Raymond Blanc: ‘When I first came to England, I was frightened. The butchers here weren’t simply butchering the food — they were murdering it twice’

Buying local, seasonal produce isn’t merely a charming notion. It’s a philosophy with the power to save our communities, our health and the environment, urges top chef Raymond Blanc. Photographs by Daniel Gould.

For a Frenchman, it might sound wrong for me to be extolling the importance of buying local British food. Honestly, when I first came to England, I was frightened. The butchers here weren’t simply butchering the food — they were really murdering it twice. There was no interest whatsoever and we had completely lost our food culture. It had become irrelevant and, as a result, we saw the likes of foot-and-mouth and mad-cow disease: it was all caused by malpractice.

Britain was, for a long time, disconnected in this way because we had embraced an American system based on intensive farming and the heavy use of chemical pesticide.

Of course, it was hailed a triumph because you could produce three or six times more volume per acre, but it became our shame when we began to understand the consequences: the erosion of soil, the chemicals going into the rivers and the sea.

Our food was full of these chemicals, because it was all about looks and the marketer understood that. We have been buying all food, all things — a scarf, perhaps — without asking: ‘What colourings have been used? Is it biodegradable?’ We merely looked at the beautiful scarf, the colours and textures. It became all about appearance — nobody cared about the inside.

Credit: Daniel Gould / Country Life Picture Library

After intensive farming, heavy processing and marketing, you wrap it up beautifully and you reduce food to a mere commodity, the only virtue of which is cheapness. We embraced this culture — or anti-culture — but, at last, the consumer is starting to really understand what we’re creating: the effect it has on society, the ill health and misery that bad food can cause. There’s a revival of interest and an understanding that food links everything.

We’ve completely lost our connection with seasonality and have created a big problem for ourselves — we want everything, all year round, and it’s got to be shiny and colourful. Apples must be all the same size, with no blemishes. The scientists have ensured the apple won’t spoil easily and will have a high yield; it’s got to be the biggest and resistant to disease. To make sure of that, pesticide, germicide, sulphite and copper are poured onto those apples. They are picked slightly unripe, put into chambers full of CO2, deprived of oxygen to stop the maturing process and sold six months or a year later.

“The gardens are the heart and lungs of Le Manoir and the canvas for my gastronomy”

Of course, there’s no proper ripening and there’s no taste. Flavour is totally secondary. I remember when chicory was bitter and apples were juicy. Can we try to rediscover the joy of tasting a British strawberry in early June? Can we return taste to the top of the list, instead of valuing berries that can be kept on the shelf for weeks?

A lot has been lost, but it can be regained. We can still reinvent a lot of our agriculture. The question must be asked, why on earth are we importing more than 70% of our food? We should grow at least 60% of it. Imagine how the landscape would change. Why, when I go into a supermarket, do I see one British apple or pear, but seven different varieties imported from New Zealand, Africa or America?

We have been developing a new orchard here at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and, in doing so, I want to really show what we’ve lost. I tasted about 30 British apples until I found the best — Adams Pearmain, Blenheim Orange, the Beauty of Kent. All these old apples were amazing. Biting into a Cox’s Orange Pippin was a revelation: I’ve never seen so many layers of flavour. Yet because it’s a smaller apple and doesn’t produce as much as commercial varieties, it’s of low interest — it is probably the world’s best apple and we don’t grow it.

Credit: Daniel Gould / Country Life Picture Library

As you can tell from the name of my hotel, the seasons drive all that I do. You will never see anything out of season here — it’s a celebration of the moment. The gardens are the heart and lungs of Le Manoir and the canvas for my gastronomy. There isn’t only one garden, there are 12 and, within the next few years, there will be 17; that’s 27 acres of organic land with not a single chemical in use.

After the orchard, we are creating a bee village and the project after that is chickens, which will live in gypsy caravans. I like a bit of fun, but the birds also put nitrogen into the ground, as a natural fertiliser. We are working on a vineyard — the sparkling wines in this country can now match nearly any Champagne. Our knowledge is growing and I can happily put my name to British produce.

Anything we don’t grow or produce at Le Manoir, I try to source locally — and by that, I mean within 70 miles. We use at least 70% local British food and I’m very proud of that. Our caviar is from Exmoor and our honeycomb from Norfolk, until the bee village is up and running. Britain is creating better and better food, with so many skills being revived, and it’s exciting to see. There is finally an understanding that, if you want good meat, you have to care for the animal, not drive it hundreds of miles to be slaughtered. Our butchers have re-learnt their craft.

Yes, there does have to be an understanding that quality, ethically produced food might cost a little more, but these values can be applied to simple fare. At Brasserie Blanc, we use the same suppliers as Le Manoir to give our guests the best food at the best value for money — when everyone else was putting up their prices, we created a £12.50 menu. It is possible.

