Raymond Blanc’s new book marvels at the wonders of Kew and the food it produces – and here he explains why it makes him think of home
‘Ooh la la!’ Considering Raymond Blanc has just been chatting away about how he’s no longer the stereotypical Frenchman that he was when he first arrived in England over four decades ago, he still easily slips back into a very Gallic way of talking. Then again, he is referencing the wonders of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ‘It was one of the first places I visited when I came to England [in 1972]. There was this extraordinary range of plants that I had never seen before, beautifully grown, and there was such history associated with it. I don’t think there is a single garden in the world as beautiful as that.’
So began a lasting relationship with Kew that, today, has found its way on to our TV screens. The BBC’s Kew on a Plate is fronted by Raymond and Kate Humble, and showcases the heritage and botany of the plants there, as well as uncovering their growing and cooking secrets. Filming the show was such a joy that a TV programme was simply not enough. ‘It had to be fast,’ he exclaims dramatically about writing the accompanying book of the same name. ‘We just realised during the process of making the programme that Kew on a Plate would be really special, so it was deserving of a book.’ Inside the Kew gardeners offer their tips and expertise in growing the produce, from carrots to potatoes, rhubarb to gooseberries, apples to peas – all interwoven with Raymond’s tasting notes and wonderful recipes.
It’s clear this is not a simple cash in for Raymond – I glance at the clock and notice we’ve been speaking for an hour despite being given a 30 minute slot, such is his passion for Kew and everything to do with gardens. ‘My first love was growing food for the table,’ he looks back to his upbringing in Besancon. ‘There’s something so beautiful in growing your own food. I have always loved gardening, but as a child it was work – and serious work too. My friends would be out playing football, but I was in my garden with my brothers and sisters watering plants – but that garden was feeding my family all year round. Working in the garden gave me all the basic knowledge of seasonality, the history, the whole process of growing food, the varieties and understanding them, the different flavours and textures – and, most of all, the pleasure of sitting around the table with the whole family and eating its produce.’
He came to England at a time of economic depression, where ‘food was totally unimportant – the tin opener was the champion of the world’, but soon he was able to feed his love for producing food from a garden when the chef of the pub he was working in fell ill. He went on to open his first restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons, in 1977, and followed up the success of that by opening Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in 1984. ‘The first thing I did at Le Manoir was to grow a huge garden,’ he states. ‘We will have 12 acres there in two years time, and 70% of the food we produce will come from that.’
Despite over 40 years of living and working in England, Raymond’s French accent hasn’t diminished in the slightest, but it’s interesting to hear him refer to the English as ‘we’ on a couple of occasions during the interview. He has both positive and negative things to say about how ‘we’ approach food today. ‘I believe we import 70% of our food in Britain,’ he says, ‘that is so sad. We should take advantage of growing more food here to revive our own skills, and become more dependent on our farmers. We should even grow more at home, even if you have a flat – you can grow from a little window box. At Le Manoir, we have a school for children, which we have had for 30 years. We were the first to actively welcome children – not just welcome, but actively welcome.
‘But it is amazing how things have changed here,’ Raymond counters. ‘There is a greater interest about what goes into food, and it has become important now due to health issues with things like obesity, and how you could repair that by simply eating better. People want to buy locally and want buy seasonally, too, and now the consumer is at last asking the right questions of the retailer.’
He talks about how London is now one of the best places in the world when it comes to restaurants, which leads us back to that stereotypical Raymond Blanc who first arrived here in 1972. ‘I was very French,’ he laughs. ‘By virtue of being French I thought France did everything better, whether that was football or rugby or cooking.’ And what does he think now? ‘Because we are such a multi-cultural country, I didn’t need to travel very far to embrace other cultures,’ he considers. ‘Also, in France they all talk at the same time and don’t listen to others. Here there is always this element of people giving you a chance – they listen. But,’ he adds with a chuckle, ‘I am still a bad loser!’
Words: Mark Kebble
Kew on a Plate with Raymond Blanc is out now, priced at £25, and you can catch the TV programme every Monday on BBC Two