Thursday, September 15, 2016

Oxfordshire Rediscovered and an Extraordinary Meal at Le Manoir

Monday, September 12, 2016

Thame and Great Milton, Oxfordshire
Oxfordshire Rediscovered and an Extraordinary Meal at Le Manoir

     I slept rather well in my new ‘home’—awaking at 3.00 am, finding it hard to return to sleep, then dozing off and waking at 7. 15—quite the latest I have ever awoken! A quick shower later, I joined Susan and Tony for breakfast of toast and his homemade gooseberry jam—there is truly no end to the hidden talents of this retired Oxford don: he cooks, he makes jam, he paints, he walks cross-country…what a fantastic way to spend one’s retirement from academia. Susan had made excellent coffee and over a couple of cups, I found out how to get to the Thornhill Park and Ride where I was to meet my friends that morning.

Off to Thornhill Park and Ride:

    Right after breakfast, I said Goodbye and Thanks to Susan and set out with Tony to the Covered Market at Carfax to get some money changed. It is amazing how despite a few superficial changes (retailers come and go, for instance), Oxford has remained essentially the same ever since I first came here about thirty years ago as a grad student. Walking its streets, however, never fails to fill me with delight as I revel in the architecture and the sheer antiquity of the place.

     Tony and I said goodbye and I walked into the Senli Exchange Center to get my errand accomplished. I then walked to the High Street to find a bus that would take me to Thornhill (Bus 400) as there would be no time for me to get my Bodleian Reader’s Card just then. Although I tried to buy a bus pass for the week from the Travel Center near Queen’s College, I was instructed to go to Gloucester Green to get the kind I wanted (The Key and A Stagecoach Smartcard combination).  The bus came along on schedule and in about 20 minutes, I was at the place that my friends Rosemary (Roz) and Lizzie had chosen for our meeting.

Meeting my Gal Pals:

     Roz had come up from London to spend the night with our mutual friend, Lizzie, not too far from Oxford and had suggested that we meet up and spend the day in some Oxfordshire venues as she was driving her car. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to visit these areas and so I took her up on her suggestion.

     They arrived a little after 10.00 am—although I have met Roz often since arriving in London, I was meeting Lizzie after a very long time—we had a wonderfully warm reunion and then were on our way.

Coursing Through Oxfordshire Towns and Villages:

      The ladies suggested we get a cup of coffee first and as we set off, we decided that the town of Thame would be our first port of call. I recalled, as we arrived in the city, that I had passed through it, very briefly, about a month ago, with my friends Bash and Vanita when we had undertaken a driving tour of the locations used in the TV series, Midsomer Murders. It is a really pretty town with a Town Hall that dominates the place and divides it into two islands surrounded my shops. We chose a cute little coffee shop where we sat down with huge Americanos and caught up. It is such a pleasure for me to be in the company of like-minded women my age and to be able to discuss everything with them—from US politics (everyone wants to talk about Trump!) to films, theater and food.

     After a longish gab, we set out in Roz’s car again and decided to go and peak at the church for which Thame is rather well known. It is an ancient structure with a rather unusual design—more castle than cathedral really. Like most Cotswold churches, it is set on a height to give it magisterial stature. We did not go in but we did admire its location and design and then we drove away from Thame.

     Seeing signs for Great Milton, we headed in that direction for the next item on our agenda: Lunch at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons where reservations had been made weeks in advance. Eating a meal here was on my Bucket List and I was really glad that I had two huge foodies with whom to share the experience.

Arriving at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons:

     ‘Manoir’ is one of the world’s best restaurants. It is tucked away, as if in secret, in a fold of the Cotswolds, in a really tiny village that has been put on the international map by its founder-chef, the Frenchman Raymond Blanc who made it his headquarters about 25 years ago. In partnership with his English wife Jennie, an interior designer, they bought a manor in a small English village and decided to turn it into a top-class hotel and restaurant. In a very short time, it acquired a global reputation for being one of the most luxurious places to stay in the world—if one’s tastes run towards small, unspoiled, understated spots of style and elegance. It is really tough to get a reservation at their place where the minimum wait is three months.

    Of the three of us, Lizzie had been before (a long time ago, but the visit and the meal were still fresh in her memory).  Roz and I, being first-timers, were excited for the treat that lay ahead for us. We parked the car in the main parking lot, took in the initial sight of the giant sculpted artichokes that welcome visitors into the place and made our way towards Reception.

Lunch at Le Manoir:

     Many visitors to Manoir are overnight guests spending very special anniversaries, birthdays or other milestones in a perfectly private setting. There are some, of course, like us, who arrive merely for a meal. But after we announced our arrival, we were led out into the garden for drinks: we chose sparkling water with a twist of lemon to get us going and were completely thrilled when small slabs of slate were placed before us with the chef’s selection of amuse-bouches—each little morsel was a joy to the eyes as vivid color seen in a marinated skinned cherry tomato, a two-colored nectarine, salmon tartare on a crisp and cream cheese on a sesame cracker greeted our palates. It was quite visually stunning and in unison we reached for our cameras as the sight was certainly photo-worthy.

