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Le Manior aux Quat'Saisons
Le Manior aux Quat'Saisons
The University town of Oxford should be on everyone's "must see" list when they visit Britain. Together with Cambridge, its great English academic rival, it is an integral part of Britain's history and development. Without these two superb educational institutions that combine tradition, morality and philosophical academia with leading-edge technical education in their respective fields, the whole face of Britain would be entirely different. Oxford is a town so inter-twined with the University that, like the ancient Ying and Yang, they cannot be separated and must be looked at in context. And there are few better places to do this from than Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the brilliant 15th Century Manor House of super-chef Raymond Blanc.
This gifted Frenchman-turned-Englishman came here to the banks of the Thames over 20 years ago, liked what he saw and decided to create a Manoir "To Which One Could Easily Become Accustomed," in the process making it one of Britain's great country-house hotels and restaurants. It would be hard to imagine a more perfectly maintained garden or a more splendid and upmarket place at which to stay.
Once again the style is classicly English. The building was a great family's ancestral home until Lady Cromwell sold it to Blanc in the l970's. The house has two floors in some areas and three in others, a large stack of chimneys placed on the multiple roofs at regular distances giving us a clue to the fact that in Winter roaring log fires add a cozy touch to the delights of staying here.
Everything around Le Manoir is traditional from furniture to ultra comfortable four-poster beds with frilly awnings and drapes colour-matched to equally frilly curtains. Once again, the feeling of staying with an aristocratic family rather than in a hotel is inescapable. Bathrooms are equipped with state-of-the-art fittings, including those strange-to-some French bidets, which I once heard referred to as a European foot-bath by a puzzled outback Australian. De-rigeur in all bathrooms, I suspect that here they make more of a visual impact rather than the aquatic one for which they are intended.
Peek into the kitchen, with its space-age looking equipment. It is a chef's dream and the brigade that works in it are master craftsmen indeed. The dishes are absolute perfection, and a very integral part of the enjoyment that one experiences by staying at Le Manoir.
When we entered the dining room, which is located in a glass-walled conservatory extension facing the garden on three sides, we realized that it encompassed the best of both worlds. The inside section featured wood-panelled walls with shelves of glass jars displaying Le Manoir jams and preserved fruits while the panelled glass walls visually brought the beauty of the garden indoors. This was supplemented by large flower arrangements, small bouquets on tables and the occasional potted fern by the window.
Our dinner was memorable right from the appetizer of Courgette en Fleur Farcie au Crabe et Jus de Truffe -- baby courgette stuffed with a delicious, moist crabmeat filling. I just cannot imagine this dish more expertly prepared or more beautifully presented. But when you see the prices on the menu and realize that this starter is priced at 26 English pounds and that the equally superb Pauillac Lamb Fillet, Kidneys and Sweetbreads on Pea and Mint Puree that followed was priced at 32 English pounds, it was clear that this is not a dining establishment to visit on a budget holiday or with a shallow purse.
Yet as we looked around, we noticed that the dining room was completely full. Later, a local friend told us that bookings were absolutely essential. England is going through a stage of economic renaissance and there is no shortage of people who want the best and are prepared to pay for it. The service was a little slow, but not enough to irritate. It was explained to us that Blanc was in the process of opening a new restaurant in the centre of Oxford that week and that some of the waiters had been diverted to the new venture while other, less experienced, table staff served at Le Manoir for a week or two. After hearing this, what surprised us most was the excellence of the service in spite of this testing situation.
The next morning we walked around the grounds and discovered that one of the reasons why the vegetables served with last night's dinner had tasted so fresh. They were exactly that! Le Manoir has outstanding vegetable gardens in its grounds which supply sixty percent of the overall vegetables used in the kitchens here.