Restaurant review – The Coach, Marlow

Padstow is famously known as PadStein, thanks to the proliferation of eateries owned there by Rick Stein, the TV chef who seems to know a thing or two about fish.

Tom Kerridge opened The Hand and Flowers in Marlow in 2003.

12 years later, it is renowned as the only pub in England to have been awarded 2 Michelin stars, and is so popular that you have to carve TOM on your left wrist with ox’s blood, and H&F on the right, just to reserve a table for 3:30 on a Monday afternoon in 6 months time.

Now, the good middle-class burghers of genteel Marlow-on-Thames are not huge fans of body art, and wouldn’t stoop so low just for a bit of Tom’s pub grub and a pint.

The answer? Open up another pub in Marlow. With no booking policy, so you can just walk in and enjoy some decent nosh without all that planning malarkey. Keeps everyone happy. Well, everyone in Marlow. Not so great if you travel up from Padstow for lunch and the place is rammed by 12:15.

Gill, my lovely missus, treated me to a meal at The Hand and Flowers a couple of years ago. Marriage is all about give-and-take, I’m told, so I thought it would be worth a few matrimonial brownie points to take her for lunch at The Coach.

On a glorious, sunny Friday in February, we turned up at The Coach, outside its inconspicuous looking facade in the town’s West Street. At 11:30, just to be safe. The strategy was to  grab a coffee, check out the menu and decide if it was worth staying around…there are plenty of other good options for a decent bit of lunch in Marlow. If you believe Trip Advisor.

We beat the rush…but only just. Welcomed by several of the friendly young crew, we were given the option of sitting at a more conventional – and slightly too cosy – table, or in some slightly barber-shop looking high swivel chairs at the bar. Good to be different, right, so we went for the bar stools.

 

Great decision.

And even better, we were at the far end overlooking the kitchen, the team prepping away in anticipation of a busy lunch service, lamb loins churning away slowly on the gleaming new rotisserie, and Tom’s lieutenant Nick Beardshaw doing something clever with a piece of offal – or was it shellfish? – right in front of us.

We were hooked. The welcome, the way the pub has been fitted out, the service for coffee and a birthday Bloody Mary, and a quick glance through the menu and we were going nowhere for a couple of hours. Screw those Johnny-come-latelies from Padstow, or Henley, or just round the corner.

The concept at The Coach is great food – presumably inspired by Tom and executed by Nick and the team – served in small portions. Not quite tapas, but certainly not a conventional 3 course meal. And it’s all the better for it, to my 5-weeks-in-Australia overfed belly way of thinking.

The unfussy lunch and dinner menu is split into Meat, No Meat and Sweet sections. Simples, eh?

The Nice Man Behind The Bar was patient with us. First up, we ordered just a pukka Caesar salad (£4) and potted Cornish crab with a cucumber chutney (£7.50). The chutney punched way above its sweet yet acidic weight, and elevated the crab in the same way that Beth has probably helped Tom to achieve all he has over the last 12 years.

We were getting into the swing of this and wanted more. All the food is freshly cooked as ordered and, with the place now rocking, Nick was pulling at the strings of the kitchen brigade like a master puppeteer. But in a sotto voce non-shouty way, as different from a certain Mr Ramsey as a Russian dissident is to Vladimir Putin.

So be patient and don’t go to The Coach if you’re looking for a quick sarnie and a couple of pickled onions in your 25 minute lunch break. Immerse yourself in the experience and let the culinary juices work their magic.

Another bonus of sitting at the bar, by the kitchen, was seeing all the dishes roll off the metaphorical conveyor belt, moulding your thinking about what to have next.

Gill went for the Chicken Kiev with maple glazed squash (£12), I liked the look – and sound – of the venison chilli with toasted rice cream, red wine and chocolate.

Ding dong, to plagiarise dear old Lesley Phillips. The richness and depth of flavour in the chilli, combined with the crunchy texture of the rice cream and the subtle chocolate, nearly had me falling off the barber’s chair.

