Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

To say we were excited about our visit to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is quite the understatement; I've wanted to go here for a while, but, despite being only three junctions away on the M40, the idea of spending three figures a head on lunch, no matter how many 'free' olives and bread rolls you can scoff, made it a rather distant prospect in the grand scheme of things.

Luckily that's what civil partnerships were invented for; far too stylish for mere Breville sandwich toasters and fluffy bath towels, some of our very kind friends presented us with a gift of lunch at Le Manoir. I was ecstatic. Long after the glitz of the big day and excitement of the honeymoon had paled, we would still have the thrill of five courses of seasonal grub, plus canapes and petit fours to look forward to. We just had to remember to have a lovely time; and avoid racking up a huge bar bill....

As soon as we swung up the driveway all efforts at modesty were forgotten. We were at Le Manoir! I was wearing a jacket and proper shoes for goodness sake (and some other garments, obviously). This was no time for economising.

And what better way to start lunch any meal than with champagne. Some people may think fizz is overrated, others may think it's vulgar; my dad claims it makes him feel depressed the next morning, and it brings out my sister's fiery side, but I love the stuff. Celebration, commiseration, just to get a bit squiffy, there is never a good reason not to pop the cork on a bottle of pop and quaff away.

We both chose a French 45, a mixture of gin, champers, sugar and lemon juice (supposedly so named as it packs a punch, rather like being shelled by a French 75mm field gun ), and it certainly lived up to its name. It was quite lovely, and certainly a summer rival to my favourite, cognac-based, classic champagne cocktail.

Fortunately its potency stopped us drinking too many (the Ewing was driving, so it fell on my shoulders to drink the lion's share of the booze). To accompany our drinks a few dainty little morsels; radish and yuzu cream, goats cheese mousse with olives, some sort of tomato pastry and a salmon tartare with caviar I'm still dreaming of now.

After reclining on the sofas for a bit, getting rather tight on our lethal drinks and attempting to stab a bowlful of tiny petit Lucque olives with a cocktail stick while trying to appear elegant, we were led to our table in the restaurant. I don't normally notice where I'm sitting, (unless you have to poke folded beer mats under a wonky table leg, or avoid a swinging loo door), but here we were taken to a rather lovely table in the L'orangerie, with views both out across the dining room and into the Manor grounds. Perfect for people watching (and seeing which set of cutlery everyone else was employing for eating each course).

(The Ewing would like me to point out that of course we know which eating irons to use for what type of food. And besides, they've got plenty of reserves if you should want to use your soup spoon to eat your risotto. There's no licking your knife so you can reuse it for the next course in this gaff.)

Bread. Giles Coren claims in his recent book, How Not to eat, that stuffing yourself with stodge is a dining crime. Saying 'it's not a first course, but a breakfast food that will ruin your whole damn meal. And make you fat'. Well, balls to all that.

Even at the start of a marathon meal, I wasn't prepared to turn down the great basket of, still warm, rolls and bread proffered to us. There were pointy little French rolls and slices of sun dried tomato ciabatta, buttery slabs of foccacia and chunks of crunchy sourdough. All of it taking minutes from my life and adding inches to my waistline just by merely looking at it. But, by God, I would die happy.

I must confess I had failed to listen to all the numerous types the waiter had painstakingly described to us; he had got me at bacon bread. A crusty roll liberally studded with chunks of smoky pig, two of my very favourite things nestled up under a liberal schmear of butter. The Ewing had the beer and mashed potato roll, looking quite beautiful in the picture above, and again a thing of joy. (I showed absolutely no will power by also polishing off a very nice little triangular walnut and raisin number, too).

To kick things off properly a shot of gazpacho with a confit tomato dusted in black olive.

I had to confess I was a little deflated reading this on the menu; a thimble of cold soup when it's chucking it down outside didn't really warm the cockles of my heart. But here, reader we have the true problem of trying to write about things on the internet; no superlatives can really explain how wonderful this actually tasted.

Any one familiar with M. Blanc is probably well aware of his 'signature' tomato essence, an amber liquid made by stringing up a jelly bag of crushed cherry tomatoes and letting the juices slowly drip through, and this was an extension of that. The tomato being joined by hints of cucumber and pepper to create a shot of summer.

Confit salmon with more of Raymond's beloved yuzu, lemon verbena, borage, radish and the most curious lettuce leaves, that appeared to have been iced, but were served at room temperature. Some Googling later I found this was, the aptly named, ice lettuce, and while not tasting of anything more than ordinary salad, it certainly looked very lovely.

The salmon had been perfectly cooked to still remain translucent, and flaked apart at the merest prod of the fish knife (which I always find is rather like trying to eat with a mini plasterer's trowel, but fun nonetheless).

The next course was a poached egg with Jabugo ham and asparagus. They had very kindly accommodated my ouef aversion by replacing mine with a spring vegetable risotto with a herb cream from the a la carte menu. Even kinder, the front of house had also arranged for a special, personalised menu to be printed for me, reflecting the change.

