It’s known to gastronomes the world over. Mention the word ‘Bray’ to anyone and the words Heston and Blumenthal are bound to pop up in the conversation. Nicknamed ‘Braymenthal’ because of his influence, this chocolate box village, close to Maidenhead, is home to three of his ventures.
Heston is the King of culinary alchemy and the Michelin starred Fat Duck sits prominently in the high street but blink and you’ll miss it. The Crown is a 16th Century inn but the more obvious is The Hinds Head pub in a building which dates back to the 15th Century. Dark wood and brass plaques adorn the walls inside, alongside framed pictures of various royals past and present. It’s here the engagement of Princess Margaret to Lord Snowdon was celebrated and was also the place Prince Philip held his stag do before his marriage to the Queen.
So for today’s lunch I’m more head of table then head of state. Six diners, none of us shy, made even less so by fine wine, great conversation and excellent food. We weren’t disappointed.
The boys ordered drinks at the bar and they swiftly made their way to the table, arriving before us. The offer of aperitifs was a lovely touch although after much reminding both Kir Royales (£22.50) arrived at the same time the wine course did.
A quick eye over the menu and there was plenty of regular well-priced pub grub and some dishes that had been given the Heston twist. Versions of Tudor recipes were evident with both oxtail and kidney and Quaking Puddings contrived with the help of food historians at Hampton Court Palace. Kevin Love, formerly of Claridges and Gordon Ramsay is the head chef here just now, and took charge when Clive Dixon went off to head up Pierre Koffman’s kitchen at The Berkeley.
Immediately we order 6 plates of Devils on Horsebacks. Two swollen prunes, which are soaked in Armagnac until they resemble mahogany sponges, they’re then ‘injected’ with mango chutney, wrapped in pancetta and baked until the pancetta crisps. (£1.80).
The Scotch Egg (£3.50) was exceptional; it’s mustard mayonnaise accompaniment pale yellow and just the right amount for dipping. A lightly blanched quail’s egg is wrapped in thick, well-seasoned sausage meat and deep-fried in the lightest Panko breadcrumbs. The yolk predictably oozes on breaking and the pork meat cooked well.
If you’re a fan of Heston’s range at Waitrose, then you’ll already be quite familiar with his tea-infused smoked salmon. Under the heading ‘Specials and Signatures’ he serves a Hinds Head tea-smoked Salmon (I had lots) with soda bread. This comes with ribbons of wafer thin cucumber and a food crusted soda bread (£9.50).
The South Coast Crab on Toast (£9.50) was piled high on thinly cut and well-grilled toast. Well seasoned with a creamy binding, enough to keep the ingredients together, but not too much to overpower that distinctive taste of the sea.
I had hoped our table would order six different dishes but as it was Sunday lunchtime the Roast Pork Collar with Crackling, Stuffing and Apple Sauce (£19.50) was the winner.
Plenty of snap crackle and pop and that was just the crackling that sat on top of the dish. The request for two Yorkshire Puddings was met without fuss or additional cost and was much appreciated by those not having beef. Light fluffy, crispy and soft inside, the pudding mirrored the potatoes and the pork was well seasoned and cooked well. The good thing about this cut of meat is the fat. Because it’s slightly fatty it benefits from longer cooking times. It doesn’t allow the meat to dry out which is a bonus.
I don’t think I’ve tasted Rib eye Steak so good. Period. 10oz of pure bred Hereford beef, cooked medium rare and served with a jug of bone marrow sauce and a bowl of the famous triple cooked chips (£26.50). The exterior charred, yet cooked enough to melt the marbling throughout, still allowing it to remain a healthy pink. The sauce was rich and glossy, with nuggets of marrowbone bobbing on the surface. The size was shall we say healthy and most everyone shared a generous forkful with plenty left for the person who ordered it.
The Veal Chop, Cabbage and Onion Sauce ‘Reform’ taken from an 1830s recipe (£29.50) must have been good. I sat beside the man eating it, took my photos and then I don’t think I heard a peep from him until the plate was empty save for the massive bone he couldn’t eat. What I can tell you is that Reform Sauce was created in the 1830s by the French chef, Alexis Soyer. He was Chef de Cuisine at the Reform Club in Pall Mall. It’s a rich sauce that traditionally should include cooked salted ox tongue, gherkin, and hard-boiled white of egg, mushrooms and truffle. As to its recreation here, sorry, I can’t comment.
I ate from the set menu, 3 courses (£27.50) and my main was Wild Mushroom Macaroni with Poached Egg. A panko-topped cheese crust balanced a perfectly poached egg. When broken, the fat macaroni was so rich I had to keep checking there was no meat in it. But no, the strong flavour of the mushrooms carries this dish and married with the creamy yolk it was the perfect combination.
The sides are worth mentioning. Crisp green beans and perfectly cooked new potatoes sat in a dish with slow roasted cherry tomatoes (£3.50). The main dishes came with carrots, buttery cabbage and green beans. The Champ (£3.00) was buttery, salty, and coloured with bright green spring onions. Two dishes weren’t enough. Not because the portions were on the mean side, just because the comforting taste was all too good and we’re a greedy bunch.
The dessert menu has something for everyone. Chocolate Tart with Milk Ice Cream (£7.95) was ordered on a high followed quickly by a low when we were told it had run out. The famous Quaking Pudding was another winter warmer; a cream baked nutmeg rich wobbly pudding, with an infinite apple ribbon on the side.
My only criticism is that everyone wanted to try it and there wasn’t enough in the end for me. The Peach Tart with Yoghurt Ice-cream and Rosemary Caramel (£7.50) was another stunner. Crispy dessert pastry enveloped its peach jewel, varnished with a lush caramel glaze.
The boys shared a full selection of cheeses (£15.00) but all six of us dived in. Raisin and Macadamia nut bread arrived on a board with oatcakes and apple chutney. Cherwell (soft goats); Wigmore (semi-soft unpasteurised Sheep’s Milk); Crofton (Cow’s and Goat’s Milk pasteurised); Double Berkeley (Hard, Cow’s Milk Pasteurised); Stichelton (Classic Blue Cow’s Milk Unpasteurised); and Wensleydale (Hard, Cow’s Milk Pasteurised).
We ordered cappuccinos (£3.50) and an Americano (£3.00) which was served with hot milk. Cubes of salty, creamy fudge arrive and are inhaled. We pretend the signature fudge doesn’t arrive and with a wink we get fridge-fresh more. You should bag these beauties up and sell them. I think I would have paid any price to have a bag to munch on right now.
As for the wine, one of our fellow diners knows a thing or two about wine and a little bit about food too – he’s a chef. So we all sit back and know we’re going to get a good drop. He orders a dry Petit Chablis (£32.50), and a Fleurie (£33.25) the final red was a recommendation by Edward Crame our most excellent waiter, a Pinot Noir les Parcs which was (£28.50) nice but didn’t quite live up to expectation.
It’s Michelin’s Pub of The Year 2011 and when you’re mid-meal you do forget you’re in a pub. It’s not until you order water and it’s left without being poured that it dawns on you. Not just that but when the bill arrives too. For six of us, including a few pints, the two Kirs, three bottles of wine, and an apple juice the total was £425.36, which included a discretionary service charge of £47.26.
We discussed carrying on through until dinner; lucky for them they don’t Sunday’s are off the menu.
The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AB
Located in north-east France, along the Swiss border, Franche-Comté is made up of four counties; le Doubs, le Jura, la Haute Saône and the Territoire of Belfort. Traversed by the Doubs and Saône rivers, and bordered by the Jura and Vosges mountains, it boasts vineyards and lakes.
Why the geography lesson? Well, it’s here where my favourite cheese is produced.
Manufacture began as early as the 12th century, when shepherds would spend the summer months in their huts in the middle of nowhere. The distance from towns meant that the cheese made would need to mature over a period of months. Milk was shared between shepherds nearby, and at the end of the season they’d be carried to market.
A cheese seller who sold only Comté introduced me to it a few years ago at Borough Market. His cocktail-party-cube-lure, tasted so good, each bite different to the one before, that like a moth to a flame I couldn’t get enough. I seriously thought I knew enough about the cheese but I discovered a whole lot more when I went to a Comté tasting afternoon in a Soho basement recently.
The guests were treated to six Comtés of varying maturity, fresh from the Franche-Comté region, including a 5 month old Trévillers, a 13 month La Ferté, a 15 month Belleherbe, a 16 month La Baroche and a two year old Les Fins Frenelots.
Claire Perrot, a French cheese and wine specialist, shared her expertise with an assembled group of writers.
Made with raw milk, in a completely natural way, with nothing added but salt to help it mature. This was first among cheeses to get a label of origin (AOC).
There are currently 160 fruitieres scattered over a production area of 25kms, making 160 different cheeses each day, the process of which hasn’t changes for centuries. Women no longer work in the fruitieres and the movement of the massive cheese wheels is done by machine but the rest of the process is continued by hand.
The milk is partly skimmed, then poured into a copper vat and the temperature is raised to 32 degrees. Natural leavens are added – processed from the whey – then rennet. After thirty minutes the milk curdles, that’s split into grains, heated to 55 degrees to extract the whey. When the consistency is reached, it’s transferred to a mould that drains the whey and holds back the curd. Once removed from the mould it’s laid out on spruce boards for the affineur (cheese maturer) to take over. There are 15 in the area and each works differently.
Each Comté is unique; the maturing process takes at least 4 months and at the very best 12 or 18 months. The cheese remains on the boards and they’re moved to various cellars – temperate, warm and cold, the affineur responsible for the sequence of each wheel. They’re turned, and rubbed with a cloth soaked in a salted solution, which contains ferments found in the rind of older wheels. This eventually forms the protective rind.
Now that rind protects the paste throughout the maturing period, even its making is recorded within it. Its colour can vary from golden yellow to brown depending on the cellar.
Each cheese tastes very different depending on the age, the food the cows were eating very simply put, because there’s no pasteurization some of the natural micro flora from the milk is passed to the cheese and enhances it.
Young Comté tastes nutty, with vanilla notes and there’s definite caramel there. Whilst a long matured cheese will be far creamier, with a lot of roasted nutty flavours, melted butter and spices will jump out but made softer by creamed citrus fruits.
Because no colourings are added, the season the wheel is produced is visible in the paste. A pale cheese means a winter Comté, made when the cows are stabled and fed hay, producing milk with a low carotene (natural vegetable colour) content. A summer Comté is the very opposite, a more yellow paste means the cows have been free to graze on plants rich in carotene.
There is a real science to smelling this cheese – there’s even an aroma wheel which picks up a well of aromas from within 6 families – lactic; fruity; the roasted empyreumatic; vegetable; animal and spicy. A whopping 83 descriptors correspond to the most frequently found smells and aromas but apparently it’s still possible to detect other smells when smelling a piece of Comté
Next time you see Comté for sale, see if you can age it and determine it’s season.
Comté Top Trumps
Comté has the highest production figures of all the French AOC cheeses (51,000 tons in 2005, or about 1,275,000 rounds every year).
The average maturing period for a round of Comté is eight months. The maturing period ranges from four months (the legal minimum) to twelve, fifteen, eighteen or even twenty-four months.
A round of Comté weighs an average of 40 kg, having a diameter of 60 cm and a thickness (or “heel”) of 10 cm.
450 litres of milk are required to make one 40 kg round.
A Montbéliarde cow produces about 20 litres of milk over two milkings; to make one round of Comté therefore requires twenty-three cows and, since each cow must be given at least one hectare, a minimum of twenty-three hectares (about fifty-seven acres) of pasture.
Comté was granted AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 1958.
Source: CIGC Comté
Monsieur Jacques is a cave, and a shop entirely dedicated to wine in the old quarter in Lille. More importantly for me, it sells Domaines Ott one of my favourite rosé wines. Not only does this wine come in a beautiful bottle, it’s the perfect aperitif. It’s light and dry and works well with most food and the colour is a thing of real beauty.
