Once we’d hit the open (sort of) road after a slow crawl westwards on the A40, we got so carried away we completely missed the turn-off for Great Milton at junction seven. Luckily, as we looked about us in the hotel car park a little while later, looking faintly ruffled and wondering where Raymond Blanc's legendary retreat Belmond Le Manoir aux quat'Saisons could be, an extremely helpful man appeared, greeted us and took the car keys. We achieved instant calm as we stepped through an opening in a hedge and heard the expensive whirring of a helicopter coming in to land. We had arrived.
The Manoir is the biggest and oldest house in a very small, very quiet village in Oxfordshire, and sits regally among beautiful lawns, walled 17th-century and Japanese ponds, and its own extensive herb and organic vegetable gardens, which are heavily featured on the menu (this makes you want to sprawl as you stroll, and eat everything in sight). If the weather had been kinder, we could have played English croquet or French boules, or gone on a picnic made with food fresh from Raymond Blanc’s kitchen. As it was, we were content to take it all in, doing our utmost to imagine this was the beginning of a beautiful love affair rather than a one-night fling.
Blanc’s mission (accomplished) is to deliver the absolute best in cuisine and service in a friendly atmosphere – he certainly chose the right raw materials in Le Manoir. The old country hotel’s character is something like a cross between Diana Rigg in an episode of The Avengers, and Margaret Rutherford as a 1950s Miss Marple (both in black and white). You feel caught in a lovely time-warp, with nothing on your mind but fine dining. This, as anyone who has been there will happily tell you, is the whole point; the hotel and its staff are there to create a backdrop for the food, to cocoon you, relax you and accommodate you in gastronomic heaven.
By the time we’d been shown round this boutique hotel, our bags had arrived at our room. Called Rouge et Noir, it was quite unexpected and nothing at all like the rest of the hotel: it’s an oriental extravaganza, in opium-den style (though not to be confused with the Opium Suite, which is just as sexy). The enormous bed and deeply comfortable cushions soon had us sunk into a much needed sleep. We woke with a start – the room is a bit of a surprise when you don’t know where you are – and raced to the lounge just in time for a cream tea. If this sounds like gluttony, you obviously haven’t been to Le Manoir: it has to be done.
After a second wander round the gardens as the afternoon turned to evening, it was time for a steaming hot bath and a glass of fine Madeira from the bedside decanter. Then, on with our fine clothes (it seems only right to make an effort to look beautiful when everything around you is such perfection), and to the intimate champagne bar, where we had a glass or two as we pored over the menu and the wine list. The cocktails looked delicious, but we were getting wiser as to pacing ourselves.
We weren’t the only ones to have dressed up, we noticed. Many people go to the Manoir for a (very) special occasion; for everyone else, being there is worth celebrating in itself. Our fellow guests included a dashing couple in their seventies, an Iranian family with their two children, having a wonderful time, and a mysterious young trio wearing, between them, cowboy boots, a miniskirt and pinstripes.
Earlier on we had looked over the different dining rooms and chosen the conservatory for its clean simplicity and views over the gardens; the inner dining room felt a little formal for us. We sat down among the fresh flowers and white table linen, thrilled that the anticipation was at an end. But first, the wine: the breadth and variety of the list is amazing (some of the prices are, too). Our sommelier was pretty strict-looking, but she was extremely helpful with suggestions.
When the gourmet goods arrived, every single taste was perfectly fantastic, and the two half bottles we had chosen were ideal with the menu. Just to give an idea, a sample menu gourmand at Le Manoir would include ballotine of foie gras with soused cherries and spiced duck; quail egg, spinach, Parmesan and truffle raviolis; roasted best end of new-season Somerset lamb and pan-fried sweetbreads on a sweet garlic purée; hot chocolate fondant, pistachio ice-cream and Amaretto sauce.
It was late when we headed slowly to the drawing room, to sit by the open fire for a few rounds of Scrabble (not too hotly contested) before bed. In the morning, breakfast came exactly as ordered: hot, fresh and very tasty, served in the room’s own private fairy-grotto garden.
As we left Le Manoir behind, feeling like a king and queen, we realised that even though there’s plenty to see nearby; we hadn’t once strayed from the hotel and grounds. The simple reason for this is that Le Manoir demands your full attention in order that you properly savour the full gastronomic impact. A trip there is heaven, but not the stuff of whim: save up for a month, and don’t eat for a week before you go. We can’t all arrive by helicopter, but we can all leave on cloud nine.