Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons
It was mid-spring, we had the use of a service apartment with friends in Cambridge and the pound was at its lowest in decades; it was an opportune time for travelling and eating our way around England.
With Cambridge as our base for a week, we drove around the eastern part of England, an area which we had not previously explored. As the focus here is on food, little will be said of the castles, houses, cathedrals or other sights.
No visit to anywhere remotely near Oxford (in this case, one and a half hours’ drive away) would be complete without a trip to Bicester Village, part of the chain of outlet shopping villages dotted around Europe. Bicester is in Oxfordshire and happily, only 20 minutes’ away from Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons, which was awarded two Michelin stars in 1985 and has held the stars for 26 years now. It is set in the village of Great Milton, Oxford. The village itself is lovely and the road leading up to Le Manoir is lined with posh houses with flowers spilling over their garden walls.
Le Manoir is housed in a lovely stone building with a large gravel driveway. The property itself is a hotel and part of the Relais & Chateaux collection. We were shown to the lounge area where we ordered aperitifs and conducted a detailed examination of the menu. The three-course menu du jour looked far more interesting than the tasting menu and so that was ordered together with a glass of Gervney-Chambertin.
The food was great: an amuse bouche of crab bisque which was a mountain of flavour compressed in an espresso cup; an appetizer of duck leg confit on toast with raisins which was rather nice, although a tad salty; an excellent main course of slices of plump succulent lamb on peas and broad beans; and a dessert of chocolate fondant with jasmine tea ice cream. In contrast with the food we had the following night, this was not anything unusual; it was simply familiar food done well.
Duck leg confit (Le Manoir)
The next night, we and our friends walked about 15 minutes from the service apartment along the River Cam to Daniel Clifford’s Midsummer House, also graced with two Michelin stars. It was chilly in Cambridge, about 10 degrees Celsius at that time, and the warmth of Midsummer House was gratefully embraced by us.
The restaurant is in what looks like a small double-storey house and most of the tables in the restaurant are in a greenhouse-like area which had walls and a ceiling of glass. After a cursory look at the menu, we all decided to settle for the 10-course tasting menu.
The first course was profiteroles filled with liquid cheese, and battered anchovies with bacon. The profiteroles’ warm savoury flavours were much welcome especially as we were still thawing from the chill outside. Two amuse bouche were then served: a gazpacho-like soup with diced onions, and a sorbet and pink grapefruit mousse with champagne. It soon became apparent that Daniel Clifford has a penchant for mousses and foams.
Scallops on parmesan sauce (Midsummer House)
The first course was a rather nice “soup” of potato and leek foam and truffle jelly. This was followed by the celery bavarois with a funnel of diced beetroot and goat’s cheese with horseradish ice cream. While it was certainly innovative, it was the least liked dish as the flavours were too contrasting for comfort.
Then came scallops with shreds of jamon iberico on parmesan sauce. In contrast to the previous dish, this was possibly the best of the night. Sweetbreads with maple syrup and a sliver of ox tongue were next and this was done very nicely as the sweetbreads were subtle and devoid of the strong taste usually associated with innards.
Another dish of note was the langoustine and cuttlefish risotto. The “risotto” was not made of Arborio rice as we had expected, but diced cuttlefish wrapped in squid ink jelly which made it look like Japanese seaweed.
After five courses, the chef had written into the menu the interlude of “pousse café”, which was a shot glass with layers of (in order) whiskey, maple syrup, egg yolk, cream and chives. We were told that this was to be drunk at one go. Wondering how whiskey would go with chives and egg yolk, we eagerly downed the liquid and found it to be amazing: sweet and hardly more than a tinge of Jack Daniels, even though there was a fair amount of whiskey in the glass; absolutely wonderful on a chilly spring night.
Scallops on parmesan sauce (Midsummer House)
Finally, we got to the main act which was lamb and lamb heart on basil paste with cannelli beans and courgettes. While this was rather good, we felt that Raymond Blanc’s lamb was better. A pre-dessert(s) teaser of a quenelle of ice cream on diced candied fennel with a thin slice of dried pineapple was then served.
The grand finale of dessert came in two distinct parts. The first was lemon thyme ice cream with warm candied kumquats and sauce which was great in preparing the palate for the heavier second dessert of deconstructed tiramisu. The deconstruction consisted of a Madeleine, a quenelle of amaretto ice cream, a chocolate column filled with chocolate and mascarpone with diced coffee jelly topped with floss and with espresso trickled on it. We had never had a tiramisu interpreted in this fashion and it was most excellent.
Roast tenderloin and belly of Monkshill Farm Pork with apple sauce (The Sportsman)
The adage of all good things coming to an end is certainly true and on that night, it was made worse by having to walk another 15 minutes in a single digit temperature back to the apartment after dinner, past large amorphous shapes in the dark which turned out on closer inspection to be cows resting by the side of the path, looking at four scurrying half-frozen humans with bemusement.
The next day was spent in Canterbury and dinner that night was a result of an impromptu reservation made after studying during breakfast for the nth time, the list of Michelin rated restaurants helpfully drawn up by the Daily Telegraph. The Sportsman turned out to be one of the more memorable dining experiences this trip.
