Alastair Gilmour writes about beer and breweries and pubs and people from a variety of perspectives. Media outlets include The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne; Brewers’ Guardian, and Cheers North East.
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Perhaps, but this particular twist of imaginative genius is to be accompanied by beer. Beer, that most fundamental of thirst-quenchers and the basic choice of millions, not wine from Bordeaux’s cru classé, but beer from Germany, Belgium, the US and Britain with every course matched flavour by aroma by texture by M Blanc, chief sommelier Xavier Rousset and head chef Gary Jones, a Blanc protégé and himself a Michelin-starred master.
Raymond Blanc has grasped beer’s nuances, subtleties and face-slapping vigour with the zeal of a convert. And now he’s preaching from Le Manoir’s 15th Century rooftops.
“The whole idea came about a year-and-a-half ago when I was doing some filming for television,” he says. “It was about wine, but Oz Clarke, who was also on the production, said, ‘Raymond, you must try some beer. You’ll like it very much and I’d like your opinion.
“I said, ‘excuse me, I don’t do beer’, but he said, ‘please, you must come, there are some truly special things to try’.
“My ears pricked. I was amazed. I discovered its quality, those silky soft bubbles, hints of lemon not harshness. For me, it was a new experience – all the flavours, the caramels, the fruits.”
Raymond hasn’t abandoned his wine lists, but his beer-and-Oz experience has encouraged him to think a little more deeply about what guests might expect at Le Manoir. He and Xavier Rousset pruned all their big oaky wines – some of them were admittedly very pleasant but both agreed that often they overpowered the food.
He has an enthusiasm for moving forward and enjoys surprise but is mindful that others take comfort in wallowing in what they know – so he gets under their skin.
“Modern gastronomy is adventurous, it’s not sedate,” he says. “There’s a lot of opening of the mind. Beer is effectively going to be part of big changes at Le Manoir.
“We want to introduce our guests to different experiences. There’s no reason why quality beers can’t go well with gastronomy. It’s really a lot of fun as well.”
The two-acre garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons – where bronze sculptures appear at every turn of the path – produces 90 types of vegetables and more than 70 varieties of herbs, purely for the kitchen. The Raymond Blanc Cookery School – he is completely self-taught – is open seven days a week and he hosts mushroom hunts, wine talks and cheese days with world-renowned experts.
“I’m going to create lovely dishes to fit with this lovely beer, he says. “The quality of beer here (in Britain) is very, very good, much better than people realise when they talk of Belgium as having the best.”
Raymond and Xavier made notes on beer and pooled the limited knowledge that two Frenchmen can have about the drink that isn’t particularly part of their tradition. Both, however, have fine, cultured palates and once they were bitten by succulent hop aromas, sweet biscuit malt flavours and fruit-infused yeast influences, they knew their education was off in a new direction.
“Education is a by-product of the fun you’re having,” says Raymond. “There are characteristics of these beers begging to be discovered.”
Xavier, patiently pouring a bottle of Schneider Weisse, the wheat beer from Munich, says: “We must have tried 50 beers, but we had to narrow the choice right down – the more you give people sometimes, the more you confuse them.”
The Schneider Weiss bursts into action with an assiette apéritive of tuna, eel jelly and seaweed. A spice-cum-acid wave breathes extra life into a range of flattering flavours.
Raymond constantly asks what we think, teasing out opinion, judgment and advice which you quickly realise isn’t just him being polite (though he’s an exceptional host). He genuinely wants to know – does this work well, are we getting there, do we need to try something else, taste this sake just for a change, try slow cooking, little bursts of sugar, blonde beer, dark beer, spicy spicy spicy, the gardens, the service, you must see the 32 bedrooms.
“Beer is a serious option,” he says. “I’d never do something just for fun; whatever we do, we do seriously. I’ve been working at it for 22 years.
“The first beer I ever drank was Lowenbrau – it was a lovely beer but wine was very much part of my tradition. Often, beer is drunk on its own or always with cheap food. In France we always have wine with dinner; only a drunk will drink wine on its own. But, there’s no reason why beer can’t be introduced in restaurants, it makes for fantastic relationships.
