Quietly tucked away in the little UK village of Bray, The Fat Duck is Heston Blumenthal’s renowned restaurant. Yes there are three Michelin stars but there is so much more to be said about Heston Blumenthal than stars alone can convey. In my mind he stands apart, incomparable to anything else, so I wonder if in his case, stars or hats are meaningless attempts to categorise a chef who is simply not able to be contained, pigeon holed or defined. In a two day festival of Heston I will fulfil a long held dream that I never thought possible, of experiencing first hand the extraordinary mind of Heston Blumenthal.
When I found myself cut adrift and lost after years in bondage, committed to a life that didn’t seem to include any of the things that bring joy to my soul, one of the empowering things that my gorgeous daughter encouraged me to do as a way to start picturing a future, was to make a bucket list. What were all the things, no limitations, that I would love to experience before I croaked, especially now that I was free.
I had always been passionate about food and cooking but had been limited to exploring this passion vicariously through TV cooking shows and cookbooks that I would devour page by page cover to cover. So, easy to identify and high on the list was to actually eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.
I have long been mesmerised with Heston’s childlike fascination with all things culinary. His inquisitive and determined quest to find the perfect way to evoke memories of yesteryear through food in a modern and tangible way intrigues me.
I have the books and I have watched all the TV shows and I just love Heston’s childish, playful, yet detailed, focused and analytical energy.
We were planning our next European trip when my love surprised me with the news that he had secured a spot at the Fat Duck! I could not quite believe it. Sounds easy right? Don’t be fooled, it is no easy thing to get a spot, let alone align it to predefined travel dates. The Fat Duck only seats 38 people and receives twenty to thirty THOUSAND telephone calls per day, not many of which get through. That alone would be enough to make me go “yeah no chance” and give up. But not my man!
So the way it works is that reservations open up for the month two months in advance. It’s a bit like music festival tickets, you have to be online ready to pounce as soon as it opens up. Within 3 minutes all bookings for the month were gone. My Love, absolute legend, was on it and nailed a luncheon reservation for exactly when we planned to travel!
Minor miracles done, we didn’t think there would be anything more to think about before we arrived for our booking. But then came the email asking for us to think about and share thoughts about memories that would transport us instantly to a particular time and place and what made us feel like a child in a lollie shop. And then later again we heard from Dora who wrote to us, introducing herself as our story teller. These little details and the efforts to set up and begin our journey well in advance of our booking were absolutely magic and clearly indicative of the depth of thought that Heston has invested in the experience we have ahead of us.
Paris, London's Calling
And now the time has finally come and we set off for a couple of fabulous days in the UK. Whizzing over from Paris is a pretty easy thing to do, only a couple of hours by fast train so while we could have opted to go early and come home in the evening after our Fat Duck lunch, we really wanted to make the most of it and be rested and ready to enjoy it and to relax afterward, so we have opted to come the day before and stay a couple of nights in the lovely little village of Bray where Heston has not only the Fat Duck but two pubs the Crown and the Hinds Head.
We are staying at Christmas Cottage a delightful, quintessentially English cottage with a tiny glossy red door we need to duck through, old exposed beams on low ceilings and a crackling fireplace. Most fabulously it is literally only a few doors down from the Fat Duck and the Hinds Head gastro pub. We have booked in at the Hinds Head for dinner so after a lovely walk around the little village down to the Thames and a quite relaxing afternoon we set off for dinner.
First taste of Heston
THE HINDS HEAD
The Hinds Head Bray is a 15th century hunting lodge and inn that has been beautifully restored and now operates as a bar and restaurant serving Michelin star versions of classic British fare designed by Heston Blumenthal.
Pre-dinner drinks upstairs in the bar sounds like a perfect start. Wow what a wonderfully quirky space! It’s just fantastic, dark and moodily lit, old chairs snuggled around an old fireplace, velvet sofas or deep leather chairs are offered. A crazy collection of objects decorate the space, lamps, antlers, taxidermied birds and a favourite a strange picture frame that melts on one corner blending into a tree branch. What a fun space to be in, like a fantastical and whimsical interpretation of the hunting lodge heritage of the building.
We opt for a vodka martini to start but when we get to talking about what vodka they have, we are offered the option of a cows milk vodka, Black Cow. Well of course we have to try it! We learn that Black Cow is produced in West Dorset and is the worlds only pure milk vodka. Using only the whole milk from the grass fed cows they produce an amazing vodka. It is fascinating it’s both clean yet kind of creamy and smooth. A very unique drink. (link here)
Now its time for our first taste of Heston. One of the many things I have admired about Heston is his determination to make British food good. When we think of the most interesting and delicious cuisines in the world, lets face it we just don’t run to the idea of British food being up there. But Heston as a young cook who only put his toe in the water of a cooking apprenticeship for a week before deciding to go it alone, must have had to start somewhere. His peculiar need to challenge everything, continually experiment and strive for perfection has resulted in a menu that fits perfectly in the old hunting lodge, sounds familiar but hones the old classics to perfection.
