The Mail on Sunday - You - - In this issue - by Sarah Stacey

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-mcin­, 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.

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