Anyway, the nature of big things is that they are marked in big ways, and this birthday was marked in the biggest and best of ways. (Warning: this post contains overly pretentious descriptions, at least in part as an aide memoir for future times)
Anita had promised me a surprise. We'd arranged to drop Iz at my parents on Wednesday night, and I knew that we'd not be back until Friday evening, but beyond that, I knew nothing. Thursday morning I got up and was the recipient of some lovely Superman slippers and some Lego from my daughter; a couple of CDs (both Sabbath and Alice in Chains latests are awesome) and some Champagne from my sis and her husband, and some chocolate from my nephews. My parents had got my a framed pair of photographs of my Great Gandfather; in one he's in a 1905 Humber Coventry Phaeton and in the other he's sat in some sort of racing car. We know that he raced at Brooklands, and so along with the photo comes a day out at Brooklands Autumn Motorsport Day. Awesome.
From Anita I got a book on what to do after 40, and the promise of my main present later. We had breakfast, a huge piece of a huge cake (thanks again to my Sis), and headed east. I was told to get onto the M4 and head for London. At the Windsor turn off, I was directed into Windsor, where we parked by the station. It was there that I found out where we were headed. Windsor, it turns out, is a short hop and skip from Bray. And we were going there for lunch!
From the first time that I heard about the Fat Duck, I have wanted to go there. Heston Blumenthal has twisted culinary convention to create an experience unlike any other. It's food as theatre; a marriage of drama and flavour, aimed as much at making you smile as feeding you (and perhaps even more so). His food twists and turns, and just as you think you have a handle on it, it offers another shimmy. And all the while, there's a wry smile. It is effortlessly welcoming and relaxed.
There's no menu to choose from. 14 and a half courses, 4 and a bit hours. As the maitre d'hotel put it, "we have selected the food for you, so you need not worry". There is a choice of wines. A wine list, which we ignored, and a choice of two tasting wine menus to accompany the meal (a very expensive one, and a wallet haemorrhagingly expensive one - we chose the former). The meal started with Champagne, a delightful 2002 Moet. Whilst we were enjoying that, we were brought our amuse bouche. An aerated ball of beetroot, with a consistency not dissimilar from the honeycomb inside a Malteser, sandwiched a light horseradish cream. It was incredibly tasty, and brilliantly light.
Course 1 proper was, if anything, less substantial than the amuse bouche; but even more fun. A meringue of (in my case) gin and tonic, with juniper and fennel and lemon, dispensed from a soda syphon at table and onto a spoon. The ball was then dropped into a vat of liquid nitrogen, which turned it into a solid puff. This was eaten whole. A cold burst of G&T loveliness, it cleansed all from nose through throat in the nicest way. Anita's comprised Tequila, Grapefruit and Basil and (judging by the facial expression) was equally enjoyable. Apparently nitrogen smoke came out my nose!
Course 2 was a red cabbage gazpacho soup. So far so normal. But with a whole grain mustard ice cream! So smooth, so tasty. A proper balance of sharp and soft, sweet and sour. Yum.
Course 3 was Quail Jelly with Crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait and truffle toast. More theatrics. It arrived on moss with a small plastic container with a thin film inside it. We were to let the film dissolve on our tongues and as we did so, the waitress poured a liquid into the moss, and smoke billowed across the table, bearing with it scents of damp wild woods. Earthy and quintessentially British, it was perfectly matched with the flavours in the food; all senses aligned to the experience. Utterly brilliant.
With it came the first of our wines, a 2011 Sevilien 900 Fume Blanc from turkey, which was utterly lovely.
Course 4 was the one that I had been nervous about. The famous Snail Porridge. I'm not a massive fan of snails, nor am I particularly keen on non-sweet porridge (which by my wife's reckoning makes me an utter philistine). I had no cause to be concerned. With Iberico ham and shaved fennel, it was lovely. The porridge was bright green with fresh herbs, and the snails really very tasty. It was served with a white 2011 chateauneuf du pape.
Course 5 was one of the tastiest. I love Foie Gras, and this came roasted with crab biscuits, a fruity reduction and was sat on a perfectly formed rectangle of kombu - which is an asian seaweed and jam packed with umami goodness. Anita and I were in agreement that this was simply fantastic. So beautifully melty and tasty. I'm drooling a bit just thinking about it. The 2012 Mure Pinot Gris that came with it was very nice, but took a bit of a back seat.
Then it was time for one of the stars of the show. The Mad Hatters Tea Party. Gold pocketwatches made from stock covered in gold leaf, and then a mock turtle egg with mushrooms, the watch was dissolved into the tea cup and poured over the egg. A giant ceramic hat held some toast sandwiches, which contained a piece of toast with lovely savoury flavours running through it. Amazing.
