At the end of September last year, I turned 40; a number imbued with all kinds of emotional baggage, with references to the hill of life and one's position on it. But for me it was an excuse for a party and I had a really great day, surrounded by family and friends, new and old. I was overwhelmed by thoughtful, generous and perfectly-chosen gifts, but one in particular really took my breath away.
Here's the clue my sister gave me:
You'd think I'd have guessed immediately, wouldn't you? A food obsessive like me, with a particular fascination for watching chefs on the telly and visiting restaurants. But to my embarrassment, I didn't twig. My only excuse is that I was so flustered by the sudden surge of cake-toting guests arriving that I wasn't really thinking straight!
But the next clue was a printed tasting menu, and it's at that point I started screeching with excitement.
My sister shares my birthday. She's three years younger than me… but about 10 years younger in looks and several years ahead when it comes to behaving like a grown up…
For my 40th (and her 37th) she would take us to The Fat Duck.
It took a while to secure a reservation, but eventually our January lunch date rolled around.
I realise there are a thousand reviews of The Fat Duck already on the internet, but it was one of the most amazing meals I've ever had so I'm still going to add one more review to the mix. And it's going to be chock full of clichéd superlatives like incredible, fantastic, wonderful, magical! If you can't bear gushing, click away now!
Although the day started with a downpour, by the time we arrive in Bray, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. We park in the car park for the Hinds Head pub and pop in for a drink in the bar. I enjoyed a meal in the Hinds Head a few years ago and it's a worthy destination in its own right, as the stream of diners arriving for lunch testifies.
As we leave, the bar man asks if we are having lunch at The Fat Duck. When we nod, he tells us that Heston is about today, filming for something or the other, so we might see him. We don't. But kitchen and front of house teams are evidently trained to work like a well-oiled machine, whether or not the great man is present.
We walk into a restaurant with most tables already taken, and are soon seated amongst the smiling diners.
Unlike many Michelin-starred restaurants, the interior here is quite simply styled. White walls and table linen lend a feeling of space, much needed given the low beamed ceilings. Table decorations are minimal and there are a couple of colourful but unchallenging pieces of modern art on the walls. Tables are nicely spaced out and the overall vibe is very relaxed.
A bottle each of sparkling and still water are ordered, and the tasting menu for the day presented.
We are asked if there are any problematic ingredients. I explain that whilst I don't have either an allergy or an intolerance, I find the flavour of aniseed very difficult, it makes me a bit nauseous. As one of the dishes is described as salmon poached in a liquorice gel, I say it would probably be a no-no for me, but as I've not given any advance notice, I am happy to simply skip it, if the liquorice is integral. To my delight, the waitress pops away for a moment before returning to our table and offering to replace the salmon dish with turbot. She also points out that another dish is garnished with shavings of fennel bulb, but that it can easily be left out if I prefer (yes, please) and that one of the desserts contains a little fennel, to which I reply that I'm OK with a hint of it, if it's not a dominant flavour. Whilst I appreciate that this level of service is no doubt standard practice for a restaurant of this calibre, I am still impressed at how accommodating they are, given my failure to let them know my preferences ahead of our visit.
With fourteen courses listed on the menu, we are both surprised when an amuse bouche is served. Described as aerated beetroot with horseradish cream, these bright red and white, feather-light spheres are a revelation of texture and taste; they have a honey-comb texture and the distinctive sweet sharp flavour of beetroot and are sandwiched together with a mild cream which gives just a nudge rather than the usual kick of horseradish. Best of all, the flavours linger and linger…
I wish Heston from Waitrose could replicate these for the mass market!
Next are the famous nitro poached aperitifs. Given a choice of vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or Campari soda, I choose the Campari, which also contains blood orange, and my sister opts for the vodka and lime with green tea.
Whilst freezing in liquid nitrogen is not exactly old hat, it's also no longer as unexpected and surprising as it must have been for early customers, but it's still a fine piece of theatre and fun to watch. Our waitress squirts liquid onto a spoon, turns it for a few moments in the liquid nitrogen, dusts it with a puff of pink or green powder and puffs an accompanying perfume into the air as she instructs us to eat the ball in one mouthful.
