When Raymond Blanc was a boy, running errands for his mother in the countryside of the Franche-Comté region of France, his mother would issue him with instructions as precise as those he gives to his chefs today.
“She would never tell me, ‘Raymond, get some potatoes’,” he recalls. “She would tell me, ‘Get some Maris Piper’ ” – Blanc pronounces this, gloriously, as “pea-pair” – “or ‘Get some bintje’” – a Dutch variety – “or ‘Get some agata’ ” – another Dutch variety, like a Maris Piper but more yellow of flesh.
“We always had varieties, the same for lettuce or carrots. Different varieties would have a different role: best for baking, best for purée, best for tarte Tatin, best for everything.”
Those were the bucolic years in which young Raymond and his four siblings were taught how to forage, fish, garden and cook by their father, a watchmaker who built the family home, and their mother, “Maman Blanc.”
Raymond grew up to become first a waiter and then, once he had founded a restaurant of his own in England, the double-Michelin-starred chef we know today.
In his four decades at the apex of the British gastronomical firmament, Blanc has paid frequent, fulsome tribute to his mother’s influence on his cooking and his life. He has named an apple tart after her, a chocolate mousse, a tomato salad, and a steak dish.
In the grounds of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, the hotel-cum-restaurant at the heart of the Raymond Blanc empire, he had a statue put up in her honour. By then a nonagenarian, the diminutive Frenchwoman continued to advise her son on how to cook, and was often pictured alongside him.
“My father gave me my work ethic,” says Blanc, 70, “and my mother gave me all the other values that I pass on to my team.”
He regards Maman Blanc as “my greatest mentor, because she gave me all that really matters in food provenance: purity of the produce, and to cook with love”.
Maman Blanc died in June at the age of 97. Recovering from a shoulder injury, she decided to convalesce in a French convent. Before arriving, she had to be screened for Covid-19, and despite being symptomless, she tested positive. As a precaution, she was sent to hospital for two weeks, and it was there that she suffered the fall that killed her.
Raymond had returned to France to meet her on her release from hospital. “And I never saw her,” he says, “I never saw her.” He and his siblings buried her near the village where she was born.
As Blanc tells the story, his voice begins to crack. “You know, when you love someone, it’s difficult. And I know she was old. Doesn’t mean you love her less. If anything, I loved her more. Every day I would phone her, and I would know in two seconds if she was OK. She’s the person who had the most influence over my life, for sure,” he says.
It is deeply affecting to listen to Blanc talk about the loss of his mother. He is still grieving, still on the verge of tears whenever he discusses her. He is full of gratitude, too, for the way she shaped his life and for the happiness of their relationship.
He describes the various acts of kindness and age-defying energy for which she acquired the nickname, from Blanc’s sons, Olivier and Sebastien, of “Mother Teresa on speed.” He describes, with fondness, his horror at finding her, at the age of 94, about 10ft up a cherry tree, at the top of a ladder, picking the fruit. “Oh my God,” says Blanc, beginning to laugh, “I wanted to kill her!”
Above all, he feels “blessed… very, very blessed”. He says: “For me, of course, there was a lot of hurt, and there’s still a lot of hurt every day. But I was a good son. And the fact that I was a good son… You know when you don’t have any regrets? As such? OK, you did some mistakes, but nothing of consequence, really. I was a good son. I know she’s at peace. I know she was loved”.
Blanc steadies himself and we discuss the lockdown period, most of which he spent alone in his flat in west London. “I’m 70-plus, I’ve got asthma, so I couldn’t be with anyone,” he explains. During that time, he says, he cooked for himself every day (and admits to having a single takeaway pizza). The luxury of having every meal cooked for you by Raymond Blanc must be extraordinary, even if you yourself are Raymond Blanc.
Le Manoir has now reopened, and Blanc is back on its premises, having moved back in with his partner, the nutritionist Natalia Traxel. He was in time for plum-picking season, and is present for apple-picking season, too.
These, along with pears, quince, walnuts, medlars, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, damsons and cherries, are the fruits of the orchard that Blanc’s team created seven years ago. It comprises 2,500 trees and yields about 60 tonnes of fruit for his kitchen each year.
In his book The Lost Orchard, Blanc writes with typical romance about the bountiful breadth of fruit varieties that England produced in the days before the supermarket era. In the years between 1950 and 1997, he writes, Oxfordshire (home to Le Manoir) lost 90 per cent of its orchard acres, a fate that was mirrored elsewhere.
“Let me paint you a picture that still haunts me,” he writes. “It is of thousands and thousands of dusty plums, fallen on the ground and lying unharvested and unwanted, in an abandoned orchard in the Vale of Evesham. I saw this for myself while filming there for a TV programme.
Once, this vale was lit up with the glorious colours of Victoria plums, Yellow Egg plums and Purple Pershores, but since the Second World War, 80 per cent of plum orchards have been lost.”
He ponders the whereabouts of the “hundreds of diverse and fascinating varieties of apples whose rich and complex flavours the Victorians celebrated like fine wines”, and outlines his hope that his orchard, in which many of these varieties now grow, might inspire more people to grow their own fruit trees.
For Blanc, this is an issue of culinary sensuality as well as one of heritage. “When you look at an apple,” he tells me, “it’s a cooker or an eater.
“But I say, ‘No, please no. Definitely no.’ For me an apple is all about the one that cooks, that bakes the best, that eats the best. The best for pie, the best for cooking, the best for roasting, the best for Maman Blanc’s tarte, the best for tarte Tatin. He explains that tarte Tatin “needs a very acidic, very tight apple, because of course you’re going to add the caramel”.
It sounds a little like something Maman Blanc would have said to young Raymond. In their separate ways, both the orchard and the book are a fitting homage from fils to maman.
The Lost Orchard by Raymond Blanc is published in paperback by Headline Home (£10.99). Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk.