I have to keep reminding myself I’m actually here…
It’s an auspicious occasion. The top of my foodie “Things To Do Before I Die” list. Something I’ve been so looking forward to, for so long… has finally arrived. And I don’t want to miss a minute of it.
My boarding on obsession with Heston Blumenthal has been well documented in this blog. He represents everything I love about food – it’s fun, experimental, nostalgic, a sensory pleasure, mixed with a little bit of magic. And tonight, Piglet, the White Rabbit, Cruise Director and I are expiring in the rare London heat, on the train to Maiden Head, enroute to dinner at his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray.
We’re a little early for our booking, so check out the quaint village of Bray, where Heston also owns the Hinds Head pub. Everyone is talking about how they’ve eaten practically nothing all day, saving room for the 14 courses we have ahead of us… I dare not tell them about my three course lunch at Rochelle Canteen.
For a restaurant that’s been awarded three Michelin stars, Restaurant of the Year, Best Restaurant in the World and Best Restaurant in the UK, the entrance couldn’t be more unassuming (and we walked straight past it). Their reservation line receives around 30,000 inquiries a day and they only seat 42 people for dinner. So it’s an honour to be walking through the front door.
Housed in a little English cottage, the room – it’s low beamed ceiling, white walls hung only with a few easy pieces of bright art and tables covered with clean, crisp white linens – is simple and elegant. Any kind of fancy is definitely saved for the food. It’s not at all stuffy and the crowd of waiters (there are more of them than diners) are warm and friendly. We soon establish ourselves as the noisiest table there, but we’re having fun and the staff have fun with us.
Leather bound menus are delivered along with the wine list, that’s like a giant encyclopedia. The Champagne trolley arrives before we’ve even had a chance to look, along with aerated beetroot and horseradish cream that resemble little sparkling spaceships. Just being here is cause for celebration.
We’re instructed to eat them in one mouthful and the beetroot melts and fizzes on my tongue. Piglet is already talking about stealing some of the crockery she likes.
Course 1: Nitro Poached Aperitifs – Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Campari Soda. “Citrus Grove”
A ‘drinks’ cart is wheeled beside me. Nitrogen is poured in to a bowl to cook the alcohol infused meringue that’s to be dusted with a concentrated flavour powder.
Piglet and Cruise Director have the vodka – vodka meringue with lime powder and a spritz of citrus grove in the air to get our sensors going. The White Rabbit and I have the Campari. It’s another one that has to be eaten all in one mouthful. The meringue is ice cold and tastes like blood orange (the pink powder) with an after taste of bitter Campari. I’d happily take my aperitifs this way, always.
Course 2: Red Cabbage Gazpacho – Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream
Never did I imagine I’d be enjoying mustard ice cream so much. The sweet tangy ice cream is dotted with warm red mustard seeds. A bright purple gazpacho – that matches the waitstaffs ties – is poured around it. It’s so refreshing but we think a better spoon could be designed as we all struggle to finish the last mouthful, left helpless in the bottom of our bowls.
Course 3: Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream – Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
You had me at truffle and parfait! A little box of oak moss with plastic film containers is placed in the centre of the table. We’re instructed to first, place the dissolvable strip in the film containers on to our tongues, take a bite from the truffle toast, then a spoonful of the parfait and jelly – making sure to scoop deep enough to get the pea purée. The toast tastes dark and earthy, then a mouthful of cool, creamy jelly and parfait that feels so decadent on my tongue. I love everything about this… including the pea purée.
More liquid nitrogen is poured over the moss to give the aroma of oak as we eat. It looks amazing but I’m the first to admit that I could taste the oak in the dissolvable strip but I can’t really smell much from the moss. And Piglet agrees with me. But for the White Rabbit and Cruise Director, the sensations are opposite. It’s interesting to see now how differently we’re all reading this sensory experiment.
Course 4: Snail Porridge – Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel
This was the dish Piglet told me she would never eat. “Snail Porridge? Eww. No thanks” we’re her words to me when I invited her to this dinner. And when I ask her on the train trip home, what was her favourite? Her face says it all.
The bright green bowl of oats that’s dotted with snails, is fresh and grassy with a slightly chalky texture. And the fennel adds a nice aniseed crunch. I imagine snails slowly making their way across long stems of dewey garden grass. Such an interesting combination of flavours. I haven’t eaten many snails in my time, but these are the best by far.
Course 5: Roast Foie Gras – Barberry, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit
Decadent soft roasted foie gras. The Barbeery is new to me, although I have sighted them in the shops before. I’d liken them to a sweet and tangy rhubarb. Along with the crispy crab biscuit and seaweed – it’s the perfect balance of sweet end savoury.
Tonight, this course also comes with the option of scallops. And I can’t for the life of me remember where they came from or what they came with (sorry! I was like a kid at Christmas). But they were fat and juicy and delicious. That little strip of dirt-like substance is onions that have been roasted at 90’C for 86 hours, sesame seeds and scallops which have been air dried until they become like jamon… Scallop jamon, amazing.
Course 6: Mad Hatters Tea Party – Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich
This is what I’m most looking forward to. I’ve seen Heston make it on his television show, ‘Heston’s Feasts’ (what would my last ever meal be? A seat at the table for one of his Feasts).
I love the fairytale theatre of this dish. And I love Alice in Wonderland. It’s only appropriate that one of my dining companions is in fact, the White Rabbit. I’m Alice and our waiter is the March Hare. Our glass teapots are delivered first, then a wooden case with four gleaming golden pocket watches.