It's far too big for me to manage that, so I make a mess as I break into mine, and the liquid centre spills out, but I try and pop the rest into my mouth as fast as I can. It's a very refreshing taste, a real cleanser of the palate before the meal to come, but so cold it makes my teeth ache a little more than is pleasant.
Having tasted Heston's supermarket version of his mustard ice cream, I'm excited to try his Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho. Like the Waitrose copycat, the ice cream perfectly balances the sharp kick of mustard with the sweetness of ice cream. Unlike the Waitrose one, it's much smoother in texture; silk-like. The red cabbage soup is thin, with tiny pieces of cabbage. For me, it's so strange to taste the very essence of this crunchy vegetable in a liquid format. The two elements marry well together, and I enjoy the dish far more than I expect.
The first thing brought to the table for our next course is a wooden box of oak moss with two plastic containers labelled Fat Duck Films. Shortly afterwards we're presented with truffle toasts on a wooden board and a deep round bowl in which we can see a pink quenelle sat on pink cream.
We are told that the oak moss represents the mossy area at the base of oak trees; where truffles are most commonly found. Instructed to open our little boxes and place the thin sheets of film on our tongues, our waiter pours a kettle of liquid over the oak moss, our table is covered in white "smoke" and the aroma of an oak-wooded forest fills the air.
Heston is keen that customers understand how taste and aroma combine to create flavour, and this impressive display brings the message home a second time.
The white bowl protects a perfect little spoonful of rich chicken liver parfait. The layers beneath are crayfish cream, quail jelly and right at the bottom a jewel-green layer of pea puree. A tiny fig tuile is perched in the parfait. Tiny slices of radish and herb adorn the truffle toast. So many flavours, all of them shockingly intense, and yet somehow they all merge together so beautifully.
Just how does one make chicken liver parfait so smooth, quail jelly so very meaty, crayfish cream so rich, pea puree so fresh and sweet?
"Is that you humming?" asks my sister, as I savour each mouthful. I realise it is, and nod. "Stop it!" she tells me, but her smile says she's loving it every bit as much.
As promised, the shaved fennel has been omitted from my snail porridge, and replaced with a garnish of pea shoots instead.
With or without the fennel, neither of us fall for this famous Heston dish.
The snails are certainly softer and less chewy than I've often experienced, but still with that familiar muddy taste. To my surprise, I don't even notice the Iberico Bellota Ham, it doesn't register against the porridge – a thin green sludge with soggy oats through it. It tastes of… green, and that's as well as I can describe it. It's not unpleasant, but it doesn't thrill either and I can't help but think that I'd have enjoyed a portion of the top quality ham on it's own, far more.
Like the snail porridge, the next dish – roast foie gras, barberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit – comes out completely assembled and ready to enjoy. Konbu seaweed is one of the two main ingredients of Japanese dashi stock and Heston uses it here to great effect; a paper-thin layer of jelly sits beneath the foie gras and more konbu is mixed with chives and sprinkled over the liver; it imparts a subtle mushroom or Marmite taste – that savouriness known as umami. The foie gras is perfect in every respect with a wonderful richness of texture and taste; a delicious buttery meaty fat that melts away on the tongue. Barberry is not something I am familiar with, but the tartness it brings is very welcome. Tiny leaves of sorrel also add their tiny sour note.
My sister raises her eyebrows when I try to remember what the thin crunchy crab biscuits brings to mind, and suddenly announce "roast chicken flavour crisps". But it's exactly what the translucent shards remind me of!
As soon as the silver foil stamped bookmarks are placed in front of us, I start to smile, remembering the Victorian episode of Feasts in which Heston took inspiration from Alice in Wonderland to create a Mad Hatter' s tea party.
'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.
Bowls of strange things are placed in front of us and gold fob watches are presented in a glass case. We take one each and drop them into our tea cups, stirring to produce a beautiful amber-coloured stock decadently flecked with gold leaf from the wrapper.
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea…
Our waiter pours the rich broth into our bowls, and our mock turtle soups are ready.
There's so much going on it's hard to know where to start, but I begin with a spoonful of the meaty liquid, including one of the neatly cut strips of truffle. Mmmm! The wobbly yellow and white mock turtle egg, with the tiniest of mushrooms poking out of it, is made from turnip jelly, swede juice and saffron. I'd never have guessed, as it tastes of mushrooms to me – perhaps that's the power of deliberate suggestion? Inside a white wrapping of lardo – cured fatback – is a densely pressed block of meat. The lardo is di Colonnata, reputed to be the very best. On top of the meat are impossibly neat cubes of white, green and black. I love the flavour the cucumber brings, and more earthy truffle, but have to ask the identity of the white turnip, which I can't taste very clearly.
Whilst I like the tastes and textures and do enjoy the dish, I don't think it pulls together like the oak moss extravaganza, nor are the individual elements quite so mind-blowingly perfect. It's more about the fun of the story (you need to allow yourself to revert to childhood a little to enjoy this; if you're too stiffly sophisticated you'll fail to be charmed) and the strange appearance of the various parts than about a comprehensively balanced dish.
Sound of the sea is another very well known Heston dish. A large shell is placed by each of us, and we pull out the protruding headphones and pop them into our ears. For the next several minutes we are left alone, listening to a recording of breaking waves, seagulls and the distant sounds of children playing.
Having deliberately avoided reading a single Fat Duck review since my sister first announced our visit (and blessed with the kind of appallingly bad memory which means I remember next to no details from reviews read previously) I start to wonder if this course is just a sound sensory experience, and doesn't actually feature any food at all.
And then, finally, the dish arrives.
Served on a plate of glass suspended above a wooden tray of sand, the elements are presented like fish and seaweed on a sandy shore, with a line of foam left behind from the last breaking wave.
We eat with our headphones still in place, enjoying the dish with our eyes, ears, nose and taste buds.
There are three pieces of fish – mackerel, halibut and yellowtail kingfish – which have been lightly cured with citrus, bergamot and redbush. The seaweed varies in appearance and texture; the only familiar one is samphire; my favourite is the small red and yellow pellet-shaped seaweed that bursts salty liquid in the mouth. The briny foam is made from vegetable and seaweed stock and adds a taste of rock pool sea water. And oh my goodness, that sand, the most amazing element of the dish – a delicious crunchy powder made from tapioca and fried baby sardines, allowed to clump into small and large granules for a more convincing sandy texture.
I expected this dish to be style over substance, clever rather than enjoyable, but actually it is a delight to eat and yet another example of Heston's determination to have us engage multiple senses at once.
Click here to find out more about the thought processes and research behind the dish. Click Start and then click on the sea shell.
For our next course, we are served two different plates.
My sister has the menu item salmon poached in a liquorice gel with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. Echoing the colour of the fish roe are tiny pieces of pink grapefruit; this really is a stunningly beautiful plate. When it arrives, I can smell the liquorice quite strongly, and am glad I asked to switch. But when she breaks through the slightly crisp coating to the beautifully moist fish within, and tastes it, my sister assures me that it doesn't taste much of liquorice! It's not a flavour she's a huge fan of either, so I'm persuaded to try a tiny bite, and agree - if anything, it tastes more like unsweetened cocoa than aniseedy liquorice. Unsurprisingly, I don't love this, but sister judges it another beautifully balanced dish with lots of strong flavours that manage not to overpower the more gentle ones.
My turbot comes with artichokes, morel mushrooms and a verjuice sauce. It's a far subtler dish altogether than the salmon, and if you were to try only a bite of each in turn, you'd judge mine bland. But actually, it's not at all, and with each bite I find myself appreciating the gentle flavours and that marvellous sauce a little more.
Size-wise, the saddle of venison with beetroot soubise and risotto of spelt and umbles is the most generous of all the courses, a fact that doesn't fill us entirely with glee, given that we're now pretty full from the previous nine courses and know we still have five more to come. But it's so darn good that we smile and smack our lips all the way through it, once again.
The word melting is over-used when it comes to tender meat and yet, I can't think of a more appropriate way to describe the texture of the venison, probably the softest I've ever had. And with the hint of game flavour that differentiates it from a bland beef fillet.
A powerful reduction serves as gravy, whacking the taste buds with an intense meaty punch.
Luckily, that's offset by the use of beetroot in two forms. Like the aerated spheres right at the beginning of our meal, the beetroot sauce is the very essence of this root vegetable and a nice balance between sweet, tart and earthy. I'm told that, like a soubise (onion sauce), the beetroot sauce uses béchamel as a base. The pickled baby beetroot pieces (in two colours) provide something more solid to bite into.
Also on the plate are several tiny sprout leaves; inside the curved cup of some of them are little cubes of something sweet, mushy and with a really strong, sweet kick. They're so distinctive a taste, but I struggle to place them; a member of staff comes to my rescue and identifies them as candied chestnuts. I'd never have guessed in a million years. And actually I'm in two minds about them – they make me stop and furrow my brows in an effort to work out what they could be, and that certainly makes me focus even more on my food, not that I wasn't doing so already. But I'm not sure the strangely perfume-tasting sweetness goes well with the rest of the dish.
Served alongside the main plate is a little bowl of rich, wet risotto, sealed with a layer of mushroom and madeira jelly, studded with cubes of venison heart and flavoured with braised shoulder and chicken stock. Umble, by the way, comes from 'umble pie, a pie filled with liver, heart and other offal.
On top is a square of breaded sweetbread and crunchy candied spelt that make me think of the honey monster.
The risotto is magnificent in its entirety and work brilliantly well with the venison and beetroot.
It's also our last savoury dish and we mentally prepare for the onslaught of sweets.
Hot and iced tea is served with firm instructions not to rotate the glass at all as we drink it. My sister picks up the sensation of hot on one side of her mouth and cold on the other, straight away. I gingerly pick up my cup, taking care with its orientation, but my first sip is all warm, as is my second. Only on the third sip does the distinct separation of temperatures kick in and then it's perfect! And alarming!
The liquid is thick, like a liquid apple jelly before it's set, and the flavour reminds me of Turkish apple tea too. But when I ask one of the staff, I'm told that it's actually earl grey tea! "But, the hot one tastes a lot sweeter to me," I say. Am I imagining that too, like my impression of apple? No, I'm right; she explains that they adjust the acidity in order to ensure that both the hot and cold versions have exactly the same viscosity, so they don't run into each other.
Clever stuff, and really rather strange. I carefully turn my cup through 180 degrees and giggle when the hot and cold sensations in my mouth are neatly reversed. At the bottom of my cup is a small reservoir of cold tea, which explains why the first two sips were all hot – mine must have slipped a little when poured into the cup.
The Taffety Tart with caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon (which the menu reveals is from c. 1660) is just beautiful. As mine is served, a waitress explains that they've omitted the tiny fennel leaves and crushed fennel from the garnish beneath the sorbet, so all that remains is the fennel flavour within the tart itself. And yes, I can taste it in the cream that sandwiches those paper thin leaves of pastry, but it's mellow enough that my brain can focus instead on the lovely caramelised apple, sat in two thick gelatinous layers towards the bottom of the tart. The rose and lemon flavours are just wonderful. I'm not a huge fan of blackcurrant sorbet so I give mine to the sister, who in turn passes across her unwanted rose petals. Result!
If you watched Heston's In Search of Perfection, you might remember his black forest gateau creation, fondly listed on the menu as The "BFG". At first, I can do little more than admire it (and grab a few snaps). The menu also refers to the smell of the Black Forest and this is achieved with a puff of kirsch perfume.
The precision of the straight lines and squared corners, the even coating of chocolate and the shaping of that teardrop of kirsch ice cream are hugely impressive. Cutting into the cake, we marvel at the individual layers; a sweet crunchy base, aerated chocolate (like a posh Aero bar!), dense moist chocolate cake, sweet sour black cherries and chocolate ganache and white kirsch cream. On top is a beautiful kirsch-soaked cherry complete with a knotted stem. Next to the gateau is a smear of cherry, a veritable beach of grated chocolate and that kirsch ice cream which packs such a strong alcohol kick that we wonder about its impact on a driver's blood alcohol levels!
