With last year’s summer holiday being The Budget Midlands Staycation™ and the chance of us having a summer holiday this year being very slim, we’ve decided to take foodie mini-breaks instead. First was back in November and the turn of Oxford Malmaison & Le Manoir; this time was the turn of Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers in Berkshire.
Now you’re probably asking how on earth did I manage to bag a room and table and one of the hottest places to eat in the UK with a year-long waiting list. Let’s call it fate. I’ve been occasionally looking at the Hand & Flowers website for the last year since a friend visited in April ’13 and has raved about it since. A couple of months ago in a fit of procrastination and knowing there wouldn’t be a holiday for us this summer something told me to go on to the H&F website. Although the site said no availability I put a random date into the accommodation search and there it was, one room available. Not only was it on a rare date that both of us could make, it was in the amazing Limousin Suite. As I pressed the book button I really didn’t believe we were going until the confirmation came through. A quick chat with the lovely staff there and we’d also secured a table for lunch.
Fast forward 8 weeks, on a glorious spring morning we were whizzing down the frankly tedious M40 for a much-needed break away.
Once checked in we spent a short time waiting in the new bar area before we were shown to our table, a private table to the back of the restaurant. Although we’d had a quick look at the menu online before arriving we’d decided on four rules: 1) we both had to have different dishes, no duplication 2) Hubs has a braver palate than me so if he wanted offal that would be fine. 3) Don’t choose your dish just because it’s the cheapest, go for what you want 4) we’d be going a la carte, though their set lunch is very good value at 3 courses for around £20.
While the Hand & Flowers is a pub and informal in some sense, the service and food is unlike any pub I’ve been to before, explaining its two Michelin stars. The advantage of dining in a Michelin starred pub – you can drink good beer with your meal. This went down very well with Hubs who shunned wine for a few pints of H&F ale.
The meal started with whitebait, sourdough and sodabread. This was soon followed by our starters: soft and raw white asparagus with roasted mushroom and hazelnuts, aged parmesan and lardo for him (bottom); potato risotto with baked potato stock, artichoke, pickled girolles and wild garlic for me (top).
Mains: a rather artistic looking Essex lamb “bun” with sweetbreads and salsa verde for him (top right); tenderloin of Wiltshire pork with pickled mustard leaf, malt glazed cheek, garlic sausage and potato dauphine for me (left) plus we had to have a portion of the highly recommended duck fat chips. If I could regularly eat the duck fat chips and my pork dish I would be a very happy lady.
And finally dessert, possibly my favourite course of the meal. We were really spoilt for choice and as we had a late lunch table we had more or less the whole place to ourself by now. Friends who visited H&F the year before ended up having four puddings between the two of them as they couldn’t pick just one. With rapidly filling stomachs we decided on just two. I had pear souffle with caraway crumble, caramalised white chocolate ice cream and pear sauce (left), whereas Hubs had chocolate ale cale with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream (right). This was served with a small shot of Quadrupel Ale, a 10% beer from Sharp’s Brewery that has a toffee port taste. This cut through the rich chocolate truffle cake perfectly.
The lunch bill (including drinks and service) came to around £60/head which I thought was good value given we’ve paid not much less for a meal in a local restaurant with fewer accolades. A late lunch worked well for us as it meant we could spend the evening chilling, make the most of the giant copper bath in the room plus after 4 courses it meant we had more room for breakfast the following morning.
Now I truly judge a place to stay by its bath, bedding, tea tray and breakfast. Bath must be big and deep, bedding must crisp with a feather duvet that hugs you, tea tray must use fresh milk and offer a good choice of freshly baked treats and the breakfast must be better than what you can make at home. Hand & Flowers certainly didn’t disappoint. It was the little touches that made it. Fluffy bathrobes, slippers, generous toiletries and even a few little things like phone chargers and an umbrella for the short walk to the pub.
As we’d had a large lunch we just settled for the contents of the tea tray for dinner. No stale catering pack shortbread here. Fresh lardy cake, chunky nut cookies and some Damian Allsop chocolates.
The huge copper bath took a good 20 min to fill, could easily fit three people in and was the perfect place to soak away the day with the ipod playing in the background. All that was missing was a glass of something chilled and bubbly.
After a restful night sleep we headed back down to the restaurant for breakfast. I was still full from the previous day so settled for croissants and some H&F muesli, none of your dusty muesli here. We’re talking chunks of various dried fruit tossed with honey, oats, bran and nuts. Hubs went for the English breakfast and was pleased to see it featured Stornoway black pudding, something he hadn’t eaten since our honeymoon.
So in summary it was truly a wonderful stay at Hand & Flowers and something I would recommend if you have the chance. Everything from the food to the staff and room lived up to our expectations and we have great memories from our 24 hours there.