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Dinner at The Fat Duck - background
This page deals with lot of the personal and peripheral stuff separately, so that readers only interested in the restaurant and the meal can go straight to the serious stuff!
I?ve just (Christmas 2008) been given The Big Fat Duck Cook Book - a massive (5kg) and very beautiful tome containing Heston Blumenthal?s culinary autobiography, all the recipes from the restaurant in great detail and masses of related science. At some point I need to go through the review page and smarten it up in the light of all this new knowledge.
We first saw the improbably-named, improbably young and improbably shaven-headed chef-proprietor of The Fat Duck on the excellent but now-defunct BBC TV series Full On Food. I was immediately impressed by his revolutionary approach to cooking, and picked up various news stories about his exploits, and reviews of his remarkable restaurant, but didn’t see him back on the celebrity-chef circuit again until late in 2006 - hardly surprising, considering how much he’s been doing behind the scenes of the Duck and his pub, The Hind’s Head.
Then, shortly before Christmas, a TV commercial for The Sunday Times announced that they would be giving away a DVD featuring Blumenthal. I made sure to get this and watched it with huge pleasure - not least because it featured one of my longtime culinary heroes, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking - the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I’d had a copy of this wonderful book for around ten years and it had been well-used, so I was delighted to ’meet’ the gentle Californian for the first time on my TV screen.
McGee’s book explains (in nearly 700 densely typeset pages, some full of pretty obscure science) why we do the things we do in the kitchen and, more to the point, why we should do some of them differently. For instance, I’d never questioned the instruction on my can of Allinson’s dried baker’s yeast to reconstitute it in water at 43°C, but McGee told me in no uncertain terms that the reconstitution temperature range for optimum yeast activity is 41-43°C - confirmation of what I knew, but clarification of why. On the other hand, he taught me that an egg hard-’boiled’ at 85°C for 25-35 minutes would have a much more tender white than one really boiled at 100°C for ten minutes as my mother, I and everyone else I knew always did it.
That was it - I was a Heston Blumenthal fan.
The Style magazine that came with that issue of the Times contained the first of a series of articles, In Search of Perfection, each with a pared-down presentation of a recipe then demonstrated in HB’s BBC2 TV series of the same name. The idea of revisiting familiar favourites like roast chicken, steak and spaghetti bolognese, researching each thoroughly in the light of current scientific knowledge and then going for broke in a quest to produce the very best interpretation really appealed to me, and I couldn’t wait for the book.
This arrived in my Christmas stocking (predictably, as I had been boring everyone within earshot rigid for weeks with my enthusiasm for HB and his works). I’ve just (1 February 2007) read it from cover to cover. The background research he did for each recipe - including trips to Italy and the USA - makes riveting reading, and the detail in the design of the recipes is remarkable. I intend to cook at least some of them - the slow roasting of meats promises something amazing - as soon as I can source the ingredients. I’ve already started the hunt, as you can see on another new page on this site. Tw ochickens and two guinea-fowl from the Ellel Free Range Poultry Company will be here in a couple of weeks, and I am currently trying to choose between a number of very good beef producers (sadly, HB’s chosen supplier of longhorn beef only sells assortment boxes at upwards of £200). I will doubtless be writing my experiences up here...
Apart from a general feeling that perfection ought perhaps to mean keeping the dish simple but doing it as well as is scientifically possible, and that such tricks as injecting juices into a chicken when its cooked or spraying the air around the table with the liquid from a jar of pickled onions is getting a wee bit cheffy, I have just one problem with the book - trivial, but it was HB who went for perfection: I just can’t believe that, after all this research, he used quick-acting yeast for his pizza dough. I’m proud to say that this ingredient has never found its way into my kitchen. I mentioned this in an email to Linda Wilbourne, my sourdough friend in Texas, and she was as amazed as I was (though, to be fair, I’ve done a big Google search for ’Italian pizza yeast’ and found nothing but ordinary baker’s yeast - fresh, dried or fast-acting) mentioned anywhere). So at some point I have to make a sourdough pizza. There might be scope for trying out HB’s trick of using the grill here, as my oven only manages 230°C (he uses an upturned cast-iron frying pan, but I’ll have my heavy-duty baking stone).