The risotto was lovely. A little richer than the words 'spring vegetable' in the title suggested, but none the worse for that. A quenelle of herb cream on top melting into the perfectly al dente rice, that studded through with baby broad beans, carrots, courgettes and tomatoes and garnished with toasted pine nuts.

The assiette of Cornish lamb. Surprisingly, for a confirmed carnivore and lover of all things ovine, this was possibly my least favourite course. Slices of perfectly pink loin nestled on a pile of lovely, bacony petit pois al la Francais, but I found the shoulder a little dry and wasn't fussed by the (very) pink kidney, which the Ewing poetically described as 'tasting like the smell of a horses stable', or the chunk of white onion too much either.

The funniest part of the afternoon came while eating the puree served alongside the lamb. Both of us kept eating little mouthfuls, then exclaiming 'ooh, isn't this garlicky', while trying to guess what it was. Finally the Ewing relented and looked at the menu; yes, of course, it was spring garlic. Stands to reason why it had the bite of allium about it. Very nice though (not sure my work colleagues would agree so much the next day).

The cheese cart was something I was thoroughly looking forward too, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The trolley, groaning under the weight of over thirty perfectly kept specimens, was so large it involved a little rearranging of the furniture to get it near our table, but it was certainly worth it.

Our lively and very friendly waiter, who we found out hailed from Lyon, was more than happy to describe everything to us (including one of my favourite stories of how Roquefort was discovered), while recommending a few of his favourites for us to try, too.

We enjoyed, amongst others, a spicy goat with the metallic kick of a blue cheese, some excellent Comte, from M. Blanc's home region, a pungent brie with a hint of the farmyard, and some gloriously sticky, creamy Gorgonzola. I also tried Boulette d'Avesnes for the first time, a spicy cone-shaped cow's milk cheese, rolled in crimson paprika.

Served alongside were a selection of dried figs, membrillo and black grapes, as well as a choice of water crackers, oatcakes, and a special raisin nut bread. I also enjoyed a rather lovely glass of tawny port. Really, quite a feast in itself, and a testament to our constitution (and the quality of the cheese) that we polished the whole lot off.

I may have found my heaven. And it smells like Epoisses.

Pudding was yet more deliciousness. A friable disc of bitter Manjari chocolate, dusted in gold leaf no less; balancing on a layer of chocolate ganache studded with fresh raspberries and raspberry jelly; the whole confection sitting on a rich, buttery chocolate crumble base. When all that chocolate became too much there was a little dish of wonderfully smooth raspberry sorbet, the very taste of late summer.

Unsparingly, this triple-choc hit was a very big hit with the Ewing, and I enjoyed it very much too (even though this English girl still struggles to think of a crumble without a jug of beloved creme anglais alongside ...).

Finally, a slow retreat to the lounge to attempt to digest some of our great feast with a couple of espressos. But what's this? Yet another plate of food to tempt us. This time a selection of beautiful petit fours, seemingly designed to cause us more than just digestive trouble. Here was not just an odd number of sweetmeats on the dish, but all different flavours too. Quelle horreur.

Fortunately we were both far too full to argue too much over who wanted which one, and we managed to diplomatically (if not always entirely elegantly) divide them in half so we could both sample the lot. The highlights for me being the mini macaron that resembled a tiny hamburger, complete with sesame seeds scattered on top, and the little mini nut and chocolate covered ice cream on a stick (like a posh little almond Magnum).

After paying the (mercifully) pretty modest 'incidentals' bill (as well as cocktails, I had made sure to sample a lovely Italian red with my lamb, and tawny port with my cheese, The Ewing had put her foot down when I eyed up the brandies...) we finally staggered out into the gardens.

And what better way to work off our gargantuan feast than a stroll around the grounds. Almost as famed as the food, the gardens include a huge vegetable patch, a mushroom 'valley', and a recently planted apple orchard. Guided tours can be taken twice a day, lead by some of the team that work here keeping everything looking tip top.

Complimentary umbrellas and map of the grounds in hand we set off down to the lily pond. As we stood there, on a mid July afternoon, admiring the rain bouncing hard off the water, the Ewing piped up, 'imagine what it would be like in the summer!'  Luckily, someone up above must have been listening, and very soon the sun emerged, allowing us to navigate the slippery path over the wooden bridge and up to the tranquillity of Japanese tea gardens.

Lastly to the beautiful, two acre, vegetable and herb gardens, where they grow produce for use in the restaurant. Here you can find 90 types of vegetable and 70 types of herb, including the aforementioned ice lettuce, as well as a good old fashioned scarecrow to keep the birds at bay.

And so, with the wind picking up and more dark clouds rolling over we, reluctantly, strolled once again up the lavender path, left the umbrellas in the garden wing and made our way back to the car. Five hours of straight eating and drinking, impeccable service, and a leisurely stroll afterwards, c'est magnifique! I'm already saving up for our next trip.

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