Historically the Ott wines, especially the rose’s, were very difficult to buy outside of France as the French consumed most of what was produced. Thank goodness then that technology and investment (the company is now in partnership with the Louis Roederer Group) means we can all share in the great taste. The wines essentially come from three areas-Chateau de Selle (acquired in 1912) on the plateau of the Var, in the heart of Cotes de Provence country, Clos Mireille (1936) in La Londe bordering the sea not far from Bregancon in the Cotes de Provence Apellation, and finally at Chateau Romassan (1956) at the foot of the village of La Castellet in the heart of the Bandol Apellation.
Monsieur Jacques has a great wine selection, by the bottle and the glass, the tapas plates are rather enjoyable too with great selections of meat, fish and cheese. I wholly recommend La Fromagere. Amazingly these dishes are all pulled together in the bar, fresh to order.
There are also tasting sessions organised here for both the experienced and the novice.
If you think you’ll be in trouble with the language, you won’t, they speak excellent English here too.
Monsieur Jacques, 30 rue de Gand, Lille, France
The guys behind El Cantara are used to pioneering foodie firsts. They brought Spanish and Moroccan food to Soho, and now they’re bringing the culinary treasures of Marrakech and Andalusia to the Great Eastern Market in Westfield East.
Here, you’ll find a tapas menu (when I visited they were stuffing red peppers with spinach, and there was an Iberico ham slicing masterclass) which you can sit and enjoy at the bar or take home and pass off as your own.
Spices are ground to order, and customers are treated to useful kitchen tips like how to make your own Harissa paste and there’s a fresh delicatessen counter and shelves full of specialities as well as Moroccan cosmetics, including Argan oil and black eucalyptus soap.
El Cantara Delicatessen, The Great Eastern Market, Westfield Stratford City
It’s not so much a case of where but what to eat at Westfield Stratford City, the new multi-million pound development enjoying its own notoriety in the East End ahead of the Olympic games in 2012. As you’d expect, there are the usual suspects who will always take up residence in a shopping centre no matter it’s magnitude or relevance and then there are the newcomers, from the coziness of a local business model this is the kind move that could make or break them.
Step forward Bumpkin. They’ve two restaurants in West London and locals have been enjoying their seasonal British menu in Notting Hill and South Kensington. It’s a nicely set dressed restaurant, red brick and hand painted signage with an open kitchen, ensuring you see what’s being prepared and how. They’re all about seasonal food, sourced from all over the UK. Former restaurant manager of the Edinburgh hotel Le Monde, Keiran Cusker is managing this place and dispatching his foodie knowledge and restaurant know-how with great aplomb.
A delivery problem meant that some breakfast items weren’t available which was fine for selfish old me, as I wanted the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Smoked in-house, the Loch Duart salmon was thickly sliced and there was plenty of it. Wrapped, unsalted butter allowed me to spread it thickly on a fennel-seeded home made bread. Good, strong coffee arrived with hot skimmed milk and the waitress service was attentive but not overbearing.
The menu didn’t lack choice. Interesting salads, sandwich platters, fish, meat, stews, burgers and a great pudding list, I can’t remember the last time, if ever, if seen an egg custard tart with stewed fruit on a menu and I’m really glad to see it. Browsing the starters the ingredients included pigeon, cobnuts and smoked bacon. Mains include Dingley Dell roast pork, fish and chips in a gluten-free batter and a rabbit stew.
They’re now selling home-made seasonal jam, chutney, mustard and pickle as well as oils and bio-dynamic wines. Worth knowing as these little jars made an excellent addition to home made Christmas hampers.
They’re fortunate to have a terrace, which stretches, down the sunnier side of the restaurant.
The interior is well appointed and the upstairs area has comfy winged chairs for a decent Sunday paper trawl. It’s here those private parties and those all-important after work drinks will become a staple. With Christmas on the way, it’s a great space for the Christmas party – shame our office is on Regent Street.
Bumpkin, 105/106 The Street, Westfield Stratford City