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A Summer Garden Tour Of Le Manoir Aux Qaut Saisons

Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
Church Road Great Milton, Oxfordshire
Cuisine: French
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Liz Gill: We wander down lavender bordered paths to shaded ponds and trickling streams, nature complemented by sculptures of birds and plants.
The cakes and sandwiches of the afternoon tea at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons look almost too beautiful to eat, each one an imaginative combination of tastes, textures and colours.
The open sandwiches include beef with celeriac, horseradish and crème fraiche, Waterloo cheese with apricot and toasted hazelnuts and Gigha halibut with curried egg. There are two kinds of tiny choux buns; one with crab and grapefruit, the other with smoked salmon and cream cheese and there is even a twist on an old English favourite: a cucumber sandwich where the cucumber replaces the bread and the filling is dill flavoured cream cheese. There is a glass of champagne and a choice of four green and five black teas including Tregothnan from Cornwall, the only tea grown in Britain.
There are scones with soft strawberry jam and voluptuously thick clotted cream and a range of cakes, fabulous creations with chocolate and fruit, pastry and sponge, some topped with a fleck of gold leaf, others with a tiny flower. And again for those who want a novel touch there’s a liquorice flavoured macaroon.
We only let their looks hold us back for a few moments, of course, before tucking in though tucking in is probably too hearty a term for eating in this most elegant of settings, the 15th century manor turned into a five star luxury hotel and two star Michelin restaurant by the creative talents of Raymond Blanc.
But what’s made the occasion even more special – and enhanced our appetites – is that the tea has been preceded by a tour of the wonderful gardens. Like the house they too have been transformed over the years as head gardener Anne Marie Evans explains as we wander down lavender bordered paths to shaded ponds and trickling streams, nature complemented by sculptures of birds and plants by Lloyd Le Blanc.
“We knew there was one pond but others had been lost to sycamores and overgrown. It was a bit like the Lost Gardens of Helligan,” she says. “We followed a trail, we listened to what local people could tell us about the place and we just pieced things together. It was very exciting.”
That was 30 years ago: Anne Marie came as a student on work experience and stayed, travelling alongside Blanc on his journey to create grounds which would be not just a place where guests could take their ease but also a source of top notch produce for the restaurant.
So today there is a two acre kitchen garden growing 90 different kinds of vegetables and 70 kinds of herbs, part of it Malaysia inspired – the design won silver at Chelsea ten years ago – with ginger, lemon grass garden, turmeric, pak choi and soya beans. Another area has La Vallee des Champignons Sauvages, the first-ever wild mushroom valley in the UK with between 15 and 18 edible ones including shiitake, morels and oysters.
The Heritage Garden, set up two years ago both to promote organic gardening and to preserve our knowledge and use of old species, has wonderfully named varieties like the Lazy Housewife climbing bean, so called because it does not need de-stringing.
There’s also the Afghan Purple carrot brought back by a UN worker, the Bloody Warrior lettuce which has red speckled leaves that survive winter weather and the Black Badger pea, a nutty flavoured variety grown in Britain for over 500 years. On a serious level the seed library it is building up could provide a safety net were disease to strike at currently popular varieties.
Walking with Anne Marie is an education. We learn, for example, that courgettes are grown inside to protect their flowers (courgettes en fleur farcies was Raymond Blanc’s first signature dish); that you can use almost every bit of seakale – “when you grow something yourself you can test what’s edible and what’s inedible” - and that the variety of beetroot they like is one that does not ‘bleed’ messily into other components of a dish.
We are also invited to taste: an oyster plant the foraging of which used to keep people alive in times of famine and is now used in shellfish dishes; a leaf that can be used as a sugar substitute, 25 times sweeter but with no effect on blood sugar levels; oxalis which had a sorrel like kick of acidity, too much would give you stomach ache.
I’m particularly fascinated by the ‘micros’: herbs and vegetables which are sown close together in big quantities, cut while tiny – thinned out they would becomes normal size - and used as an intensely flavoured garnish. The tiny celery shoot I nibble packs the punch of something much bigger.  
Gardeners and chefs work closely together spending time in each others’ domains to understand each others’ needs. They discuss menu changes – “it might make you see, for instance, why a carrot should be a certain size,” says Anne Marie – and do blind tastings. “We might taste 30 kinds of tomatoes, but we don’t get 30 different verdicts. It’s interesting how everyone gravitates to maybe two or three. What we’re always looking for is that wow factor.”
One of her proudest moments came when Blanc named a dish after her: Assiette Anne Marie comprising stuffed courgette flower, baby courgette, a selection of vegetables, a gull’s egg and a garlic and potato soup foam.“When I saw it in print on the menu for the first time,” she says “it did feel like a bit of an accolade.
The tours which also take in the Japanese tea garden, the wild flower meadow, the old apple orchard and the flowering herbs rockery were launched this summer in response to requests from non-residents. They are available between Monday and Friday (excluding Bank Holidays), starting at 10 am with coffee, tea and biscuits in the lounges followed by a tour of the gardens at 10:45am. £30.00 per person.
A summer evening tour is also available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between June and September beginning at 6:30pm. £50 including a glass of champagne. Tours must be booked in advance.
Afternoon tea including a glass of champagne is £60 per person.
More information from:,
Twitter: @lemanoir
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxfordshire, OX44 7PD 01844 278881 
Liz Gill was a guest of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons
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10 July 2015
By: Liz Gill
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