Recent, current and future projects
My short story ‘Letters to Lydia’ will be published in an anthology of Austen-inspired fiction, Jane Austen Made me Do It, ed. Laurel Ann Nattress, Random House, 2011.
In September I will be lecturing on my Molière translations at an International Translators' Conference at Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy's country house), Russia.
Travel piece for London Evening Standard
Stepping onto a plane these days is a guilt-provoking business. Politicians and pundits lecture us about how we must holiday in Britain to keep our carbon footprints clean. But this need not mean rain-sodden camp-sites and soggy fish and chips. It is possible to enjoy a truly French experience without the disgrace of crossing the Channel. An hour and a half away down the M40 are two manor-houses, both flamboyantly, obsessively, perfectly French.
Our first manor was just to visit. Waddesdon Manor was created in 1874 by Ferdinand de Rothschild, who bought a bare hill near Aylesbury, decapitated it, and, on the resulting plateau, built a grandiose French château from scratch. He used it at weekends, and in it housed his enormous collection of exquisite French 18th-century antiques. Money no object, Ferdinand indulged his passion for all things French. He bought thousands of precious items, among them Louis XIV’s carpet and Marie-Antoinette’s desk, and, just for variety, a distinguished collection of English portraits of the same period. The whole is kept in immaculate condition by the National Trust and the Rothschild family. As we wandered through room after room of treasures, we felt the place was haunted by its eccentric, depressive creator, who would throw vast house parties, and sit gloomily at the head of a groaning board, under a massive chandelier, watching his guests (Queen Victoria and the Shah of Persia among them) tuck in to gargantuan banquets eaten off priceless Sèvres porcelain, himself crumbling a slice of dry toast in melancholy fingers.
It was too cold and overcast to explore the formal French gardens (in Ferdinand’s time, there were 66 gardeners), so we set out for our next destination, the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, half an hour down the road, where we were to dine and spend the night.
This country-house hotel is less massive and more intimate than Waddesdon, a traditional, wistaria-covered manor house in mellow Cotswold stone. But the moment we passed through the gates, we were in France. Like Waddesdon, the Manoir is the fruit of one man’s obsession: Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc fell in love with his house when he bought it 22 years ago, and the love affair is as fresh as ever. The smallest detail is intensively studied. It is not just the obvious things – organic fruit in every room, his own range of toiletries in the bathrooms – but more subtle touches that one might easily not notice. The conservatory dining room appeared to be lit by candles, until we suddenly realised that the food on our plates was glowing with light, while our faces remained flatteringly twilit. We met Raymond Blanc next morning (he spends much time at the Manoir, mingling with the guests and supervising every aspect of its running), and he explained that they had worked on that lighting for 2½ years before they got it right.
Our bedroom was called Kiki, named after another of Raymond’s obsessions, a 19th-century courtesan with green eyes called Kiki de Montparnasse; but far from being like a tart’s boudoir, it is a large, calm, elegant room with its own little terrace and huge marble bathroom. The ethos is based on Raymond’s own taste, which is firmly unfashionable. He rejects both gold taps and what he calls ‘prickly minimalism’.
The staff share Raymond’s perfectionism. They were not only incredibly attentive, but intelligent and friendly too. But of course the Manoir’s chief claim to fame is the food. Here again, it’s a case of minute, perfect detail. Our Menu Découverte was a feast of miniature delights – a teardrop-sized helping of cream that turned out to be cauliflower; baby leeks, delicate truffle shavings, and, on a delectable dish of minced crab and mango, rings of green so tiny that they looked like Lilliputian chives chopped by a doll’s-house cook. We had ten courses, each one a gastronomic experience – foie gras with rhubarb, scallops with curry oil….
Breakfast the next morning revealed another side to Raymond Blanc’s food philosophy. All the food was seriously organic, with a distinguished pedigree. On my muesli I poured ‘Daylesford Farm organic milk’. He is a passionate believer in local produce, and pesticides are anathema. We witnessed him removing all the plums from the fruit displays because he thought they might contain pesticides.
He gave us a rapid tour of the labyrinthine, stainless-steel kitchens, where, as he rushed through, he created a new bread, containing blanched and caramelised garlic and herbs, then treated us to a newly-invented chocolate flavoured with cardamom. It was mouth-watering. Sadly, it was still too cold for us to play croquet, wander round the gardens with their witty outdoor sculptures (a worryingly real-looking bronze scarecrow in the vegetable garden, a football-sized walnut under the nut-tree), or sit on our private outdoor terrace. In fact, the only part of our holiday that was not a Gallic delight was the awful weather.