If you don’t question things, there’s no knowledge, no learning, no creativity, no freedom of choice, no imagination”
– Heston Blumenthal
The Elizabeth Menu is a six course collection of familiar yet entirely surprising plates.
Pea and Ham Soup and Scotch Egg – a cute bowl with a lid arrives. A scotch egg on top and lift the lid to reveal the soup. The pea soup is bright and vibrant, gone is the grey goop of childhood replaced with vivid green light broth that tastes of freshly podded peas with little squares of delicious ham and the scotch egg looks just like Nanna’s, golden a crispy crumbs ( the old crumb it and fry it to make it good trick) but one bite tells me its another whole thing. The meat for a start is delicious and full of flavour and then cutting into the centre reveals a soft runny egg yolk, perfectly cooked, not that dry old pasty thing that stuck your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
I Remember those little salmon sandwiches that we would only ever see on very special occasions. I rather liked them but they were never as good as this version. Lapsang Souchong Tea – Smoked Salmon served on sofa bread with a sour cream and butter. Each and every ingredient as simple as they sound were absolutely perfect and each bite was a joy.
The scallop tartare with Exmoor caviar, white chocolate and langoustine oil was outstanding. The white chocolate foam was such a fascinating combination with the scallop and the depth of flavour from the langoustine oil and salty bursts of caviar….amazing!
Suddenly it smelt like Christmas. Spicy fruity fragrances wafted in the air from the plate of roast venison placed before us. Perfectly pink saddle of highland venison, rich and robust was lifted by fragrantly spiced red cabbage, star anise, pear and celeriac. A warming and comforting dish.
Two lovely desserts finished the night with poached plum and almond tart with sherry ice cream and baked custard which is delicate like a creme brûlée with toffee on top, served with little crisp rectangles of oat, honey and golden syrup.
Every detail has been clearly and meticulously considered in putting together this warming and comforting menu. Heston has certainly worked some kind of magic on the old British dishes. I have loved every moment of this first taste of Heston’s wizardry and I am looking forward to tomorrow at the Fat Duck.
We wander back to our sweet little cottage and pop a couple of logs on the fire and enjoy the warmth and the dancing flames. We chat and wind down from our whirlwind trip so far and speculate on what tomorrows big adventure might hold.
FAT DUCK FUN TIME
It is still so surreal, here I am in Bray UK, seventeen thousand kilometres from home about to go to lunch at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. As I pout at the mirror putting on a little lipstick, the thought crosses my mind that maybe its all just a dream and that any minute now I will get sucked into the looking glass and transported back to my bathroom at home. “Ready Freddy?” My loves voice wakes me from my day dream and I am still standing right here in Bray…Hooray!
Ducking to get out of our little red hobbit door we trundle off down the quaint little lane, only a few steps to the simple little creamy white building on the corner. The first indication we are in the right place is the famous duck inspired cutlery dangling off the corner of the building. A duck bill fork, feather knife and duck foot spoon. The blinds are all down on the windows, the place looks deserted.
I am expecting to walk into a low ceilinged room filled with tables and chairs but when we open the door we are immediately disoriented by finding ourselves surrounded by mirrors. A hostess is waiting for us and leads us literally this time through the looking glass to begin our magical journey.
Once seated our lovely storyteller Dora, who we already feel comfortable with, having chatted leading up to our arrival, gives us a folded map and a great big magnifying glass to hunt for clues about where Heston will be taking us on this whimsical journey. It is a menu of sorts, in the form of an itinerary that is based on one of Heston’s favourite childhood memories – going on holiday to the seaside. It is intended as a catalyst to bring childhood memories to life. Now I have to say that my childhood was rather different to Heston’s, holidays were a very rare thing, but I still found a lot of fun in my own peculiar reminiscent moments throughout the day.
The Night Before
The trip begins the night before where we are offered a little cocktail to celebrate that we are about to go on holiday. Now that sounds like a now memory rather than childhood memory and is of course a perfect start to any trip. This is a cocktail trolley with a twist, the cocktails are pumped out of a foam canister into little balls that are then plunged into liquid nitrogen to make icy single bites that explode into flavour intensified cocktails in our mouths.
And to go with our cocktails, Heston captures the idea of a holiday, the need for a change of air, in his Aerated Beetroot Macaroon. A light airy sphere that is only there for a moment but in that brief puff of air, there is absolutely and intensely pure essence of beetroot. Wow!
Above us the light fitting over the table is a soft warm rather dark glow. Over the day we find it is designed to change colour and brightness to reflect the intended time of day.
The Next Morning
JUST THE TONIC YOU NEED
We move along our itinerary to the next morning and breakfast before we set off on holiday. The first dish, Just the Tonic You Need, is inspired by Heston’s Mum. Dora shared, with a wicked grin, that Heston’s Mum liked to start holidays with a gin and tonic! Now the idea of a drink for breakfast did trigger a very funny memory for me – road trips with the folks for me were more likely to be moving from one town to another rather than holidays. We moved a lot, always chasing my Dad’s next entrepreneurial idea. My Mum was a troubled soul and definitely liked to kick off the day with a drink. I remember this one trip where we were travelling in two cars, dad towing a caravan piled high with all our belongings and Mum with me and my two brothers in the other car.
It was getting late at night and Dad’s idea of just finding a hotel along the way turned out to be not such a great one as everything was full. So we ended up having to sleep on the side of the road. Dad dug some of our stuff out of the caravan to find us a place to lie down and he slept in the car. The next morning we three kids woke up thirsty and hungry. Mum opened the car boot to see what she could find to quench our thirst. Three small children on a road trip and no water, no juice, definitely no food but surprise surprise a big box of Moselle wine. So here we were, me about 12 and my brothers about 5 and 7 standing by the roadside while mum poured sweet wine into our mouths straight from the box! Seemed perfectly normal as a kid but when I look back at it from an adults perspective its definitely one of those “things that make you go hmmm”.
Happily Heston’s morning ‘Tonic’ was neither Gin or Moselle but a little Icecream made from smoked cumin Royale and Jerusalem artichoke. It was stunningly refreshing and the warmth of the flavours juxtaposed against the freezing cold temperature was somehow strangely evocative of the refreshing tonic and the alcohol warmth of gin in a good G&T. Yum!
HOT AND ICED COFFEE
Ok so we are awake and refreshed, now we are offered tea or coffee. We choose coffee and are presented with a clear glass of golden coffee. Ok we are expecting the obvious, that the light golden fluid is intensely flavoured with the essence of coffee. What we were not expecting is to get hot coffee and ice cold coffee all in the same mouthful. What the fuck? How on earth has he he achieved this? This for me is the the dish that first made it very clear that Heston will be fucking with our heads big time today!
To finish our breakfast Dora brings breakfast cereal, a six pack of mini cereal boxes to be precise. Heston remembers these as holiday treats and even though the cereal flavours are different to what we get in Australia I definitely remember these. Even though it wasn’t necessarily associated with a trip, we would still get these as a school holiday treat occasionally.
It was supposed to be special to have the little box of different sorts to choose from instead of the usual dry old weetbix, but it was always a marketing con job. They only ever had a couple of good ones in the pack of six and the rest were dull old cornflakes or rice bubbles. Even as a kid I knew this is how they got rid of the crap no one would buy. I remember not only arguments but also the cleverer things like one brother getting up in the middle of the night and carefully opening the packs at the bottom and swapping out the little bags inside and the disappointed face of my other brother when he opened what he thought was the choice cereal to find it filled with some rubbish he hated.
Dora told us we could play with the puzzle inside but we were not to fight over the flavours as they were actually all the same and we had to wait for our bowl of milk. We played happily until we had built a little money box. My love’s grumbly “I hate puzzles” as he tried to put his together, making me laugh. As we were so well behaved Dora gave us a coin to put in our money box that we would get to spend later, yay!
FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST IN A BOWL
Well when our bowl of milk arrived and we ripped open our cereal and sprinkled it on top, what we actually ended up with was a full English breakfast. Digging the spoon down deep into the bowl we found truffled egg mousse, jellied tomato consommé, and on top Bacon and toasted bread cream cereals. Oh my goodness, surprise delight and fun, all of the stuff we love!
SOUND OF THE SEA
Dora then moves her narration to arriving at the seaside and all the wonderful things that embody being there. She has such a playful energy and is creating a fabulous atmosphere for us.
Our plate arrives – Heston’s ode to the seaside. A box filled with sand and topped with glass is the frame on which a magical selection of seafood is served. An ocean wave, foamy and floaty lapping up against the sandy shore, littered with seaweed, oysters, sea urchins and razor clams. I want to close my eyes and block out the other diners but the visual element on the plate keeps me tuned in.
