I hadn't intended to eat in Marlow this week. My original booking was in another part of Buckinghamshire altogether, Farnham Royal near Slough,where the village pub was recently taken over by the broadcaster Fern Britton and her husband, TV chef Phil Vickery. The King of Prussia’s sample menu, posted on its website, looked fascinatingly ambitious. In fact some of the dishes, such as “duck leg chilli with kabanos sausage and coriander crème fraîche”and “roast breast of guinea fowl with lightly stewed cannelloni beans in Madeira sauce”read like they must have been thrown together by a panicking Mr Vickery in the Ready Steady Cook studio. Still, we had to give it a try; the heady cocktail of daytime TV personalities and Slough was just too irresistible.
Upon arrival for a family Saturday lunch, we spotted an ominous sign on the blackboard: "All-you-can-eat barbecue - £12.95". Inside, the pub was deserted although enough tables had been laid to accommodate an entire studio audience. "We're doing a barbecue today!" announced the cheerfully underemployed chap behind the bar. And nothing else, it turned out. No duck leg chilli, no cannelloni beans, lightly stewed or otherwise. A detail no one had bothered to mention when I phoned to book a table. We reversed out, muttering something unconvincing about being vegetarians.
"We're on the Fern Britton diet," moaned Harry, as, stomachs grumbling, we rejoined the M40. Thankfully, I had a back-up plan; a quick detour to Marlow, half an hour down the motorway. Marlow is a kind of anti-Slough; everyone's idea of a perfectly picturesque English town with every building seeming to sport a plaque commemorating some famous former resident.
The town already has an indecently high ratio of fine eateries per head of the population, and the latest is The Hand & Flowers. Like The King of Prussia, it was taken over earlier this year by a husband-and-wife team on a gastronomic mission, though Tom and Beth Kerridge, unlike the Britton-Vickerys, are very much hands-on. Mr K is the chef, having previously worked at the Michelin-starred Adlards in Norwich, while Mrs K handles front of house with considerable off-beat charm.
"Are you our lovely three?" she twinkled, as we ducked into the low-beamed bar. And lovely she made us feel over the course of a lunch that was all the more agreeable for being unplanned. First there was real ale - "magnificently kept" Greene King IPA, according to my in-house Camra correspondent - and fresh-baked rolls. Then, for Harry, an impeccably smooth duck and foie gras parfait, with airy rounds of toasted brioche and a fine orange and fig chutney. For me, an omelette Arnold Bennett would have swooned over, a skilletful of pale and fluffy eggs topped with generous flakes of smoked haddock held in cream.
Main courses were presented with the confidently minimalist style of a chef who trusts his instincts, and doesn't feel obliged to pad out each dish with makeweight vegetables and boring carbs. Sea trout is a strong-tasting fish, so crisp-skinned fillet was given restrained accompaniment, in the form of puréed cauliflower, fresh peas and a tangle of pea sprouts. Milder flavoured halibut, meanwhile, was punched up with a soft herb "crust", and partnered with a wonderful fricassée of shelled broad beans, pickled girolles and thumbnail-sized potato gnocchi.
Cleverly, the posher Anglo-French menu is supplemented by a short bar menu, offering fish and chips, and smoked salmon and scrambled egg. From this list, our junior trencherman made short work of a superior sausage and mash combo - the sausages loose-textured and full-flavoured, the mash buttery and flecked with grain mustard. Touches like these - and the newspapers, cask-conditioned ales and homemade pork scratchings - ensure the place still feels like a proper pub.
The interior has been given an unusually sympathetic modernisation, retaining exposed beams and brickwork, but adding raspberry suede banquettes and interesting artwork. Mrs K is a sculptor, which explains her rare aptitude for having her eye caught; her ability to materialise at her customers' tables at the appropriate moment was almost telepathic.
To finish, we shared a slice of dark, slick chocolate torte, brimming with plump, brandy-laced cherries. It brought our bill to around £30 a head, including a glass of chardonnay from a short but well-chosen selection. Not cheap, but The Hand & Flowers already has a devoted following in a crowded market; as each group of locals left, it was with a "See you next week," and even the occasional "See you tomorrow."
While we were paying our bill, Tom emerged from the kitchen to chat to some of his regulars, explaining that he makes his own sausages from pork he buys from a Suffolk estate, where Gloucester Old Spots feed on windfall apples. As he rhapsodised, I remembered the saying "the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree", and it seemed apt. There's a real sense at The Hand & Flowers of a couple doing what they were born to do. Give them their own show, I say.
The Hand & Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, 01628 482277
Food 4 stars
Ambience 3 stars
Service 4 stars
Around £30 per head, with wine
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