Sunday Brunch at Hotel du Vin in Henley

Hotel du Vin in Henley, for me, is synonymous with the Henley Literary Festival.

Every time I’ve been there, except for my most recent visit, it has been in some way related to the Festival and the hotel has always left a wonderful impression. Whether it’s sipping a glass of crisp Pinot in the courtyard at the launch party, or popping in for a quick cup of tea in between events, it’s always been a place to relax and enjoy.

But for every time I’ve been there while enjoying the festival, I’ve never actually eaten there. (I know, that should really be whispered!).

So when an email landed in my inbox inviting me to try out the Hotel du Vin Sunday Brunch it took me all of five minutes to reply with a ‘yes please!’.

A long, lazy Sunday brunch always feels indulgent – it means you’ve done all the jobs you need to do, and you can really enjoy the time you’ve got stretching ahead for the day. And the relaxed setting of the Hotel du Vin fits that perfectly. With wooden floors, dark wooden furniture, and an eclectic selection of art on the walls, it feels cosy and welcoming. A pool of light also flooded into the room from the courtyard and made us long for warmer weather and al fresco dining.

The Sunday Brunch offer is £24.95 per person for four courses, including the French Market Table, which is a bit of a showstopper – but more on that in a moment!

The first course on the menu was the soup of the day, and when we visited it was cream of cauliflower. The soup was thick but smooth, and creamy, with the fresh taste of the cauliflower really coming through. It was also a really generous sized bowl which definitely set the tone for the portions to come.

Then it was time for the French Market Table – just take a look at this:

Thin slices of delicious iberico ham, prosciuito and salami, fresh mussels, wedges of bread, coarse meaty terrine, olives, balsamic pickled onions, plump tomatoes, cucumber pieces, slices of salmon, a creamy potato salad. The feast went on…

Both Ben and I agreed that we could happily have stayed on the second course, filling our plates again and again, but a little self-restraint, and knowledge of what was to come, kept our greedy sides at bay.

Our waiter – one of several who looked after us impeccably – asked if we wanted a breather and we nodded a yes while trying to fathom how we’d manage more food. The spacing was spot on, allowing us time to relax and chat before our mains arrived.

The main course presents a choice, there is the Sunday roast, or options like Steak Frites and Poached Scottish Salmon. I chose the rib of Aberdeenshire beef Sunday roast and Ben went for the Severn & Wye Smoked Haddock.

The meat was pink, as I had asked for, and beautifully tender, cut into fairly thin slithers so you could really taste the beef. It was served with a rich and meaty gravy and a soft cloud of yorkshire pudding. A full bowl of fresh winter veg was on the side, almost overflowing with roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, broccoli and red cabbage.

Ben’s fish was also fantastic, served with a mustard butter and placed on a hash brown, although the poached egg on top wasn’t runny, which a perfect poached egg should always be.

Pudding – yes there was more – was a comforting banana, rum bread and butter pudding for me, and apple tarte tatin for Ben. They were so good we both refused to share.

The bread and butter pudding was topped with rum and raisin ice cream, which had a faint hint of booze, and worked very well indeed with the banana in the pudding.

While we’re talking sweets, my head was turned a few times during our meal by the sight of a three-tier cake stand being carried through to the bar area. Admittedly any cake would usually turn my head, but this was particularly dazzling due to the puffs of candy floss which were sticking out of the top. It looked fabulous and fun, and will definitely be added to my ‘must-visit’ afternoon tea spots.

After a leisurely two hours we tried to button our coats back up (it was a task!) and headed out into the sunshine for a walk along Henley’s beautiful riverside. Henley is a lovely place to visit, picturesque and calm, and Hotel du Vin couldn’t be a better fit for the town. I will certainly not be leaving it until the next literary festival before I visit again.

I was invited to review the Sunday Brunch menu at Hotel du Vin in Henley so my visit was complimentary but all views are my own honest opinion. 

Interviewing Cherry Menlove at Henley Literary Festival

I think I may have just joined the 21st century. I’m currently writing this on my phone (I’m so down with the kids!), while on the train on my way back from a How To Academy evening class in London led by communications coach Edie Lush.

The subject of the class was ‘how to speak confidently in public’ and it couldn’t be more timely as last week I did just that when I hopped on stage at Henley Literary Festival to interview blogger and author Cherry Menlove.

