Lance Richardson visits the small yet exceptionally well-fed village of Bray, where Michelin stars abound.
The village of Bray, 30 kilometres from London, has a cumulative total of seven Michelin stars. This means that it has an average of one star for every 857 residents, which also means it is statistically more delicious than Paris, where the Michelin Guide was born.
I have often wondered why a tyre company got involved in food criticism. The guide emerged at the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1930s the Michelin brothers were awarding star ratings to restaurants and hotels based on criteria that have since become legend.
These were the decades when motorcars were still transitioning from luxury items to a common possession. The Michelin brothers had an ingenious idea: increase the demand for transportation and you increase the sale of tyres. So while one star denoted "a very good restaurant in its own category," two stars meant "excellent cooking, worth a detour," and three stars signified "exceptional cuisine, worth a special trip".
Bray has two restaurants with a three-star Michelin rating, the Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn. The Hinds Head has one star, awarded by the 2013 Michelin Guide. According to professional inspectors - undercover, like spies for the CIA - this means that Bray is worth a "special journey" twice over, with a garnish of very good food in the category of pub food.
My own binge in Bray begins with a foray into the weird world of Heston Blumenthal. With its cobblestone streets and tidy flower boxes by the Thames, Bray might seem like an odd fit for this sort of eccentricity, but the Fat Duck is tucked away in an unassuming cottage that is more than 500 years old. Nor does the dining room, low-ceilinged and austere, reveal anything strikingly unusual - except perhaps its size.
The restaurant offers just 14 tables. Its kitchen is hardly larger than a walk-in closet but features 13 chefs on a normal shift. "That's what makes it what it is," head chef Jonny Lake says. "It is very, very, very tiny." When Blumenthal founded the restaurant in 1995, he had no gas and couldn't do many things other chefs take for granted. These limitations became an impetus for creative innovation, however.
Visit the Fat Duck today and you sit down to a degustation menu featuring nitro-poached aperitifs, snail porridge, mock turtle soup with a dissolving pocket watch, and "Sound of the Sea", which comes accompanied by an iPod in a conch shell. The Fat Duck is often voted one of the best restaurants in the world.
Having toured the separate prep kitchen, where a woman assembles tarts as thin as playing cards beside a vacuum centrifuge, I can attest that it is one of the strangest. A pastry chef wears protective headgear in a sealed chamber to spray gateaux with chocolate powder. As we exit the building, I pass another chef poking a chicken egg with a pneumatic drill. The yolk will be replaced with a special mixture, Lake explains, while the shell is left visibly intact. Come dessert, a carton is delivered to the table, each egg stamped with the insignia of the restaurant (feathers and a duck foot lined up like cutlery). A serving chef wheels out a cooking station and cracks the tampered eggs into a chafing dish - instant crepe suzette.
But while a last-minute reservation at the Fat Duck is almost impossible, Blumenthal hasn't limited his vision to a single restaurant in Bray. Alternatives are close at hand. There is the Crown, for example, a classic English pub that appears to be frozen in a swan song of British Empire; Blumenthal maintains it for locals who see nothing quaint about bellows by the fireplace or portraits of army officers from World War II. The head chef is Nick Galer.
Blumenthal also owns the Hinds Head, a more experimental pub directed by Head Chef Kevin Love with a philosophy he calls "technical simplicity". The bone marrow sauce on a pure-bred Hereford 283-gram rib eye takes three days to prepare, for instance. Love likes to resurrect historical recipes in collaboration with his boss - "Heston loves history," Love says - including a pudding served at Hampton Court Palace in the 16th century.
Love also strikes up culinary dialogues with dishes from the the Fat Duck across the street. "Sound of the Sea" is answered here by fish pie with "Sand and Sea": thick chunks of cod buried beneath a beach crust of crumbs and a tide of pan-fried kale resembling seaweed. Everything is executed with fastidious precision. The Hinds Head stopped selling triple-cooked chips for six weeks because Love hated the potatoes. "Too sugary," he told me. "Every ingredient has to be the best it can be or we don't do it."
Blumenthal wasn't the first to choose Bray as the ideal location for a food empire. Indeed, after a day of engaging his idiosyncratic vision I walk several streets across to the Waterside Inn, opened by Michel and Albert Roux in 1972. "In those days, even London wasn't what I would call steeped in gastronomy," Michel is quoted as saying in the restaurant's official history book. "And the country was 50 years behind London. Some people in the country never went out to eat at all the food was so bad."
Now under the control of Michel's son Alain, a master patissier, people travel for hours to eat at the Waterside Inn, which is like a bank vault protecting French cuisine. All the wines are French, the decor is recognisably European, and waiters speak with accents that make you suspect they are very far from home. Luke Mangan trained here. "He was just a boy!" croons Diego Masciaga, the maitre d'maison who also happens to be a Knight of the Italian Republic.
The food is astonishing. A course of pike quenelle with langoustine tails is followed by pan-fried lobster medallions, exquisite rabbit fillets, and a roasted Challandais duck that costs £104 ($151) for two people and has me asking what they plan to do with the carcass, in case I get to take it home for stock.
But the most delicious part is the ritual itself; a dinner in a place like this is never just a dinner. A raspberry souffle appears at the next table. A tuxedoed waiter bends in close, miming happy birthday to a lady who breaks into sublime laughter and covers her face with her hands. A white swan glides through a spotlight on the dark river. There are popping champagne corks and the earthy smell of rich cheeses.
"Food for me is like 'envie' - desire, a craving," Alain Roux tells me later above a tea tray filled with petit fours. Envie: the word could be Bray's tagline.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Visit Britain.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to London for about $2010 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. It is a 24-hour flight to London Heathrow including transit time in Dubai; see qantas.com.au.
Bray is an easy drive from London or Heathrow Airport. Alternatively, catch a 30-minute train from Paddington Station to Maidenhead, right next to Bray.
Staying there The Waterside Inn offers a beautiful bed and breakfast right beside the Thames. A standard double starts at £225 ($328). See waterside-inn.co.uk.
Bray Cottages are luxurious accommodations just steps from the town's restaurants. Cottages start at £325. See braycottages.com.
Rainworth House, a short drive from Bray, is a four-star hotel close to Windsor Castle and Eton College. Single rooms start at £65. See rainworthhouse.com.
Eating there The Fat Duck offers a tasting menu that takes about four hours to complete. The cost is £195 a person. Bookings are available up to 90 rolling days in advance. See thefatduck.co.uk.
The Waterside Inn has, in addition to a la carte, a tasting menu (£152.50), and a two- or three- course "le menu gastronomique" for £45.50 or £59.50 respectively. See waterside-inn.co.uk.
More information visitbritain.com.au