There I was sprawled across our couch with a cup of tea to my left, a stack of cookbooks to my right, and Saturday Kitchen bumbling along with its forced laughs in the background; a familiar scene that happens most lazy Saturday mornings in our flat. I was ready to complete my favourite chore of the weekend: planning that week’s menu. What a rock and roll life I lead, eh? I had already spent the last ten minutes debating the merits of using up the rest of my gochujang in a Korean stew from ‘Our Korean Kitchen’, or making Tom Kerridge’s barbeque pineapple chicken for the hundredth time when I had a different brainwave. Flipping through our well-thumbed copy of his ‘Best Ever Dishes’ one more time, I decided to take a break from Tom’s recipes in my kitchen because I would rathertrythem out in his kitchen instead…
The thing is, the recipes in this book are quite involved. We’ve cooked from it many times but have rarely followed all the steps because unlike Tom, we don’t have the patience nor dedication; and yet, most dishes are still rib-tickling winners. So imagine how good his food must be when someone doesn’t cut corners. And with that thought I was sold. Alas, getting a table at The Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin star pub, is easier said than done. It is notoriously hard to book, even harder if you also want a room reservation, as I did. Near impossible if you were looking for a specific day or date. Thankfully I was not; with the end of my work contract and the start of our travels looming, the one thing I did have on my side was flexibility. A random Tuesday night in two month’s time? Mission accomplished.
My commute to and from my last office took almost an hour and a half, each way, and I was only going from one end of London to the other. I used to tell people that it wasn’t so bad, but now that my commute is shorter (just under an hour), I can confidently say, it was that bad. And now that I think of it, in that time you can get a lot further, and to a lot more interesting places from London if you play your cards right. We’ve already covered the well-worn day trip routes from London like Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge, so on an unusual plan-free weekend, we decided to get a little more creative and somehow ended up in Winchester for the day.
I didn’t think that this quaint, posh little town would be high on the tourist radar but it’s actually got a lot going for it if you’re content with quiet riverside walks, interested in Jane Austen history, and easily smitten by the grandeur of a classic cathedral. We noticed that many busloads of tourists were, and as it transpires… so was I. Particularly when it comes with sunshine, one of England’s most well traded farmers’ markets, and the lure of good food! Some of our most memorable meals have been found in restaurants outside of London, where their neighbours are their suppliers, and they champion this local produce… we were hoping this day out in Winchester would bring more of the same!
It takes a very calm and controlled chef to let restaurant guests into their kitchen because once these civilians pass the threshold, there’s absolutely no turning back. They’ll have their beady little eyes on the chefs’ every slice, dice, and swivel of the pan while simultaneously being a hazard to those very chefs trying to slice, dice, and swivel their way towards service. They’ll have no idea of the kitchen protocol, they’ll get in the way, and… in some cases, they might even bring the kitchen to a grinding halt with something spectacularly silly like slipping over and finding themselves smack bang on the kitchen floor. The hot-headed chefs panic, the cool chefs just sort it out and carry on.
I know; because I was that clumsy guest, and I can confirm that Phil Fanning was that cool, calm and collected chef. My embarrassing incident unfolded at Paris House, a three AA Rosette and frequently top-rated restaurant housed in the most striking building. This was the original Paris House built in 1878 as part of the Paris International Exhibition – the 9th Duke of Bedford happened to be so enamoured with it, he had it dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt on the Woburn Estate. The estate itself is equally stunning and both combined to give Paris House the most dramatic entrance of any restaurant I have ever been to… the scene was well and truly set for what would be an eventful masterclass and lunch at their Chef’s Table!
As London-dwellers with no need for a car, I get a little thrill when we decide to rent one of those four-wheeled contraptions and embark on a road trip! Regardless of whether it’s a long or short journey, I love that feeling of jumping in the car and hitting the road. A certain someone gets behind the wheel, which leaves me armed with the navigating… this has led to many wrong-turns along the way and while this causes me to flap in panic, he assures me that it’s all part of the fun. And such fun it always is… especially when we speed further away from the London skyline and into the lush green English countryside.
A recent roadie took us to Woburn, a rather posh and pretty village in Bedfordshire. We were lured there by a visit to the renown Paris House Restaurant, but decided to make a weekend of it when we discovered that there was a grand estate to explore, and much relaxing that could be done with fresh air and rolling fields as our surroundings. When looking for a place to rest our heads, I knew we had to stay at The Woburn Hotel, a charming property right in the heart of the village!
As we were nearing the end of a 45 minute taxi ride which probably should’ve taken 30, had it not been for the road closure, backtracking, and detour, I thought, ‘jeez, we go to great lengths for dinner’. The taxi was the final piece of the puzzle too; months before that there was the restaurant reservation, hotel and train bookings, and the actual journey from London to Bristol the day before. When we eventually arrived at the restaurant, the driver was in a state of disbelief because our destination looked like any other country pub, and not the Michelin star restaurant we were describing.
However we know that not all pubs are created equal, and we assured our driver that The Pony and Trap was one of the exceptional ones. It first came onto our radar during last year’s Great British Menu – one of the few tv shows we actually watch and one of my favourites for providing dining out inspiration across the UK. As soon as I saw Josh Eggleton plate up a pie that wasn’t really a pie and a dessert that paid homage to the Calendar Girls, I decided his restaurant was one I wanted to visit. The chef himself was confident (maybe even portrayed as a little cocky through crafty editing?) and his food equally so, which was enough to convince us.
When did cruises become a cool holiday choice? Recently, I’ve had a few cruisers in my company – people who have either just come back or gearing up to set sail; they’re always really excited and, here’s the true shock, they have all been under 60. I know it’s a total cliche, but I kind of thought cruises were reserved for those in their golden years. That stage in life when one is less enthused about their hotel being a euphemistic, brisk away from anything of note, and the thought of someone planning your days is a godsend. Don’t lie, you were thinking it too.
Honestly, the idea of a cruise makes me a little nervous… being on a gigantic boat out at sea doesn’t really appeal to someone who is scared of deep water. On a more pragmatic level, I have other reservations – is there enough to keep me occupied while we’re at sea? Can the cabins really be as big as any other hotel room? Does the food stand any chance of being decent? All the shiny brochures will say a resounding yes, but that’s their job… I wasn’t quite convinced, so the only thing to do was to jump on board and see for myself!
Do you ever arrive in a new city and find yourself thinking about how much it reminds you of your hometown? I wonder if it’s an expat/immigrant/nomad thing because I’ve noticed recently that we do it a lot. I can’t imagine myself living back in Wellington just yet but I do miss little things about it… the breezy waterfront, the compact city centre, and our famous steep streets. So I guess when we find somewhere that has some of those things, we almost instantly feel a little more relaxed and at home.
When we arrived in Bristol, we had a good feeling that we would like it… by the time we left, we were certain of it. We found a harbourside area where you can get a whiff of the sea, a compact city you can easily walk around in, and hills to give your calves a work out. Tick, tick, tick; no wonder we felt so at home there… throw in the friendly local vibe and the vibrant dining scene and we were sold! Ours was a very snappy visit, but we’d be more than happy to drop by again…