I have always been suspicious of veganism. To provincial carnivores like me, it seems something of an anti-food phenomenon: a drift towards a herbivorous dystopia of malnourished metropolitan sanctimoniousness and virtue signallers with tofu breath. And, my, what a minefield of culinary ironies. Fat-riddled, pine forest-destroying avocados are to the “ethical” vegan what pasta is to the Italians.
How intriguing then that the Raymond Blanc Cookery School at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons hotel in Oxfordshire has just launched a day-long vegan course. Ambitiously, it is aimed at people who not only want to cut down on meat and dairy for health or moral reasons, but also like food.
The class I attended recently got off to a strong start: “You will be happy to learn that vegan clichés such as avocados and cashew spreads are banned from this kitchen,” our chef tutor, Rebecca Boast, was quick to declare. Instead, topping the menu was an elegant rose harissa and butternut squash filo tart. Bringing the dish up to Michelin quality involved deft dashes of sumac, artful flecks of ras el hanout, and crimping our pastry into a sort of deconstructed butterfly shape. Turns out expertly spiced vegetables are a far superior meat substitute to those preservative-laden Quorn concoctions in the supermarket.
We also learnt how to enliven boring lentil soup to amuse-bouche standards by serving it with pomegranate and coriander oil; and whip up a delicious roasted garlic aioli with chickpea water (yes, that pongy gunk from the can you’ve spent your life pouring down the sink is the most underrated ingredient in the vegan’s culinary arsenal). But according to the chefs at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School, the real skill comes in the construction of vegan desserts. Making cakes without eggs might fill sub-par bakers such as myself with dread, but it is just the kind of technical challenge pastry chefs at Le Manoir relish. We made chocolate truffles with coconut milk, and a vegan twist on a chocolate mousse recipe passed down from Raymond Blanc’s mother – but stealing the show was Rebecca’s divine carrot cake recipe using a base of apple purée and rapeseed oil (superior to butter because it keeps it moist for longer).
After feasting on our creations, we waddled out into Le Manoir’s magnificent gardens, for a tour of the exotic herbs and vegetables grown for the hotel’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Hairy patches of bronze fennel rubbed alongside prickles of Korean mint and lurid green tufts of Chinese mustard plants. The garden’s smells were just as exhilarating – the bitter, citrusy perfume of bergamot dancing with the warmer aromas of rosemary and camomile.
Summer is a special time at Le Manoir. Vast apple orchards swell with the first signs of fruit. Roses and camellias explode into colour. On hot days, guests can find shade in the Japanese garden, with its carp pond and shrubs carved into cranes – or in the 15th-century manor house itself.
Of course, the most splendid of all the public rooms is the conservatory-inspired restaurant, with whirring wicker fans, pink stone sculptures and French windows gazing out to the verdant lawns. Guests can dine on vegan delights including terrine of garden beetroot and horseradish sorbet and “le céleri-rave”, a sprightly dish celebrating celeriac, chicory and truffle. The non-vegan offerings are also exemplary – think beef with braised Jacob’s Ladder and smoked eel, or Cornish brill with scallops and oysters. And the cheese trolley is a sumptuous abomination of stinky, creamy Époisses, rind-washed cheddars, and rare mushroomy fromages that only the most committed of vegans could possibly pass up.
Bedrooms at Le Manoir are inspired by Raymond Blanc’s travels, and each has its own identity, from quirky Bluebell, covered from head to foot with toile de Jouy wallpaper and fabrics, and Chinoiserie with its silk bed, to lavishly over-the-top Botticelli with spiral staircase and twin Victorian bathtubs. But the room I stayed in – L’Orangerie – has an ambience particularly suited to warmer months, with its private terrace, indoor citrus plants and Mediterranean-style bathroom with vast marble tub.
While a total conversion to veganism is definitely not on the cards, the experts at Le Manoir have made even this stubborn carnivore a bit more open-minded about experimenting with meat and dairy-free dishes. The Raymond Blanc carrot cake made with chickpea water has been going down particularly well with friends. But now to work out what to do with the 10lbs of chickpeas clogging up my freezer. Suggestions on a postcard?
Vegan cookery course £365; double rooms from £695