Rounding off the birthday treat with a rather nice Spiced Plum Fool with brandy ice cream, we were sated. Well, nearly. We could have had more but – damn it – we had to leave room for the birthday cake with Gill’s Mum & Dad on the way home.  And the birthday buns with Gill’s sister after that.

We would both like to have tried everything on the menu. Really. It was hard to step away from the crispy pig’s head with piccalilli. Or the rotisserie beetroot with goat’s cheese, horseradish and apple. Some of our bar-stool neighbours were eulogising over the The Coach Burger with Lincolnshire Poacher. And the lady next to me almost had her own When Harry Met Sally moment with the Brixham Plaice, brown shrimp and Calcot onion.

So next time we go to Kerridge-on-Thames – or whatever Marlow soon becomes known as, when Tom inevitably expands his empire à la Rick – we’ll get there early again, to make sure we get some more barber’s chairs.

Actually, they’re open for breakfast. Perhaps we’ll make a day of it, grazing our way through the entire breakfast and lunch menu, like vultures picking lazily over their prey.

Thanks, Tom. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Nice Man Behind The Bar. Gill had a great birthday lunch, thanks to The Coach. And my wrists are tattoo-free.

(photos courtesy of The Hand and Flowers and The Coach websites)

 

 

 

 

The Grand Slam Tour 2015 – it’s a wrap

Tuesday, February 17

We’re sitting in Singapore’s Changi Airport, trying to get through 5 hours in transit during the long trek home.

The Grand Slam Tour 2015 is nearly over, after 5 amazing weeks exploring Adelaide for 10 days, a couple of road trips in South Australia, a fun train journey across the border to Victoria, a week in Melbourne – including seeing the Aussie Open tennis – and 2 weeks in Tasmania, 10 days on the road in a camper van and a few fun days in Hobart.

So what have we learnt?

That the earth is round, that Aussies are the friendliest people on the planet, that wallabies are like kangaroos with thalidomide…and that Andy Murray is still mentally weak against Novak Djokovich.

Thanks to all Gill’s Aussie family, old friends John & Eileen and new friends met along the way for making us so welcome and for ensuring we had a really memorable Grand Slam Tour Down Under.

And huge thanks to Gill for being away from home for 5 weeks with me, and for sharing our Great Big Aussie Adventure. Pretty amazing, eh?

We’ll be back…..

Tasmania – Hobart

Friday, February 13 to Monday, February 16

Well, it sure was nice to sleep in  a comfy and spacious hotel room in Hobart after 10 days – and nights – exploring Tasmania’s coasts and wildernesses in the confines of a camper van.

The Old Woolstore is an attractive conversion of an old industrial building, in a good city location, in much the same way as the amazing transformation of the old IXL Jam Factory by the dock is now the beautiful Henry Jones Art Hotel, and the old Gas Works is an atmospheric winery cellar door.

We enjoyed Hobart but were only there for 3 nights and, battery-recharging after a hyperactive tour of Tassie, opted to chill out rather than chase all the conventional sightseeing targets.

But we did spend Saturday morning at the renowned 300-stall Salamanca Market, loved wandering around the dock area seeing the crayfish pots unloaded, and on Sunday walked the 3-4 km out of the city on the Hobart Rivulet Path to be shocked out of our smug 21st century complacency visiting The Female Factory.

And we also explored the genteel Victorian suburb of Battery Point, where we succumbed – twice – to the irresistible delights of Jackman & McRoss, a bakery & deli that every neighbourhood should have. In fact, we should have talked to them about opening up a franchise in Godalming…..

But our overriding memories of Hobart will also be tinged with sadness, as it was a stepping off point for successive European explorers culminating in the British invasion of Van Diemen’s Land, our genocide of the indigenous Aborigines in the 1820s and subsequent colonisation of the island with transported convicts, horrifically abused until they had earned their free ticket.

Not to say that detracted in any way from our enjoyment of a naturally beautiful island and its relaxed capital city, but its history was rightly in our faces in the museum, in The Female Factory, in guide books and on illumination story boards around the dock area.

