I am allergic to birthdays and particularly to my own. But, I perversely start feeling sorry for myself when nobody else seems to remember. I originally started blogging to accompany the highs and lows of writing of my book, but it seems to have turned out, if about anything, to be most consistently about friendship. By coincidence, today also happens to be the day that my agent – rather than consigning my proposal to her dustbin – has sent it out to various editors. The best birthday present might be that one of her selected editors turns out to be interested. I have in readiness now brought myself a digital recorder and organized several interviews for August, which is the quietest month of my year.
I have had a brilliant birthday day at Bray when one of our oldest friends took John, (hitherto referred to rather formally as ‘my husband’) and me to Alain Roux’s enchanting Waterside Inn. It is not just unique for its culinary arts and service but for its kindness, which word I shall return to. It was generous of our ‘joint’ friend, and we don’t have many ‘joints’, de Wynter not only to invite us but to drive us there, although the journey was characteristically scary as he challenged every set of traffic lights, man and beast in his path.
As we careered into a narrow country lane as if it was a runway, blown into disarray by the wind, it seemed unlikely that we were approaching one of only three Michelin three star restaurants in the UK. Rather, it seemed as if we were arriving at a chaotic wayside inn. Just for a minute, I thought it was an ambush as somebody leapt forward to park our car. I knew it was going to be good when everybody smiled – there were a lots of smiles because the restaurant seemed to have almost as many smiling waiters as diners – and everybody seemed to be genuinely smiling rather than grimacing, but it got even better when we were seated at a table that was almost floating on the landing stage of the river.
I don’t intend to go into much detail about the food which was simple but superlative: hours of care and preparation had been combined with sorrel and herbs from the “backyard”, whilst literally across the road, ‘Mandy grows roses for our sorbets and from the neighbouring county Mr Secker delivers our organic eggs” to provide the kind of result whose culinary brilliance is concealed in a godlike simplicity which I always dream of providing for a family feast. It’s one thing to gather the finest ingredients of any species but quite another not to ruin them. And, I adore eating roses and violets.
I have given up expecting to be served an entire roast duck in a restaurant since the White Tower in Charlotte Street ceased to be. I find those leaden wads of maigret of duck breast are a wonderful incentive to become a vegetarian for life. Today, we were served a whole roast duck from Challons intended for two but carved with such surgical deftness it could have fed four. I rarely eat meat but this excursion into flavour was worth every prick of conscience and my plate even had a consoling nursery flourish as it was flaked with pastry in the shape of a duck which – had it not been plumped out with the mystery of a consoling carrot puree – was so light that it would have taken flight from my plate. The cooking was playful, not pompous, witty and oh so kind.
Why wont this word ‘kind’ leave me alone? I think it’s because the restaurant somehow, no not somehow, but under the spell of Alain Roux, manages to create an unique aura of ‘the milk of loving kindness’ through his studied simplicity rather than any whiff of self congratulatory superiority. At a ‘consensus’ end to the lunching hour, Roux appeared from the kitchens and moved from one table to the next talking and chatting, even with much good nature agreeing to be photographed at several tables amongst a dining room full of satisfied customers and fulfilled staff. I half hoped he would pass us by, but he didn’t, and when he did, his modest warmth seemed to be as genuine as mine. In fact so genuine I found myself rather foolishly confiding that it was my birthday and was rewarded with a spontaneous hug and kiss.
As Roux said, produce and team spirit are everything.
Well, not everything because the highlight of my day was the bevy of cygnets who arrived Thames-side, escorted by their devoted parents. Seven grey cygnets assembled to nudge at my empty hands whilst they made cheeping sounds which, despite the fact that they must be four months old, no only two because the first cygnet born this year was on the 3rd of May, sounded as innocent as newborn kittens. Later, our waitress who had been at Bray for seven years, told us that the swan family does not pass by their mooring on any regular basis and that this yield was the first swan bevy in seven years to have survived their lurking predators. It seems that gourmet dining also goes on in the Thames where pikes pitch and pounce and foxes wait patient for dappled dusk.
She also told us that last year the swans nested on the traffic slipway when there were no survivors. And, how some days the family abandons the river and settle outside the back door of the inn. Today, they came to help me celebrate my birthday and what I shall remember for ever is this particular swan family and the human kindness – rather than grandness – of Alain Roux and his Bray-side team and their culinary genius of comfort.
Now, as I write the word ‘comfort’, I know why I have been involuntarily besieged by the odd phrase ‘milk of kindness’ and that is because the newborn’s first experience of kindness is in the comfort of nourishment. That is precisely what a meal at the Waterside Inn does, it nourishes our entirety. Well, it did mine and we can only ever speak for ourselves.
Thank you, Alain Roux.