PUBLISHED: 16:58 29 September 2014 | UPDATED: 17:14 29 September 2014
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Raymond Blanc’s dishes are as close as you can get to food as an art form. But are we English still painting by numbers?
Raymond Blanc was famously born in a tiny village near Besançon in Eastern rural France – but that hasn’t stopped England adopting this most skilful of chefs as its own. Katie Jarvis caught up with him at Le Manoir, his two Michelin-star restaurant and hotel in Great Milton, to ask: Are the English ever going to equal France’s passion for food?
• Raymond, we English are trying very hard – and you’ve been busy educating us - but we’re still not quite there when it comes to loving our food…
You’ve got to understand, we [in France] had a food revolution. The revolution rolled down the country – we broke the land into millions of parcels, which we gave to peasants. Here [in England], we’ve got 80 percent of the soil which belongs to six persons or eight persons in the nation – large landowners. But in France, the chefs who used to work for the great lord and ladies suddenly didn’t have a job; so they opened their restaurant.
And also there’s the geography. France is lucky: it has about seven or 10 climates. The spring starts in the south of France, and it finishes the end of July in the north.
So it’s a combination of politics and history: the revolution democratised food; whereas, in England, food remained class-led. But let’s not be unkind to ourselves. It is changing. We are reconnecting with our food. The country is now asking where our food comes from; what’s in it. We are stopping wanting fast food for ever. We are asking questions.
• Your son, Olivier, has developed an app aimed at getting children to eat healthily; and I believe you were the inspiration behind the star of the app, Henri Le Worm!
I’ve got two sons and I know one has found his passion. He’s a director of theatre called Sebastien Blanc; I don’t know if he’s going to be successful but I know he’s going to be happy because he’s found his passion. And I think my other son now has found his passion as well. When he told me about his app, which is for children aged three to six, I said ‘Bravo!’ It’s about reconnecting those kids with garden and with food. And he chose me – he chose me – to do the application! It’s all animated: I become a worm. Simon Pegg [the Hollywood actor who was born in Gloucester] is the voice of all the characters who are going to change the world, reconnecting people with food, with the soul, with health: the joy of cooking.
• What do you think of Jay Rayner’s argument, as laid out in his book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World? That local food is not necessarily the way forward?
I’ve loads of respect for Jay, firstly because he’s a good writer; secondly because, being a writer for the Guardian, he apologised to his readers and wrote the most glowing article about Le Manoir. Having said that, I’m still saying he’s slightly getting it wrong. Look! I’m a Frenchman. I support all the local suppliers of Great Britain: I’m not supporting France because I’m supporting that which is close to me. If I was in Italy, I would be supporting Italian. Very important. Seasonality means ‘close to home’. England being your garden, you should get your food from here: it’s fresh; more taste; more texture; more colour.
That’s what the British don’t understand. Not only better taste but better nutrients. And half of the price. Why? When something’s in season, there’s a glut of it and then it’s half the price. So the argument is: if you were to eat by season, we would be so much better off. And let’s go beyond that: then you help the farmer to keep his craft; your village to keep its post office.
And the argument of Jay: I will blow it in the sky in front of the camera with him.
• You also have great concerns for the environment…
We are so spoilt, but not for long. Because soon there will be a number of things happen. Big drama. I’m not a doom merchant but there’s water security; there’s desertification; there’s huge level of acidity within the sea – HUGE. The ice cap is melting at a rate and we’re ignoring all that. Living life as if nothing is happening. And I’ve just read a wonderful article from a French writer, who is a scientist, and he said that mankind will wake up only when it has to. It’s like telling somebody, ‘Oh, my sweetheart! You should eat better because all that food does terrible things to you.’ But you ignore it. We all do. Until one moment you wake up and you’ve got a cancer or some kind of infections; because we are creatures of the moment; we want to enjoy.
• You clearly worry about the way our current eating habits are affecting our health.
If you look at the most successful apples on the market now, they are full of sugar. The marketers have got us absolutely sewn up: ‘I’m going to give the bastards as much sweetness as they want because it will make loads of money.’ Never mind about the consequences
We are currently number one in terms of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, obesity. We are guilty ourselves but the governments have not helped; the processors have not helped; the retailers have not helped. And we need now to wake up and see things long-term.
We are the one generation which messed up the world. We chewed up everything; we swallowed, defecated it and never asked a single question. I’m sorry – it cannot last for ever because there are big problems coming up soon. But things can change, thanks to schools and education. Because our kids are going to be our saviours.
• You’re top of your profession, and you always cite as your inspiration your mother – the wonderful Maman Blanc – and your own home ‘terroir’. But what else do people need if they’re going to succeed?
There’s a book called The Tipping Point [Malcolm Gladwell] - a great book – that says that successful people generally work twice as hard as anybody else. It is not just talent but that anger, that curiosity, that openness of mind, that constant surge, that reappraisal of oneself. That is what you need if you want to succeed in this life.
This article is from the October 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.