I once got an e-mail via Friends Reunited asking, “Are you the Fraser with gorgeous hair who could swallow a large sausage whole without gagging?”. I had to admit that I was, and looking back, these regular feats of epicurean stupidity are some of my strongest memories from college. Another trick was to show up at my campus canteen, collect a plate of shepherds pie and a serving of apple crumble, nonchalantly combine them in the same dish, then cover with custard and get stuck in, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
This wasn’t an attempt to push the boundaries of culinary experimentation, of course – I was just showing off – but the regular looks of horror on the faces of my fellow diners seemed to suggest that I’d broken some kind of ancient gastronomic taboo. To me it was obvious: I like shepherds pie. I like apple crumble. I like custard. Is there any reason, apart from conventional kitchen wisdom, why I shouldn’t enjoy the three together?
I’m not suggesting that it’s solely this kind of simple reasoning that drives chef Heston Blumenthal and his team at the Fat Duck – his approach gets far more scientific – but it is the perceived mismatches of ingredients which have, for better or worse, become his trademark. This is a pity, because there’s much more to The Fat Duck – the official best restaurant in the World for 2005 – than the infamous snail porridge and the equally-so bacon and egg ice-cream.
The restaurant is situated in the obviously well-to-do village of Bray, Berkshire, 40 minutes west of London by train followed by a five minute cab ride. Inside it’s surprisingly cosy – low wooden beams and only 45 seats. It’s also very relaxed – nearly every diner is dressed casually, and there’s none of the stuffiness often associated with more expensive establishments. We arrive early, but are seated immediately and served quickly. We opt for the Tasting Menu, 16 courses of bite-sized splendour.
Nitro-Green Tea And Lime Mousse
Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Horseradish Cream, Lavender
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Red Cabbage Gazpacho
Jelly Of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait Of Foie Gras
Snail Porridge, Jabugo Ham, Shaved Fennel
Roast Foie Gras, Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry And Chamomile
Sardine On Toast Sorbet, Ballotine Of Mackerel “invertebrate”, Marinated Daikon
Salmon Poached With Liquorice, Asparagus, Pink Grapefruit, “Manni” Olive Oil
Poached Breast Of Anjou Pigeon Pancetta, Pastilla Of Its Leg, Pistachio, Cocoa And Quatre Ã‰pices
White Chocolate And Caviar
Mrs Marshall’s Margaret Cornet
Pine Sherbet Fountain
Mango And Douglas Fir Puree, Bavarois Of Lychee And Mango, Blackcurrant Sorbet
Carrot And Orange Tuile, Bavarois Of Basil, Beetroot Jelly
Smoked Bacon And Egg Ice Cream, Pain Perdu, Tea Jelly
Leather, Oak And Tobacco Chocolates
It’s fantastic. Every moment is a surprise, from the steaming bowl of liquid nitrogen that theatrically accompanies the first course, to the wafer-thin pieces of white chocolate covered with caviar we’re instructed to let melt on our tongues. Each course is accompanied by a small glass of wine chosen especially to best compliment the taste of the food – a SavenniÃ¨res from the Loire Valley, or a cold Junami Ginjo sake from Japan, each time presented with a story – where it comes from, what it tastes like, and why it works with the dish we’re about to start.
Everything is immaculately introduced with a mixture of pride and playful glee, and the results are nothing short of sensational, each bite a moment of near-sensual pleasure. I imagine the entire experience could only be improved with the introduction of large-breasted maidens offering executive relief from beneath the table.
Any complaints? The snail porridge didn’t seem to elicit the same, joyous, laugh-out-loud reaction that almost everything else on the menu did, and I did have a ‘Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup’ moment after a tiny bug dive-bombed into my Manzanilla en rama. I’m happy to say that the glass was replaced immediately, and without fuss.
So is it worth the money? By any normal criteria, obviously not.
I’ve flown to New York for less than my share of the bill, which came in at about the same price as my monthly grocery spend. For the same kind of money I could have bought 467 Mars Bars. Or 83 pints of Guiness. Or fed a hungry African child for close to five years. It’s ludicrous, and it’s crass, but I don’t begrudge spending a penny of it. I doubt whether I’ve ever eaten so well or been fed so graciously, and it’s unlikely that I ever will again.
Unless, of course, I get funding for my next project, a movie called Supersize Moi, in which I document how my body reacts to eating at The Fat Duck for an entire month.
But right now I’m off to the kitchen to start experimenting. I have a helium-filled goat placenta I’m going to infuse with lentil extract, then serve on a bed of chewing gum in a rhubarb jus.