Some time before Christmas 2006, Patricia suggested that - rather than stressing ourselves trying to think what to give one another for birthdays (what do you give the man/woman who has everything?) - we should start doing something expensive and exciting on each occasion. As I’m the one who has the biggest problem with presents (Patricia has a brilliant ability to remember odd things I mention and so come up with just what I’ve always wanted, even if I didn’t know I wanted it!), I didn’t argue.
We’d just watched In Search of Perfection on TV ,and read the accompanying series of extracts from the book of the same name in the Sunday Style magazine, and I was boring everyone rigid with my enthusiasm for his amazing new takes on old recipes, so it was no surprise when she suggested that for my 64th birthday on the 18 January 2007 we try to get a table at The Fat Duck. I have to admit that he idea of dining in a restaurant with three Michelin stars (we’d never gone higher than one-star before), which had been voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005, was a touch intimidating, but I didn’t argue with that, either. Having studied The Fat Duck’s website I knew that both boxes would be ticked, big time: exciting and expensive.
Getting the booking
I spent a whole day on and off listening to the engaged signal on the restaurant’s reservations line, and finally, early in the evening, it was answered by Lindy, the very-helpful South African reservations lady. I explained the situation, and of course they had nothing available (they only take bookings up to two months ahead and apparently get an average of 380 calls a day). However, she offered to put us on the waiting list for a cancellation as near the date as possible. Of course we agreed, but we weren’t very optimistic.
Then, on the way back home from a 7-mile walk with half a dozen other old codgers (Last of the Summer Wine sprang to mind), which we’d undertaken equippped with hip-flasks (mine charged with peaty 10-year-old Laphroaig malt whisky) and which was punctuated around the halfway mark by a full Christmas dinner at the local Country Park café (£6.50 all-in - not all my eating out is at the top end of the market), my mobile rang. It was Lindy, with the offer of a table at 8pm on the 23 January 2007, just five days after my birthday. Would I like to take it? Rather breathlessly, I said I would, and she asked for a credit-card number (if you cancel too close to the time, they charge £80 per person). I’d left my wallet at home, so I cancelled the last bit of the walk (a mince pie at the home of our friend John, who had organised the whole junket) and hobbled home to phone through the card number and break the news to Patricia. Fortunately the phone was answered first time. Luckily the reservations line was a lot quieter than before.
The next priority was to find overnight accommodation. The Fat Duck website suggests various possibilities.
There’s Cliveden House, which used to be the country seat of Lord Astor, where the whole Profumo affair started because Dr Stephen Ward had a cottage on the estate, where he introduced the then Secretary of State for Defence to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (if this means nothing to you, try googling any of these names - it was the mother of all scandals beck in the 1960s). It’s now a posh hotel with double rooms from £265 per night, excluding VAT and plus an £8.50 National Trust charge! I didn’t think so...
Then - cheeky this - there’s The Waterside Inn, Michel Roux’s hotel and the other 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Bray. Can you imagine ringing up for a room and explaining that you’d be dining at The Fat Duck? In fact, the two chefs are great friends and there probably wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, you could always stay two nights and dine at both restaurants if you had the stamina...
Then there is Christmas Cottage, which is for hire by the night and sounds wonderful. I tried for this but it wasn’t available on the night.
Second choice was Red Roofs, a guest house in nearby Maidenhead, where I was able to book a double room with a river view for £105.
You can find links to the websites for all these, and others, on The Fat Duck’s site.
Then there was Christmas. Then, suddenly, it was my birthday (which was where I discovered that Patricia had reneged on our agreement by buying me two magnificent Japanese kitchen knives - the Tojiros used by Heston Blumenthal himself). And then it was Tuesday 23 January.
We’d decided to make a day of it, so we set out at about 10:30am, guided by our newly-purchased Garmin satellite navigation system (see what I mean about presents for people who have everything?) - its first serious test. Its calm female voice and clear maps, even on the small display, took us down the M1 to the A43 Oxford road, which linked us to the M40. We then got a surprisingly scenic riverside route through Cookham and Bourne End into Maidenhead, and were guided unerringly into a private road and to the guest house. The estimated time-of-arrival on the Garmin was spot-on - ignoring a coffee break, the journey had taken about three hours.
Once we were confident that we could find Red Roofs, and because check-in is from 4:00pm, we turned round and drove the short distance to Bray. We drove through the village looking for The Fat Duck, turned round and drove back still looking for The Fat Duck, turned again and drove through again, and finally found the village car park, where we left the car and walked back through. We had seen The Hind’s Head, Blumenthal’s pub, and we’d seen him on TV walking across the road from one to the other (we thought). But where was The Duck? How hard can it be to find a restaurant recently voted the best in the world in a tiny country village?
Finally Patricia spotted the sign - the hanging knife (a feather), fork (a duck’s foot) and spoon (a duck’s beak). No name - just that. and it wasn’t across the main road from The Hind’s Head at all - just across a small side road. We had a peek through the windows - it was chock-a-block. We read the menus - just as on the website. Then we had a wander that eventually brought us to The Waterside Inn. Good job we hadn’t tried to book in there: it was closed for a month’s annual holidays.
Both these world-famous restaurants are incredibly unimpressive from the outside - The Fat Duck a ’blink-and-you-miss-it’ experience on the main street in Bray and The Waterside Inn such an ordinary-looking pub that you have to go and look at what’s displayed in the porch to convince you that it really is the Michel Roux restaurant.
We then went into Maidenhead (a very British-Standard medium-size town) and spent a couple of hours wandering round the shops before returning to Red Roofs.
The guest house has a distinctly hippy feel, and offers holistic treatments as well as accommodation. The period interior has been used for several movies and TV dramas, and the panelling had been painted over by film companies. The owners, Colin, who has managed both Status Quo and The Stranglers (and has gold and platinum discs on his office wall to prove it), and Sandie are very friendly and informal.
Each room has a colour theme. We passed The Forget-me-not Blue Room on our way up two narrow flights of stairs (servants’ quarters?) to ours, The Lilac Room on the second floor. Quaint, picturesque, but not luxurious, it had the necessities, including a TV (which we didn’t use) and tea-making facilities (which we did, when we’d found a socket for the kettle). Our private bathroom was across the passage, so we had to use the one bathrobe to get there - the room has mistakenly been prepared for one guest rather than two (my fault for not making myself clear).
A taxi had been booked for us at 7:45pm. It turned out to be an ’executive hire car’ - a nice leather-lined BMW with a friendly driver (a Bray resident, as it turned out) for which we were charged £7 for a five-minute ride. (If you want to keep everything in sequence, you can click here to read the story of our dinner and then come back.)The one The Fat Duck summoned for us later was £9 - but that was after midnight.
Breakfast was with other guests around a huge table in the conference room, with Colin and Sandie taking time out to chat and find out about us, which was nice. Patricia’s boiled egg and my scrambled ones with one rasher (all we could manage after The Fat Duck) were excellent (though my wife still has the edge when it comes to scrambling eggs), as was the toast and the selection of preserves. They use a lot of organic stuff, which is great considering our recent decision to be even more fussy about what we eat.
The return journey
We had planned to stay around until lunchtime and sample the bar lunches at HB’s pub, The Hind’s Head. However, we awoke to lying snow and a very threatening sky, so we decided to head back early. In any case, we thought we had probably exhausted the thrills of Maidenhead and the other attractions of Bray, and we felt that we were unlikely to do justice to any more serious food for at least a week.
The nice lady in our satnav decided to take us a completely different way home. Instead of turning west when we joined the M4 she took us east, towards London. As we approached the junction with the M40 it became obvious that she was going to ignore it and take us onto the M25 and round to the M1. Given that we knew there were some serious roadworks on the southern part of the M1, and our experiences on the M25 and the M1 had mostly been pretty grim, I decided to assert my independence. After all, I’m a web professional - I bully computers, not the other way around!
I took the M40, and for about 15 miles the nice lady tried to persuade me to do a U-turn at every junction. I began to wonder if she knew something that I didn’t, but I can be a stubborn man and I continued to ignore her advice. Finally she surrendered, announcing ’Recalculating’, and took us home via the A43 and the M1. Even with a break at one of the Costa coffee shops which are, thankfully, springing up like mushrooms at motorway service stations, the were home by 1:30pm. (There’s some new stuff about Costa coffee and my wonderful Gaggia espresso machine in The Online Cookbook.)
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.