You might remember how nervous I was at my last on stage Q&A with George the Poet but I think something has clicked into place because there were zero nerves with Cherry -hoorah!

Me interviewing Cherry Menlove at Hotel Du Vin
Interviewing Cherry Menlove at Hotel Du Vin – clearly talking about a serious subject judging by my stern expression!

Cherry started her blog 10 years ago and has since had several books published, including her latest, The Little Book of Peace.

The book is split into 101 chapters, giving readers advice and guidance on how to find more peace in their lives.

During our chat at the lovely Hotel Du Vin in Henley, Cherry spoke about how the book came together and how she used to jot down thoughts for each chapter on her phone before eventually drawing them together.

She spoke about some of the really tough things she has been through, like her husband being diagnosed with cancer while her twins were only one-years-old and a difficult relationship with a former business associate, and it was inspirational to hear how she has worked through those dark moments and achieved so much since.

Heading to the Kenton Theatre for Sebastian Faulks
Henley Literary Festival is a fabulous week of talks and events

Cherry was a lovely interviewee and there were some fab audience questions too, including a discussion which touched on the topic of mental health – a subject Bryony Gordon spoke about so passionately earlier on in the festival.

Seeing what Cherry has achieved also made me inspired, and determined, to grab every opportunity from here on in. And as Cherry’s book proves, with a bit of Peace, we can achieve everything our heart desires.

The very lovely Henley Literary Festival

Henley Literary Festival is without doubt one of my favourite cultural events of the year.

From the amazing choice of speakers (every genre you could think of is covered!), to the beautiful setting, to the fascinating subjects, to the most amazing brownies you’ll ever eat – it really is just a total gem.

Henley looking pretty in the Autumn sunshine -check out that bunting!
Henley looking pretty in the Autumn sunshine -check out that bunting!

The festival runs for a week, but I joined the party a little late this year due to work commitments, just hopping over on the final weekend for two days of literary loveliness.

On the Saturday I went along as a book lover, and listened to two wonderful – and completely different – talks. Both were hosted Q&As, with a good chunk of time for audience questions too.

The stage where Sebastian & Bryony's events took place
The stage where Sebastian & Bryony’s events took place

First up was Sebastian Faulks, who reminded me of why I adore escaping into a really good book. Sebastian spoke about his new novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, which sounds incredible, and also talked about the art of writing. He said how the hardest part of writing a novel is finding your voice, and that Engleby was his easiest book to write as the narrator’s voice appeared to him one day. (If you haven’t read it, I would totally recommend it – the narrator is a fascinating character).

An audience member also asked Sebastian what the ‘right’ way to read a book is, and he spoke about leaving any preconceptions at the first page, and just letting yourself get lost in the story. It took me back to when I read Birdsong and then kept going to the library again and again until I’d finished every single one of Sebastian’s books. I remember feeling bereft when I realised there weren’t any more.

After Sebastian’s talk, I made my way to the Henley Literary Festival hub in the centre of town and spent a lovely hour reading a collection of short stories, which had been entered into a competition run by the festival and Dragonfly tea. Dragonfly were also selling cups of tea with a Gower Cottage brownie for £1, which was a total bargain. And those brownies, oh my goodness, they are the most gooey, chocolatey, gorgeous brownies I’ve ever had.

Chilling in the hub where you could buy a cup of Dragonfly tea and a Gower cottage brownie for £1
Chilling in the hub with tea and cake

The second talk I went to later in the evening, was Bryony Gordon in conversation with Polly Vernon. Bryony was speaking about her memoir, Mad Girl, in which she writes about living with OCD and depression.

Bryony was so honest, talking about some of the really difficult things she had been through, but also bringing in humour and some really interesting anecdotes. The way she spoke so openly and passionately about mental health and how the system and society treats people with mental health conditions, also really struck a chord with the audience. I’ve never seen a Q&A which was quite so raw and emotional and people really opened up about the things they had been through.

After both events I felt really inspired, and, at a risk of sounding totally pompous, I really did feel culturally enriched. There’s just something so wonderful about listening to writers talk about their work and their experiences. It’s a little like being back in a university lecture hall with the most fascinating speakers to listen to and learn from.

After Saturday I was so excited for Sunday, when it was my turn to get up on the stage. More to come on that in another post very soon!

Top 10 picks for Henley Literary Festival

Top 10 picks for Henley Literary Festival

Henley Literary Festival is one of my favourite Autumn events.

