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June 04, 2008

Le Manoir de Raynaudes

Le Manoir
Photo: Neil Gower

The Daily Traveler is happy to welcome Conde Nast Traveler's Contributing Artist Neil Gower to the team. Last week, Neil visited Tarn, in southwest France, with the goal of eating and staying at the foodie mecca Le Manoir de Raynaudes. His dispatch is below.

by Neil Gower

The silence is the first thing you notice on arrival at Le Manoir de Raynaudes. Since we left Toulouse two hours ago, the roads have become steadily narrower and the countryside more enchanting. As we pass through the hamlet of Raynaudes and the grass in the middle of the track starts to scuff the underside of the car, I know we must have arrived.

It's four years since English food guru Orlando Murrin and his partner Peter Steggall bought this remote farmhouse and transformed it into a gastro B&B. The wild orchids bob in the meadow and the bare stonework glows in the Tarn sunshine just as it has since 1860. But it is inside, in a state-of-the-art kitchen, where you will detect the building's new heartbeat. That is where Orlando will be single-handedly fashioning tonight's gourmet menu from ingredients grown in Le Manoir's own potager, or the finest, freshest produce the Tarn region has to offer.

Manoir2_dailytraveler
Photo: Neil Gower

At 7:15 beneath the catalpa tree on the terrace, the show commences with kir and exquisitely prepared appetizers. Peter takes wine orders (a local Domaine de Chanade Gaillac for us) before inviting us to the dining room. First course is an unforgettably airy double-baked soufflé of local pink Lautrec garlic followed by veal filet (from just down the road in Puylaurens) in a Parmesan crust. The highlights of the cheese board are the Tulipe Noire (a gnarled, salty monster from Calais), Brillat-Savarin (an artery-clogging 75 percent fat) and La Roche (a soft, seasonal sheep's cheese from Corsica). Dessert is a spectacular confection of Gariguette strawberries (first and most fragrant of the French crop), mascarpone, and perfectly brittle shortbread. As the handmade chocolates and Le Manoir's own limoncello are passed around, Orlando emerges to chat with the guests. There can't be many places on earth where you can eat food of this caliber in such a relaxed setting.

It is nearly 1 a.m. as we get into bed. I close my eyes and realize it's not silence I'm listening to at all: It's the timeless sound of the finest produce growing and grazing contentedly in the surrounding landscape.

Further reading:
* A Nonstop, Unapologetically High-Calorie Foodie's Tour de France
*  Video: The Case of the Stolen Starter (Neil's work)
* Neil Gower's Web site
* Murrin and Steggall's book, A Table in the Tarn (Harper Collins), is out now; look for it in the States around Mother's Day next year. Both editions contain the story of Le Manoir de Raynaudes, as well as 100 recipes from its kitchen and a map of the estate by none other than Neil Gower.   

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