Should you take a seat in the two-Michelin-starred dining room at the clunkily named Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in the picture-book Oxfordshire village of Great Milton, cast your eyes down to the Villeroy & Boch charger plates on the table. You’ll note that they bear an Italianate arrangement of musical instruments (lute, violin, trumpets…), designed, it says on the back, by chef-patron Raymond Blanc himself.
“Music is one my big inspirations,” he’d told me as I made my way to dinner one Tuesday evening in August. Dressed in his chef’s whites, he was in the bar greeting that evening’s diners. Hence the annual music festival he’s been hosting since 1991, attracting soloists ranging from Montserrat Caballé and Bryn Terfel to Courtney Pine and Jamie Cullum. This October’s programme is perhaps the most ambitious yet, thanks to the involvement of a symphony orchestra, the Oxford Philharmonic, the University of Oxford’s orchestra in residence, more usually to be heard at the Sheldonian.
Accommodation at the hotel
Concerts take place next door to the hotel in the handsome parish church of St Mary the Virgin, a substantial essentially Norman construction dating back to the 12th century and renovated in the 19th by Giles Gilbert Scott. It has, says Blanc, “the best acoustic – because, you know, the Normans were French.”
The full programme has yet to be published but will feature – perhaps obviously – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, after which there’s an autumnal five-course dinner, beginning with a bisque of shellfish with lemon verbena. Next up there’ll be Cornish hake with smoked peppers, chorizo and parsley. Then a truffled risotto of ‘wild’ mushrooms from the hotel’s pioneering Vallée de Champignons Sauvages, a landscaped gulley in Le Manoir’s seven-acre gardens, where 17 species of fungi are cultivated. The meat course will feature quail with cinnamon, chestnuts and butternut squash. And pudding is a confection of toffee, bitter chocolate, shortbread and salted butter ice cream.
The property’s Japanese garden
I cannot speak for these dishes, but if they’re as good as the summer “Saveurs” set menu, which changes seasonally, then it will be memorable. The risotto I ate was a revelation: sweetened with a tomato essence and aromatic with chervil, it was a summery reinvention of the dish that featured vegetables (from the 90 or so varieties grown in its elegant market garden and some with real crunch), in more or less equal quantity to the rice. And if there a more perfect combination that subtly caramelised scallops with lemongrass, I’ve yet to encounter it.
Too few hotels seem to appreciate that breakfast is often the meal that leaves the last, and therefore abiding impression on a guest, but here it’s almost worth the journey in itself: a generous but not overwhelming buffet and a short menu of egg dishes prepared with the same care as dinner.
Jack Savoretti performs at the festival
I loved the fact, too, that they encourage you to take the Branche d’Olive soap from the bathroom and leave you a little embroidered linen pouch in which to wrap it; and that on checking out, you’re given a bag containing bottles of water and a packet of madeleines “for the journey”. The 90s décor in some of the rooms may not be to all tastes (and nor will the unsubtle room fragrance and the cheesy music playing when you’re shown in), but in every other respect this is an exceptional hotel.
Doubles at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons from £598.50. The Raymond Blanc Festival of Music, which also features Jack Savoretti, takes place from October 3-4. Tickets cost from £295 which includes a reception, dinner and wines.
Le Manoir is not the only hotel to host an annual music festival. For the past 11 years, Olga Polizzi’s Hotel Tresanton in St Mawe’s, Cornwall, has organised Music at Tresanton in collaboration with the pianist Noam Greenberg. It offers a weekend of concerts in the town’s Methodist Chapel; stellar international soloists perform. This year’s programme provides a celebration of music both by Americans (Bernstein, Cage, Copeland, Crumb, Gershwin and Reich) and inspired by America (by Bartok, Debussy, Dvorak, Ginastera, Mihaud and Ravel), as well as an evening of Argentinian tangos. It takes place from November 3-5; rooms at Tresanton cost from £260.