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April 17, 2012

Your Choice – Bangers and Mash, or Snail Porridge

THE GUIDEBOOKS will tell you that Bray, about an hour's drive west of London, is the archetypal English rural village.

It's all about little thatched cottages, a cricket ground on which they've thwacked the leather since 1798, a parish church dating back to 1293, and a pub where King Charles II would dally with his mistress Nell Gwynn for whom he had arranged convenient  accommodation in nearby Windsor.

But Bray is anything than your run-of-the-mill English village, and you need to be more than well-heeled to even contemplate owning so much as a cottage here, never mind berthing the boat at the local marina on the River Thames.
        
Expatriate Aussie Rolf Harris lives in Bray, as does former TV talk-show host Sir Michael Parkinson, Elton John lives just upstream and is sometimes seen dining in Bray, and so too Natalie Imbruglia.
         
And well they might, for Bray has suddenly found itself the gastronomic capital of Britain.
         
Now before you start chortling that one of the shortest books in the world is "A Treasury of English Cooking," we should point out that one Heston Blumenthal is the latest to make Bray his home, and if others can cook up a storm, he can cook up a tornado.

Back in the 1980s Blumenthal, who actually grew up a stone's throw from Bray, taught himself to be a chef by studying French cookery books... just as many of us taught ourselves the basics of the kitchen with Margaret Fulton's Cook Book.
          
The difference is that he ended up one of the best chefs in the world, and  opened The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray in 1995. Within five years he had won himself no less than three Michelin stars.
          
And in 2006, his Fat Duck was named Best Restaurant in the World, beating out El Bulli, a restaurant in a remote village north of Barcelona, while Frommers, the famous travel guide, named The Fat Duck one of the world's "must-visit" food and wine establishments.

Yet it's a quite unpretentious building, and inside simply a large square with white-walls, wooden beams holding up the ceiling, and a bare floor.

But look more closely outside and it can be almost garlanded with Rollers and Jaguars and their uniformed chauffeurs, together with a smattering of Ferraris and Beamers.

It's the menu, of course, that accounts for the fact that you have to book months in advance, although you can be excused for wondering how Heston dreamed up some of the dishes on that menu.
          
And the "Tasting Menu" will put you back 180 pounds (around AU$275 per head) – before you even look at the wine list or consider the "optional" 12.5 per cent service charge.
          
Amongst some of Heston Blumenthal's creations are a Pommery mustard ice cream accompanied by red cabbage gazpacho, roast foie gras with barberry, braised konbu (seaweed harvested off Japan and Korea) and crab biscuit, or his hugely popular snail porridge with Iberico Bellota ham and shaved fennel…
          
There's also a more homely pork loin pot roast that comes with a gratin of truffled macaroni, or how about salmon poached in licorice gel and artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe?
 
Or a saddle of venison with beetroot soubise and risotto of spelt and umbles… yes, umbles, the 14th century offal dish that gave its name to the expression "eating humble pie," and of which British diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in July 1663 "Mrs Turner did bring us an Umble-pie hot out of her oven, (it was) extraordinarily good."
          
But Heston Blumenthal's success also brought its problems. Where to put the many movers and shakers wanting to sample his culinary delights, but unable to get into The Fat Duck?
          
His answer was to buy the village's two pubs, although to the consternation of many locals. After all it was at one, The Crown that King Charles II would dally with Nell Gwynn. This was British heritage he was possibly interfering with if he changed the structure of The Crown…
          
But their fears were soon allayed. Heston made few changes, added some of his own creations to the pubs' menus, and maintained such traditional British pub fare as bangers and mash, and fish and chips… with the Heston Blumenthal touch, of course. 

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] THE Fat Duck – has been named Best Restaurant in the World.

[] HESTON BLUMENTHAL: taught himself to cook by reading French cookbooks.

[] SPECIALTY of the house, Snail Porridge.

[] HOME-MADE Whisky Gums to finish…

[] WHERE you'll find Heston Blumenthal's secrets exposed: The Fat Duck Cookbook

 

(Photos: The Fat Duck Cookbook and Heston Blumenthal)

 

 
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