Wednesday, 16 December 2009

One day in Bray

I’ve suffered a major disappointment recently. Completely unexpected and a bit of a shock, I feel let down and knocked for six. After many years of harmony, my trusty sidekick, my secret weapon, the Penfold to my Danger Mouse, the fabulous Panasonic Lumix with Leica lens decided to format its memory card, without any warning. A mid-life crisis, perhaps? Let’s hope it’s just a phase.

It can’t be an act of rebellion - it’s not as if I’d ever mistreated it. On the contrary, my compact, sleek companion has accompanied me on many colourful adventures. Most recently, it was a special guest at the BSG autumn feast at the Hind’s Head in Bray, documenting an afternoon’s merry gorging through British pub favourites expertly composed by Heston Blumenthal’s crack team. It captured the moment of oozing perfection as the first crisp Scotch egg was sliced open to share, billowing peppery steam. (For the more delicate in the group, this bar snack proved the perfect reset button.)

I can’t deny that the picture opportunities on the pre-blowout march had been weak (unless you have a penchant for asphalt and Eddie Stobart). After a couple of wrong turns we found ourselves ambling, not along the meandering Thames, but alongside the screaming M4. Bracing indeed. The Lumix took a great picture of us, dressed for the country, flat-capped and buffeting about in the slipstreams – a masterpiece, though it’ll have to be in your mind’s eye now.

After a delightful trudge round a building site, we spent the next hour looking for a way to cross back over the river to Bray, only to wind up in Maidenhead (where we’d started). Thank goodness for Brunel’s mighty railway bridge, comprising two flat brick arches which were the biggest in the world at time of building. These red vaults are impressive even now, with First Great Western juggernauts roaring across them every few minutes (you might have thought about a footbridge too, Isambard). A good minute was passed as we stood, hollering for the impressive echo (no, there were no children with us…) As we waited for the late crowd (who’d spent considerably longer on the motorway than we had), we decided that it would perhaps be better to consult a walker’s guide next time.*

In the warmth of the pub, the cold air banished, the walk becoming a distant memory and the feelings coming back into our extremities thanks to the aforementioned magic bar snack, we were ushered upstairs to our table under a high, vaulted ceiling. The late autumn sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating the silver and glass – it all felt like a bit of an occasion. The menu comprised a list of British faves; creatures from air, land and sea, seasonal vegetables and traditional accompaniments. How lovely when you’re hungry to order something that you know you’ll love. Potted shrimps in a spiced butter with brown bread and a watercress salad started me off, whisking me momentarily Norfolk-wards. The shell-averse BSG enjoyed slivers of raw Scotch beef dressed with capers and shallots, beautiful to behold but - unfortunately for me no proffered fork this time - gone in a flash.

The blade of beef that followed was rich, earthy and gelatinous, it looked like a steak but fell apart at a nudge. The BSG and several others had the roast whole partridge, with Savoy cabbage, bacon and bread sauce. Hearty fare indeed. Simon tucked into a venison pasty, which was a surprise hit of the day. It arrived on a wooden board with a tiny jug of gravy on the side, sitting humble and looking a bit dry and sorry for itself. But how its appearance deceived! The pastry was somewhere between crumbly and crisp, the meat inside beautifully seasoned and cooked: it was a mouth party. The triple-cooked chips that had been so greatly anticipated did not disappoint the crowd, crisp and golden-skinned giving way to floury potato in a satisfying crunch. As for the sprouts, they were just right; leafy, swathed in butter and all shapes and sizes, as if they’d just been dug up from Mr McGregor’s garden by Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter (but enough about the leaves, lest this blog skates dangerously close to becoming the BSG: Boring Sprout Geek.) Being late November, it was dark and misty outside as we settled our very reasonable bill, wrapped ourselves up once again and spilled rosy-cheeked out into the night, which was yet young.

Lazy Sunday mornings; winter’s outside, London’s swathed in chilly fog and a low, lemony light. Some people might like to relax, perhaps stick their noses out and wander to get some papers. Not the BSG. The morning after the night before (which we’d all made sure had aged in style), he had a plan: to try and replicate the amazing mouthful that had been our Hinds Head’s highlight: the Scotch egg.

Firstly, let me just tell you that in no way is shelling a soft-boiled quail’s egg relaxing. Au contraire - for us both, it was almost a deal-beaker. There must be a technique but for the life of us we don’t know it (though somebody has since told me that the shorter the best before date the easier they are to peel). Thank goodness we’d only decided to do four. After two minutes in boiling water, the speckled numbers were painstakingly rolled and peeled, before being carefully swaddled in pork mince blended with lots of cayenne and ground black pepper. Then for the double coating of flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs (Japanese Panko crumbs are probably the best for high crunch factor but we used the end of an old loaf), and a five minute spell in the freezer to firm up, before a plunge into a pan of hot vegetable oil for 2 minutes or until golden brown and 3 minutes in a hot oven. If this all sounds like a bit of an ordeal but I have to tell you it was absolutely worth it. Crisp on the outside, warm peppery and unctuous within, we were proud to have produced them. We’re taking some on our wintry walk next weekend, to keep everyone warm and accompany the mulled wine (but really to show off).

knole park

* There will be a next time. Just as well really, I’ll take two cameras.

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