The Tudor Pass at Great Fosters is theatrical epicurean magic and you are an integral part of the performance. A 6-star gastronomic blockbuster movie playing on your palate.
Our last stop on the Audi R8 V10 Tour was the Great Fosters, a Tudor estate just outside Windsor in Surrey.
Great Fosters is the quintessential historic English Manor estate, offering exquisite dining under new head chef Alex Payne. Plus indulgent pampering with massages, afternoon tea packages and luxury suites frequented by kings and queens set in ornate gardens filled with outstanding and immense topiary (hedges sculpted into a variety of forms).
The moat around Great Fosters dates back to 500 AD, there was a Manor House going as far back as 1200, owned by the de Imworth family who presumably came over with the Normans in 1066. Henry VIII used the house as a hunting lodge as did his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. Her crest dated 1598 is above the main porch. The Anne Boleyn Rooms house her royal crests and amusingly enough The Drawing Room displays the insignia of the 9th Earl of Northumberland who was known as the Wizard Earl due to his passion for astrology and alchemy.
The sundial in the gardens is fascinating as it may well have been created by Nicholas Stone and donated by none other than Sir Francis Drake, the famous English explorer and privateer.
In 1818 Great Fosters became a lunatic asylum, employing modern methods to treat mental illness under Dr Furnivall and Sir John Chapman, a celebrated modern thinker who was known locally as the "Doctor to the Poor". George III may well have been treated here for his frequent bouts of insanity.
Peter and Deborah Hinchcliffe acquired the hotel in 2018 adding it to Alexander Hotels' impressive portfolio of luxury hotels in the South of England.
After parking the Audi R8 in the free parking adjoining the main house we were greeted by an elegantly dressed doorman who welcomed us through the ancient oak door into the low-lit manor hall, replete with comfy leather armchairs surrounding a blazing fire.
We were escorted to the Byfleet Suite in The Dower House with views over the Cloisters. This suite presents a surprisingly modern decor with a super king-size four-poster bed, white wooden beams in an oval ceiling, a comfy velvet armchair, an Art Deco bedside table plus a large separate bathroom in contemporary white marble with a free-standing bath and a spacious walk-in shower.
The different suites offer almost every decor you could wish for, from the contemporary boutique hotel style such as ours to the baronial design exemplified by the Italian Suite. They have 56 suites and rooms available, so you are spoilt for choice, just pick a favourite century for your stay.
A letter from the manager welcomed us to Great Fosters along with a gleaming decanter of mead made with honey from the estate's own bees. A perfect pre-dinner drink whilst you are waiting for your partner to change. If you've never tried it, mead is sweet, slightly cloying and packs a bit of a punch. Much like Spanish sweet dessert wine with slightly more body.
We took a long wander around the majestic topiary gardens, admiring the little maze, the ancient wooden bridge over the moat and climbing over the mounds. We took photographs of the intricate David Harber sculptures scattered everywhere, from a small peacock to an impressive skeletal face suspended in mid-air, plus a massive circular torus guarding the entrance to a giant amphitheatre.
As the evening light dwindled we made our way back to the room and dressed for dinner. Suitably attired we walked through the historic panelled corridors to an elegant bar, passing the Joker and Cruella de Vil capering about. The Count of Monte Cristo sat at a nearby table ordering a bottle of champagne. These were no ordinary outfits either, the group celebrating a 60th birthday party had gone to great lengths to conjure up their favourite characters. The hair, makeup and costumes were immaculate.
A glass of Ridgeview champagne later and we were ready for the Tudor Pass, Alex Paynes' celebrated restaurant, where there are almost as many staff catering to your experience as there are diners. There are only seven tables and five staff in the kitchen, plus the maitre d'. Seven is the magic number as the Tudor Pass offers a seven-course dining menu, solo or paired with wines. You can have a four-course menu too, but don't, just don't. Seven courses are just right and not too filling. Plus it would be a great loss to miss out on the other three. Well, actually there are nine if you count the amuse-bouche at the beginning and the petits fours at the end.
Chef Alex Payne says it best.
"My team and I plan to explain & serve many of the dishes directly to diners to bring some of the excitement and theatre of the pass into the restaurant. I want to create lasting memories for our guests; whether that’s eating something they’ve never tasted before, finding their new favourite wine that’s paired with one of our dishes, or simply learning something new about cooking from the team’’.
It is also supposed to be a surprise. You can let them know your dietary requirements, no meat, no fish etc and they will adapt to your taste. But they want this to be as memorable as possible and they achieve it magnificently.
So I'm supposed to be reviewing the entire experience which would normally entail exposing everything in great detail, every nuance, each fresh and local ingredient and flavour. But that would really spoil it. I took more detailed notes than I ever have for any meal. My shorthand notes go to two pages. My partner and I spent the entire meal discussing the food, enraptured by the service and the tastes in each new offering. Alex and his staff come out each time and explain all in minute detail with a dramatic flair that is positively theatrical.
The cast or kitchen team is led by Chef Alex Payne, Liam Edmunds (sous chef), Luke Morton and Harry Eagle. Whilst the front of house is led by Chris Scott-Taggart, who reminded me a little of Tim McInnerny.
This is dining as gastronomic theatre. I'm still torn writing this. I want to share every moment, each new pairing of contrasting flavours, both subtle and yet rich. How early flavours give way to new ones as you mix different parts of the plate with each new mouthful. You can actually look up the menu on the website, but again, do not.
Alex Payne himself will present each dish personally. His sous chefs will also come out and with enormous pride and enthusiasm share their delight at their creations. And what is truly clever is that you are very much part of the experience, not just a guest, but the end result, the person tasting that which they have refined and crafted so carefully. How you perceive everything is important to them.
Chatting with Alex we discover that he experiments for days, weeks, and months to develop every flavour combination and the detail is exceptional. Alex has the time and space to create truly unbelievable dishes.
Chef Alex Payne
“Sometimes it just falls into place immediately, other times we develop over weeks.”
My partner and I argued passionately as to which course was best. She knows nothing of course, even if the maitre d' agreed with her on a couple of dishes. Oh, the beetroot, how on earth can beetroot taste that good, I won't mention the duck or the pigeon. My wife went for the fish only no meat, so she missed out on some dishes, but then again had extra ones I missed. And she did not share any with me. So selfish.
Alex Payne's signature tasting menu, available for both lunch and dinner is a triumph. A 6-star gastronomic blockbuster movie playing on your palate. The beetroot is Tom Cruise, odd but the biggest star in the movie gastronomy firmament. Alex Payne and his sous chefs put you in such a wonderful frame of mind that you are buzzing as you leave the table.
Don't just take our word for it, a young couple behind us were enraptured by the evening and an older couple insisted on going into the kitchen to thank everyone personally, all exclaiming it was their best-ever dining experience.
I have been lucky enough to sit in some of the best restaurants around the world. This is a rare, splendid, flawless, exciting experience. Alex Payne is young too, what will he do next? I can't wait to go back.
Great Fosters is one of the great stately manors of England and one of the finest food destinations anywhere. Come here to be pampered and spoilt in rich surroundings with exquisite ornate gardens and consequential architecture. You will be treated as Tudor royalty as indeed so many kings and queens were before you. The deepest and most lasting memory will be the inspiring and utterly delicious tasting menu by Alex Payne. That and Cruella de Vil. Culinary art shared with a uniquely personal touch and fabulous flair.