You should go and read Part 1 HERE.
Okay, let’s go.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a Very Important Course, not only because it’s one of the most talked about, but it’s also the symbol, the icon of the current Fat Duck brand, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is full of Alice in Wonderland motifs and references both sneaky and obvious. This dish is essentially a mock mock turtle soup. For anyone who doesn’t know, actual mock turtle soup is a soup made from cheap organ meats that imitate the texture of actual turtle meat used in green (non-mock) turtle soup. Yep – nothing like a bit of light 1700s food trivia. Well, there are no calves brains here at the Fat Duck in 2015, and nothing is as it appears. There is something that looks so like an egg, you would never believe it wasn’t if you weren’t told by your waiter that the egg yolk was made of swede and the egg white of turnip – not a single ounce of vessel-of-potential-chicken-embryo in it at all.
The tea party bit goes like this – you are given a clear teapot and a clear teacup. In the teacup sits the aforementioned not-an-egg. Planted in the mock egg are tiny golden enoki mushrooms. Arranged around this are tiny cubes of ox tongue (I think!) and pickled turnip and cucumber, garnished with tiny micro parsley. Then you’re presented with a “gold watch” that is not gold nor watch, and is used like a tea bag, except it’s also not a teabag. Confused? Drop the not-a-teabag-or-a-watch in your clear teapot and when dissolved in warm liquid, it disappears and turns the darkening liquid into a beautiful mushroom-y stock. Pour this into the teacup with the not-an-egg and voilà, your mock mock turtle soup.
But wait, there’s more! The soup is served with little mini sandwiches with toasted bread that includes among its delicate fillings black truffle, bone marrow butter, egg white salad and a really good mayonnaise. Of course, not even sandwiches can be presented ordinarily at the Fat Duck so the platter is decorated with a big, feathered top hat – on theme as ever.
If I had to describe this course with one word, it would be whimsical. If I had three words, I would add weird, and what-is-this-sorcery? As much as I enjoyed the experience, I honestly believe my brain was too confused to form a truly accurate and critical assessment of the actual tastiness. I think it was delicious?
Despite the combination of taste and sound elements, it actually didn’t feel like a complicated dish by Fat Duck standards, at least to the diner sitting at the end of the undoubtedly painstaking preparation process. As with “Walk Through the Forest”, Heston no doubt wants to bring to mind our own personal experiences – this time, memories of sand and sea, perhaps a childhood summer at the beach. I can tell you that this worked quite well on many people, even making some diners quite emotional. Being a bit of a robot at times, I’ll say I enjoyed the dish for other reasons – I love fresh seafood in all its forms, so I loved this course, and thought it was as clever as I was coming to expect from this restaurant.
Before the next course was served, I was delivered my fourth tea – Bohea Lapsang from Fujian, China; a hong cha (straight translation: “red tea”, closest actual translation: “black tea”). The bohea had an unbelievably smoky aroma and taste, very complex, and so rich. This might have been my favourite tea, or perhaps it was only because it was by far the best tea and food pairing of the day – it went so well with the dish that came next that everyone at my table agreed that it was a better match for it than the wine.
The salmon poached in liquorice gel arrived at the table with little pomp and ceremony; yet the dish looked gorgeous, with the salmon encased in a glossy chocolate-coloured coat of liquorice, topped with golden trout roe, lying beside prettily browned witlof and surrounded by morsels of juicy king grapefruit, with droplets of fragrant vanilla bean mayonnaise and dots of balsamic reduction livening up the plate.
I’m not normally a fan of liquorice at all (what is the point of it?) but it was quite subtle here – striking a gentle balance between its slight savoury-bitterness and the sweetness of the salmon and caramelised witloof – and the gel casing helped retain the juices of the perfectly cooked fish. Yes, the fish, by the way (having been cooked sous-vide, I’m told) was melt-in-your-mouth tender, almost creamy; and, I’ll admit that the liquorice likely had a strong hand in helping the flavour of this dish meld so perrrrfectly with the smoky bohea tea.
Calling the Lamb with Cucumber the least memorable course of the day wouldn’t be untrue, but it also wouldn’t tell you that it was still a lovely dish. There was no bad food here – how could there be, with each course having be developed, refined, served and improved over many years? Nevertheless, my recollection of the main part of this lamb course is pretty fuzzy, most of my strong impressions from the stunning accompaniment of lamb consomme jelly infused with mint – dark and meltingly rich, topped beautifully by a borage flower and served with crispy quinoa biscuit. Also on the side were cubes of lamb tongue, heart and scrag, a variety of textures, each full of flavour. The main plate of saltbush lamb saddle – with cumin, cucumber with green pepper and caraway, caviar oil and a gel made from fish stock and mint butter – was as well-cooked and pleasant as you’d expect, but failed to blow me away, though others named it as a favourite dish.
Rather embarrassingly, my Fat Duck lunch happened well before the Masterchef season had even started, but I was grateful for Heston showing up in that final episode, because oh boy, did his explanation of this dish save me a lot of time recalling and researching and zooming in on my photos.
The botrytis fungus comes in two forms – a grey rot, and a “noble” rot. It’s this second type, the result of dry conditions following wet or humid conditions, that helps create a great dessert wine grape. “The grapes shrivel up, they lose their moisture and they develop all these really complex flavours. So, what we’ve done is taken the flavour characteristics and then we’ve also looked at what molecules create those flavours and we’ve used that to inspire the ingredients.”
The base of the dish plays on the dessert wine and cheese idea, and is made of a soil of dried parmesan and Roquefort blue cheese powder. Some of the elements on the plate include peach jelly (a sort of wine gum), compressed red grape dipped in nitrogen, a grape fluid gel, citrus sorbet, aerated saffron (kind of a meringue), a green-grape coloured white chocolate sphere filled with pear caramel and popping candy, a stunning gold sugar ball filled with citrus-infused yogurt, and a stalk made of churros. And there’s more – oh, so much more. Tenplay has decided to publish the full recipe on their website, although I’m not sure how many home cooks are keen enough to attempt this thing or even have the equipment that seems to be required!
Oh, my impressions? Delicious, interesting, delightfully varied textures, pretty – definitely favourable, but not my favourite. I tend to most love the savoury dishes in a tasting menu, or maybe I just don’t have a full appreciation for dessert wines due to my intolerance to them. However, there’s no doubt that this dish is an absolute masterpiece and I was completely in awe of its stunning presentation and complexity in flavour, textures and execution.
Read Part 3…
Still to come:
- Egg & bacon ice cream?
- Yet moarrr tea!
- Clumsy me is clumsy.
- What does a Heston kitchen look like?
- Why was it so worth it?