"Never trust a skinny cook" it used to say on an apron hanging in my mother's kitchen. I, like Mr. Kerridge, have little danger of being described with the adjective "skinny". Although I'm sure that this similarity wasn't the only reason that I wanted to eat Tom Kerridge's food pretty much the moment I saw him on TV.
It was Great British Menu that first brought him to my attention, in 2010, when he went through to win the main course with Slow-cooked Aylesbury duck with duck fat chips and gravy. In 2011 Tom won again and became the first chef ever on Great British Menu to cook the main course twice, as well as being the first to cook a main course pork dish with his Hog Roast.
Having decided that Tom's food was high on our list a quick Google led us to Marlow as being the home of his Michelin starred pub, The Hand & Flowers. Unfortunately Marlow is a long way for a night out and so the Hand & Flowers joined the "maybe one day" list.
Then we had some good news. MrsA's mother was coming over from the USA on her first visit to us, and the UK, and her arrival time meant that we needed to be at Heathrow fairly early one morning to meet her. The sensible option was to travel up the night before, stay over somewhere close and be at the airport without having had an early start and a 3.5hr drive before breakfast. Those nice people at Travelodge had yet another one of their 15 quid deals on and so accommodation was sorted, but the prospect of 'dining' at Heston Services gave rise to the idea of a slight detour.
One quick phone call later and a table for two, at the Hand & Flowers, was secured.
We had left plenty of time for the journey from South Wales to Marlow, which was just as well as the radio gave us advance notification on long delays ahead due to an accident. We opted for a detour and a more circular route, in order to keep moving. So we arrived in Marlow pretty much bang on time.
The Hand & Flowers is a 17th Century, low beamed, pretty, roadside ex-pub on the main road through the town. We pull into the car park and I look at the attendant in his Hi Viz jacket and wonder if this is a municipal pay and display. No, he's an employee making sure that it's patron's only and tending to the outside seating area which, being a balmy evening, is in use by more than the usual between course nicotine addicts.
The atmosphere inside is very relaxed, the decor simple; low ceilings with exposed beams, plain tables without tablecloths and a wooden floor. Service is friendly, helpful and happy to describe and recommend dishes.
Inside we peruse the menu. Winning the main course for Great British Menu two years on the trot and having that Michelin star over the door have brought a high level of expectation and the menu does not disappoint with both GBM dishes featuring. We start, as does everyone with an amuse bouche of a Cone of Whitebait. Delicious, salty, crispy, fresh Whitebait.
To start MrsA choses the "Maple Glazed Veal Sweetbread with Pearl Barley, Sweetcorn and Chives", whilst I opt for "Quail Tart with Green Olives, Chicory and Aged Gruyére."
Being a lover of Sweetbreads MrsA there is no way MrsA is going to to order anything else but Sweetbreads and Maple Syrup? How is this going to marry, let alone with the addition of Pearl Barley and Sweetcorn. Uncharted territory for sure. Of course she needn't have worried as it was a perfectly and expertly balanced dish.
MrsA thought the Sweetbread was a homage to America, well she would wouldn't she, with the Maple Glaze (Vermont) and the Barley and Sweetcorn being reminiscent of Succotash. This tongue in cheek, "tribute to America" was to become her running theme throughout the meal. Back in Britain I was very impressed with the Quail. Although I had been intrigued enough to order it I wasn't at all sure how all the ingredients would come together but I need not have feared. The unmentioned but underlying layer of pork pate being the glue that pulls it all together yet still allows the individual flavours to show through.
For main course we both run up and down the menu looking at the 2010 GBM winning Slow Cooked Duck Breast, the Essex Lamb "Bun", the Cornish Plaice, but of course we really both know that we are going to join together as that Minimum 2 People and order the "Roast Hog with Salt Baked Potatoes and Apple Sauce".
On GBM they are forever going on about needing "Theatre" with the food presentation and it is easy to see how this dish managed to achieve that as even here in 2 person mode it is still a pretty impressive sight. For your £25 a head you get a trotter, a rolled joint with crackling and some cubes made of the meat from the head, together with apple sauce, jus and a mug of cider. Each of these three variations showed a different aspect of the versatility of the pig and the expert hand of the Chef.
The pork comes from Dingley Dell, the Hayward Brothers farm in Suffolk and is outdoor reared, welfare assured. It's damn good pork and this dish is designed to show it off to perfection. The trotter is boned and stuffed to make something so rich and so intense, so packed with flavour it is hard to describe. The loin showing the subtly of flavour that a beautifully moist piece of pork can bring, coupled to the wonderful crisp crackling. The cubes of head meat with their rich yet distinct flavour. The Gauls once held the pig as a sacred animal, I wonder if Tom Kerridge is descended from Gauls.
Then alongside this porcine wonderland we get a salad. A simple green salad. "Why?" I ask myself. Balance is the answer. A simple dressed salad perfectly judged to cut through the rich, fattiness of the pork. He's clever this Chef. Bloody clever.
The dish was accompanied by the salt baked potatoes. These are cooked in what appears to be a highly salted pastry casing, roughly wrapped round them and then tied at the top to create a bag. We are advised that trying to eat the pastry won't kill us, but it isn't designed to be eaten and consequently doesn't taste very nice. Whilst it's good fun to untie the rope, break open the crust and fish out the spuds, I'm not really sure what this actually does to improve the potatoes. If I hadn't done it myself and they had just been put on my plate there is no way I would have thought them to be anything special. In fact to be honest I would probably have preferred a couple of nice roasties! MrsA disagrees! For her roasties would have meant more fat in the cooking. So the neutrality of the baked potato is the perfect accompaniment. She might just go with boiled but thinks that may be too wet for the dish. No, she'll stick with the baked but does conceed the method owes more to theatre than to taste.
I'm sure she was able to link this dish into her American Homage theme at the time but for the life of me I can't remember how now.
Dessert was a delightful "Glazed Cox's Apple Tart with Rose Water Ice Cream" for me and "English Blueberry Soufflé with Blueberry Sorbet and Verbena Sauce" for her.
I love an Apple Tart and there's only two ways to make one. You either have to go the deep dish route so there's lots of sweet pastry and lots of filling that can be slathered in cream, custard or ice cream (delete as appropriate) or you have to present something that is intensely appley. Here they have gone the latter route so we have something light but flavourful, which is just as well as that main course has made anything heavy out of the question. The Blueberry soufflé brings MrsA back with glee to her "Homage to America" whilst I just roll my eyes and say nothing.
As I sip my post dinner coffee and MrsA her fresh mint tea, we discuss the evening. The Hand and Flowers has been, we both agree, an enjoyable experience. Good food, served without pretention in relaxed surroundings. Highly recommended! My only regret? That I didn't book a room here so that I could just fall, replete into bed and into sleep instead of having to get back in the car and drive to Heston. Ah well, next time……
The Hand & Flowers
126 West Street
Tel: +44 (0) 1628 482 277