Course 7 was another that I had seen before. The Sound of the Sea. Giant conch shells held headphones, which we were instructed to put into our ears. The sound of the channel gently washing against a beach greeted us, as we were served a platter containing sand, thin sliced fish, miniature seaweeds and sea foam. It was a right fishy treat, and having grown up by the sea it was amazingly evocative of my youth. Wonderful. With it, we were served a very nice japanese rice wine.
Course 8 was another that induced a small amount of trepidation. Salmon poached in a liquorice gel. I'm not a massive fan of liquorice, but need not have worried. It was served with the most delicious artichokes and golden trout roe which was brilliant. But the star of the dish was, for me, the vanilla mayonnaise. Who knew? Sooo delicious, and perfect with the flavours it accompanied. With it came a soft Austrian red wine. Mmmmm
Course 9 was the nearest thing that passed for a main. Lamb with Cucumber, green pepper and caviar oil. Sounds comparatively simple, no? Not a bit of it, though. There were purees and consommes, jus (juss? juses?) and vegetables too! The lamb was nothing short of exquisite. The most perfectly cooked piece of meat I have ever eaten, so flavoursome and succulent, that I was virtually speechless. Everything fitted together so perfectly, that I'm certain that this was the single best dish I have eaten, anywhere, ever. I'm not convinced that I will ever eat better. Accompanying it was the best red wine I've ever tasted. A 2006 Barolo Costa Grimaldi Podieri Luigi Einaudi. So good. I must have made the right sort of noises, as the Sommelier returned with extra for both Anita and I. Thank you, lovely Sommelier man!
Next up, Hot and Iced tea. Does exactly what it says on the menu. It is both. At once. In one glass. Cats and dogs living together. Complete bonkers craziness.
First pudding came next. Macerated Strawberries with camomile and coriander jelly and an ice cream cornet. Like an English summertime, there were beautiful flowers and a miniature gingham tablecloth - edible of course. The ice cream cornet was perfection in miniature. Gorgeous, and tasty. With it we had a 2006 Leonardo, a Slovenian dessert wine.
I like the way the Fat Duck rolls. There were 3 more puddings to go! Next up was the puzzlingly named Eggs in Verjus, Verjus in Egg. This turned out to be an egg, with a solid crisp chocolate shell with a pannacotta, marmalade and ice cream inside! The mind boggles as to how they make it, but it was very yummy nonetheless, and was accompanied by an Eisrebe from the Napa valley.
Then we had Whisk(e)y Wine Gums. Exactly as they sound, it was a tour of Scotland with a slight detour, in gummy, whisky delicious form. Glenlivet, Oban, Highland Park, Laphroig and finally Jack Daniels. Amazing to taste the difference in each. Mmmmmm.
The last course was the signature dish for the menu. "Like a kid in a sweet shop". We were presented with a candy stripe bag. In it was an aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly; an apple caramel sweet in an edible wrapper; a packet of coconut tobacco and an envelope containing a Queen of Hearts playing card. They were all delicious, especially the card. In my bag was also a birthday card signed by the man himself.
We accompanied our sweets with some coffee, which was again, some of the nicest that I have ever tasted.
The Fat Duck is incredible. It is dining like I have never experienced, food that comes so far out of left field that it really bears very little relation to day to day eating. But it is brilliantly conceived. It's a cliche to mention the attention to detail, but you sense that Heston and his chefs go to bed thinking about this stuff, and dream new refinements, practice, experiment and practice some more, until they are finally ready for the restaurant. Then they refine them some more. Add more than a little theatre, and offer them to their guests. If you love food, I would implore you to go to the Fat Duck and try it. It is a truly memorable experience.
So... it was about 5:30 after our 1:30 lunch ended, and we got a taxi back to Windsor and went for a post prandial relax in our room in the lovely Harte and Garter hotel. An hour or so later and Anita decided (quite uncharacteristically abruptly) that it was time for a G&T in the hotel bar. I was a little befuddled and so went along with the idea, and was therefore very happily surprised to see Martyn and Sophie in the bar. Of course, this was all planned by my lovely wife, and they'd booked into the same hotel for the night. The evening was brilliant. We mooched gradually around Windsor, drinking here and there. G&Ts were replaced by Bollinger (at one point we ordered "a bottle of Bollinger and two bowls of chunky chips"!). We ended a really lovely evening sat outside the castle noshing kebabs!
The following morning, Si and Ali arrived and we all went for coffee and kuchen at Jungs, and then it was time for us to bid our friends farewell and go to Bray lake for my present from my mother in law. A Segway rally. I have often ridiculed electric transport as being for dairy delivery. I must now revise my opinion. Whilst an electric car is a silly idea, a Segway is an utterly brilliant idea. I found it so easy to learn, and really great fun. Within a few minutes we were zooming about the place, weaving in and out of trees and up and down slopes. Sure, they look a bit funny, but they are very much of a hoot. My only disappointment is that I have since learned that you aren't allowed to ride them on pavements or roads in the UK, else I'd be considering a second hand one for my commute to Redditch.
We returned home on Friday, and I can safely say that this was one of the best birthdays ever.