     For the next hour or two (who’s counting?), we gave ourselves up to the sheer pleasure of being cossetted and pampered by highly trained professionals who know how to make guests feel like a million dollars. We were led to the dining room inside that overlooked the garden and to a table beautifully laid with crisp white linen, sparkling crystal and pretty silverware. The prix fixe five-course lunch menus were set before us and we had a chance to feast our imaginations on what lay ahead. The meal then followed and it is hard to find words to describe how great it was. Suffice it to say that as we progressed through tiny glasses of creamy butternut squash soup with a cracker of squash puree and blue cheese, from a salmon in gelee served over Japanese pickled radish with lemon verbena oil and sorrel, from a poached egg served over watercress puree with a garnish of crispy ham and toasted hazelnuts, from roasted quail served with beetroot done every which way and finally to dessert which was a blackcurrant sorbet served over creamy mascarpone cheese, we were simply speechless. Not being partial to runny egg yolk, I had the poached egg course exchanged for a vegetable risotto which arrived garnished with bright nasturtiums and since we knew that the secret of the taste of the food here is directly a result of all the organic farming done in the acres of fields, orchards and gardens that surround the manor, Roz decided that we ought to order one of the garden salads to go with our meal. Seriously.  It is impossible to describe how good everything was and how marvelous it was to share the experience with foodie friends who paused to savor each mouthful, to figure out what the chef had done to the ingredients and to take home some tips for ways and means by which we can modify what we learned over one incredible lunch in our own home kitchens for all three of us adore cooking. Thanks Monsieur Blanc for helping me tick off one more item from my personal Bucket List. Each of us left the restaurant and walked out to explore the gardens promising ourselves that we would bring our significant others to this establishment if ever fate allowed it.

Exploring the Gardens of Le Manoir:

     The gardens are a great place to end a meal at Manoir. They are extensive, varied and a present the opportunity to expend a few of the calories consumed during the superlative meal—although, truth be told, despite five full courses, none of us felt stuffed as we arose from the table for the portions are small but exquisitely tasty.

     The Gardens are different—you start at the Wildflower Garden that has been developed under very old apple trees that are bursting with fruit. You then move on to Maman Blanc’s Herb Garden—planted in honor of his mother at whose feet he learned all his cooking as Monsieur Blanc is self-taught and has never been to culinary school himself! You move on next to the never-ending Vegetable Gardens where we spied everything from giant pumpkins and squash flowers to artichokes, asparagus and kale. Meanwhile, there is carefully-chosen sculpture that is appropriate to the venue—the Vegetable Garden, for instance, is overlooked by a buxom woman named Sarah who carries a trug laden with produce she has just picked. Children are everywhere in bronze and stone. Around a vast pond, there are sculptures of cranes in various stages of flight—they are superb renditions of large birds.

     From there, we walked into the Japanese Garden complete with curved bridges over flowing streams and little tea houses lined with tatami mats and concealed by shoji screens. Nearer the Manor, the English gardens filled with perennial flowers and a darling little gazebo entice visitors to spend a moment seated in quiet contemplation of Nature’s bounty. We took a break to use the really appealing loos upstairs where gently-fragranced toiletries made us feel more spoiled by the entire establishment. It was truly with difficulty that we tore ourselves away from the place to explore the church next door that adjoins the property.

     It is a very ancient church and it has its share of marble plaques on the wall that commemorate the doings of various worthies over the centuries. Honey-toned Cotswold stone brings a unique look to these sacred buildings and the faded grave stones that surround them evoke even more strongly the whiff of age. We made our visit inside and then walked slowly back to our car. Needless to say, we took a few pictures to immortalize our visit to this very special place and then we drove quietly away, marveling frequently at the entire drama of the experience we had just encountered. My meal made me feel compensated for the entire month of sandwiches on which I have basically subsisted!

Back at Thornhill and Oxford:   

     About a half hour later, I bid goodbye to Roz and Lizzie as they dropped me off at the bus stop to enable me to catch the bus back to Oxford. Twenty minutes later, at just a few minutes past 5.00 pm, I was in ‘The High’ (as the High Street is known) again. It was too late to get my Reader’s Card for the Bodleian Library which I will do first thing tomorrow, but I did get a huge map of Oxford from the little shop on Holywell Street opposite New College from where I have bought it before. I also walked past The Broad to George Street to the Gloucester Green Coach Station to get my Bus pass for the week—it will allow me to travel from Grandpont where I live to Carfax and then in and out of the city so that I can do some exploring. Armed with my new pass, I decided to start using it the next day (to get maximum value out of it).

Said Prayer at Christ Church Cathedral:

     Since it was still a little before 6.00 pm, I walked towards Tom Tower to enter Christ Church Cathedral for Evensong. However, when I got there, the man in the bowler hat, who guards the entrance told me that it was Said Prayer that evening as the choir had the evening off. It was no reason to leave—so I crossed huge Tom Quad and arrived at the Cathedral where I was led to the oldest part of it—more than a thousand years old. There I took my seat and gave myself up to the quiet spirituality of the environs as well as the priest, Martin, who led us in prayer and song. There were no more than a dozen people there and yet it was so special. After the service, I chatted with Martin a bit (he happens to lead the integrated religious program at Oxford having studied Hinduism and spending considerable amounts of time in Haridwar and Rishikesh in India). The Ecumenism of Anglicans never fails to astonish me. They far precede similar attempts that are being made by Pope Francis to reach out across religious barriers towards embracing difference.

Home for TV:

     It was still bright as I walked down the Abingdon Road towards my home. Once there, I sat myself in front of the TV and channel surfed—thrilled to be able to do so after a month and a half! I had absolutely no thoughts of eating anything after our extraordinary meal of the afternoon and it was about 10.00 pm, that I switched the light off after videochatting with Llew.

     Until tomorrow, cheerio…             


No comments: