It was a long time coming, but August 28 2012 rolled around and off we went to lunch at ‘The Fat Duck’, restaurant of world renowned chef extraordinaire Heston Blumenthal.
I first discovered Heston some years ago with his television series “In search of Perfection” where he took cooking food to a whole new level. Believe it or not cooking is a science, there are many physical and chemical processes that go on when food is prepared, chilled and/or heated. Basic cookery courses often look at some if these processes such as the coagulation of an egg, the caramelisation of carbs and sugars, or the effects of mixing. Heston however has made an art of breaking down cooking to its most basic beginnings and working from there. Making ‘the perfect fish n chips’ requires more than getting a nice fillet from the store and grabbing a few spuds. No, the moisture and starch content of several potato varieties needs to be analysed, and oils and cooking temperatures considered to ensure the most perfect result. Want the perfect steak? Yes, source the best cut you can find, perhaps grown in the grassy fields of some remote farm where the cows are sung to daily (OK, maybe not sung to) but that’s got to be done before even contemplating ‘cooking’ it. Throw it on the barbie? No. Several days at a low temperature and you might be getting close. Yes it takes a lot of skill and a considerable amount of passion to be this particular about bringing out the best in food. Often dismissed as the ‘mad scientist’ of the cooking world who doesn’t take food seriously, I admire Heston’s true love of food and helping to make it ‘fun’.
Of course Heston then went on to produce his next Series “Heston’s Feasts” where he prepared themed feasts for celebrities with a lot of flair and excitement. Attention to detail and creating ‘experiences’ with food is what this guy is all about, and I was about to experience it for myself.
The Fat Duck is situated in the small town of Bray, Berkshire in England. His restaurant is comprised of the main dining room and kitchen, as well as a second preparation kitchen and ‘lab’. Quite cosy, the dining room is the typical old-English white limewash walls with exposed beams and low ceilings ….fortunately his staff know when to duck. There are only ever 40 peopple at one sitting, to sittings (lunch and dinner) per day. 10 tables for 2 and 5 tables of 4, want one and be prepared. Booking are only ever online and 90 days in advance … and you need to be quick.
The menu is available online (www.thefatduck.co.uk), a set ‘tasting menu’ of 14 courses, I’ll talk $ later. A wine tasting menu is also available at an additional cost or you can choose from their vast selection available. I didn’t dare ask for a soft drink, I suspected they didn’t have any, still or sparkling water however was also available.
The room was busy with service staff. At first I found it a bit overwhelming and claustrophobic. Whilst I can see the benefits of having a high ratio of staff to customers it was a room not much bigger than my living/dining room at home …without the headroom. After a short while though it became more familiar and less daunting. They were all well dressed, uniforms of trousers and marching waistcoats with a white shitr, they looked tailor made. We worked things out quickly. Two staff with red ties …the sommeliers. Around 6 staff with purple ties …the waiters. Wearing black and a suit jacket…that will be the Maitre D’s (and one guy purely in charge of standing near the kitchen to inspect every plate that came out). Just in black, kitchen hands. This was just the staff we saw, and they were all French from what we could tell.
I’ll take you through each course. I’ll call the First thing we ate ‘Course 15’ however as it wasn’t actually part of the official menu. Perhaps it was a welcome gift, perhaps it’s a trial for a new dish. Anyway, first we began with an ‘appetiser’. “Aerated beetroot with horseradish cream”. Pick it up and put the whole thing in your mouth. I’m not a horseradish fan really, it was definitely noticeable. The aerated beetroot was like a very fine meringe, I would have liked it a whole lot more if the horseradish was just a ‘hint’ as it tended to overpower the beetroot and linger. Still, a colourful and interesting beginning.
A choice of ‘Nitro Poached Apertifs ~ Citrus Grove’.
My hubby went for the aperitif of ‘Vodka & Lime Sour’ that was flavoured with green tea. ‘Gin & Tonic’ was also available as was my choice ‘Campari Soda’, a blend of blood orange, mandarin raspberry and Campari. At your table, the ingredients were combined with egg white in a GAS CREAMER, piped onto a spoon and dipped into liquid nitrogen at the cool temperature of -196’C, the citrussy ‘puff’ was dusted with powdered sugar and served immediately.
Popped straight into your mouth this cool aperitif dissolves almost immediately into nothingness except for leaving your taste buds refreshed (awfully convenient straight after the horseradish).
Red cabbage gazpacho ~ Pommery grain Mustard Ice Cream.
This was a little unusual. A small red thick liquid in the base of a very large dish, topped with a small quenelle of a savoury ice cream smaller than your pinkie. It had an indiscernible taste though there were small cubes of what we were pretty sure was cucumber. It was somewhat refreshing, the jury was pretty much out to our overall opinion. The small serve was enough, not sure I’d want a huge bowlful.
Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream ~ Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
In the centre of the table a moss-covered crate with “Heston’s Film’ on top.
Before us lay a small plate adorned with ‘truffle toast’, next to it an egg-shaped globe containing mousse laying on a brown jelly covered in a creamy layer . . most meals came with an ‘introduction’ (listen carefully unless you’re great with accents). We removed our piece of film and put it on our tongue, as it dissolved hot water was poured over the moss
….”breathe” he said as the mist rose from the crate. “Oak”. Truffles are found in forest floors, beneath oak trees. Rare and expensive, and we had a fair share in front of us. Soaking in our oakey atmosphere we ate. I’ve never had truffle before and even though I knew it was a fungus, it had never occurred to me it would taste like mushrooms ‘duh’. Yummo. The crayfish cream and jelly were nothing special but so delicately presented.
Snail Porridge ~ Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel.
Hmmm, I’ve been contemplating this for quite some time. I have to say when I read the menu online I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this menu for the ‘yummy temptations’ that appeared on it. Porridge I’m not a fan of. Snails? Never tried them and the thought of some slimy little creature didn’t really enthuse me. Put them together, their only plus was that Heston created this dish, surely if HE made it then it MUST be good right? I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, what I wasn’t prepared for was the ‘slime green’ dish placed before me. Really? I’m supposed to eat this? Garnished with fennel, and apparently with some ham in there (we found a few fine slivers), I scooped up a mouthful and hoped for the best. I think the fennel saved this dish. It was seasoned well which made it palatable. The porridge was made well and not some gluggy mess. Whilst I didn’t really find myself savouring every mouthful ready for the next, I was doing a lot better than I thought. We both made it through not too traumatised from the experience.
Roast Foie Gras ~ Barberry, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit
Ok,well my first experience with Foie Gras only weeks ago hardly left we wanting to rush back for more. Heavy and rich, even with it’s fruity accompaniment and toast it just didn’t impress me. Fortunately for Foie Gras, Heston was here to give it a second chance. Served with a barberry sauce, and a very delicate toffee shard-like biscuit, unlike my last experience, this time the Foie Gras was roasted. It took on a completely different texture. On it’s own was a little hard to take, the ‘kombu’ (Japanese seaweedy stuff) was nothing special, but with the barberry and biscuit it blended beautifully. I have thus reassessed my view on Foie Gras. Whilst it still isn’t high on my list, it’s gained some ground.
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party ~ Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich.
I’ve seen some of this before, check out “Heston’s Feasts – The Victorians” and it gives the great story behind this dish. It’s always great to have some fun with food ans this definitely was fun. I’m a bit of a fan of Alice, so this was a treat for me.
We were given with a small dish topped with a glass teapot before our waiter kindly presented us with out gold pocket watch. Our soup stock condensed was set in a pocket watch mould before being garnished with gold leaf ….no easy task. A bit of ‘swishing’ our tea and we had our mock turtle soup.
I don’t know what turtle soup tastes like, ans since the Victorian era the mock version was created in support of the turtle population. Made from beef head in some way, it wasn’t a familiar taste but could be likened to a strong beef consomme. We poured it over the remaining ingredients (including a ‘turtle egg’ ..it wasn’t an egg but some other creation).
The toast sandwiches:
Firstly, I LOVE this plate. I wanted to take one home. This is probably a good time to stop and point out that all of the chinaware at The Fat Duck looked to be bespoke custom-made for the dishes on the menu. You don’t just pick this stuff up at the local wholesaler. Of course it makes sense when you are making a speciality dish that the servingware be part of the finished product. Anyway, back to the sandwich. It actually was a ‘toast’ sandwich. No, not ‘toasted’, a thin piece of toast sandwiched between 2 pieces of bread, a couple of fine fillings just to hold it together. It was rather yummy. We really had a lot of fun and enjoyed this dish, good thing, we weren’t ready for the next!
Sound of the Sea
OK, I saw this one many years ago, I knew it involved ‘sound’. So many of our experiences with food are associated with more than just the food. Sight and sound, our feelings and moods and this is what Heston tries to recreate in his dining experiences. I could also remember it took Heston a couple of years to ‘perfect’ this one dish. Only one problem for me ….raw fish!!! I ate it in the dark (unknowingly), I politely ate a small sample for my dear friend, ummmm ….a plateful? Oh Heston you ARE pushing your luck today.
Along came our conch shell prepared with iPod and sounds of the waves crashing on the shore and of course, the dish. Three different fish, Mackarel, Halibut and Irish Abalone. The ‘sand’ was a combination of fried sardines and tapioca. The sea ‘foam’, aerated seaweed and vegetable stock.
It was then garnished with 4 different types of seaweed, none of which I could interpret from the strong French accent.
Oh dear, sitting there in a dignified way I somehow swallowed each mouthful. This wasn’t fun. Raw fish is just something I still can’t get my head around, and even Heston’s fabulous dish didn’t convert me.
Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel ~ Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe
I was worried about this one. I’m not a fan of liquorice, or artichokes for that matter. Salmon yes …but not with all of the above. Anyway, it couldn’t be any worse than the raw fish right? Fortunately on this one it wasn’t. It didn’t taste of liquorice at all. Even though the salmon looked barely cooked (I don’t think I could handle any more raw fish today) it was simply so beautifully moist. I have no idea how he did this, I wish I did, it was probably the nicest piece of fish I have EVER had. It was served with pink grapefruit. All those separate little ‘bits’ that make up a citrus fruit he somehow has managed to remove without crushing or juicing it …amazing. They went great with the salmon ….who would have thought? It was finished with a drizzle of olive oil. I’m going to have to research this as I’d love to be dishing it up at home. Still could have passed on the artichokes but THAT FISH, yum.
Lamb with Cucumber ~ Onion and Dill Fluid Gel
Ahhh, a man after my own heart, lamb, and not some greasy lamb chop, this was divine. First the ‘Fluid Gel’ …I’m not entirely sure what the definition of something that is a fluid grl entails, but it was a very soft mash/ sauce consistency. It didn’t really taste of onion or dill …just a mild ‘something’ that accompanied the lamb beautifully. As for the lamb, this was probably one of those long-slow cooking tricks. Whatever it was there was nothing greasy or tough about it, melt in your mouth lamb.
With the lamb was served an accompaniment of Lamb liver, tongue and sweetbread as well as a mint jelly. Fortunately they all looked like cooked bits of meat and were only small so it wasn’t too hard to give them a go. This was the last of our savoury dishes and what a way too end ….left me wanting more!
Hot and Iced Tea
This one seems self-explanatory, until you realise they are both in the same glass. I don’t know how he managed this, but one half was hot, the other cold. Drink up and confuse your palate, each sip was a bizarre sensation. Palate cleansed ….now onto dessert!
Macerated Strawberries ~ Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile and Coriander Jelly and Ice Cream Cornet
We’re off on a summer picnic. A small cornet of ‘Earl Grey’ ice cream with strawberry jelly infused with Chamomile and Coriander (not that you could pick it). Nestled beneath the picnic blanket (white chocolate) was the biscuit and pistachio together with the strawberries. The biscuit on its own was nothing much, but together with the rest it was a nice dessert. Might manage to whip something like this up myself ….maybe!
No, we’re not talking Roald Dahl, this is the ‘Black Forest Gateaux’. Nicely done Heston, Nicely done. In front of us stood a tower of chocolatey goodness. The base some sort of biscuit deal, topped with a chocolatey layer, above that layers of cream and cherries, topped with chocolate mousse. How they get that precise rectangular shape I don’t know, the. The thin crispy outer layer is a other mystery again.
Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
We’re nearly there.This was probably better suited to some of my friends back home. Presented in a photo frame enclosing a map of England, small bottle-shaped gums were ‘stuck’ to the map. There was a description of each on the frame. They were numbered in order for the best experience, whilst you could assume this would mean they get better as you progress this wasn’t the case for us. I guess it all comes down to personal taste. I’m not a big Scotch / Whiskey person in the first place, they were a variety of different flavours with some showing their distinctive oakey flavours. Peel them off and eat …my top vote went to #2, ‘Oban, 14 year’ from the West Highlands.
“Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”
Are you kidding me? This whole experience has been like a kid in a sweet shop. The wonder and amazement of the food had been incredible. It didn’t stop here. Presented with our candy bag, it had a mix of different goodies including a scented card to ‘sniff’ before eating. I didn’t stand in too many candy stores as a kid, so it didn’t really ‘take me back’ to anything significant. Never mind, I’m sure the goodies still taste great.
First was a ‘Aerated Chocolate with Mandarin Jelly’, it was nothing special really although bubbling chocolate is something I haven’t tried yet. Then we had ‘Coconut Baccy’, coconut infused with an aroma of black Cavendish tobacco. Apparently the process involved cracking open young Thai coconuts, shredding the flesh and cooking it for 12 hours in palm sugar to caramelise before being infused with the tobacco for 2 days. A lot of effort for a bit of coconut. I’m not a big one for coconut, but this was nice and I didn’t really notice the tobacco. You wouldn’t want much though as it was quite rich.
Moving along, then there was ‘apple pie caramel’ with edible wrapper. It really was just a chewy toffee, I didn’t notice anything ‘apple pie’ about it, by now however my taste buds really had had a workout.
Finally the very last offering ‘The Queen of Hearts’ …she made some tarts. Imagine an after dinner mint of white chocolate ….with a raspberry tart in the middle! Wafer thin, with discernible layers of raspberry and soft biscuit pastry they were encased in an immaculately smooth chocolate shell printed with the Queen of Hearts …and it tasted awesome.
That was it …almost 4 hours later and 14 (that was really 15) quite diverse courses. My final verdict? I probably wouldn’t want to dine again that week, or that menu again for that matter. They say someone needs to try a food up to 20 times before they develop a taste for it. Given the number of ‘firsts’ and ‘seconds’ with this menu I have a few more to go before I could possibly really appreciate the flavours here. This however was an experience I would recommend to anyone, when he comes up with a new menu I’d love to go back. You just DON’T see food like this every day. Whilst possibly a challenge to your palate, you cannot escape an appreciation for the ‘workmanship’ involved, these guys are experts. I spoke of the service staff earlier, the kitchen staff comprises of 12 chefs per shift busily preparing the food. I was fortunate to be allowed to have a look at their kitchen. Typical for most restaurants, it was tiny. Around 3 chefs worked in one section preparing the hot foods (mainly the foie gras, salmon and lamb) and 9 on the other dishes. All food is finished in this kitchen. In the other kitchen ….the next building, was another 15 chefs working away. Some of these dishes take at least 2 weeks to prepare, not difficult to believe when you see the complex layers and understand the techniques involved for each one.
Finally, the cost for this experience, £180 per person. Add to that a 12.5% optional ‘service charge’ and yes, you are looking at over £200 (over AU$300). Add to this your wine, starting at around £10 a glass or £50 a bottle, there is also the option of a ‘tasting menu’ of wines to complement each dish starting at a mere £115 per person. Whilst this might sound extravagant, if you consider the staff to customer ratio is approximately 1:1 (perhaps 1:2 if you consider both sittings), what doesn’t go towards their wages would certainly go towards the fine food. After all his other expenses I doubt there is too much ending up in Heston’s pocket. Then again, even if only £5 a person does that it’s £400 a day for Heston to not even be there ….wouldn’t mind that myself.
I hope I didn’t leave anything out, there was so much to take in! Heston Blumenthal is true genius when it comes to food. If you consider yourself a bit of a foodie and ever plan a trip to England do yourself a huge favour, plan ahead, save and book yourself in, I doubt you will regret it.
PS. A HUGE thank you to my mum who very generously made this lunch ‘her treat’ ….it’s even better when someone else covers the bill 😉