Bray, the idyllic village in Berkshire, has been one of the UK’s hottest foodie destinations ever since Michel Roux opened the legendary Waterside Inn in 1972, followed by Heston Blumental’s The Fat Duck in 1995 – which shot to worldwide fame when they achieved three Michelin stars nine years later, claiming equal rank with their Roux neighbour.
Yes, it took a brave man or woman to open a restaurant in Bray after that, and perhaps it’s not only testament to the quality of the food if they manage to survive alongside such fierce competition, but the fact that not everyone wants (or can afford) to wear headphones with piped in sound effects every time they go out for a meal. Thankfully some of us still enjoy talking to our family and friends.
Although some less formal eateries in Bray did eventually pop up, including Heston’s own gastro pub The Hinds Head (where the pretentious can enjoy Perigord black truffle with pie and chips for a £10 supplement), for a long time there wasn’t really much in the way of a relaxed, yet elegant, dining experience before Caldesi in Campagna opened their doors in 2007, giving guests an authentic modern Tuscan dining experience without needing to touch an airport – although I mean it as a compliment when I say that it might prompt some to do exactly that.
Quite frankly my dear, it’s a breath of fresh air. Owned by acclaimed artist and food writer Katie Caldesi and her restaurateur husband Giancarlo, who also run a cookery school, La Cucina Caldesi and the more informal Caffè Caldesi on London’s trendy Marylebone Lane, their Bray flagship has become a Mecca for sophisticated Italian cuisine which pays tribute to the techniques and flavours of the past, whilst embracing a modern, vibrant presentation style.
Cleverly positioning themselves apart from their more formal Michelin-starred Bray rivals, the restaurant oozes flamboyant Italian hospitality thanks to a charming front of house team and the suave Restaurant Manager Vincenzo Di Monda, who hails from the Cipriani Hotel in Venice and is clearly adept at building relationships with regular diners, many of whom have also learnt a thing or two on one of the Caldesi’s cookery courses.
Meanwhile, the ivory interior is as comfortable and reassuring as a spaghetti Carbonara, yet although the menu is inspired by Giancarlo’s upbringing in Tuscany, along with his passion for sourcing local and seasonal ingredients, when the food is placed before you, it could somehow never be described as ‘rustic’.
Giancarlo and Katie also regularly partner up with the five star luxury hotel Castello di Casole – A Timbers Resort, set on a 4200 acre estate just minutes from the historic centre of Siena, where I enjoyed a memorable holiday last year (not to mention some extremely memorable meals). I was therefore willing to hop on the first train out of London when I heard that a special dinner was to be jointly prepared by Caldesi in Campagna’s chef Michele Raggi and Castello di Casole’s executive chef Daniele Sera during his recent visit to Bray on a friendly culinary exchange.
And what a marriage it was! The typically generous four course Italian spectacular kicked off with a bite-sized appetiser of truffle arancini before my starter of Grana Padano cheese soufflé with tomato concassé and basil oil arrived; as light as an angel in flight, (which was just as well considering I already realised it would be impossible to leave anything). For the pasta course I selected not only the tastiest-sounding option but the one which was doubtless the most technically challenging; a single raviolo with spinach, ricotta and a slow cooked egg yolk – and boy, it was so impressively runny when I cut into it, I could have asked for soldiers. Bravo!
My secondi was equally appealing; rack of lamb with a mushroom crust, as was my guest’s who opted for one of Caldesi in Campagna’s house specialities; pan fried veal wallet filled with pecorino cheese and accompanied by a porcini mushroom sauce – divine. It makes me feel guilty to think that I proceeded to eat four large sugar-dusted Tuscan-style doughnuts served with vanilla custard, Sambuca and Berry Jam, but you wouldn’t have been able to resist either.
Two things became clear to me; from then on, whenever I needed a perfect corner of Italy just a short drive from London, I could reserve a table at Caldesi in Campagna, and when I needed a longer immersion into the culture and cuisine (not to mention the weather), I could book a weekend at Castello di Casole – A Timbers Resort. It’s strange the effect a good meal can have on one. Let’s just say, it was an enlightening evening.
Caldesi in Campagna, Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2BG. For more information and reservations visit the website. To find out more about holidays at Castello di Casole – A Timbers Resort in Tuscany click here.