Packed with a huge variety of authors, and set in one of the most stunning towns in the South, it’s a week of pure literary loveliness.

In the past I’ve seen David Nicholls, Candace Bushnell, Sue Perkins, Dawn O’Porter and Rupert Everett, and each was absolutely fantastic.

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If you’re not familiar with how a literary festival event works, it’s basically a conversation between the author and a journalist or presenter, who asks them questions about their work and life. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to hear the author read an extract from their book. (David Nicholls reading Us was amazing).

Once again the line-up at Henley Literary Festival is fantastic, with a real mix of speakers, from politicians to comedians, and with journalists, musicians and a Great British Bake-Off winner in there for good measure too.

Although the festival isn’t until September, I was invited along to the launch party at Hotel Du Vin in Henley early this week. The sun was shining, we had a good old browse of the programme, and I booked my tickets there and then. It was so hard to pick what to see, so to help, I’ve put together my top 10 picks for this year’s festival. Tickets go on general sale over here on Monday, 18 July.

  1. Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier. Monday 26th September, 4.30pm. Kenton Theatre. £10.

Former soldier Harry Parker has written a fictional book about an army captain who loses both his legs – the same thing which happened to Harry himself in Afghanistan.

  1. Tom Parker-Bowles – The Fortnum and Mason Cookbook. Tuesday 27th September, 12.30pm. Kenton Theatre. £12.50.

Mail on Sunday and Esquire columnist Tom Parker-Bowles discuss his new recipe book, for which he has teamed up with iconic brand Fortnum and Mason.

  1. Gary Younge – America Today. Tuesday 27th September, 8.30pm. Town Hall. £9.

US correspondent turned editor-at large, Gary Younge, discusses his book A Day in the Death of America which is based on the fact that on an average day in America seven young people die from gunshot wounds.

  1. Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story (Family). Saturday 1st October, 11am. Christ Church. £12 including a copy of Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story.

Nadiya Hussain, winner of last year’s Great British Bake-Off, brings a family friendly event to Henley to celebrate the launch of her children’s baking book. (She was excellent at Reading Year of Culture and I would heartily recommend going to her talk).

  1. Judith Kerry: The Tiger Who Came to Tea and other Animal Tales (Family). Sunday 2nd October, 1pm. Kenton Theatre. £12 including a copy of Mr Cleghorn’s Seal.

Judith is making her Henley debut at 93 and she will be looking back at her career which includes the 1968 classic, The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

  1. Laura Bates – Girl Up. Saturday 1st October, 3pm. Town Hall. £9.

The very inspiring Laura Bates founded Everyday Sexism, a project which talks about sexism, equality and women’s rights. She’ll be bringing her new book, Girl Up, to Henley.

     7. Sebastian Faulks. Saturday 1st October, 3pm. Kenton Theatre. £15 including a glass of wine.

Author of A Week in December, Charlotte Gray, and most notably Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks is one of the most acclaimed writers of our day. He’ll be discussing his latest novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat. (I’ve got tickets to this one, can’t wait!).

     8. Sara Pascoe – Animal. Saturday 1st October, 7pm. Kenton Theatre. £10.

Sara will be bringing her thoughts on the female body to Henley and judging by her performances on comedy panel shows, I imagine it’s going to be very funny indeed.

  1. Bryony Gordon – Mad Girl. Saturday 1st October, 9pm. Kenton Theatre. £10.

I can’t wait to hear Bryony Gordon speak about her book Mad Girl. In the book, Bryony, who is a columnist for The Telegraph, talks about growing up with OCD, and the impact it has had on her life.

  1. Jo Malone – The Scent of Success. Sunday 2nd October, 5pm. Christ Church. £12.50.

Everytime I walk past a Jo Malone counter I’m so tempted to buy some of her gorgeous candles and fragrances. Jo will be talking about her career and how she began her hand made beauty business from her home in Kent, having left school early to care for her mother.

Henley on Food – A delicious day out

This is a quote I wholeheartedly agree with:

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Arriving at Henley on Food on Saturday morning, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, these little signs were the first thing we saw. As we walked into the stunning grounds of Shiplake College we read quotes by Dickens and Dr Seuss, like a kind of storybook path leading to the main event.

Shiplake College is the ideal venue for a food festival. With gorgeous buildings, and absolutely beautiful grounds, it makes a great backdrop (think a mini Hogwarts), and it’s a big site so there are lots of little spaces tucked away which you discover as you walk around. It’s the first year of Henley on Food but you can already see the potential for how it could expand here.

