Hannah Genders visits the source of Raymond Blanc’s famous seasonal produce and meets the gardening brains behind it.
As a saying from the 1940s goes: “Behind every great man is a great woman”, or perhaps we should say, “behind every great chef is a great gardener”?
This saying was in my head as I went to meet Anne Marie, the head gardener at Le Manoir. Le Manoir is the flagship of the chef Raymond Blanc, who has pioneered home-grown, seasonal produce picked fresh from the garden, straight to the kitchen. I first met Anne Marie with Raymond at the Malvern Spring Festival in 2019 and have been keen to interview her ever since.
As we sat together in the gardens of Le Manoir, near Oxford, I wanted to hear more about Anne Marie’s background. I quickly realised she is not the woman behind Raymond Blanc, but an intrinsic part of their team.
She speaks with great affection for Raymond and the way he runs Le Manoir; his enthusiasm, his passion for the place and its food and his involvement in every decision.
During lockdown he phoned in everyday to check Anne Marie and the team were OK. Actually, she said she enjoyed the period of lockdown and realised she would never get a time like this again. She came into work every day and had the freedom of being able to garden again, without the usual distractions of emails and restaurant lists – she got back to gardening, sometimes for eight hours a day.
She ached in muscles she didn’t know she had and said the strangest feeling of all was being able to leave her tools and wheelbarrow out in the garden, come in the next day and find them still there. This is something she has not been able to do in the 35 years she has been working here.
During the quieter months of lockdown, Anne Marie was one of three gardeners, where usually there would be ten. She says she noticed the spring seemed brighter and more beautiful this year, the birds were singing loudly and with less traffic noise and fewer aeroplanes overhead. There was even a wisteria tendril that managed to grow in through an open window and wrap itself around a chair leg before it was removed.
For Anne Marie, this love of nature and being outdoors goes back to childhood. She was born just a few miles from Le Manoir; her father was a builder and her mother a florist. She spent all her summer holidays helping on a local farm and loved it. She left school for agricultural college but was unable to get a grant to study straight agriculture or horticulture unless it had a secretarial element to the course. Because she was a girl, the secretarial part was deemed necessary then.
It was during her summer holiday from college, she applied for and got a summer gardening job at the newly opened Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. She has never left and that was 35 years ago, and she never went back to the college course. Her knowledge is of this garden and every aspect of it, from the sandy soil at the top of the vegetable garden to the heavier clay at the bottom end.
There is a unique micro-climate here. For example, one night in May this year they had the temperature drop to minus-seven. Although everyone rushed around to fleece plants, unfortunately they still lost some blossom from the apple trees.
Alongside this gardening knowledge she understands what the chefs like to use in the kitchen and admits she has learned so much about cooking and putting flavours together in her time here, although she always remains happiest outside.
Any decisions on what to grow for the coming seasons, she and Raymond make together. They have a fabulous heritage orchard at Le Manoir and in their dedication to find the right varieties they spent five years taste testing apples before they planted a single tree. Anne Marie told me there are five ways they taste test apples; raw, baked, stewed, or pureed and Tarte Tatin. “We now include juicing,” she added.
One thing I found really interesting is they weren’t looking at storage qualities – of course not, because this garden is all about ways of cooking that are fresh and local. No transport, no storage. This gives you scope to consider apples with a much thinner skin. Local here means a short walk to the garden to see what is looking good today.
The vegetable gardens are accessed from the lawn at the back of the main building, through an ivy clad archway. Walking through here with Anne Marie she was apologetic that some of the beds were not looking their best, but I loved it.
This is a working vegetable garden; it has a central path and long rows of vegetables spanning out on either side. The area for vegetables and herbs is around an acre and a half, the whole garden is seven and a half acres.
This year is a little different: with lockdown, Anne Marie has concentrated on summer and autumn produce in the garden. There are long rows of celeriac, chard in several stages of growth and French beans, planted to crop as late as October.
There was a whole bed of squash with sunflowers popping up through and climbing beans growing on tripods along the edge. The sunflowers ranged from a dark red to a wonderful yellow with a full frilly centre, called Goldy Double .
This is an organic garden and has been leading the way in growing and trialling heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables. These heritage varieties are so important on so many levels, they increase the DNA available for future breeding, they can have superb flavour and help maintain local diversity. Many of the heritage cultivars have been lost over the years and so to keep them alive, cropping and seeding for the future is particularly important. In pioneering this she and Raymond will always choose taste over beauty in produce. In a normal year, the garden will hold 150 different varieties of vegetables and herbs, with everything clearly labelled as guests now show a real interest in the garden and want to know what is growing.
One plant I had not seen before was the Buckler leaf sorrel, I tasted some, it had a sharp, lemony flavour and an unusual leaf. Anne Marie told me: “The chefs love this plant and so we grow loads of it, acidity is something they are keen to add to dishes in the kitchen.”
And Raymond Blanc’s signature dish? Those courgette flowers stuffed with the freshest of garden ingredients.
“Our courgettes are all grown undercover,” Anne Marie tells me, “we grow them mainly for the flowers, which are delicate and we can require 90 flowers a day for the restaurant and so they must all be perfect’
I understand Raymond has named this dish Assiette Anne-Marie in honour of her and her gardening skills.
A fitting tribute.
The gardens are exclusive to hotel and restaurant guests, although non-residents can book a garden tour.