Garden // A Date at the Garden School at Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons

August 01, 2018

Last week I took Ben for a bit of a different date at Belmond's Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. It's somewhere that's been on our bucket list for a long time with our love of both food and gardening. Famed for Raymond Blanc of course, the two michelin starred restaurant and expansive kitchen gardens which were way ahead of their time before the trend for growing your own produce came about. As well as the restaurant and it's famous Raymond Blanc cookery school, there's also the Gardening School which we were there for to learn more about growing our own vegetables and make the most of our allotment plot.

I've only ever heard great things from friends & family who have visited for special dinners, in fact my brother and I paid for my parents to visit on my Dad's 50th Birthday. So my expectations were high. But it was only once we arrived that it really sunk in just how special this place is.

It was the most perfect English summer's day. You know the ones where it's hot already by 9am?! On arrival you walk down a lavender lined path to the house, at first glance it looks like a French chateau which I guess is why Raymond was drawn to it. But then you get closer and a very English church sits in the background. We were so eager to start looking around the gardens {which span for acres upon acres} before our workshop began, especially after we saw one of the kitchen staff cut across the path, her arms carrying 4 boxes high of courgette flowers! At that point we just knew that we'd be in heaven for the day.

Capturing the magic of Le Manoir.

My dress is past season F&F.

Whilst Le Manoir was set up by Blanc, Belmond are the luxury group which now manages the hotel, although he is still very much involved and often people will see him when visiting! Did you ever watch his Kew on a Plate series? I think that was when my Raymond love affair started, you can just see how passionate he is about creating food from growing just the right varieties and taking so much care over his garden.

The Gardening School offers both full and half day courses on a range of topics. Our course ran from 9am until 3.30 and included mid morning pastries and coffee, a working lunch and then afternoon tea & their famous lemon cake plus a propogator and some seedlings to take home, hosted by two head gardening experts for us to hound with our questions all day.

We were met by the head gardener Ann-Marie who I recognised from his tv shows, and given tea, coffee and mini pastries fresh from the kitchen before we began. There were 7 of us on the course in total and we were shown to the main greenhouse where we'd be learning.

The greenhouse of course was beautiful, and had views out over the gardens. Luckily it was well air-conditioned as it reached over 30c that day.

We were given a little potting station each, with equipment, a bible on summer gardening to take home with recipes/tips and lists of things we should do when. It's the perfect course for beginners but our group who all mostly had some knowledge and vegetable plots already set up still learnt a lot.

It was fascinating to hear about their methods of growing, their favourite crops and lots of insider tips and tricks after over thirty years of experience. For example, every summer they harvest 9000 {!!} courgette flowers and have a whole polytunnel with plants just to harvest the flowers. Whereas at our allotment we mainly pick the courgettes and then any odd flowers are a bonus. They've chosen a special variety that are known for the flowers and the kitchen love to use them. They also grow a lot of micro herbs, something that's now top of our list for growing. In the restaurant they use them as little bursts of flavour and for topping dishes. They're constantly sowing new trays of micro herbs as they germinate fast and then start growing. They're so nutritionally dense and really flavoursome when harvested so small. 

I found it really interesting to hear how the kitchen completely dictates what they grow, and every week the head chef will come out for a couple of hours going around the garden to work out what will be ready and what they'll need picking for the restaurant service along with what new things they'll want planting for next year. Everything is taste tested and if it's not 100% perfect, it won't be used.

 Sea Kale is a favourite for them so that's now on our list too, I came home with a long list of new things to try and grow. One of the biggest things we're going to take home from the day is to pick things smaller than we usually do. The michelin starred restaurant needs really precise sizes but actually it makes your courgettes/carrots/beetroots a lot more flavoursome when they're harvested early and small rather than letting them get woodier or full of water.

