One Giant Leap… with Raymond Blanc OBE
Top French chef Raymond Blanc OBE remembers one of his first trips away from home – to the south coast of France – and his vivid memories of the sights, sounds and, most importantly, the flavours.
Raymond Blanc OBE at the Eurostar business lounge
One of my strongest, most powerful travel memories is when I was 13 years old. Remember I am a post-war French kid: born in 1949 into a working class family, I grew up in Saône in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. We didn’t travel that much – only in our local area – and we only ate local food. The furthest we would have gone was to Switzerland, which was about 95km away, and that felt like a huge undertaking. But when I was 13 I travelled to the south of France, and that was a really big adventure, like travelling to the moon.
There was a friend of mine, René. He was my best friend. We grew up together, not quite in the same house but almost. We did everything together. We would steal fruit or gather food in the forests and sell it on the side of the streets. He was my great pal. And then René moved to the south of France, and I was heartbroken.
When I was 13, it was arranged that I would go to the south of France and visit René. I was so excited to go and see him, but also to discover the south of France, of which I had seen so many pictures. We were going to Cassis, a little fishing village 30km down the coast from Marseille. Also La Cadièred’Azur, a beautiful medieval village inland.
When I arrived, it was unbelievable. Firstly, the smell of the sea (I grew up near the mountains, so I had never seen the sea before), and then the heat, these great blue skies, and the smell of dried pinewood. It was all so intense, so overwhelming. The colours were incredible too, I had never seen anything like it.
And then we went to the local market and I flipped, I really flipped. The market was filled with things I had never seen, never smelt before. And on every stall, always different! Like the fish. At home, I would be fishing for trout, carp, tench or eels. And suddenly there were stalls selling so many types of fish: ones covered with spikey red scales, big teeth and great boggly eyes, there were fish I later learned were sea bass, bream, snapper. And there were mountains of wonderful melons, great mounds of basil and herbs all together, creating these incredible aromas that filled the air in the sunshine. It was like a colourful tapestry of tastes, textures and flavours. As a 13-year-old boy, I found it completely overwhelming.
And then when I tasted my first bouillabaisse… oh my god, that was something. It was a true discovery: all these different flavours and colours. It’s why Cezanne and all the great artists wanted to paint along the south coast of France: the luminosity, it was all so beautiful. And different. Even the wind – the Mistral – was different.
Visiting René was a special moment, one of true discovery. He remained my very best friend always, and he died at the age of 50 of liver cancer. It was a terrible thing, so this is a bittersweet memory.
But even though I was so moved by food and flavours, I didn’t think about becoming a chef for a long, long time. I should have known from the age of six! My grandmother was a well-known cook in the region, and so creative – like making blanquette de veau with yoghurt, making tarragon liquor – all so delicious and original. And my Mum was the same. All my mother’s family were cooks. But there were two daughters and two sisters in my family, and the daughters learned from their mothers how to cook. The men, we were minions: I learned to chop, to garden, I’d kill the chickens – and I’d bring it all in to my Mum who would create these amazing dishes. I was interested and would ask her how she prepared the ingredients, but she would never teach me. It was the women who cooked, so only my sisters were taught. But what I did learn was my mother’s philosophy: a simple approach to food, a basic knowledge of seasonality, of purity, of authenticity, to use local ingredients. And she also taught me that the table is the most extraordinary place, a place where you celebrate life and friendship. And that’s what I always try and do – whether for Eurostar or Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – to celebrate life.
Michelin chef and Eurostar Business Premier Culinary Director, Raymond Blanc OBE has created a range of seasonal dishes, bespoke tea and boutique gin, exclusively for Eurostar’s new Business Premier Lounge Paris Gare du Nord (eurostar.com). His acclaimed country house hotel in Oxfordshire, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, is true to his passion for seasonality, with a two Michelin-starred restaurant serving up delicious dishes using produce from the hotel’s two-acre kitchen gardens (belmond.com).
All photos © Nick Gregan