Credit:Daniel Gould / Country Life Picture Library

There are still threats to our gastronomic renaissance. Take the rise of delivery services such as Deliveroo — it’s food without any effort whatsoever. We’re alien to cooking now, because we live busy lives and even a simple omelette requires an element of effort. You have to go out and buy the eggs, crack them, mix them, season them and fry them in a pan. There’s a degree of apprehension and fear at whether we can make the perfect omelette, because we don’t cook enough and have lost our confidence. Then, afterwards, you have to clean everything up.

Yet I believe we are rediscovering our respect for food. There’s a new movement that’s connected with the environment, with seasonality, with local values, with family and community. Food is becoming more and more part of our culture and it’s marvellous to see. That’s how it should be. The dining table is still one of the best places to be: it’s where you engage in all sorts of intellectual arguments, enjoy laughter and wine or even play footsie. Food is the most extraordinary medium and the table is a place of communion.

“Coronavirus will help a lot long term, because people have reconnected with growing and cooking for themselves. I hope it will last”

For me, this all came from one single source and, bless her, it’s my mum. She was an enormous influence. I come from a working-class background: we had a huge garden and a small orchard, which provided the majority of the food we ate. From the age of six, I was hoeing, weeding and topping and tailing beans. My friends were playing football, but I was working in the garden, foraging in the forest or cutting wood for the stove. Our table was where the whole family met on Sundays and every lunch was a proper lunch, every dinner a proper dinner. It was simple food, but my God, how beautiful it was. Cooking is an act of love.

My papa made me taste soil at the age of seven. He took a clump of this shiny, dark earth and said: ‘Raymond, look at it.’ So I did. ‘Smell it.’ I did and it had a lovely scent. ‘Now, taste it.’ So I did. That soil was incredible. It was gritty and it sucked the life out of my mouth, but there was acidity, sourness and sweetness.

Ten years later, I understood why he had asked me to look at it: I learnt that if there’s clay, you won’t be able to grow root vegetables and I knew if it was red it contained iron. But I finally dared to ask why he made me taste it — and that’s when I discovered that my papa had a sense of humour.

Credit: Daniel Gould / Country Life Picture Library

I was connected to Nature, I knew where food came from and I understood varieties. My mum never sent me to buy ‘some potatoes’: it depends if you’re making French fries, puréeing or sautéing — every potato has its use. It’s the same with all ingredients. To an extent, this is where our small shops created their own downfall. If you go to any Spanish, Italian or French shop, they’ll know everything about their produce and which potato or apple you should be using. Here in England, it was merely a vegetable, despite all the extraordinary varieties we have. We didn’t care.

I think coronavirus will help a lot long term, because people have reconnected with growing and cooking for themselves. I hope it will last — it’s been a lovely thing to see food become the heart of the family again, whether it’s a small tray of seeds in a window, a few pots, a whole garden or keeping chickens.

There’s a revival of bread- and cheese-making all across Britain and the technique being used is excellent — before, it was a bit messy, but there’s now an identity linking the products to the region they come from. British cheese-making has been a phenomenal success. Yet these artisans are being severely tested by huge retailers. Yes, you can go to these giants for everything — you have the facility of choice, but with no heart and no soul. They certainly don’t profess local values. If I go into a supermarket in Kent, I would love to see at least a corner of produce from that county. Farm shops and farmers’ markets are a lifeline for our small producers.

By shopping close to home, what you buy will have better taste, texture, colour and nutrients. If something is in season, there will be a glut of it, which means not only do you get the best flavour, you should also get the best price. But it’s bigger than that.

By buying locally, you are supporting the craftsmen who give life to our villages. You help your local farmer to keep his farm and, therefore, to support his staff. It’s like a tower of cards — if the farm is alive, the village keeps its post office and its pub. It keeps the community alive. The world balance is so delicate and it relies on us all to pay attention to what we’re buying.

Raymond Blanc. Credit: Daniel Gould / Country Life Picture Library

Of course, it relies also on our farmers being better subsidised and supported by the Government, to sustain proper communities with their own farms and produce.

We have been self-destructing, but we’re starting to appreciate the cost. We’re thinking about those chemicals and putting them together with our ill health. You should see the board in my kitchen when we take orders — no milk, no flour, no lemon — it’s more like a hospital. A food intolerance has become almost a fashion item, but these are true allergies, provoked by what we eat and the environment in which we live.

Our environment and health are becoming a priority again, as the consumer becomes more and more aware. Ignorance is slowly being replaced by knowledge and knowledge is empowering. By growing and creating what we need here, you prevent all that pollution and its effects. Just think — instead of flying it over from Shanghai, you could find that beautiful scarf here, in Oxfordshire. Wouldn’t that be rather nice?

As told to Victoria Marston. Raymond Blanc is an ambassador for Love British Food — www.lovebritishfood.co.uk. Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire — belmond.com. Brasserie Blanc has various locations — www.brasserieblanc.com.