If you think a bit of fish at the beach sounds simple have a go at the recipe (link here)
CLASSIC SAVOURY ICES
Another beach memory is of ice lollies or as we know them in Australia, ice blocks. Heston takes the memory of ice lollies and pushes it together with some of the classic savoury flavours of the era when we were kids. With mini savoury ice lollies served with their sticks standing them up in a box of sand and pebbles.
The rocket ice block was definitely one we had in Australia. Heston has created a mind blowing Waldorf salad version. So visually you have lime, raspberry and lemonade from the memory vault, the minute the taste buds get involved we are talking Waldorf salad. Apple walnut creamy peppery flavour. And then the old twister ice block, swirls of yellow and green suddenly transform into salmon avocado and horseradish.
Yes I totally get it, being of a similar vintage to young Heston!
And then the final ice cream arrives, a teeny weeny little ice cream cone filled with a swirl of soft serve ‘ice cream’ which of course it’s not. It’s Hestons crab and passion fruit ‘99’ and it was divine.
Heston knew these kind of ice creams as a ‘99’ I guess they probably cost 99p. It evokes memories of chasing the ‘Mr Whippy’ van down the road as it played greensleeves. It occurs to me that the predominate memory is the music rather than anything else. Other than the memory of my baby brother jumping in the public fountain to get coins out to buy us all an ice cream.
THEN WE WENT ROCKPOOLING
Dora then tells us that we will be going rockpooling which is apparently a big thing in the UK, they have rockpooling groups and events where you can go looking for sea creatures at low tide hanging out in the shallow water on rocky areas of the beach. I can certainly recall having spotted the odd crab or starfish at the beach but it was never seen as an event in quite the way they do here.
Today’s rockpooling expedition is very very cool though! A ‘rock’ with a shallow indent is set before us. Inside is a little crab his black eyes staring up at me. Dora then pours a veloute of white chocolate and sea vegetables over the little crab and his bright orange shell simply disappears revealing that he was filled with smoked caviar and golden trout roe. The playfulness of the plating is only the beginning of this dish. The volute is rich and creamy and the flavours are out of this world.
DAMPING THROUGH THE BOROUGHGROVES
The light changes, softening to an afternoon glow as the centrepiece of our table becomes a miniature forrest scene, accompanied by plates strewn with forrest floor litter complete with little worms. An ethereal mist rolls out from the forrest swirling its way around the table and immediately we are walking in the forrest.
Enveloped in the scent of damp earth sweet from a morning shower and fragrant wild herbs, we eagerly dig through the leaf litter finding mushrooms, beetroot and blackberry, scented with fig leaf, meadowsweet, melilot oak moss, all hiding under generous shavings of black truffle.
All my senses are so enlivened with this dish. Visually a moving feast of beauty, an incredible combination of flavours and aromas that transport me instantly.
THE MOCK TURTLE PICNIC
And in the magical forrest of Alice’s wonderland she met the Hatter and the March Hare and joined them for a mad tea party….
The Hatter was the first to break the silence. `What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said `The fourth.’ `Two days wrong!’ sighed the Hatter. `I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!’ he added looking angrily at the March Hare.
`It was the BEST butter,’ the March Hare meekly replied.`Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,’ the Hatter grumbled: `you shouldn’t have put it in with the bread-knife.’
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, `It was the BEST butter, you know.’
Another of Alice’s friends was the Mock Turtle a creature with the body of a turtle and the head hooves and tail of a calf.
The queen asked Alice “ have you seen the mock turtle yet?” “No” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a mock turtle is.” “It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from” said the Queen.
Another of Alice’s friends was the Mock Turtle a creature with the body of a turtle and the head hooves and tail of a calf.
Dora sets the table for our very own Mock Turtle Picnic. In a little timber box is a golden pocket watch and there is a clear teapot of hot water. Just like the March Hare we dip our pocket watch into our clear tea where it completely dissolves leaving only the string in our hands. In our teapot we have rich mock turtle soup. Which is actually an extraordinarily detailed and rich calf’s head, root vegetable, mushroom and sherry consommé.
As the light over our table changes again Dora takes us to the evening of our of holiday day with her story telling. We are going out for a three course meal!
Our entree at this new restaurant we have been taken to is Scallop Anna. A little twist as usual, borrowing from the traditional French dish Pommes Anna where thin slices of potato are layered up and cooked in lots and lots of good French salty butter (one of my favourites mmmm potato’s and butter). Heston’s plate has no potato but evokes that same wonderfull sense of excessive decadence. Scallops are layered Anna style with king oyster mushroom and truffle. And served with the most divine buttery hazlenutty sauce. While there is no dry ice or liquid nitrogen involved, there are so many little details about this dish that make what looks simple enough, actually quite extraordinary.
