Raymond Blanc has not always been fond of gardening. From the age of six, he and his siblings were expected to help their father in their garden in the Franche-Comté region of France.
“Oh my god, the garden would take six months of the year!” he says in typically emphatic fashion. “I used to hate the garden to start with because while my friends were playing football, I was growing food with my father.”
The benefits have long endured though, however much the now 71-year-old Frenchman resented the demands of the earth at first. “What he gave me is a deep understanding of the soil, the weather, the time, the seasonality, when to sow seed and [to] understand the miracle of that brown little seed – which is not very pretty to look at.”
Today, sowing seeds and watching them grow is a kind of magic to Blanc – whose new cookbook, Simply Raymond, showcases his love of veg. “Sometimes I still am amazed by this kind of miracle.” It’s a magic he hopes is gaining traction amongst more people, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, when lockdowns propelled many of us into the garden, as well as the kitchen.
“I think we’re more aware and I think now ignorance is being replaced by knowledge and knowledge is empowering,” muses Blanc. “Food connects with everything, even what kind of society we are creating for tomorrow.” And if you’ve grown some of it, all the better.
It also makes you better appreciate the food you eat – a respect he says “we have lost a little bit in our world, because it comes so easy, beautifully packaged, and we have forgotten the basics.” He is hopeful that we will increasingly care about how our food is grown, and how we consume it though. “We will regain it; maybe I’m an optimist. Maybe I’m a romantic.”
Having a sense of seasonality is “number one” for him, “because if it is seasonal, it is close to home – better taste, better texture, better flavour, better colours, better nutrients,” it also means gluts, which anyone who has dipped into the world of veg patches and allotments will know can be a source of great pride, and startling terror: after all, what do you do with that many strawberries, and that much asparagus!?
Ask him how his Oxfordshire kitchen gardens are at his 2-star Michelin restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and Blanc seems both rapturous and worried. “Oh the garden looks good. We started to [sow] seed in February, March. The way we work, we plant a lot inside, so we have seedlings, which are ready to be planted, so you can speed up, but we’ve lost some of our crops because of the frosts.
“Some of the enemies of the garden,” he continues with a laugh, “they come from underground, they are airborne, it’s too cold, is too hot – oh, don’t be a gardener!”
Simply Raymond: Recipes From Home by Raymond Blanc is published by Headline Home on April 29, priced £25. Photography by Chris Terry.