AS A SUB-TROPICAL PLANT, lemongrass doesn’t do well in cold climates.
Thus, celebrated chef Raymond Blanc knew that growing it outdoors in the UK was always going to be a challenge, but he was adamant to find a way to grow it there. It took him 17 years, trying out different varieties every year, before finally landing on one from the foothills of the Himalayas that proved resistant to an English winter.
“I guess I wanted to challenge God,” laughs the chef of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a hotel and restaurant that has secured two Michelin stars for over three decades.
“It’s a crazy obsession. I would plant it during the summer, cut it short during the winter and cover it first with manure, and then a cotton blanket. But come April, it was all rotten,” he recalls of his experiements. “I tell you, 17 years was a long time to wait and I couldn’t believe it when I finally saw a little green shoot. I jumped — because I could still jump at the time — I was the happiest man on earth,” he says.
Lemongrass is one of the many non-native plants that make Le Manoir’s vegetable and herb garden no ordinary English kitchen garden. Spread over two acres (approximately 8,100 sq m), the organic garden now produces more than 90 types of salad leaves and vegetables and 70 herbs, providing fresh-from-the-field produce for the acclaimed restaurant.
Ever since Blanc opened Le Manoir in 1984, he has been a passionate advocate for the grow-your-own movement and he now shares this passion at The Raymond Blanc Gardening School.
His institution is run by head gardener Anne Marie Owens, who has worked at Belmond Le Manoir for over 30 years. It offers courses between May and October, providing hopeful growers the opportunity to learn core skills like growing seasonal vegetables or micro herbs and edible flowers. More specialized courses, like pruning or mushroom growing, are taught by visiting experts in their field.
Blanc credits his parents with teaching him from an early age that the garden is “where gastronomy starts”, a lesson that is at the very heart of Le Manoir’s philosophy.
Blanc adds that he spends a lot of time with his team researching particular garden varieties depending on the dishes he’s preparing.
While he may have learned to appreciate produce from an early age, he didn’t always enjoy the hard work involved in maintaining a kitchen garden.
“Growing up, I used to hate gardening. While my friends were playing football, I was digging, removing the stones, weeding,” he says. “But it gave me a deep understanding of food at an early age. I learned that food is all about seasonality, about the soil, the terroir, and that the dining table is really the heart of the house, not the bedroom.”
Most importantly, Blanc says he learned to respect the seasons and appreciate the different varieties of the same vegetable. Blanc’s team may grow up to 25 different varieties of aubergine, and he will use different types in different dishes.
The school has begun to offer a one-day Japanese Garden course with renowned landscaper Robert Ketchell, who studied the distinctive style in Japan. Blanc says he fell completely in love with Japan and Japanese culture after a trip to Kyoto in the early 1990s. “The porcelain, the poetry, the food, it was mind blowing,” he recalls.
That trip inspired him to create his own Garden of Peace in the grounds of his 15th-century gabled manor house, complete with an oak bridge and a small tea house. The Japanese Garden course was open to up to four students who learn, amongst other things, how to create their own “trayscape” garden using gravel, small stones and plants. The day will also, of course, include a delicious lunch accompanied coffee and petits fours.
The garden at Belmond Le Manoir is constantly expanding and Blanc is particularly excited about a 24-beehive village that is currently being constructed that he is keen to share that with visitors.
“I want to create an environment of excitement. I’m not really interested in educating – that’s boring. I really want to share knowledge. It’s not just about how to peel a carrot, but learning about the different varieties, at what maturity the carrot should be picked, how do I cook it to get the optimal flavour and nutrients.”