One evening far too many weekends ago, my mother and I drove down the M25, escaping London for a brief excursion to Tom Kerridge's renowned restaurant The Hand and Flowers, a.k.a. the only pub in the UK to hold two Michelin stars. It's not that far away from London - just a short drive to the small town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire - but my mother being my mother, we arrived about an hour and a half before our table was ready. I was pretty pleased about this - it meant we had the time to wander peacefully around town as the sun set, marvelling at the charming, low-ceilinged houses and trying to imagine what Marlow might have been like before the ubiquitous high street took over.
Not knowing a thing about the town, my mother and I were pleasantly surprised to stumble across the house where Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein! Something to visit properly if we ever come back.
True Londoners at heart, we couldn't resist the pull of the Thames in its younger, fresher incarnation, closer to its source in Buckinghamshire.
After I'd had my fill of gazing at the way the dusky light played on the river, we meandered back to Tom Kerridge's gaff for a bite to eat. All casual, as if we hadn't waited a year for the table...
As soon as we sat down, a very polite waiter carefully laid a selection of sourdough and rye bread in front of us. But I was too busy salivating over the twist of teeny, crispy battered whitebait that had appeared at the table to pay much attention to the bread. The presentation mimicked the way fish and chips is traditionally rolled up in that day's newspapers; a nod to the standard fare on offer in gastropubs. Salty and moreish, my mother and I polished the fish off in less than a minute.
For starters, my mum chose crispy pig's head with spiced date purée, apple, plum and pancetta. The report? Succulent, sensuous and deeply flavourful. So top marks then! And I can attest to that: I had a piece of the crackling and nearly swooned.
I had the lovage soup with bramley apple, smoked eel and ham and cheese tortellini. The soup was beautifully presented and super-green; the cubes of eel and apple were perfectly matched with the flavour of lovage, which made me sit bolt upright as soon as I brought a spoon of it to my lips. The tortellini, however, was a slight disappointment - I'd have liked there to be more than one and felt that the ham and cheese filling drowned when faced with the stronger, smokier flavours that jostled for attention in this bowl.
For mains: a medium rare fillet steak of Stokes Marsh beef with chips and béarnaise sauce for my mother. A classic choice, my mum said it was wonderfully cooked and seasoned, and the béarnaise extra special with the tarragon flavour coming through more than usual. Perched atop of the steak were two beautifully caramelised onion rings, which my mother claimed as the best onion rings she'd ever eaten. Wow.
And for me, an amazingly tender duck, its texture achieved with sous vide cooking. Nestled atop a bed of duck mousse, and garnished with the crispiest shard of duck skin, it came with chips taken to another level, cooked in duck fat, and Savoy cabbage with crispy duck. The duckiest dish I'd ever had for sure. Oh, yes, this was gastropub cooking at its finest.
Looking around, I could see why we'd had to wait a year for a table. The Hand and Flowers is tiny inside - true to the architecture of the surrounding area with low-ceilinged rooms complete with bare beams - and can probably only seat about twenty five covers at a time. But the size means that the service is impeccable. We were waited on hand and foot, had the menu patiently explained to us. And when I described my ideal glass of white wine (pale, sweet but not overly scented), I was brought a perfect Riesling.
And finally, pudding. You've got to have it when you go to the pub for Sunday lunch, right? But this was of a completely different class. Mum ordered blueberry soufflé with lemon verbena syrup and an extraordinary parma violet-flavoured ice cream. Tasting it took me way back to primary school, confronted by the perplexing flavours I encountered in those hated lilac sugary tablets, encased in cellophane. Only this time, my grown-up tastebuds probably appreciated it more...
I ordered a burnt honey panna cotta, bedecked with gem-like honeycomb, silky meringues, English pear and a lavender sorbet. Presented with a wonderfully delicate touch, this was the point where it became clear to me that The Hand And Flowers really deserved both of its Michelin stars. And that this wasn't just pub dining any more.
My mother and I soothed our distended bellies with hot drinks - coffee for her for the road, and a mint tea for me. I'm a huge fan of glass tea receptacles and the teapot and accompanying glass were so covetable. I was so impressed by the design of the glass, allowing the drinker to cradle their tea without getting burnt fingertips. And that was really what summed up our experience at The Hand and Flowers for me: food that wasn't too many light years away from the familiar, homely dishes that I'm used to, but a level of considerate service that took us leagues away from the establishments on the high street. Suffice to say, I'd really love to come back some day - if I can be fitted in with the hordes of people dying to dine here!