But Hobart and Tasmania are great 21st century holiday destinations, and I’m very pleased we included them on the Grand Slam Tour 2015.

Tasmania – convicts & colonisation

Sunday, February 15

Imagine being locked up in solitary confinement in a completely dark and damp cell, 3 paces long and just 1 pace wide. For up to 3 months. In a faraway land.

That’s as good as it gets.

Now imagine having to work for more than 12 hours every day, oakum picking – meticulously unravelling, with your already raw hands – huge knotted ropes matted with tar and barnacles from the arduous 4 month sea crossing from England to Van Diemen’s Land. The knowledge that your efforts would be used for caulking the wooden seams of the weather-beaten ships would not be much consolation.

And now imagine having to do all that with the dreaded iron collar around your neck, a heavy metal instrument of torture, spiked and pulled so tightly that over the weeks and months you wear it – day and night – it rubs the flesh raw and damages your collarbone.

Worse still, you could be suffering all this ankle- or knee-deep in putrid water rushing down from Mount Wellington in the depths of winter.

Welcome to The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land.

Yes, women – sometimes including girls as young as 11 – were subjected to these scarcely believable conditions. Between 1828 and 1856, at least 5,000 female convicts were transported from England to this newly settled island off the southern coast of Australia. And sometimes for having committed no worse a crime than stealing something to keep your family alive in times of abject poverty.

On arrival at the port in Hobart, you’d be subjected to the Walk of Shame, a 6 km march from Sullivan’s Cove to your new home, under the cover of darkness to avoid the lascivious intentions of the almost entirely male population.

There, you’d be stripped immediately of your hair, name, clothes and any remaining dignity.

If you obeyed the rigid rules, avoided conflict with bullying overseers and enjoyed an overdue slice of luck, the best you could hope for would be to work a long day in the laundry, scrubbing coarse clothes with your bare hands in freezing cold water. But at least you’d have the company of other convicts, even if complete silence was another strict rule.

But if you fell foul of the regime, off you’d go to solitary confinement…sometimes never to leave.

You might be picked out of the line one day, to go into a service with a family. But there was every chance life outside The Factory would be almost as harsh as within. And the most inhumane treatment of all was imposed if you became pregnant, whether through rape or your own indiscretion. For what good were you now?

Back inside The Factory, your newborn child would be weaned as quickly as possible, and you would be put back to work. With overcrowding and disease rife in the nursery, your baby would have only a 25% chance of surviving. At best, since official mortality records are quite likely to have been sugar-coated.

If your child saw its 2nd birthday in The Factory nursery, an orphanage would be next, followed by as normal a life as could be expected for a weak, socially inept progeny of a convict.

As for yourself, you might finally find a way out of The Factory if a successful application for marriage was made by any man who wanted to take a wife and raise a family in this new land. After all, the purpose of this convict transportation policy was colonisation, after a suitable period of punishment and contrition, wasn’t it?

It’s scarcely believable that this all happened less than 200 years ago.

And yet here we were, reliving such dreadful history on the site of The Cascades Female Factory on the outskirts of Hobart, high threatening walls in the shadow of Mount Wellington still intact, on a warm Sunday in February 2015.

Inside the walls, a few stones have been laid to delineate some of the cells and other defined areas within each yard. Otherwise pay for the Heritage Tour and, more importantly, make sure you immerse yourself in Her Story to bring the experience fully to life.

Her Story is a dramatised account of Mary, a convict sent to The Female Factory who becomes a victim of a brutal overseer’s bullying and endures the worst conditions described above. The other actor plays the overseer and a more kindly, well-intentioned doctor, and together they transport you back to the 19th century and all the horrors that women endured in this terrible place.

A chilling experience that made us ashamed to come from the country that dreamed up this vile policy. It may be a beautiful, enlightened country now but it certainly has a darker underbelly in its history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasmania – Tassie Truckin’

Monday, February 02 to Friday, February 13

Phew.