Again, Heston's attention to textures, tastes and aromas combines to lift what is already a huge favourite of mine to a whole new level.
By the time the whisk(e)y gums are served, attached to a map inside a wooden photo frame, we are really very full. As I'm not even a fan of whisky, I ask if there's a way I might take the gums home for my husband, without the attendant frame, of course. Sadly, I'm told they're too soft and will liquefy within an hour or so; when I pick one off the glass I appreciate just how soft and squidgy they are, adhering to the glass purely because of their wet sticky surface. They remind me of the sticky wall walker toys of my childhood; we used to throw them against the enormous windows at school and watch as they tumbled down the surface, limb by slimy limb. I resist throwing my whisk(e)y gums at any nearby windows and eat them, in the order indicated.
1 Speyside – Glenlivet
2 West Highlands – Oban
3 Orkney - Highland Park
4 Islay – Laphroaig
5 Tennessee USA – Jack Daniels
As expected, the flavours of the respective whiskies come through loud and clear; the dry pepperiness of the West Highlands, the smoky peat of Islay and the sweet caramel of Tennessee whiskey. I'm a bit confused by the order, as they don't seem to be arranged by strength of flavour; I can't discern any pattern.
I like this course but I don't love it, and I wonder who might? As a non-whisky drinker, whilst the sweetness takes the edge off, the whisky flavour is still a bit overwhelming. But wouldn't a real whisky lover find the sweetness a distraction from flavours they know and hold dear? Perhaps not. Since Pete isn't here to contribute his opinion, I have no way of knowing…
At last, out comes a striped pink and white paper bag each. This course is called Like a kid in a sweet shop and is presented with its own menu card which we are encouraged to smell. It's meant to evoke an old-fashioned sweet shop, but to me it smells like old-lady toilet freshener, or like stale marshmallows, if I'm being more generous. Still, it lists the four goodies inside, which we take out and admire before putting away again to enjoy later. After fourteen courses, we're not alone in deferring the fifteenth!
At home, a few hours later, I investigate my little haul.
Firstly, a white envelope with what looks like a rubber seal. It breaks so easily as I pull open the envelope that I realise it's chocolate and pop it into my mouth. Inside is a beautifully painted white chocolate playing card, filled with raspberry jam and crumbled biscuit. The menu card reminds us that the queen of hearts, she made some tarts… It's wonderful!
The aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly is like a cross between a posh Aero bar and the orange jelly inside a Jaffa Cake. Very nice!
Apple pie caramel comes in a clear edible wrapper. Popping it into my mouth whole, I enjoy the tastes of both apple and caramel but it doesn't put me in mind of apple pie. The edible wrapper reminds me of the White Rabbit sweets I used to enjoy as a child, which came in printed rice paper wrappers.
The only item in the bag which I don't like is the strange coconut baccy, described as coconut infused with an aroma of Black Cavendish tobacco. Presented in a little pouch, just like real loose tobacco, it looks more like elastic bands and the texture isn't far off either. Chewy stretchy strands of coconut with an unpleasant flavour; I'm not a fan at all. A shame, as I love the Artisan du Chocolate tobacco chocolate, which they originally developed for Heston, so I know that tobacco can work in a sweet.
At £180 per person, the experience we've just enjoyed is certainly expensive. But when we realise that this comes to just £12 per course, with still and sparkling water included, we both agree that it's also good value. Each one of the courses reveals an incredible amount of work on many different elements brought together perfectly on the plate. Service is added at 12.5% but I would imagine that some of the £180 price tag must also cover the staff-intensive service, where dishes are finished or explained at the table and staff are constantly on hand to top up drinks and answer questions about the food.
Is it worth it? As my sister's guest, that's not for me to answer but I can tell you that it was certainly one of the most exciting dining experiences of my life, with some dishes that really did take my breath away.
It's not a meal I will forget for a very long time to come.
The menu changes only slowly, so I wouldn't rush back anytime soon, but should I notice in a year or few's time, that most or many of the courses have changed, I'll be back in a heart beat.
With enormous thanks to my beautiful and generous sister. x