The village of Bray is tucked away on the south side of the Berkshire town of Maidenhead. But it’s not like most other villages. Bray is home to two of the country’s three, three-starred Michelin restaurants; but Heston’s Fat Duck and Alain Roux’s Waterside Inn aren’t the only reasons to pay a visit. In 2007 Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi took over site that was once an old pub. Built in 1860, The Bargee once fed and lodged the barge folk of the Thames. Today though, it’s called Caldesi in Campagna, and despite the company it keeps, the restaurant recently won the Muddy Stiletto (Urban Guide to the Countryside blog) award for the best restaurant in Berkshire.
If you wandered in today, the only clue you’d find to this restaurant’s history is the old fireplace because the Caldesi’s have made their mark on this building. A light and airy space, Caldesi in Campagna epitomises Katie and Giancarlo’s style; classic simplicity.
As I arrived for lunch with Katie and Giancarlo, a small wedding party was also making their entrance. While we were tucked away near the bar, the wedding guests made their way to the garden oasis in the rear. And then we talked about salads. A couple of recipes from the Caldesi’s latest book Around the World in Salads make an appearance on the lunchtime menu. We ordered the Tomato Salad with Sweet and Sour Onion Vinaigrette and the Courgette and Courgette Flower Carpaccio with Ricotta. When our plates arrived they looked like miniature works of art. The delicate arrangement of the ingredients on the crisp white plates equalled the subtle flavour and combination of textures. As Katie explained the finer points of the special roast-onion infusion of the dressing, I knew then that these striking salads were no accident.
The Caldesi’s food is all about simplicity and quality, two things that Giancarlo feels is rarely done well. But at the couple’s Bray restaurant, you’ll see for yourself the result of their dedication to their business and their staff. I soaked up the left over dressing from my salad with some bread and of course we got onto the subject of bread. I asked where they sourced their moist and perfectly pitted ciabatta and was told that it was actually foccacia; a recipe which took chef Gregorio Piazza three years to develop and which he now makes on site every day.
For a main I had the house speciality, which to be honest, was not something I would have ordered if I weren’t joined by the owners who made the suggestion. It was a sea bass ravioli in lemon butter sauce and by-God it was good. Lightly textured and with a fine, clean flavour; these warm, yellow pillows in their buttery sheen were divine and a sound choice for lunch.
Then the conversation turned to sugar, and how it has become the enemy these days and chef Stefano Borella from the London restaurant chimed in and we all agreed that doughnuts, despite the bad press, really should be dusted in sugar. Which is when we ordered the Bomboloni, another signature dish consisting of Italian-style doughnuts served with vanilla custard and a Sambuca berry jam. The Sambucca element might have ordinarily turned me off this dessert, but when the man who created the dish was standing right there, how could I say no?
I’m glad I didn’t because as with everything else I’d tried, this dessert was incredible. The Sambucca was only a whisper, a perfect foil to the rich, sugar-dusted batons of fried dough. I would go back just for that dessert in a heartbeat.
It’s quiet in Bray. And beautiful. The Hammer Horror films were shot along the river and in the nearby (and sadly defunct) Bray Studios. You can find a nice place to stay for a good price, catch a ride on the Thames, and you could, if you wanted, have every meal of your mini-break at Caldesi in Campagna and not once be disappointed. Sometimes, Michelin stars can feel too much like hard work as a diner; but at Caldesi’s you’ll get that stellar finesse, without all the fuss.
Caldesi in Campagna, Old Mill Lane, Bray, SL6 2BG