10 days in a camper van. 1,900 km trekking to all four windswept Tasmanian  coasts, across isolated bushland and wilderness, into alpine national parks, through declining mining communities and genteel Victorian towns.

And virtually no internet connectivity across Tassie until we’re back in Hobart now for the final few days of our epic Aussie adventure.

A few highlights:

  • 1st night’s camp site on remote South Bruny Island, after a ferry ride from Kettering on the mainland. Not advertised anywhere. Owned by Phil, the mad axeman. We had an astonishingly beautiful lagoon and white sandy beach all to ourselves, just a few short steps through towering eucalyptus trees. Shame it rained on the camp fire
  • sharing our barbecued supper with a family of wallabies – or were they pademelons (small wallaby like creatures, rather than Irish soft fruits) – at the eco camp Huon Bush Retreats in the Huon Valley

  • walking around Dove Lake, in the shadow of the iconic Cradle Mountain. A bit too popular with Nikon-toting Asian tourists for our liking, but undeniably picturesque

  • the unplanned time we spent at Strahan, on the remote west coast. Taking to the stage in Australia’s longest running play, The Ship That Never Was, about the brutal penal colony on nearby Sarah Island between 1822 & 1833. I was the drunken captain overthrown by the final 10 convicts who had built the Frederick ship from local materials, fearful of being transferred to the new penitentiary at Port Arthur, like the rest of the Sarah Island felons. Gill was the helmsman who sailed it 10,000 miles to Chile. An amazing true story of hard times told with a sense of humour, and with a lot of audience participation

  • an amazing boat trip from Strahan the following day, to Hell’s Gates which shelter Macquarie Harbour from more dangerous open waters, to the mouth of the iconic Gordon River and to Sarah Island, for an evocative tour which brought to life the brutality of the regime run there, before the final escape we had seen dramatised so entertainingly

  • motoring up the Tamar Valley from Launceston to remote Greens Beach on the windswept northern extremity, and enjoying a leisurely lunch and wine tasting at Velo, a winery owned by Micheal Wilson, a Tasmanian who cycled in the Olympics and competed in the Tour de France a couple of times, as well as in the other European Grand Tours, while living in France and Italy for 10 years

  • time spent at Bicheno, a small east coast seaside community, especially seeing the fairy penguins migrating at dusk from the nearby Governor Island sanctuary to their sandy onshore rookeries, just a few feet away from us

  • looking down at Wineglass Bay from the famous lookout point on the picturesque Freycinet Peninsula …and then spending time sunbathing on the almost deserted wide crescent of squeaky white sand as a school of 5 of 6 dolphins played lazily in the bay

  • the last night’s camp site, a spontaneous turn off the east coast road to Gumleaves, a 40 acre wildlife retreat where the wallabies bounced, the kookaburras laughed as our alarm call, and where an over-zealous possum scratched at the door of the only other camper van on the site….and then tried to climb in the vent on their roof . And where a poisonous 4 foot long tiger snake was lurking

And a couple of lowlights:

  • a scary 30 km+ camper van journey up and down vertiginous unprotected forested mountain tracks – gravel, not tarmac – in search of Pyengana, the place of happy cows and great cheese and ice cream. Apparently. We never made it. We got completely lost, a bit scared….and I almost turned the truck over in remote woodland, with no phone or internet signals and no hope of survival
  • passing through sad mining communities like Queenstown and Zeehan on the west coast, which had thrived a century ago but which now cling proudly to their industrial heritage whilst suffering from a much changed economy and a different way of life

Tassie is a place of incredible natural beauty, indigenous wildlife and remote communities. If we come again, there are some places I’d like to revisit, some I would miss out..and some we didn’t manage to see this time, like the Tasman Peninsula.

But what an adventure. Thanks to Gill for an epic 10 days – and camper van nights – in Tassie. That hot shower and soft bed in the Hobart hotel sure will feel good, though…..

Melbourne – a sporting finale

Day 19 – Monday, February 02

Our last day in Melbourne and it all seems to be about sport…..