Its location is simply described as “on the old coastal road between Whitstable and Faversham” and is a half hour’s drive from Canterbury Cathedral. The area is completely ulu; it is by the sea and habitation in the immediate vicinity comprised of some small wooden houses by the beach which looked unoccupied. When we arrived, the restaurant had not yet opened and we wandered around for about half an hour, talking over a fence to a farmer who was counting his cows.
When we first had sight of the Sportsman, it didn’t look very promising; unlike the other Michelin restaurants we had dined in, this place was basically a pub housed in an unremarkable ageing white wooden structure and out in the sticks; it was at least a few minutes’ drive from the nearest habitation.
Looks, however, are deceiving. When we finally went in as the first customers for the night, we were warmly greeted and shown the menu written on a blackboard by the bar where orders had to be placed. We asked to have their tasting menu and the lady was most apologetic: such a menu had to be ordered in advance and all they had for the day was that written on the board. Feeling sorry at our disappointment, they thoughtfully brought out scratchings with apple whole grain mustard sauce which they said were compliments of the chef. It made for a great amuse bouche.
At their recommendation, we ordered slip sole with smoked salt butter and mackerel with horseradish for starters. The sole was the entire fish on bone (sans head, fins and skin) in a lightly spiced chilli butter sauce. The sole was so fresh, it could have been caught just a few minutes before it was served. The mackerel on the other hand was smoked, and served with very light horseradish cream on a slice of rye bread. It was done well and the mackerel was not at all fishy as it commonly is.
Venison in red wine juice (The Victoria)
The mains we had that night were roast pork belly with crackling and apple sauce, and brill with crab bisque. The pork belly was served with mash potatoes, shredded cabbage and apple sauce, and was juicy and cooked just right. As for the brill, it was literally brill: light and fresh, it was well accompanied by the heavy rich crab bisque and served with asparagus, cherry tomatoes and potatoes.
We only had one dessert as by this time, we were stuffed with food and wine. The dessert was an absolute winner: warm chocolate mousse with salty caramel and milk ice cream. It was served in a very large bowl which appeared to only contain the mousse. However, as we dug in, we discovered that the bowl was first filled with salty caramel then ice cream, followed by copious amounts of warm chocolate mousse which smothered the ice cream.
The next day was our last in Cambridge; we would head for London thereafter. The day was spent at Holkham area where we took lunch at The Victoria Hotel, which is part of the Holkham Estate owned by the 7th Earl of Leicester. The fare at The Victoria is delectable and local produce seems to be used as much as possible.
It was yet another chilly day in the country and the rich and creamy butternut squash soup with coconut was an ideal starter. The local produce we sampled included the locally smoked salmon with greens, and the venison burger, compliments of the estate deer. The venison patty was well complemented with onion jam, chutney and fries, and had a lovely gamey taste; enough to taste the red in the meat without being overpowering. The crab in the crab salad was very nearly local: it came from a neighbouring village (Wells-Next-The-Sea - although the sea was nowhere in sight) and was fresh and sweet. The praline ice cream served with our brownie and orange sauce cream was also made on the estate.
The Red Lion
Apart from Oxford, Canterbury, Holkam and their surrounds, our drives had also taken us to small villages, such as Hinxton, 20 minutes’ drive from Cambridge where we had a good hearty dinner at the Red Lion pub. The broccoli soup, crayfish cocktail, beer-battered cod fish and chips, lamb, tagliatalle with pine nuts, artichokes, mushrooms and spinach with truffle oil, and butterscotch pie with ice cream, were all deliciously rustic.
Peacocks Tea Room
Another place worthy of mention is the Peacocks Tea Room in Ely, half an hour’s drive from Cambridge. Peacocks is a family-run traditional English tea room set in a pretty stone house with a charming garden offering great tea sets which include soups, sandwiches, scones and cakes. Seated at the table with cheerful table cloth and floral crockery, the welcoming and homely ambience made us feel like children at an aunt’s house waiting to be served freshly baked scones and pastries, which, as it turned out, were simply scrumptious.
It had been a fantastic week of feasting in England and we very much looked forward to London, where further delectable food experiences awaited us.
A good old fashioned tea spread at Peacocks
• Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons, Great Milton: www.manoir.com
• Midsummer House, Cambridge: www.midsummerhouse.co.uk
• The Sportsman, between Whitstable and Faversham:
• The Victoria, Norfolk: www.holkham.co.uk/victoria
• Red Lion Inn, Hinxton: www.redlionhinxton.co.uk
• Peacocks Tea Room, Ely: www.peacockstearoom.co.uk
Other eating places worth accumulating calories and cholesterol:
• Auntie’s Tea Shop, Cambridge: www.auntiesteashop.co.uk
• Brasserie Gerard, Cambridge: www.brasseriegerard.co.uk
• The Wig & The Mitre, Lincoln: www.wigandmitre.com
• The Anchor Inn, Sutton Gault: www.anchor-inn-restaurant.co.uk
► Audrey Chiang
Rodyk & Davidson LLP