The weather was sub-tropical and hitting the Oxfordshire countryside felt like a perfect antidote to a bustling Thursday in the city. With our mode of transport being a Bentley, we felt spoilt, like the supplanters of good-fortune.
Arriving, or gliding, through the gates and down the lush drive to Le Manoir has an edifying effect for even the sceptics of this world, but we had the added bonus of liquid sunshine. However, as it's name suggests, Le Manoir is a perfect place for all seasons. We were swiftly shown to our room, inhaling the sweet scent of flowering philadelphus and mock orange blossom en-route.
Provence (each room is named by Raymond Blanc for sentimental reasons) is in the original 17th century stable block. It is a spectacular suite, with a vaulted ceiling in the dining area above a barn-style wall of windows looking onto the central courtyard garden. Our tea arrived, with a slice of heavenly wheat-free chocolate gâteau and lemon drizzle cake.
Having been suitably refreshed, we wandered off to explore the grounds of this magnificent manoir and peek at where we had said 'I do' many years ago. There has been change here, but it is more of a next phase in an uncompromising evolution than a noticeable difference. The ethos is as it was, and time has handled the change most favourably.
A floral orchestra
An English country garden, when done well, is border nirvana, especially when back-dropped by a 17th century grand manor house. I couldn't help feeling a little envious by how perfect the swaying blanket of delphiniums were beneath the mullioned windows of the drawing rooms. Or, indeed, how so many white peonies had flowered simultaneously to such breathtaking effect. And then, the water lilies all open on the small lake, floating ethereally rootless on the sun-soaked water with a mass of classic, pungently aromatic, pale orange roses on the bank. It really is special here – so peaceful and blissfully maintained. We met the conductor of this floral orchestra, Anne Marie, the following morning, and she, like most of Raymond's staff, have been here for a very long time.
So, with our visual senses reeling, it was now time to put our digestive track into top gear, but not before a soak in the cavernous marble bath surrounded by an over zealous abundance of bath oils in crystal decanters and large blocks of rustic French scented soaps. All the bathrooms are spectacular: high spec, extremely well finished and, most importantly, spacious.
At dinner we had a large round table in the conservatory with views across the lawn and onto the floodlit Cedar of Lebanon. We chose the classic menu, knowing that we would experience enough variety and in portions we were now accustomed to. Well, it was utterly delicious. The Irish salmon tartare in salmon jelly with oscietra caviar was smooth and citrussy, almost refreshing and delightfully light, leaving doors well open for what was to follow: a risotto of spring garden vegetables and herbs (most from Le Manoir) with grilled Sicilian tomatoes. It was stunning: slightly al dente, a little crunchy, and flavoured immaculately. Then to the sea for some Cornish sea bream, lightly cooked with a fricassee of squid in a tasty bouillabaisse jus.
We then thought we'd really 'hog out' and opted for the assiette of 'cochon de lait roti et son jus de cuisson' (I prefer writing it in French because I feel less guilty). It was close to the best 'cochon' I have ever tasted. The 'slice' of cochon is layered, and each layer – from crisp crackling to soft melting meat, with succulent juices and forbidden fat in between – is absolutely sensational. So with satiation levels being nigh on complete, we opted for a light bowl of summer berries in their slightly tart but highly complementary juices. The wines were Burgundian: a minerally Meursault followed by a fragrant Gevrey-Chambertin.
Rise and shine
Waking up in our room to the sounds of cooing doves and various other songbirds was sublime. We felt healthy and surprisingly refreshed (a few calories were consumed after all), and loved the cocoon cosseting of our darkened room amid the soft, soft, exquisite cotton sheets. I really was looking forward to meeting Monsieur Blanc once again, so that he could tell me where he purchased his cotton from, among other things, of course.
The rooms, as previously mentioned, are all different and therefore appeal to a cross section of guests. For example, if you want a taste of the Orient in Oxfordshire then 'Opium' is the perfect love den: rich coloured silks, lacquered wood, eastern sculptures and paintings, and an oriental private garden with a pond for good feng shui.
Across the way, 'Snow Queen' is decorated in whites, with hand-painted snowflakes on the walls and flowing drapes across a four-poster, a white marble bathroom and touches of grey for the gathering clouds. In the main house the rooms are more traditional, suiting those who love the mullioned windows and lead panes, with views over the dreamy estate; many have incredible four posters and 17th and 18th century furniture with classic armoires and drapes. Fresh seasonal fruit (for us it was cherries) is placed in all the rooms.
There is a genuine enthusiasm about Raymond. He really is deeply passionate about Le Manoir and all it encompasses, and he is unquestionably a hugely talented cook. (He calls himself a cook rather than a chef because, not only is he self-taught, he dislikes pomposity, contrary to popular belief). He knows every single room inside out, and much of the memorabilia (which are very sentimental to him) he has purchased himself on various travels, knowing exactly where he will place them on his return. Raymond is a generous host who wants, above all else, to spoil his guests.
In the past he has been criticised by a few journalists, but harsh fault-fiding is easy. Perhaps he is a little controversial, being French and buying the village showstopper; but so what? He's done an excellent job, and each time we visit we are treated to the season's best, with skill and imagination well worthy of the two stars in the multi-talented cook's kitchen.
We bid adieu to Raymond and Le Manoir, feeling real pain on leaving a much-loved retreat from the city, but the Bentley fires up and burbles up the drive and, cosseted in soft hide and lambswool, we point Mr B towards our next adventure.