Stepping onboard the Belmond British Pullman, you are transported to a bygone era of luxury and style. Sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, it departs from London Victoria to a wide variety of destinations. Ours was to be Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s famous two Michelin star restaurant.
Each carriage has its own identity, all dating from the 1920s and a fabulous embodiment of art deco style. I had a weak spot for Ibis, decorated in iconic Liberty of London fabric. Whilst everyone on board is smartly dressed, the atmosphere is unstuffy and friendly. You are welcome to walk up and down the carriages and to ask questions of the staff, many of whom have worked on the railways all their life.
We were seated in the equally beautiful Perseus carriage. The seats are very comfortable and can be moved around with ease. We were introduced to Bob, our liveried steward for the day. Like all the staff we met, he takes a real pride in his job. As he told us, this is the only train where travellers don’t want to get off! He served us a welcoming Bellini as we read further details of the history of the carriages in the Pullman brochure.
Tea and coffee was then offered with a breakfast pastry, followed by a refreshing fruit cocktail with yoghurt. After that, a delicious cooked breakfast of caviar, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon on a muffin appeared. I would certainly recommend that you go on an empty stomach!
We then wandered up the train where were given a peek into the kitchen. It is impressive to consider that they prepare hundreds of meals in a tiny space originally designed for many less diners. After a relaxing journey through some beautiful countryside, we pulled into Oxford station where a coach awaited us for the transfer to Le Manoir. Also part of the Belmond group and a member of the Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel collection, it is set in stunning surroundings.
Smiling staff were outside to help us of the coach and welcome us inside. I had visited Le Manoir a couple of years previously but was keen to see their private dining spaces, in particular the new Belle Epoque Conservatory.
This space is wonderfully light and overlooks a private terrace area and historic church spire. It has it’s own private entrance via a picturesque rotunda, so would be perfect for a up to 70 people for drinks and canapés. There is also an adjacent Belle Epoque private dining room, seating up to 50, and a Provencal style reception room. You can also hire the whole hotel for exclusive use.
We then made our way into the airy hotel dining room overlooking the gardens. Our starter was a delicate beetroot terrine, fresh from Le Manoir’s vegetable garden and accompanied by a chilled horseradish sorbet.
The wines complemented the meal perfectly – we started with an aromatic Macon Ige 2012 by Chateau London. Our next course was possibly my favourite, a risotto of wild mushrooms with truffle cream. Vastly superior to any I had tasted before, the mushrooms had been harvested from Raymond’s “mushroom valley”.
At this point we received a surprise visit from the man himself, and I have to say that Raymond Blanc is as lovely in person as he seems on television. Passionate about every aspect of his work, he’s continually looking for ways to improve the guests’ experience. After that excitement, we were served pan fried wild sea bass, with octopus and heirloom tomatoes. The octopus works really well with the sea bass, and the tomatoes were bursting with flavour.
Luckily the portion sizes are sensible so there was plenty of room for the next course, assiette of piglet with cabbage, onion puree and greengage. These are considered to be the finest desert plums, and they did work very well with this dish. Our red wine was a robust and well balanced Pinot Noir 2010 from Wild Earth.
Cheese and desert were to be served on the return journey, but for now we were happy to digest and to indulge ourselves with some delightful petits fours and chocolates.
We decided that some exercise was called for, and visited a few of the beautiful bedrooms. Le Manoir has 32 rooms and suites, each with its own individual character. I liked the Blanc de Blanc eco-friendly suite with its own private terrace. As you may have guessed, white is the name of the game here!
After settling in, we were welcomed with a chilled glass of Champagne. I couldn’t resist purchasing a little memento on-board. I chose a handy foldaway Orient Express bag but there was quite a wide range for all budgets. Surprisingly, we had worked up an appetite for the cheese course, a selection of British cheeses accompanied by a glass of port, chutney and with a choice of breads and crackers.
I just about had room for the lovely orange tart desert, with a truly delicious glass of Sauternes.
Just when we thought we could eat no more, some petits fours appeared a superb ending to the most incredible of days.
What memories will I take from this visit? The kindness of the staff, the elegance of the British Pullman and Le Manoir, and the delight of my fellow travellers who were here to celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries and other special occasions.
I travelled as a guest of Belmond, a collection of iconic hotels, trains and river cruises worldwide. I’ve since travelled back to Le Manoir to experience their afternoon tea, which is occasionally open to bookings by those not staying at the hotel.