La Petite Ecole at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, England: Heaven’s Kitchen
No one could accuse Raymond Blanc of not being passionate. In fact he’s about the most passionate man I’ve ever met – when it comes to cooking that is, or looking after his sumptuous Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire. ‘It’s my dream, my vision, my life’, Raymond enthused to the children – and at the end of the day it was their dream too. Just south of Oxford, in a fold of low hills overlooking rich water-meadows sits the secluded fifteenth-century house, and it was love at first sight for Raymond who bought the house from Lady Cromwell in 1984. He brought in twenty-five tonnes of compost, waged a war with the rabbits, cleared the jungle of Brussels sprouts and planted the seeds given to him by his father. Lovingly restored, each of the bedrooms has a different theme inspired by a painting or statue collected by Raymond during his travels around the world. The latest of which is the Lalique room, filled with exquisite pieces of bijou modern opalescent glass. Each room poses a surprise – resulting in a homely feel with devoted individual flair.
After a scrumptious dinner on the first evening, we were allowed a sneak back-of-house preview of what was to come. Walking round the kitchen at ten o’clock, we saw two commis-chefs plucking twitching langoustine from a huge tray and twisting off their heads. Rosie (my eleven-year-old daughter) winced, wondering if she was going to have to repeat the exercise. She had nothing to worry about. The next morning, donned in chef-whites, aprons and hats, the eight boys and girls (aged between nine and sixteen) began with a tour of the herb garden. ‘It’s essential you make the connection between eating and growing food’, enthused Raymond, wafting a sprig of rosemary under their noses.
If there’s a right place to awaken gastronomic senses, this English country garden is the equivalent of tasting vintage Krug as your first sip of champagne. Every which way you turn there’s countrified perfection: a church tower; circular dovecot; Jacobean chimneys peeping over the immaculate yew hedging; row upon row of neat organic vegetables; sculptures galore and a wildflower garden brimming with cornflowers and baby poppies from Flanders. It all serves as an appetising sight of where your meals are coming from. And Raymond’s motto, if he had one, would be ‘from garden to table’ for his kitchen is as much about raw produce as culinary transformation.
‘My hotel is not a temple’, explains the fast speaking Raymond ‘I want little people to trample through and feel at home.’ Still cautious, they began to pick and smell their way through the garden, tasting here, looking there, and fingering everything from the giant spiky artichoke to the humble carrot. .While Raymond regularly pops in to check on progress and enjoyment factors, his right-hand man, course director cum child entertainer Steve Bulmer, holds the fort. Like his maestro, Steve’s enthusiasm oozes from every pore.
Lesson one was not to be afraid of the kitchen – translated in this case to an egg catching game and a talk on ‘happy chickens’. As they whipped their meringues into shape, both the egg whites and the little group consolidated. Lesson two was how to mix pasta with your right hand (so you’re free to pick your nose with your left, he joked). And so it went on until they’d produced an impressive array of foccaccia, pizza, pea puree, salmon fishcakes, chocolate mousse and Raymond’s favourite childhood dessert – Maman Blanc’s floating islands.
Forget Hell’s Kitchen, this is Heaven’s Kitchen. While every second is spent educating and inspiring the junior-chefs, parents are welcome to spectate or relax in the grounds. Most come and go as they wish, as their offspring confidently absorb the simple, rewarding and creative joy of cooking.
The pot of seeded basil the young epicureans took home was really about planting something that would germinate into a growing passion for food. Passion is contagious – and cook they will. Armed with a recipe book and hotline telephone number straight to the kitchen for any emergency questions they left grudgingly. Raymond smiled at his budding prodigies, adding a final note of wisdom, ‘the family that eats together, stays together.’
Ideal Age: 8–16
Day Highlight: An interactive demonstration tasting sweet raspberry jam, acidic lemon, bitter chicory and salty crisps which showed the Children how to use their tongue and not be fooled by deceptive appearances.