Instructed to dip the watches in our teapots and swirl as they dissolve into a lovely tea like consommé with glittering gold leaf.
Then we pour this in to our cup filled with tiny pieces of pickled meat and vegetables and a dainty mushroom topped egg. It’s not the first time we question the tiny little people that must be working in the kitchen assembling these miniature pieces of food art.
Toast sandwiches – yes that’s a little sandwich filled with a wafer thin slice of toast, avocado, mayonnaise, cheese, cucumber, chopped egg – arrive on plates that appear to splice through the Mad Hatters hat.
Course 7: “Sound of the Sea”
One of Heston’s most famous dishes. First comes the sound… A shell, alive with headphones.
Then the sea. On a glass topped sandbox is the seashore scene of raw Mackerel, Halibut and Abalone and different types of seaweed. The sea foam is prawn and the sand is made from tapioca powder and dried sardines.
The first spoon goes down like a mouthful of beach, literally. The smell, taste and texture kind of felt like I’d been dumped by a giant wave and eaten a mouthful of ocean floor… Minus the fizzing water-up-my-nose situation. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it, it was just seaside sensory overload. And I do enjoy it more with every mouthful.
We nip in and out of conversation – set adrift by the sound of water lapping, seagull calls and soft ocean breeze that gently flows through our Conch shell iPods. I think we’re all missing home and Sydney beaches. It’s time to come out of our ocean coma, back to shore and back to the dinner table.
Course 8: Salmon Poached in a Licorice Gel – Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trou Roe
This is all so unexpectedly sweet. Delicate and fragrant. The vanilla mayonnaise works perfectly with silky pink salmon that’s covered in a fine subtle licorice skin. Every mouthful is lifted by little burst of blood orange and salty fish roe.
Course 9: Lamb with Cucmber – Onion and Dill Fluid Gel
It’s unanimous at the table, that this amazing lamb from Cronwall, was the tastiest dish of the night.
Served with a side of veal sweetbreads and tounge served with a quinoa crisp and a little bowl of mint jelly and pea purée.
Course 10: Hot and Iced Tea
Tea. So simple and so interesting. With the first sip, I taste the hot tea and then the cold hits my lips. It’s the same tea, just different temperatures and yet they taste so different. The warm feels comforting and a little sweeter, while the cold is refreshing and maybe more citrusy. Each sip leaves me wanting to go back for more.
Piglet tries her hand at guessing how it’s been made (she’s way off…) which provides great amusement for our waiter. A thickener is added to the tea – not too much so that it’s still a drinkable liquid, but enough to keep the liquids separate when a hot and cold version are poured in to the same glass. So much fun.
Just before dessert, little cones of Earl Grey Tea Ice Cream in a slightly salty, jam filled cone are handed around. Their melting tops resemble our train journey here. Sadly the little silver balls they sit in aren’t of the edible sugared kind that I’ll find any excuse to adorn tiny cakes with.
Course 11: Macerated Strawberries – Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile and Coriander Jelly and Ice Cream Cornet
Not only are they the tiniest strawberries I have ever seen, but they’re the most flavoursome. Who’d have thought something so small could have such a big taste. Apparently we’ve come at a good time of year, because it’s strawberry season but the pretty picnic setting is almost too lovely and peaceful to disturb.
Course 12: The “BFG” – Black Forrest Gateau
Our waistbands start to grown when this arrives… looking so much bigger than we’d imagined. Where are we going to find room?? Even my separate dessert stomach is getting full. Breath in.
Cruise Director is the first to take a bite, starting with the sorbet that’s been made from Kirsch – a German cherry liquor. Another waiter whisks past with an atomiser spritzing around above us… It’s the smell of the Kirsch again. My spoon cracks through the elegantly layered chocolate centre of the gateau that contains a secret chamber of soft chocolate cake and aerated chocolate, like an Aero. It’s a Black Forrest cake on steroids.
Course 13: Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
I’m not a fan of Whisky, so maybe this is a little lost on me. It’s cute though, and very Heston.
Little jelly wine gums are stuck to a map with their names and instructions of how to eat them. Some of them taste quite sweet, and others a little smokey.
Course 14: “Like a Kid in a Sweey Shop” menu – Aerated Chocolate, Mandarin Jelly; Coconut Baccy – Coconut infused with the aroma of Black Cavendish tobacco; Apple Pie Caramel with edible wrapper; The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts…
I’m smelling the menu (as it advises) while I write this. I’d seen Heston talk about the Sweet Shop experience during his stage show at the State Theatre in Sydney earlier this year. The playing card is almost too incredible to eat. A little piece of art that comes in its own wax sealed envelope. The thinnest of shortbread biscuits is sandwiched with jam before being covered with white chocolate and image of the Queen of Hearts playing card. It looks just like a playing card. Amazing.
I’m surprised I didn’t attempt to make the Coconut Baccy when I went through my ‘coconut faze’ a few months back. It’s dark and chewy like caramel with a hint of sweet tobacco.
We all agree to save the Apple Pie Caramel, thinking we’ll keep it as a treat to eat at a later date, to try and savour tonights experience. But before the train home has even left the station, we decide it’s definitely a moment that needs to be enjoyed together. Remembered forever.
The Fat Duck – High Street, Bary, Berkshire SL6 2AQ – +44 1628 580333 (good luck!)