I have just eaten the best four-course lunch, while drinking champagne and doing good for hard-pressed gardeners. I was a guest of the charity Perennial, formerly the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society. While gardening, I have always had this charity in mind if I spike myself with a fork, the stock market collapses and I need help.
Anticipating my needs, Perennial invited me to join them for a donors’ day out at Raymond Blanc’s celebrated Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant, that hotbed of fine cooking at Great Milton near Oxford.
For an annual £30 you have priority booking for Perennial’s separately priced list of special events (perennial.org.uk). For £2,500, a Fellow’s annual subscription, you have access to all such events in the year.
This year they included a private visit to Windsor Castle and the lunch with Blanc. Next year they include a personalised tour of the Chelsea Flower Show, with special access to the show gardens, and a July day with lunch or tea at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Tickets include a hefty donation to the charity, combining giving with fun. Perennial helps gardeners on hard times and also sports’ ground staff, garden designers and florists in distress. So far, it has not taken on a case of a veteran gardening columnist.
As for Blanc, I am one of his most ardent fans. His book Cooking for Friends marks the furthest point my cooking ever reaches.
It marks the moves in each recipe most likely to go wrong. Try his mother Maman Blanc’s mousse of bitter chocolate and you will understand why her grandchildren still refer to her as “Mother Teresa on speed”. A statue of his mother in the Manoir garden honours all she taught Raymond, an even greater cook.
Last year Blanc caught Covid and had to go to hospital. This year he displays no sign of that ordeal. When he speaks to his clients, he is as uplifting as ever, carrying them with him thanks to his marvellous inner love of his craft.
The Manoir, he told us with an energetic smile, nearly went bankrupt five times, and then “we have Covid. We have Brexit. We have frost in May.”
Since that frost the restaurant has been in full swing. On my lunch day the car park was full of low-slung brands of car which you never see in academic car parks.
For nearly 30 years, the vegetable garden attached to the Manoir has been run on organic principles. Anne Marie Owens has remained head gardener and John Driscoll has been head of vegetables for 14 years. Four gardeners work under him in four acres, the standards of which are monitored by the Soil Association.
Driscoll recommends a link with this association to anyone who is going organic in a vegetable plot. It is such a help, he finds, with identifying pests and soil deficiencies. If the soil lacks magnesium, it recommends a dressing with Epsom salts. To deter carrot fly, Driscoll recommends planting a
few leeks in each carrot row. As for slugs, he thinks they refuse to travel across gravel paths in dry weather. I have my doubts.
Blanc and his chefs draw on the garden, but would require up to 250 acres to meet their full needs. Driscoll’s team provides about 10 per cent of the kitchen’s orders. That tenth, however, can be crucial.
The glistening salmon in my lunch’s opening confit had not been sourced in the garden’s big fish pond, constantly battling with pondweed and crayfish, but the mooli radishes scrunched up round it might have been sourced on site. Some of the vegetables in the green vegetable risotto that followed may have been Manoir-grown.
The courgette flowers on the superb main course, medallions of lamb, came freshly picked from the big bed of courgettes, squashes and marrows that is punctuated by tall double sunflowers. The lunch’s glorious coda, an apricot and cream cheese amandine, did not come from the fruit trees in the newish orchard, packed though it is with heritage varieties of plum, apple, pear, greengage and so forth.
Among apples the kitchens use Braeburn for their wondrous tarte Tatin. As a cooking apple Driscoll recommends the unusual Christmas Pearmain. It must be stored for a month, however, to allow its true flavour to emerge. Of earlier types, he likes Discovery and, in general, a personal favourite is the old and neglected Charles Ross.
On a hilly slope beyond, there are plans for a Manoir vineyard. I doubt if it will match the pinot grigio from Natale Verga in the Veneto that started off our lunch.
In the well-hoed beds I noted the carefully selected varieties of veg. Driscoll recommends Garden Organic in the Midlands as a source of seeds.
The Manoir’s main beans are Maxi, a green one, and Helios. Brussels sprouts include purple-leafed Rubin, and the main beetroot is Detroit Globe, leaves and all.
A trip round the garden would give veg gardeners many good ideas. What about turnips, those dividing lines between the French and the British?
In Britain we associate them with heifers; in France they are navets with culinary appeal. Blanc’s top type of turnip is demi long Blanc de Croissy.
Blanc the maestro has sent his best turnip recipe to win over FT readers. It is a gratin, which can be cooked an hour before the meal and reheated for 20 minutes before serving, as follows:
In a small saucepan over a medium heat, bring the cream to a simmer.
Add the seasoning and crushed garlic, remove from the heat and set aside
Preheat the oven to 160°C/gas 3. Peel the potatoes and turnips,
pat dry and cut into fine (2mm) slices, using a mandolin. Don’t wash the potatoes after slicing them, as the starch present will help to bind the layers together.
Layer half of the potato and turnip slices in a large gratin dish, then pour on half of the warm cream through a strainer. Layer the remaining vegetable slices on top, making sure you finish the gratin with a layer of potatoes only. The starch in the potatoes will give a golden caramelisation. If the top layer comprised turnip slices, they would dry out and curl up. Strain the remaining cream over and press the potato slices gently with the back of a spoon to ensure the cream is evenly distributed.
Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle the grated cheese, if using, evenly over the surface. Bake, uncovered, for a further 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the vegetables are just cooked through. In order to test if the gratin is cooked, insert the tip of a sharp knife in the middle; it should meet little resistance (you shouldn’t be able to feel the layers). Leave to stand for five minutes before serving.
It only remains for me to wish you happy turnips, readers. After eating, we may need help from Perennial to slim us down for gardening.