If madness and civility are two prongs of the Fat Duck fork, nostalgia is the third.
Amongst the cutlery and Kangaroo paws on the table there’s also a little card, explaining Heston’s approach to nostalgic British cooking. It invites us to play along and leave behind a record of our own sensory cues, food memories and happy places.
I can play this game; the sound of a starter’s gun always has me looking for a french plaited pastry stuffed with apple; the weekly treat for having survived another Saturday of swimming club. And eating thick cut ham always takes me to Christmas trips to the beach, leaving me fishing around in the bottom of my bag; half expecting to find sand.
Heston’s card could also be an excellent conversation starter for anyone floundering. So far we’re fine. Especially since what arrives at our table renders us all mute.
Out come some giant conch shells, with i phone earplugs protruding from within. Welcome to Fat Duck’s famed ‘the sounds of the sea’.
It goes something like this. While you’re eating you’re supposed to wear the headphones.
Playing on loop are ‘the sounds of the sea’. Gulls, backwash, light wind and water splashes all make a cameo. Some people may think it’s naff. Some people may think it’s over the top. The Hungry One and The Chef both thought it was a lark, but would have preferred if the audio track was longer than 13 seconds on loop.
Yet I was so transfixed by what was on the plate, that I found it hard to concentrate anyway.
On a glass presentation case under an ethereal foam made from blonde vegetables are three tranches of raw fish; halibut, mackrel and yellow tail.
Around them are slippery trails of seaweed from the UK and Japan. Despite everything you may have learned as a child, it’s hard not to eat the sand. Here it’s made from ground tapioca and fried baby eel. The sweetness of the fish and the occasional bursts of salt from the seaweed is enough to make you sneeze. All you need is the grease of sunscreen and you’re back to the beach.
And so the magical madness of Fat Duck continues. A dish that’s just about what’s on the plate then seems like a holiday for your senses.
Next it’s salmon poached in liquorice with a jelly-like coating that forks away to reveal flushed pink flesh.
The licorice has a smokiness to it while dots of vanilla specked mayonnaise add a romantic kind of lilt. Golden trout roe and individually picked bits of pink grapefruit punch it up, adding a happy ballast are segments of artichokes. It’s quite simply, a corker of a dish.
From here British nostalgia morphs into a history lesson or two. Powdered anjou pigeon is served with with blood pudding, a ‘confit of umbles’ and a footnote ‘(c 1720)’. ‘Confit of umbles’ is a combination of confit offal; the h(umble) parts of the animal which back-in-the-day were used to bulk out a meal. Combined with the pigeon and the sheer ‘meatiness’ of the blood pudding, it’s not a course for the faint hearted. Served with it are a prawn crisp at a jaunty angle, and a glass of 2002 Le Dome, from Saint Emillion.
The history lesson continues with ‘taffety tart (c. 1660)’. It’s blackcurrant sorbet, pillows of soft apple, kisses of rose cream candied lemon peel and fine slivers of fennel all having a slumber party with sheets of crunchy pastry.
Eating it is a little like having a sexy romp in your grandma’s garden.
My obsession with fennel isn’t anything new; but here my favourite aniseed lump gets taken to new heights.
If I was on death row this dish would be lobbying hard for my last dessert. It’s sweet but tempered, naughty but nice. I may have ‘shushed’ The Hungry One when he tried to talk to me while I was eating it. I’m sorry darling. I didn’t mean to.
It’s not long before this silence is replaced by giggles, as the host stands before us with packets of Fat Duck branded cereal. He says with a completely straight face; ‘It’s now time for breakfast’.
But, nevertheless, soon our mini fun pack-sized cereal boxes are wrenched open and we’re eating crunchy flakes with milk- a nostalgic jaunt back to some of the first meals we learned to make for ourselves.
Except, the flakes are made of parsnip and the milk is infused with parsley. They tell us that there are special cows out the back for that milk. I’m starting to get their sense of humour.
But this is only course one of breakfast.
Next is bacon and eggs. With the panache of a magician the host brandishes an egg in front of each of us and says ‘Do you see anything special about this egg? No. Is just a normal egg’.
Just a normal egg- that gets whisked with liquid nitrogen into ice cream in front of you.
Except it still looks like scrambled eggs. And just to muck with you a little more, when you eat it, it tastes of bacon.
With it are whisps of crispy bacon and sweetened french toast.
And to drink with breakfast, there’s a cup of tea. Except when you drink from the cup we find that the left side of your mouth is introduced to cold, and the right to hot.
The two temperatures swish about in your mouth and mellow out to a muted lukewarm.
Added to the ‘eggs’ and the ‘cereal’ it’s all completely befuddling and slightly confronting. Yet the tastes are soothingly familiar. It’s like being pushed off a cliff, while wrapped in a snuggie, and paying for the pleasure.
Thankfully, things are starting so slow. By the time we all calm down we discover another relict from 1660. This time it’s a slushie of chocolate and red wine, with little shortbread biscuits.
These ‘millionaire shortbread’ are layer upon layer of crumbly biscuit, dark chocolate, sweet caramel, a delightful, impertinent tingle of salt, and a wafer of gold leaf.
Following soon after are wine gums; which tell the story of the historic trading routes of Britain. They’re cute little jellybaby bottles, which are affixed to individually framed maps. You peel them off the surface like they’re something from a toy store which gets throw against windows to stick.
Once you put them in your mouth they dissolve and subside, bringing a wave of booze that rattles you to your toes. There are five, which echo the flavour profiles of mead and cognac, Madeira, sherry and rum.
If we weren’t half boozed from a half glass of wine with every course; we were well on our way at the end of the wine gums. There may be a photo somewhere of me trying to see if one would stick to my nose. It’s not going on the internet. But you get the idea of the combined effect.
Last but not least is a beautifully presented lolly bag.
They’re candy striped and housing a smell that belongs to a perfume that would be branded ‘glee’.
And there’s one for each of us. Inside there’s an apple pie caramel in a wrapper which you’re told to eat. There’s an aerated chocolate ball with mandarin jelly. There’s shredded coconut which is like chewing tobacco, and a chocolate, two sided playing card.
It perfectly renders the Queen of hearts.
And it tastes, just like strawberry tarts.
The point of the nostalgia, is to make you feel like you’re a kid lost in a candy store.
Little did they know, I didn’t need a musk pink striped bag to take me there.
I was gone from the moment I walked inside.
It’s a hell of a ride.