Scallops for me are always their best barely cooked, just set with a little golden crust on the outside. Heston’s dish has achieved that to such perfection. The golden crust on the scallop also gives you that wonderful rich crispness that is so delicious in the good old potato dish. The earthiness of the mushroom and truffle works so very well with the sweet scallop meat and the sauce while light and aerated really reminds me of that almost burnt buttery deliciousness of the Pommes Anna.
Our main course in our evening dining experience was duck. This was probably the least tricksy of our plates just absolutely perfectly cooked duck, beautifully plated on a stunning plate. Wonderful turnip greens, black pudding and delicious duck jus. Another little treat was a crispy roll filled with tender braised duck neck meat. A really gorgeous dish.
One of the things Heston is known for is his striving for perfection. The BFG is his perfect Black Forrest Gateau.
It arrives at the table a perfect rectangular prism dusted in chocolate on one end of a board spread with cherry sauce and at the other, the most perfect quenelle of kirsch ice cream. Dragging my spoon through the little cake reveals carefully arranged layers of Madeleine biscuit, aerated chocolate, chocolate sponge, chocolate ganache, kirsch soaked cherries, kirsch cream and chocolate mousse. So right here we actually have half a dozen or more stunning elements that combined in the right proportions make the perfect bite. Oh and it is every bit as divine as it sounds.
To complete our journey’s evening meal element, we are offered a digestive in the form of tiny edible bottles of whisky, like little lollies but with a potent punch! Just a little bit of fun.
And now after a long day travelling to the seaside, playing at the beach, wandering through the woods and going out for a lovely even meal, it’s time to get ready for bed. Counting Sheep, our final dessert course says peaceful, soft, gentle and clean. All those things your want when you crawl into your bed at night. A little white pillow levitates above a white cloud, it holds another little tiny pillow, this one is edible, a beautiful little meringue.
We are given a heavy spoon with with a white rabbit fur handle that smells like baby powder (Is there anything in the world that smells as good as a newborn baby?) to eat an accompanying plate of all white treats. Ice cream, vanilla sponge, panna cotta. There are fragrances and flavours of malt, orange blossom, white chocolate and pistachio. The whole thing is some how a dreamy, calm, winding down after the excitement of the day.
LIKE A KID IN A SWEETSHOP
Finally it has come to the time where we get to spend our special coin at the sweet shop.
The trolley carrying a stunning replica of a Victorian west shop is wheeled to out table. There are a collection of somewhat mysterious cogs and wheels that feel very Willy Wonka …….”in a world of pure imagination”. As the cogs whirr into action the sweet shop trolly gives us little treats to take away and opens up to show a miniature sweet shop laboratory and a miniature of Heston’s childhood bedroom. Dora puts our lovely little collection of sweets into a pink stripy paper bag ready for us to take away.
A final treat is a little kitchen tour. The kitchen is absolutely spotless. It’s is quite small when you think about there being pretty much a chef responsible for each dish working in such a space, I can only imagine that they are incredibly organised.
It has been such a marvellous experience filled with great theatre, magic and illusion. I don’t think, well actually I know, I have never experienced anything where every single detail has been so carefully considered.
Everything here is so measured and precise. There is a wonderful sense of simplicity on one level but beneath the seeming effortlessness, the dishes are actually extraordinarily technical. Heston’s unending curiosity and pursuit of perfection means that each dish is broken down into separate elements, each of which are perfected before being reassembled into the composite dish.
Heston has clearly considered all the senses. He understands that particularly for those of us who are very tuned in, that what we hear, smell, see, touch and taste all feed the intangible sense of how we feel. That unspoken sense is all about the vibe and the energy of Fat Duck is one of wonder, freedom and most of all fun. The day has been filled with great theatre, magic & illusion but it all comes from bring tuned in to emotion, to the source energy that is our inner spirit.
I truly believed we are here to enjoy our lives, to experience each day fully. Often we are raised with so much pressure and expectation, pressure to perform to succeed, to behave in a way we are told we should instead of letting our instincts and our inspirations lead us. Heston is a brilliant example of someone who when inspiration has come has grabbed it with both hands and followed it through. I love that he openly embraces failure as an option, in his test kitchen its all about creating the freedom to fail.
“Creativity needs to take place in an environment that does not have an outcome – you need the freedom to fail”
– Heston Blumenthal.
I had built up Heston’s Fat duck in my mind as a pinnacle of creativity and self expression. The dream to come here was less about a seeking a gourmet experience and more about feeling drawn to the creativity and the desire to be inspired to create. I have found all of that and more here today as we have experienced the curious mind of Heston Blumenthal.