Eating on the job: Le manoir

By
Eve O'Sullivan
Added
20 March, 2015

Each week, Cooked speaks to a professional from the food industry to find out what it’s really like to be behind the scenes of the things we all love to eat. This week it's Anne-Marie, head gardener at Raymond Blanc's restaurant at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

My first job at Le Manoir was only supposed to last for a few months, but that was 29 years ago. My mother was a florist at the hotel, and I was studying at the local horticultural college; there was work going at Le Manoir over the summer break, so I took it, then when I was struggling to get a grant to go back to college, I just decided to stay on. I fell in love with the house and the grounds - it’s hard not to. You’ve got to remember that 30 years ago, rocket was only just on the scene, so something like Le Manoir’s kitchen garden was quite uncommon.

Le Manoir
 

The garden sits on 27 acres, and the vegetable garden takes up around one and a half acres, which also includes mushroom valley, the herb garden, the heritage garden and the polytunnels. We grow up to 70 different veg, and within that about 300 varieties in total. That’s where the logistics come in - there’s a huge amount of record keeping in this job. We work to a rotation so there are around 30-40 different veg available at any given moment, but it’s around this time of year that the spring and summer planting begins. Exactly when can vary; Mother Nature is the boss of all of us, so we do a forecast.
 


You’d be surprised how every garden has its own microclimate, and really, the key to successful growing is observation. 


You need to keep an eye on the weather, it’s a big part of the story. Saying that, I often find that birds going about making their nests is the best barometer.

Le Manoir
 

Everyone starts off with a wonderful wish list, but any veg grown in the right season should taste pretty amazing. We do a lot of varieties as we know that shape and texture make all the difference when it comes to the recipes, so those variances are really important when it comes to what to plant. We have several taste tests; raw, cooked, and then finally in dishes. 


The cooking techniques are adjusted to fit the veg, which I think might surprise some people. The gardeners and the chefs work really closely together, because often you might have something that looks ugly, but tastes amazing, and vice versa. 


It’s about being curious. If Raymond is talking about the sweetness or acidity of a dish, then we will adjust what we grow around what’s needed. I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed hugely, and it definitely works both ways - it might be that a special dish is created because of the crop that year.

Le Manoir
 

We have eight full-time gardeners and then we take on students in the summer. During those months it will take about two hours a day to pick all the veg and herbs for lunch and dinner. We don’t pick anything to freeze or store, so really the intensity of the work is dictated by the seasons. 

Our food culture has changed, but we’re not doing brand new things at Le Manoir, it’s just that what we do has come back in again. 


It’s things like having a heritage seeds library that sets us apart - it means we can get hold of seeds that money can’t buy. To me, the biggest benefit of a kitchen garden is having the whole plant here; it means you can experiment much more. Recently, we’ve been growing stevia, which has been fascinating, and yakon, a tuber from South America. What’s been tricky? Well, the Provenance pumpkin took a couple of goes, but nothing is really cut and dried. You could be doing everything exactly right but it could still turn out to be wrong.

 

The dish that sticks out the most in my mind is the courgette en fleur – it introduced people to the world of courgette flowers. Courgettes will grow outdoors of course, but to get the flowers, you need to grow them in the polytunnels, which in itself is a rewarding task.  But in the last 4-5 years, I’d say I’ve been most proud of the beetroot terrine. It’s such a beautiful dish. The most satisfying thing to hear is ‘Wow, I didn’t even think I liked beetroot’. And it’s interesting how it came about. The beetroot was a little ‘out there’ a few years ago, but now it’s standard. Golden, white, candy - we just had an influx of them because they grew really well. It’s a big compliment when someone doesn’t like something as a child but they love it after eating at Le Manoir.

 

Learn more about Le Manoir here

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