Friday, December 24, 2010

A gourmet camping excursion

Living in England, we heard a lot about Heston Blumenthal, who is supposed to be one of the best chefs in the world. His restaurant The Fat Duck is always mentioned in the same breath as El Bulli and The French Laundry, and places like that. We knew we could never afford to eat at The Fat Duck, but I heard that Heston also ran a country pub in the same town, Bray. We decided to check it out, and to turn it into a camping weekend.

Bray is only an hour or so by train from London, so we left right after work one day and got there in time to set up our tent with plenty of light to spare. It was a nice enough camp site, apart from being only about 100 meters from the M4, which is one of the busiest roads in the UK. But we set up without a problem and even used our new little camping stove to cook dinner for ourselves. Later on we wandered over to Heston’s pub for a drink, then found our way back in the pitch black, walking alongside the M4 for a bit longer than I was totally comfortable with.

The next morning we got up and started walking north. Using our handy-dandy Ordnance Survey map, we plotted out a journey to Cliveden, which is a spectacular estate high up on a bluff overlooking the Thames. We had a lovely walk along the river, marveling at the houses, which were enormous by English standards. Apparently Bray is quite the posh village, which we couldn’t tell from our walk in the dark the night before. We eventually made our way up to Cliveden and stopped for a bit of refreshment at a pub across from the entrance. It was a nice warm day, and we sat outside in the pub’s garden and shared a pitcher of Pimm’s before carrying on to Cliveden.

We must have gone in sort of a back way, because we wandered through a lot of anonymous greenery before we finally got to the long avenue leading up to the house. It was all very impressive, statues and fountains and sculpted gardens and topiaries, and the sky was so blue we were almost beside ourselves. We couldn’t eat in the restaurant or look around the house because someone had rented it out for a wedding (there was a beautiful old Rolls-Royce in the courtyard for the happy couple), but we had a snack and some tea in the orangery before heading out to enjoy more of the gardens.

The gardens were beautiful and full of happy families enjoying the nice weather. It would have been very peaceful if it wasn’t for the planes landing nearby at Heathrow, flying directly over us every couple minutes. Oh well. We enjoyed all the greenery, then walked down to the river to try to walk back to the camp site a different way. We had our map, and we were all ready, but then things started to go wrong. The map was not as precise as we could have wished for, and we ended up walking a long way only to have to retrace our steps because the path was blocked. By this point my poor feet were starting to hurt, and all we could find were British sticking plasters, which stuck to my skin for about 30 seconds at a time. By the time we got back to the camp site I was bleeding all over my new sandals. Talk about breaking them in. But on our way back we made a few stops, partly to give my feet a rest. The first was another impressive-looking home that turned out to be an Elizabethan-era estate that has since been converted to a Buddhist conference center. We wandered around a bit and someone offered us tea, but we ploughed on, feeling the need for something a bit stronger. We found a little pub where we could get drinks, but lunch was nowhere to be found, and we ended up having to get by with just a little snack from a petrol station. Our spirits were low by the time we made it back, but a quick nap lightened our mood considerably, and then we got to go to dinner at The Hind’s Head, which was just lovely.

The Hind’s Head is a proper country pub, but a rather fancy one at that. We started out with some bar snacks, including the most exquisite little Scotch eggs and devils on horseback. For dinner, I had a chicken and leek pie and Andrew had steak and Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips. For dessert, I had a strawberry trifle that had a few secret ingredients: black olive paste and balsamic vinegar tucked between the layers and freeze-dried powdered green peas sprinkled on top. It sounds weird, but it was spectacular, and I made strawberry and olive salads for the rest of the summer. Very refreshing! It had started to rain while we were at dinner, and we couldn’t face another long walk, so we had a quick cab ride back to the campsite for a well-earned sleep and an easy trip home the next day.

Photos are here:

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