it, with wall hangings showing more than a glimpse of lace-edged stocking and garters and a naked statue that Joe took a particular shine to. There was also champagne on ice…
That afternoon, we were fortunate enough to have a brief chat with Raymond himself over afternoon tea. He admired Joe’s fleet of toy cars (he has two grown-up sons, so is no doubt familiar with the boys-and-cars obsession) and insisted Grace and Joe try some “glaces” (ice-cream) and patisseries.
I ask whether there are special meal times for children. Raymond tuts and shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’s important that children eat with the family, no?”
He’s absolutely right, of course, but I have to admit to feeling a slight sense of trepidation at the prospect of taking Joe into the refined setting of Blanc’s haute cuisine restaurant.
Eating It almost goes without saying that haute cuisine is at the heart of Le Manoir. Our table for three was booked for 7.15pm. We dressed for the occasion, with Grace in a floaty dress and Joe in shirt and smart trousers. I was already observing the fellow diners in the bar, who were looking on with a half smile at Joe, gesturing how cute he was, though I couldn’t help wondering if they might be secretly hoping he was destined for bed rather than the restaurant. However, after my conversation with Raymond, at least I felt I had the boss on my side!
Indeed, it all seemed to be going swimmingly, as Joe took a piece of French bread from the plate with an unprompted “Thank You”. But just as I was congratulating myself on his good manners, I saw his bread winging its way over my head, landing on the table next door. Joe had also discovered his shiny cutlery made a satisfying clang-clang tune if he banged it on his huge china plate. Thankfully, the waiter – clearly well practised in crisis management – swooped swiftly to remove the offending plate, and we quickly got on with the business of ordering.
Choosing from a three-course children’s menu (£25), I ordered a simple egg mayonnaise and goujons of sole with homemade ‘Mayan Gold’ chip and fresh vegetables for Joe, while Grace chose scrambled eggs and smoked “Glenarm” salmon followed by grilled Angus fillet steak and chips. The food all sounded fairly standard fare, until Joe’s humble egg dish arrived – on a splendid long platter with four little ‘mice’ made from boiled eggs that had delicately piped balsamic vinegar eyes, whiskers and a long green, wispy chive tail. I guess we shouldn’t have expected anything less from a Michelin star chef!
As the restaurant got busier, the staff continued their incredibly attentive, smiling and patient service (retrieving Joe’s napkin every time it was dropped in that popular toddler game of dropsies). When it came to desserts, I couldn’t resist the idea of the melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding, even if such perfection takes 20 minutes to prepare! However, as Joe became ever more boisterous, I prepared to gesture the waiter to forget my dessert, when he came over and said: “Would you prefer to have your dessert in the lounge?” What a perfect solution!
So we sojourned. Dessert was promptly served and Joe, spirits revived once more, magically became all sweetness and light again. What’s more, dessert was also… sweet and light!
We retired for the night to take a relaxing bath and allow Joe to burn off just a little more steam by bouncing on the impossibly high bed and hide beneath all the lacy cushions. We awoke to a gloriously sunny spring morn. And, after breakfast – a dignified buffet affair, with everything set out in cute little bowls – fruits, nuts and seeds, with handwritten labels alongside, and a handsome selection of breads, cold meats and cheeses – Grace sauntered off to try her hand at cheffing for the day at the children’s cookery school.
La Petite Ecole As you might imagine, Raymond Blanc’s teaching kitchen is super sleek, with sparkling work surfaces and pots and pans of all shapes and sizes. Along with her fellow apprentices, Grace was given her very own chef’s whites, apron and hat. The culinary adventure began with a visit to the organic herb garden to plant some basil. Back in the kitchen, there was various tasting and testing, sniffing and sampling of herbs and chocolate, quizzes and informal chats about nutrition, organic, free range and the provenance of food – all very much Blanc’s passions.
The course instructor had just the right mix of expertise and friendliness and there was a real spirit of fun and camaraderie among the children, who seemed to be having a ball.
Meanwhile, Joe and I sat on the neatly manicured lawns – or rather I tried to sit, until it looked like the croquet mallet Joe was wielding came precariously close to the line of little ducklings who came out to play every so often, then it became a playful game of chase around the lawn. And it was here, surrounded by nature, tuning into the sounds of the countryside, the hush only broken by the tweeting of the birds and the rustling of leaves, that Le Manoir’s rich, rural loveliness showed itself to be most splendid.
