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