Chef Raymond Blanc’s passion for good food goes without saying. But it wasn’t until my recent visit to the gardening school at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, his two-Michelin-starred hotel and restaurant near Oxford, that I realised his equal passion for growing organic vegetables and fruit. The two-acre kitchen garden is patchworked with more than 90 types of vegetables and 70 herbs, picked daily for the kitchen. ‘Before the cooking comes the produce,’ says Raymond (pictured above).
The full-day class on growing vegetables and herbs was a glorious experience with practical hands-on guidance – planting seeds, pricking out seedlings and drilling rows in a new bed (they had to be as straight as soldiers on parade) – interspersed with nuggets of horticultural wisdom as we wandered around the beds with head gardener Anne Marie Owens and head vegetable gardener Jennifer Pryke.
Lunch was prepared by the Raymond Blanc Cookery School and it’s impossible to exaggerate just how delicious newly picked salad leaves, heritage tomatoes, beetroot and beans are when simply prepared and dressed with good olive oil and flavoured vinegar or lemon, plus a cornucopia of herbs. There were irresistible pastries at coffee time, too, and Raymond’s favourite lemon cake for tea, one of Maman Blanc’s recipes.
A statue of his adored mother (‘Family is everything to Raymond,’ says Anne Marie) will preside over the medicinal herb garden that is planned for next year. Raymond’s interest in herbalism was triggered by an outbreak of urticaria (a raised itchy skin rash) all over his body. After six months of conventional treatment failed, he consulted medical herbalist Michael McIntyre (michael-mcintyre.com), who prescribed a mix of herbs to be brewed into an evil-smelling potion. ‘Imagine how terrible that was for a chef! I had to hold my nose to drink it,’ Raymond remembers with horror. But the herbs worked and within two months his skin was clear. Since then Raymond has become dedicated to promoting the efficacy of medicinal plants, which formed the basis of the modern pharmaceutical industry and are still important for new drug leads. Over the past 20 years, this indefatigable horticulturalist has also created orchards filled with unusual, often heritage species of fruit, sleuthed by emissaries nationwide on behalf of Le Manoir. There are now some 800 apple and pear trees and a fruit hedge with sloes and plums. I came away inspired by the warmth, enthusiasm and expertise that permeate this very special place. I grow salads and herbs in my (organic) flowerbeds; now it remains to persuade my un-horticultural husband to help create a dedicated vegetable garden.