The post mortem of the mens final of the Australian Open continues. Was Novak Djokovich faking injury? Why did Andy Murray collapse, again, so comprehensively….was it physical or mental weakness? And what was that demonstration all about, not covered on air but suspending play for quite a few minutes while the security guys ejected the culprits?

No matter. It’s no wonder the players call it The Friendly Slam, the Aussie Open is a fantastic tournament – for players and spectators alike – and having now completed my own personal Grand Slam, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any tennis fan.

The Socceroos won the Asian Cup and all the newspapers are full of admiration for their boys.

And Cadel Evans, that Aussie cycling legend and only Aussie winner of the Tour de France, competed in his final pro race yesterday – The Great Ocean Road Race – and has now hung up his bicycle clips at the grand old age of 37.

A split party for Gill and me today. Gill has ventured out to the laundry and to explore the Botanic Gardens. I’m making another sporting pilgrimage to the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground, home to 100,000 spectators and scene of many more English defeats.

The Adelaide Oval tour was probably more enjoyable, the sheer scale of the MCG is overwhelming. But it’s hugely impressive, especially as it’s gearing up for the ICC World Cup in 10 days time. There are over 250 TV screens dotted around the stadium….the usual maker’s logo has to be covered up and replaced by the World Cup TV sponsor. Similar attention to detail is in evidence everywhere.

The tour gives a fascinating trip into the bowels of the stadium – the physio room, the players’s changing rooms, the press area, the dining facilities, the members’ Long Room and Committee Room, and much more.

And also in the MCG is the National Sports Museum.  For a relatively small country – in population rather than geographic terms – Australia punches way above its collective weight.

 The Museum houses impressive memorabilia about its wide-ranging sporting success through the years, and much film reel about the MCG hosting the Olympics of 1956 and the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

My favourite parts of the extensive Museum exhibits were Ian Thorpe’s trainers – roughly twice the size of my own pathetically delicate feet – and the hologram of Shane Warne, talking about his career from the very MCG changing room that we had just explored.

If you love sport, Australia in January and early February is a pretty special place to be…although I suspect that’s the same for the rest of the year.

We’re off out now for our final supper in Melbourne, as glorious evening sunshine bounces off the Yarra river through our hotel room.

Not sure about connectivity in the Tasmanian wilderness for the next couple of weeks, so daily blogging might not be possible. And spending time in a camper van will be a far cry from luxury hotels in Adelaide and Melbourne……see you on the other side.

 

 

 

Melbourne – a nearly day

Day 18 – Sunday, February 01

Yesterday was our penultimate day in Melbourne before moving on to Tasmania. It was one of those days when everything was nearly good….but ultimately wasn’t. And ultimately is what counts, right?

I’ve admired crazy and original Aussie Baz Luhrmann for years. He announced himself to the wider world with that thrilling, ground-breaking version of Romeo & Juliet in 1996, starring a very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes.

Back in 1992 he had written and co-directed the Aussie film Strictly Ballroom. Well, he’s now directing a stage musical version here in Melbourne, and we had got hold of tickets for the Sunday afternoon matinee.

If you can suspend your disbelief completely, love sequins and a soppy storyline, this one’s for you. But you could smell the cheese in Adelaide, I reckon. The best part for me was the brilliant Latino dance that closed out the first half, and the rousing adage a life lived in fear is a life half lived, epitomising the need to be creative rather than to conform.

But sorry Baz, this musical was only half good, and a little piece of me died on a grey Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.

The pre-match curry at the Red Pepper Indian restaurant just missed the mark too. Well reviewed, the first signs were promising….pale wood floors, exposed brickwork on the walls, gentle service and intoxicating smells emanating from the kitchen.

But our Lamb Pasand and Chicken Tikka Masala dishes were so-so, served on cold plates and not overly generous portions. The best part of the meal was the tandoori roti bread….but man cannot live on bread alone. So near and yet….

