The sun was bright. The day was warm. I sat in the shade of an umbrella outside the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, that pretty Thanes-side town where the air is perfumed with money and conservative values, reading the newspaper and waiting for my daughter. There was a pint of Morlands bitter within easy reach.
Presently Lois turned up, as bright as the day. A kindly, efficient, smiling young woman brought a little bundle of crisp, fresh whitebait to our table, wrapped in a cone of newspaper stuck into a chunky wooden board, with a little tub of Marie Rose sauce to them dip the into. We chatted of this and that, mostly that.
Lois ate truffled pork terrine, with dill pickles and toasted sourdough bread; fillet of Cornish plaice with salt baked carrots, girolles, razor clams and lardo. I ate parsley soup with smoked eel, bacon and Parmesan tortellini; Essex lamb ‘bun’ with sweetbreads and salsa verde. We both passed on pudding because Tom Kerridge, genial proprietor together with his equally genial wife, Beth, and presiding spirit in the kitchen, bunged in an extra course of a courgette flower stuffed with salted cod, and that was enough. You’ve got to know when to stop in this game.
We drank two glasses each of I can’t remember what, but it must have been ok because we drank two glasses of it.
And the bill was £108.
Those are the bare bones of lunch. There’s nothing remotely exotic about any of it, nothing outlandish or challenging. And even if the inverted commas around the word ‘bun’ suggest that you aren’t going to get a bun in the accepted manner, somehow this is offset by ‘Essex’, as friendly and unpretentious as you like. And yet each dish had the firm imprint of a chef who knows exactly what he is doing, exactly what he wants to do, and of a man who is deeply in love with food.
Take that parsley soup, for example, as green as a green thought in a green shade. It distilled the bright essence of parsley, the natural acridity of the herb in the raw tempered by the depth of the stock underneath. That grassy freshness of parsley acts like a framing device for the smokiness of eel and the redolent richness of the bacon. The firm delicacy of the tortellini gave weight to each mouthful, with the salty Parmesan filling acting like a seasoning.
Now, I don’t want to go overboard about a single dish, but you can see how each element fitted and balanced with the next. There was nothing superfluous about the dish, nothing too much, nothing too little. It was all just right, just perfectly satisfying. The effect was effortless, but the work going into it was anything but. Its success was based on unremitting attention to each tiny detail and very considerable technical standards. Mr Kerridge obviously runs a very tight kitchen.
I could go through each course enumerating similar pleasures. The Essex ‘bun’ was a bun in the sense that pate de foie en croute is a pie. It was a very substantial structure – lamb wrapped in sweetbread and chicken farce then in cabbage leaf then in a brioche dough. That’s technical cooking of a fairly complex order. On the other hand , Lois’s truffled pork terrine was as classic as it was admirable. And I’d sacrifice most puddings for a second helping of the courgette flower stuffed with a light, refined, home-salted cod mush.
Tom Kerridge, has been a hero of the Great British Menu for the last couple of years. His main courses have been the pillars of the final banquets in 2010 and 2011, and they both feature on the menu. He’s a big man in every sense of the word. Good cheer shines from his face as readily as do rays of light from the sun. In spite of his gusto, many of his dishes have an almost feminine delicacy to them. While generosity is one of the outstanding qualities of the food at the Hand & Flowers, the poise of the cooking, the precision with which the food is put on the plate, the care and passion illustrate another facet of Mr Kerridge’s culinary sensitivity.
Not that such analytical thoughts passed through the heads of Lois or myself the time. We sat in the sun. We ate. We drank. We talked and talked. We felt happy. Isn’t that what eating together is supposed to be about?
The Hand and Flowers
126 West Street Marlow SL7 2BP.
Tel: +44 (0)1628 482 277
PS. The daily lunch menu available during the week is one of the most outrageous bargains in the country – £12.50 for 2 courses; £16.50 for three.