At lunchtime, we meandered over to sample the efforts of the petite chefs’ morning endeavours: organic fishcakes and pea purée; homemade pizza and delicious foccacia. By the end of the day, Grace had also mastered a delightful Strawberry Crumble.
Rooms There are 32 individually designed rooms and suites – most with a roaring open fireplace, all with an aura of luxury. There are interconnecting rooms, rooms with courtyards, suites with garden access, and even suites with their own library foyers. All rooms have a writing desk and sofa; all with marble bathroom; LCD television, DVD and CD player; complimentary wi-fi; i-Pod docking station. Check in time is at 3pm; check out is 11am.
Facilities & activities It is nature’s playground that provides the best family entertainment at Le Manoir. From the mushroom valley to the kitchen gardens, children can explore the glorious grounds, or play a game of croquet on the neatly manicured lawn. There’s wildlife aplenty to admire, with a series of water gardens and a seventeenth century pond, and parents can either join in the play with their children or observe the idyllic scene from the terrace with a chilled aperitif.
Children can also get creative in the kitchen – as can grown-ups – with a selection of cookery classes, under the tutelage of chef Mark Peregrine, either for children only (£285 each), or for adult and child (£555): the next dates are set for half-term from February 17–21 2014.
There’s also an extensive calendar of events, including regular ‘Evenings with Raymond Blanc’, where the chef shares his foodie passions and culinary heritage, all delivered – naturellement – with affable Gallic aplomb.
Why go For a refined yet relaxed family-friendly break, where the service (with a smile) is impeccable, and the food simply divine. It’s also one of the gardens included in the bucket list book 1001 Gardens To See Before You Die… and one of the hotels listed in 501 Great Places To Stay!
Who is it best for All ages are warmly welcomed, but budding chefs ages 8-plus are in for a culinary treat at La Petite Ecole cookery school, and families with a botanical bent will enjoy the bountiful gardens.
Our Favourite Bit The food has to be a highlight, from the sumptuous meals to the buffet-style breakfast with local perserves and produce, lovingly displayed with hand-written notelets.
Top Tip Invest in a copy of the RSPB Pocket Guide To British Birds by Simon Harrap (published by A&C Black, £5.99) for identifying our feathered friends!
Don’t Go If you’re following the 5-2 Fast Diet and it’s one of your dine-lean days. Go instead when you’re on an eat-all-you-want fiesta!
While You’re Here Take a day trip into the historic city of Oxford or shop at Bicester’s famous designer outlets (both around a 25-minute drive from Le Manoir). Closer still, the picturesque village of Thame, a quintessential English market town that has become a popular location for filming television programmes, such as Midsomer Murders. It also hosts the annual Thame and Oxfordshire County Show which dates back 130 years.
Top tip Use the babysitting service if you fancy dining a deux.
ABOUT RAYMOND BLANC
Born in a tiny rural village near Besançon, eastern France, in 1949, chef Raymond Blanc drew his culinary inspiration from the terroir of the Franche-Comté region and his mother, the formidable matriarch Maman Blanc, who passed on her passion for lovingly created family meals bursting with fresh, local and seasonal flavours.
With no formal training, the well-loved chef began his career as a waiter in Oxfordshire – seizing his opportunity one day when the chef was ill and he took over the kitchen. His flair instantly evident, he opened his first restaurant Les Quat’Saisons, in Oxford in 1977, promptly winning Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year. The restaurant swiftly earned two Michelin stars (moving to its the new location of Le Manoir in 1984) which it has held for a staggering 29 years.
Raymond is universally loved and known globally for his passion for seasonal, organic produce. When sourcing food for his restaurant, he has exacting standards, and knows everything about its provenance. Rarely can a chef tell you exactly where the milk in your breakfast came from. Blanc also champions an ethical approach to cooking and is devoted to energy efficiency and recycling.
Author of a dozen of so cookery books, as well as an autobiography A Taste Of My Life (Corgi, £9.99) Raymond Blanc has also starred in many popular television shows, including the BBC’s ‘The Restaurant’, ‘How To Cook Well’ and ‘The Very Hungry Frenchman’.
Raymond was recently awarded an OBE in recognition of his efforts to promote culinary excellence, as well as a Lifetime Acheivement Award at The Catey Awards, the catering industry’s ‘Oscars.’