“Discovering Schneider Weisse was exciting. Oz Clarke really knows his stuff – we were ignorant, through a lack of knowledge as much as anything – and there is as much refinement in making a great beer as in a great wine and a great... sake.
“We’re driving it, we’re learning and making mistakes.”
And, our Goose Island IPA, a brilliant ale from Chicago, proves the point. It seems far too hoppy for the pan-fried fillet of Cornish sea bream, fricassé of squid, salted cod brandade and bouillabaisse jus. It takes command and does neither itself nor the food justice. Again, he asks advice and writes notes on an envelope.
“Some beers can be a bit unresponsive,” he says, before taking a sip of Worthingtons White Shield, the classic English IPA. “The world is opening up and beer interest is growing. I’d be able to recommend certain beers now – this White Shield is a great beer.
“I’ve never done this before and it’ll be interesting to try it with a traditional Provençal dish with flavours of almond, cumin, fennel. This is pure selfishness. There’s some aniseed and a hint of cumin which echoes the beer’s characteristics. If there’s any bit of sugar in food it goes very well with beer.
“I’m always learning; it’s always next, next, next. Somebody asked me: ‘Do you ever stop? Do you never feel happy?’ And there’s a lot still to be done with beer’s labelling – frosted glassware should take it to a different level.”
Another German beer, the complex Schneider Aventinus, is presented with corn-fed Anjou squab, celeriac choucroute and red wine juniper sauce. It is an astonishing combination.
“This will go well even with my humble bread and butter,” he says, then describes how that is “washed” in beer. We both take another bite.
“Perhaps it needs a stronger beer,” he says. “The Aventinus is showing up well, it would be good with some slow-cooked mutton, what do you think?” (He asks the waiter to bring some slow-cooked beef, but there’s none left. He shrugs.)
We have Liefmans Frambozen with tarte fondante au chocolat Caraibe, then Xavier offers the aromatic, three-grain, Belgian Tripel Karmeliet with cheese.
We choose Banon, an attractive goats’ cheese from Provence rubbed in eau de vie de marc and wrapped in chestnut leaves; then a soft, ripe Camembert, peeled, marinated in Calvados and covered in breadcrumbs, followed by Chambertin Bleu and the blue-veined Rochbaron. This is living.
“I hate mediocrity,” says Raymond. “It’s the worst affliction of any human being. But, anybody who can plant a tree is a very lucky man.”
And, anybody who combines beer and passion with countless questions to further his education is luckier still.
* Xavier Rousset left Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in 2007 and with a business partner, set up Texture in London, gaining a Michelin Star three years later, then opened 28.50 Wine Workshop & Kitchen followed by Comptoir Wine & Kitchen in Mayfair, London, in 2017.
A BEER WITH… RAYMOND BLANC
Every sense gets a look-in on the long, straight path leading to Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.
The brush of lavender on leg, the glow of honey-coloured manor house, the aroma of woodsmoke merging with roast lamb, the dribble of saliva and the purr of Jaguar. The restaurant and country house hotel near Oxford, owned and run by the extraordinary Raymond Blanc, is regarded as one of the best in Europe and one the few restaurants in the world to have retained two Michelin stars for 22 years (its four AA red stars, five AA rosettes and a 9/10 score from the Good Food Guide almost pale by comparison). The gourmet destination is described as constantly evolving “with a twist of imaginative genius”, so is this why are we are anticipating the finest, freshest, best-cooked, most beautifully presented gastronomic joy, ever?
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More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. We have plenty of them around the North East and the better ones are doing very well, thank you very much.
Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap.
Meet and Drink writer Alastair Gilmour regularly conducts beer events throughout the UK and internationally – tours and tastings that have included a platform suspended 30 metres above the River Tyne and a real ale festival in a Moscow nightclub – and was for several years on the judging panel of the Pilsner Urquell International Master Bartender programme. [READ MORE]
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