Everybody on the course with us were keen gardeners/allotmenters too so we all took it in turns to ask lots of questions about things we were growing at home this year. I wanted to know about our tomatoes and whether to stop them growing any taller so they can focus more energy on the fruit. Along with asking why some of our pumpkins aren't producing more fruit yet this year which is mainly because of the extreme temperatures we've had so far this summer, but they ensured me that they will come once it starts to cool down.

We were just in awe having this behinds the scene tour and insight into their growing. This oyster plant has leaves that taste like oysters! There's a real focus here on growing edible flowers and little leaves that garnish dishes with extreme flavour.

These are the micro-herbs.

The gardens are just like something out of a fairytale! And I like how if you go there for lunch or dinner, you can walk around and see the gardeners working. It's very much a working kitchen garden rather than just being for show.

After a walk and tour around the grounds, it was coffee time! Complete with chocolate and pistachio pastries nonetheless... 

As seasoned allotmenters we already had a good knowledge of things like starting things from seed, potting things on etc so at first we thought some of the morning tasks were a little basic. But actually, it really stripped back to some really important factors like choosing the right soil, filling your seed tray and watering in a certain way which can make so much difference. Along with sowing seeds and looking after them.

Lunch was a real highlight. Despite this being billed as 'just' a working lunch, it was exquisite! And all focused around the garden. There was a chef that came over to talk us through each of the dishes which were all served sharing style. We were given some of Maman Blanc's famous vegetable soup to start and then had delicious garden salads. Sweet roasted beetroot that tasted like they'd been candied, rainbow tomatoes, mustardy celeraic remoulade and garden leaves along with freshly baked bread by the patisserie chefs. Le Manoir has three rounds of patisserie chefs throughout the day, they come in to bake for breakfast then again for lunch/afternoon tea and then a third set come for the dinner service. 

Is there anything better in life than getting to pick edible flowers to garnish your lunch with?

We've booked to come back for dinner and a stay later in the year and this tiny taste made us so excited. If salads in the greenhouse tasted this good, I can't imagine what the full dinner service would be like.

I came home with so much inspiration both for our garden/greenhouse/allotment and for cooking.

Dessert was summer berries marinaded in a light vanilla syrup and a little black pepper. Summer in a bowl.

I liked that the course was very laid back with lots of breaks to wander around the gardens. You could ask as many questions as you liked, and we certainly learnt a lot. But it didn't feel too classroom like, the real focus was on us enjoying the day too.

In the afternoon we learnt about sowing peas which was so perfect for me as I buy at least one bag of peashoots every week! I was told by the gardeners that I'll never need to again, and they shoot within days. Ours are almost ready to pick already one week later.

And then finally, it was onto taking cuttings - something my Grandma is very good at but I've never had the confidence to try. It creates new plants for free and as long as you follow a few crucial steps, you can't go wrong.

We really didn't want to leave that little garden slice of paradise and had such a lovely day there. I'm itching to go back already. And also I imagine the cookery school would be incredible. 

You can find details of the gardening school online here, they also offer gift vouchers as I think it would make a really great present for somebody who wants to get into gardening or learn more about something specific. 

Have you been to Le Manoir? Is it on your list?

R xx

{A huge thank you to Belmond Le Manoir for inviting and hosting us last week. This is not a sponsored post and as always all opinions are 100% my own}

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  1. I think I'd pay to just walk around the gardens! Thanks for this post, Rebecca, I'm now planning to visit, maybe for the micro herbs half day, although your day there sounds amazing and so useful. And your last photo has reminded me I need to take cuttings from my Lemon Verbena bush! :D

  2. Well, this was a great find (on my part, you understand - I’m congratulating myself on finding your blog ;)) but also the course. I had no idea they did anything like this at Le Manoir! Looks brilliant - you always learn more when you’re having fun. The restaurant has certainly been on my wish list, but I do love gardens (almost as much as food) so this is another thing to add...Hurrah - More Things To Want!! :)
    Love the blog (and your kitchen), Mandy


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