And then it was time to watch Andy Murray play Novak Djokovich in the final of the Australian Open. We’d seen both semi-finals and were looking forward to another epic match between these two warriors. It would have good to be there at the Rod Laver Arena ourselves, but we’d been quoted A$395/£200 for a single ticket a few days ago and had already pushed the boat out for our Melbourne hotel and semi-finals package with Sportsnet.

So we found a good pub, the Duke – Melbourne’s oldest licensed premises – on Flinders Street, from where we could see the stadium lights. And the screens were so large it was almost like we were there….

That gruelling 1st set lasted for well over an hour and Novak edged it 7-6. It was going to be a long night.

We watched the 2nd set in the cavernous outdoor/indoor space by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, further along Flinders Street. Even longer than the 1st, Andy won another tie-break.

We watched the denouement from the comfort of our Langham hotel suite, but sadly Andy Murray succumbed all too quickly and lost his 4th AO final, and the 3rd to the Djoker.

Andy seemed in better physical condition than Novak, especially after Djokovich wobbled around like a drunken Bambi during the second set. But there are now accusations that Novak was play-acting and Andy admits he was distracted by these antics. After being a service break up in the crucial 3rd set, Novak won 12 of the last 13 games to win his 5th AO title.

Andy’s collapse in another Grand Slam final was woeful. He worked so hard and played outstanding tennis to get there, but he must control his emotions better if he is to achieve what is so tantalisingly within his reach.

But nearly just isn’t good enough, right?

 

 

 

 

Melbourne – less is more

Day 17 – Saturday, January 31

When you’re travelling it’s nice to push the culinary boat out occasionally, but it’s just as rewarding to eat simply – as the locals do – to get under the real skin of a city.

Strolling through Melbourne’s main shopping precinct on Bourke Street on a busy Saturday, we wandered off into the maze of more atmospheric laneways and narrow covered malls.

 

Within earshot of an ageing accordionist playing hackneyed but romantic old tunes, we ate in a tiny and basic cafe, hunched up at a narrow counter and surrounded by industrial-size bags of quinoa and enough coffee beans to keep neighbourly barista Simon Ware grinding away for a year or two.

Delicious, healthy and generous portions of chicken waldorf and pumpkin & chickpea salads were just $6.90 each, about £7 for both, eaten reading the local Melburnian newspapers, listening to the old accordionist and people-watching.

In the evening, we ended up climbing the dingy stairs off a dark alleyway between Bourke and Little Collins Streets to eat at The Waiters Restaurant. Opened in 1947 – and with decor, tables and curtains barely changed since then – this humble eaterie was once a place for Italian & Spanish waiters to unwind after work. Anyone can go now, but the simple ethos remains the same.

No wine list, just red or white offered verbally. We had a couple of glasses of excellent Shiraz in petrol-station giveaway tumblers.

No menu, just a blackboard of regular dishes and one with the specials.  We both had pasta, with garlic bread on the side. Honest, wholesome food delivered without pretension. Buonissimo! And all for A$60/£30.

The service was equally simple, but friendly, from two young English girls…one from The Wirrall, studying at St Kildas for a year as part of her International Business degree course in Leeds; the other from Stamford, having fun and with no idea how the rest of her life would unfold.

The Aussie boss wandered amiably around, until huddled by the side of the radio blaring out by the open kitchen counter……The Socceroos were in the final of the Asian Cup against South Korea, and were 2 minutes from glory when the Koreans equalised. The food might have suffered from that point on…..*

Earlier in the day, we had done the official Neighbours tour. Gill is ever so slightly addicted to this Aussie soap, and this was a small price to pay for inflicting 3 days of tennis on her.

It was a fun way to spend a few hours, but somehow the functional, small street (actually suburban Pin Oak Court) and outdoor sets back in the Fremantle Media TV studio lot undermined the glossy vision of what end up on our TV screens. Another dream shattered….

But fortunately the subsequent dining experiences, as humble as they were, reinvigorated the soul.

Less is definitely very much more.

* the Aussies scored again in extra time to win the Asian Cup. Phew!