Ray­mond Blanc

‘Some­where be­tween my chest and stom­ach I felt the fish danc­ing’

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - Chef Ray­mond Blanc In­ter­view by Nick McGrath

How of­ten do you travel?

I spent many years work­ing on my busi­ness and in the kitchen, and didn’t get the time to travel. Young chefs don’t travel much at all. I do try to make up for it now.

I’m of­ten head­ing to France to see my fam­ily in the eastern re­gion of Franche-Comté. But I have also been to some amaz­ing places a bit fur­ther afield, in­clud­ing Malaysia, In­done­sia, Ja­pan, Hong Kong and Aus­tralia, to name a few. I en­joy go­ing to the United States and have re­cently been to St Peters­burg in Rus­sia to at­tend a con­fer­ence.

I have some very spe­cial mem­o­ries of a re­cent trip to Thai­land and I had a won­der­ful hol­i­day in the Mal­dives too. A few months ago I vis­ited Barcelona and was so im­pressed with the food cul­ture there. I will cer­tainly go back to Spain: the gas­tron­omy there is sim­ply in­cred­i­ble.

What do you need for a per­fect hol­i­day?

My fam­ily, some good books, lo­cal fresh food and wine, and sun­shine.

Did you travel lots in your youth?

I wish! But my fam­ily didn’t have much money grow­ing up. When I was about 15 I went to Provence and it was like en­ter­ing another uni­verse. I had my first ever view of the sea while I was there, as well as my first smell of fen­nel, laven­der and an­cient pine. They were all de­li­cious flavours that were new to me. I tried bouil­l­abaisse [a Provençal fish stew] for the first time, with aioli and crou­tons smoth­ered in gar­lic.

Most un­usual dish you’ve ever had?

In a res­tau­rant in Tokyo, a geisha once brought me a bowl filled with wa­ter and tiny eel fish. I thought: “What a lovely ta­ble dec­o­ra­tion,” but the geisha took a lit­tle net, plunged it into the wa­ter and col­lected some of the eels. She then put them in another small bowl. As they wrig­gled fu­ri­ously she poured some sake and then rice vine­gar over them. The bowl was then handed to me. I looked at my hosts, who were smil­ing and nod­ding at me, telling me to drink the con­tents of the bowl. “Drink and don’t chew,” they said. I have a “never say no” rule, so I drank the drunken eels. Some­where be­tween my chest and my stom­ach I could feel the fish danc­ing. The sen­sa­tion lasted for a few sec­onds be­fore they reached my stom­ach where they met their fate. As far as food ex­pe­ri­ences go, that was one of the weird­est.

Most mem­o­rable meal?

There are too many to name. But great meals don’t have to be Miche­lin-starred. I was at the mar­ket in Sa­nary-surMer in Provence, where you can buy lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties such as slow-cooked squid, bouil­l­abaisse, bour­ride – which is a sim­pler ver­sion of bouil­l­abaisse, served with aioli and a gar­lic may­on­naise made with olives, tape­nade [olive paste] and an­choïade [an­chovy purée]. I bought this to take away and sat in the shade at a café on a square, with a bas­ket of crusty bread to mop up all the juices and sauces, and a chilled glass or two of Ban­dol rosé. It was a sim­ple but per­fect meal.

Favourite ho­tel?

It’s hard to sin­gle out one, but there are many ho­tels that have ex­tended su­perb hos­pi­tal­ity, in­clud­ing Bel­mond Ho­tel Cipri­ani in Venice and, closer to home, the Sum­mer Lodge Coun­try House Ho­tel in Dorset.

Worst travel ex­pe­ri­ence?

It was on a small is­land called Boracay in the Philip­pines, be­fore it had be­come pop­u­lar. Although the is­land is beau­ti­ful, my ac­com­mo­da­tion was not. I stayed in a hut with a mud floor. The shower was a bucket with holes and the mat­tress was full of in­sects. I ended up with all sorts of bites. It was pretty aw­ful and an ex­pe­ri­ence that I will not soon for­get.

What do you hate about hol­i­days?

I have far too much to do be­fore a hol­i­day in or­der to get my work com­pleted be­fore head­ing off. It is worth it – but the prepa­ra­tion can be dif­fi­cult and very stress­ful – for my per­sonal as­sis­tant, too!

Favourite air­line?

I tend to fly with Bri­tish Air­ways, but love to travel by train. Eurostar now has a route to Mar­seille and I was hon­oured to be on the first train to the south of France from Lon­don. It al­lowed me to spend a beau­ti­ful week­end in the sun, with din­ner at my dear friend Gérald Passé­dat’s res­tau­rant Le Petit Nice. And all with­out hav­ing to spend hours in air­port se­cu­rity queues.

Least favourite air­line?

I guess it has to be the bud­get air­lines. The ser­vice can be quite im­per­sonal.

Best travel ad­vice?

En­joy the mo­ment – a hol­i­day of­ten goes too fast. Turn your phone off, un­plug your lap­top, re­lax and savour the tastes and tex­tures of the coun­try you are vis­it­ing. I need to re­mind my­self of this some­times.

What has trav­el­ling taught you?

It has broad­ened my mind and en­riched my soul. I feel inspired and al­ways bring home ideas for my dishes, home de­sign and for my gar­dens – it’s won­der­ful to be able to make use of the knowl­edge, tastes and tex­tures I have seen and ex­pe­ri­enced on my trav­els.

Where next?

I’ll take a short break in the south of France and be back in Ox­ford­shire at­tend­ing the Big Feas­t­i­val at the end of Au­gust. It’s a truly lovely fes­ti­val that has grown over the years. It’s a great fam­ily day out with won­der­ful food and mu­sic – all in sup­port of a very wor­thy cause and it’s a nice way to celebrate the end of sum­mer.

St Peters­burg, Rus­sia, where Ray­mond Blanc re­cently at­tended a con­fer­ence; the chef first smelt laven­der in Provence, top right

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