Raymond Blanc’s mushroom valley at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons takes homegrown fungi to new heights of excellence, finds Steven Desmond.
In a quiet corner of the Oxfordshire countryside, food pilgrims from across the world are converging on Raymond Blanc’s rural retreat for gastronomes. Everything is here for the serious enthusiast, including, of course, a rigorously organised kitchen garden to prompt the connection between what’s in the ground and what will be on the plate. It’s no ordinary vegetable garden: here are half a dozen different cultivars of celeriac, for example, grown side by side for comparison—the neatly written label reveals the text first in French, then English underneath.
In the garden’s north-eastern corner is, at first sight, a broad ditch under some boundary trees. Indeed, that was its original intention, leading the surplus water away towards the village brook. But it’s in the nature of M. Blanc to be unable to leave well alone. Instead, his fertile mind, constantly brimming with ideas, looked at this modest ditch and thought it would be better as a mushroom valley or, better still, as La Vallée de Champignons Sauvages.
There is a long and continuing tradition in this country of growing a limited range of mushrooms under cover in darkness, but this is something altogether more naturalistic. The sides of the vallée were cut and filled into a series of small descending terraces, each fronted like a drawer with green-cut timber, then lined with a water-retentive membrane. Into this series of rough-hewn containers the necessary organic matter was shovelled.
This all-important material is carefully made up in consistent proportions of timber chippings mixed with chopped straw from neighbouring farms. The whole system is in a perpetual state of gradual decay just what mushrooms are looking for. Add the relatively high humidity created by the steady trickle of water down the hill and the shady overhang of the trees and we’re nearly there.
So far, so good, but M. Blanc is not content to sit and watch while the mould slowly forms under his feet. Enter Richard Edwards, Welsh wizard of the mushroom world, whose consultancy, alarmingly called Humungus Fungus, advised on the making of the valley and, in particular, the choice of mushrooms and the methods of their cultivation.
Eight species were introduced, including the morel and the wood blewit, as well as that singular Japanese organism beloved of alternative growers, the shiitake. Half the fun of the latter is that it’s grown on plugs of organic matter knocked into lengths of rough-cut timber that are stuck upright into the earth of the valley ‘shelves’, so that the whole business looks like the shrine of some obscure religious sect. As the temperature drops in autumn, the vertical logs gradually sprout their fruiting bodies and the frying pan beckons.
Other shelves along the valley side are adorned with what look for all the world like mouldy loaves of bread. These, as expertly explained by John Driscoll, the eminently practical director of operations here, are, in fact, blocks of organic matter ready-impregnated with spawn, making the whole exercise sound like a scenario for alien invasion.
At one point, the three of us found ourselves each holding one of these loaf-like objects. Mr Driscoll observed that his employer was cradling his ‘loaf’ as if it were a baby, whereupon the great man began to swing it gently and sing it a tender French lullaby. Some happy moments in life are destined to be engraved upon one’s memory.
At the foot of the valley is a rustic bridge, concealed behind which is a growing unit, rather in the manner of those mushroom houses that featured in all 19th-century kitchen gardens. Outlandishly, the structure itself is a reused shipping container, the kind of giant steel shoebox that transports goods of every description across the oceans of the world. It’s something of a surprise to find one in an Oxfordshire garden, but that is the nature of this fungal triumvirate: things are no sooner said than done.
Peering inside, it is as if a Victorian mushroom house has been made over by a design clinic. The temperature is carefully regulated within to produce the necessary effects in due season, with lighting or darkness as appropriate for set periods each day. On the shelves, the mysteriously beautiful forms of the various mushrooms emerge and we can begin to see how the lion’s mane and the king oyster got their curious names.
For all this meticulous preparation and care, mushrooms are still living things and there will always be the uncertainty of supply caused by seasonal variation. However, the object at Le Manoir is surely to encourage diners to make the connection between what is growing in the garden and what they see on their plates. If anyone can achieve that, it is M. Blanc, the man whose infectious enthusiasm carries this whole enterprise forward.
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire (01844 278881; www.belmond.com/le-manoir-aux-quat-saisons-oxfordshire). Humungus Fungus is at Red Pig Farm, Bethlehem, Llangadog, SA19 9HD (01550 740306; www.redpigfarm.co.uk/hfweb/humungusfungus.shtml; firstname.lastname@example.org). Further information and fungi kits are available from www.maesymush.co.uk and www.fungi-futures.co.uk