Bray, that famously foodie village in Berkshire, is charming – but I have mixed feelings about some of its restaurant offerings. Ever since eating at The Fat Duck a few months ago I’ve been meaning to craft a careful and considered write up for this blog. That article will follow soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece by me which appears in this month’s edition of Britain magazine. I think you may be able to detect a slightly lukewarm attitude to the famous duck.
One of the world’s top gastronomic destinations, the Berkshire village of Bray also offers traditional pubs, tranquil riverside walks and fascinating historical buildings – all within easy striking distance of London.
From its cricket ground to its venerable parish church, Bray is a quintessential English village. Wander into its heart and you’ll find a delightful hotchpotch of whitewashed cottages, half timbered buildings and weathered red brick houses. There are blissful walks alongside the Thames, cosy pubs in which to enjoy traditional ales, plus the chance to browse for gifts in Story, a charming boutique and homeware shop.
All this is reason enough to visit Bray, but it has something more besides. No other British village, apart from Cartmel in Cumbria (home of L’Enclume and its sister restaurant Rogan & Co), can claim to be such a dazzling gastronomic destination.
It all began in the 1970s, when French chefs Michel and Albert Roux set up shop at the Waterside Inn following their success in London with Le Gavroche. The Waterside was, and still is, a huge success, garnering three Michelin stars and making Bray a focal point for food lovers.
Now run by Michel’s son Alain Roux, The Waterside is one of the most luxurious hotels in the area. Its restaurant has a classic, timeless feel befitting the tone of Alain’s faultless French cuisine – and it’s an absolute delight on sunny days, when you can sit out on the terrace overlooking the glassy, willow-hung waters of the Thames.
Some 20 years after The Waterside put Bray on the map, a young chef named Heston Blumenthal opened The Fat Duck in the heart of Bray. This unassuming restaurant began by offering French Bistro-style food, but Heston quickly built a reputation for playful invention. His snail porridge and egg and bacon ice cream are now legendary, as is his tendency to include special effects and showmanship in his meals. From dry ice to audio, there is no end to his experimentation.
Recently reopened and reinvigorated after a sojourn in Australia, the Fat Duck remains at the forefront of ‘molecular gastronomy’ – a style of cooking based on a scientific understanding of how flavours work, resulting in some unexpected, but usually very effective combinations.
The new menu includes references to Lewis Carroll’s famous book Alice in Wonderland, including a ‘mock turtle picnic’ comprising a gold ‘watch’ made from beef consommé that dissolves when lowered into a teapot of hot water. The resulting broth is poured onto a gel egg made from swede and turnip juice, then served with toast sandwiches of mustard, bone marrow, anchovy butter and home made tomato ketchup.
Other surprises include savoury ice lollies and a ‘breakfast’ comprising smoky bacon cereal poured onto a dish of English breakfast flavoured creams and gels.
The whole experience, which lasts several hours, does not come cheap (£255 per person at the time of writing) and the meal may take you out of your comfort zone – but it remains one of the quirkiest dining experiences in the world.
The restaurant’s fame means that booking a table is a challenge: visit their website to find out when the next batch of tables is available, and be at your computer ready to book the very moment they are released, because they sell out in seconds.
If you fancy a more relaxed and affordable style of dining, Blumenthal now owns two pubs in the village – the Hind’s Head and The Crown, both traditional British inns with exposed beams, blazing fires and hearty but classy food.
Any visit to Bray should include a leisurely wander around the village. Look out for the Jesus Hospital, an exquisite group of 34 red brick almshouses created in 1609 to house the poor and elderly. Arranged in a quadrangle around a picturesque garden, they are a fine example of this time-honoured British charitable tradition.
Long before it became a gastronomic destination, Bray was known for the comedy song The Vicar of Bray, which mocked Bray’s vicar for changing his religious and political allegiances with every change of monarch in order to protect his job.
The precise identity of the vicar is unclear, but a visit to his parish church of St Michael, built in 1293, will reward you with some fascinating discoveries, including a magnificent 1378 memorial brass to Sir John Foxley and a sheela na gig – a traditional stone carving of a naked woman found on many churches and castles in the UK.
A short walk from the church is the river, home to many millionaires’ homes. If you have time, venture to the outskirts of the village to see Bray lock and weir, on the opposite shore from Bray. It was created in 1845 to help boats and barges navigate the shallow and fast running waters of this section of the river.
The wider parish of Bray offers further fascinating finds, notably Oakley Court Hotel in Water Oakley. A magnificent Victorian Gothic country house on the banks of the Thames, it was once the home of famous horror film production company Hammer Films.
Numerous famous movies were shot here, even after Hammer moved to nearby Bray Studios. You can spot it in cult films including Vampyres (1974); 1976 farce Murder by Death; and the 1978 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy The Hound of the Baskervilles. Most famously of all, it was Dr Frank N Furter’s castle in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These days it is delightful luxury hotel, and an ideal place to stay on a visit to this most idyllic and memorable corner of England.
Regular trains run from London to Maidenhead and Windsor. Bray is a 12 minute taxi ride from Windsor and a 7 minute taxi ride from Maidenhead.
Where to stay
For luxury in the village of Bray, head for the Waterside Inn. The parish of Bray also includes the stunning Oakley Court Hotel in nearby Water Oakley, a five-minute drive away.