The reputation of The Hand & Flowers, and its celebrity TV chef owner, Tom Kerridge, is such that it doesn’t really require an introduction. The pub is so well known, both locally and further afield, that it celebrates a position of being both a landmark within the small Town of Marlow as well as a destination in its own right. Having topped my list of ‘must eat’ venues for some time, my partner’s birthday provided the perfect excuse to book a table and room for the night...
First Things First
Even sat beneath a sky of dark clouds and through intermittent drizzle, Marlow is a town full of charm. The suspension bridge that crosses the Thames, the riverside properties and boating club, the lawns of Higginson Park - it’s quintessentially British in the best of ways.
Arriving at the pub to check in we entered the cosy reception-cum-lounge, a tasteful mix of exposed brick and beams, comfy furnishings and the welcome sight of a well-stocked bar. At the suggestion of the bartender we relaxed into a soft Chesterfield sofa with a round of drinks. Both my partner and I can never resist the sweet, creamy pull of a Pina Colada, so two of those it was. Even here there was a hint at the style of food we could expect to enjoy later in the evening, the classic combination of pineapple, coconut and rum was infused with the subtle yet distinctive taste of chocolate. With each generous sip the cocktail grew on me, either the chocolate is a nice touch or the overproofed rum was working its magic.
After checking in we were helped with our luggage by a member of the front of house team, and taken by private car to our accommodation, one of The Hand & Flowers’ three cottages, Apple House.
A short drive from the pub, amidst the relative bustle of Marlow high street, Apple House carries over the same sense of country charm and sophistication. Like all of the available cottages, luxury is the theme and our room, Roxbury, benefited from a gorgeous cellar bathroom for its highlight feature.
Likewise, everything else in the room appears driven by comfort and indulgence, from the grand bed and bay window seating to a raft of small, thoughtful features pointed out to us by our personal front of house guide. After informing us that we’d be picked up a half hour before our dinner booking, she left and we were given chance to settle in.
Alongside the usual array of coffees, teas and sweet treats (in this case a selection of delicious handmade lardy cake, cookies and fudge), within our welcome pack was a complementary voucher for coffee and cake at The Coach, one of Tom Kerridge’s other establishments and a short walk from our cottage. With a few hours to spare before dinner, this happily gave us a destination to head out and meander towards.
Coffee and Cake at The Coach
The Coach, unlike its big brother, operates a no-bookings policy and immediately feels laid back, with visitors entering to the sight of the impressive, polished bar that dominates the venue. The interior of The Coach takes inspiration from the cosy pub vibe of The Hand & Flowers, then adds touches of boldness like tiled walls of rich green and stark white. A friendly waiter took our order and we sat at a table facing out towards the street.
The cake of the day was chocolate and ale, freshly baked and simply superb. Rich, velvety smooth and thankfully not over sweet thanks to the subtle ale flavour. The coffee - always the perfect drink to enjoy with a slice of cake - was a smooth and delicate roast.
The Main Event
A couple of hours later, once again ready to eat and having just been dropped off at The Hand & Flowers lounge again, we were invited to take a seat and order a pre-dinner round of drinks. My partner opted for a hazy apple cider, myself a pint of The Hand & Flowers’ own ale. It’s a mellow, easy drinking beer with a slightly sweet finish, clearly brewed with the intention of being drunk alongside a meal.
After a short wait we were taken through to the main dining area and seated at our table. Here the décor of the lounge transforms; the light, airy feel giving way to a cosy, characterful space framed by dark exposed beams and lit gently. Homely and earthy, like all good pubs it felt at once special yet familiar. With only a few other tables occupied to begin with, the room was perhaps a touch quiet, the gentle background music a little too gentle, but as more people sat down to eat the ambience hit a balance that carried nicely for the rest of the evening.
I ordered a carafe of red wine, Vizar 12 Mezes, a wonderfully spicy but well-balanced cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo blend. A great fit for a meal. Soon after complementary bread and whitebait arrived, a substantial and tasty appetiser which set the standard nicely for the dishes to come.
From a small, well-crafted menu of options I ordered the pickled beetroot and cheddar tart with ‘lamb ham’, haggis and horseradish cream to start. As it arrived it became clear what The Hand & Flowers aims to do with its food: let flavour speak for itself. No fussy presentation, simple, charming tableware, the focus here is on using good ingredients and great cooking to deliver. And from the first mouthful, deliver it did. A lovely tart with soft meat, rich cheddar, fresh beetroot and nicely spiced haggis. My partner opted for the ‘beef toast and dripping’ with mustard butter, English asparagus and salad cream. In her words, “amazing – so flavourful, and nicely tangy with the butter”.
For my main I settled on loin of Cotswold venison with carrot & Marmite purée, keema dhal, salt baked carrot and spicy beef puff. Like the starter before, this was hearty food and cooked to perfection. The venison was beautifully tender, and was elevated by the tangy and flavoursome purée. The keema dhal added both texture and bold flavour to the dish, a stark contrast to the melt in your mouth beef puff which served to provide a break from the richer elements on the plate. As I savoured every bite my partner looked to be enjoying her choice just as much: West End Farm pork belly with smoked cheek beignet, black pudding and gherkin ketchup. “The gherkin ketchup is so interesting, just really nice and great with the pork belly, which is so soft – all of it just delicious”.
Alongside our mains and, in hindsight, completely unnecessarily, we ordered two sides: The Hand & Flowers’ famous chips and cavolo nero (a type of Italian kale) with English mustard and crispy ham hock. The chips were simply the best I have ever tasted, fluffy in the middle yet beautifully crisp on the outside and surprisingly herby. The kale was crunchy yet delicate and married perfectly with the smoky ham hock.
By dessert we were both satisfactorily full, but decided to share the banana soufflé with banoffee sauce and caramelised walnut ice cream - out of curiosity more than hunger. Upon arrival the soufflé was an impressive sight, having risen at least an inch and a half out of the ramekin. Alongside a beautiful flavour it was the texture that truly made this dish great. Impossibly light it simply melted away as you ate it, helped along with plenty of the creamy sauce. The ice cream too was flawless. Sweet and nutty, distinctive and fresh, it balanced the other flavours marvellously.
Bed, and Breakfast
Thoroughly satisfied, we arrived back at the room more than ready for bed. But first, one last surprise for us, a hamper left with a warm flask of malted milk drink and homemade cookies with cream. We managed to polish off one of the cookies (with some effort at this stage) and a few glasses of the malted milk. Even the small touches like this were done to such a standard as to leave you always wanting more.
Come morning, having been picked up from the cottage and driven to the pub for the final time, we sat down for breakfast. From a continental spread and menu of cooked options we both chose a full English: Saxon sausage, streaky bacon, fondant mushroom and grilled tomato with Fruit Pig black pudding and a poached egg. Like the night before, nothing on the plate could be faulted. The black pudding in particular was delicious, fresh and spicy, perfectly matched to the rich sausage, oozing egg and buttery mushroom.
To Wrap Up
The Hand & Flowers is, quite simply, the best dining experience I have ever had, and also the best room I have spent a night in. Alongside the food in all its hearty, unfussy and bold deliciousness, it’s the small touches, the little things and the care put into everything that elevates it above the norm. It is definitely a pub I will visit again, and with such a welcoming atmosphere and homely feel, it’s a place that needs no pretence to go along and enjoy.
The Hand & Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow, SL7 2BP