The river lawn which was host to the champagne bar, Rebellion tent, River Rowing Museum stall and coffee/tea vans
The river lawn which was home to the champagne bar, Rebellion tent, Mr Toad’s picnic tent, the Speakers’ Corner, Local Larder and coffee and tea vans

We started off at the River Lawn where we got a cup of coffee from Horsebox Coffee Co. The sun well and truly had his hat on and it was lovely just to sit outside and soak up the atmosphere before we made our way to the talks.

Ben's coffee had a little reusable sleeve which makes total sense when you think how bad all the cardboard sleeves are for the environment
Ben’s coffee had a little reusable sleeve which makes total sense when you think how bad all the cardboard sleeves are for the environment

We’d pre-booked two sessions for the day, but as well as having the ticketed sessions, there were also a couple of free talks taking place over the weekend and we figured we may as well see as much as we could. To enter the grounds you also had to get a £7 roamer pass, so it made sense to make a real day of it.

Starting as we meant to go on...
Starting as we meant to go on…

At 11.30am, we made our way to the Great Hall where Shaun Dickens was giving a demonstration of a salmon dish he makes at his restaurant, Shaun Dickens at The Boathouse. He started with a whole salmon, and showed how the restaurant strives to use every bit of the fish, including breaking down bones for a stock (I’m glad we weren’t in the front row as there was definitely a splash zone when he was chopping the bones!).

Shaun Dickens prepares a salmon dish
Shaun Dickens prepares a salmon dish

He cooked the fish sous vide and then it was served alongside a tall glass jar (the kind you might find in a science laboratory), which was used to hold smoke which was then poured over the fish. Shaun explained how it brought an element of theatre to the dish, and it did look brilliant when he presented it at the end.

After that we made a beeline for the Ember Yard stall in the Dining Street area, which was a small courtyard with a handful of food stalls, and had the most delicious Iberico pork ribs. We’d booked in to see Ben Tish from Ember Yard later so we thought it would be good to try his food first (and a good job we did that early as some of their dishes sold out later in the day).

Amazing ribs from Ember Yard
Amazing ribs from Ember Yard

From there we went back to the Great Hall for a session by Cyrus Todiwala OBE. This was one of our paid sessions, and at £5 it was an absolute bargain. Cyrus was a fantastic host, chatting away and cracking jokes, while he showed us how to make proper pilau rice, a potato and egg dish, and a lamb curry with kofta style meatballs. The smell of all the spices in the room was amazing.

Cyrus was joined by Marcus Bean who asked questions as the chef cooked
Cyrus was joined by Marcus Bean who asked questions as the chef cooked

It was also fascinating to hear Cyrus talk about the way Britain has corrupted the true notion of a curry, and how the common practises when you’re having an Indian meal in England (like having poppadoms and chutney to start) are totally British creations.

With stomachs well and truly rumbling we headed over the The Marketplace and picked up a lamb dosa from the Cafe Spice Namaste stall, a restaurant which was founded by Cyrus. It might not look amazing from my photo but you can’t capture those kind of flavours with a camera! The lamb was beautifully spiced, and the green sauce had a real freshness and brightness to it.

Delicious dosa
Delicious lamb dosa

As well as Cafe Spice Namaste, The Marketplace was also home to various producers selling everything from aprons to salads. We bought some brownies from Gower Cottage Brownies (I have no idea how they make them so gooey and gorgeous but they really are amazing), a mint mango chutney from Cafe Spice Namaste, and a loaf of black olive bread from Oliver’s Bakery.

There was a nice selection, but it would have been nice to see a few more stallholders, to offer a more varied shopping experience. But as it’s the inaugural year for Henley on Food, it’s hopefully something that will expand as more people hear about how great the first year was!

The Lickalix van in the Dining Street
The Lickalix van in the Dining Street

Before heading into our last session of the day we soaked up the sun with a cocktail ice lolly from Lickalix and a half pint of Rebellion beer. I went for a Strawberry Mojito, which was wonderfully fruity and just the right amount of boozy. Lickalix are definitely on to a winner with alcoholic ice lollies (they do sell non-alcoholic ones too).

Love.
Love.

And who doesn’t love a pint in the sunshine?

Good Bank Holiday vibes
Good Bank Holiday vibes

And our last session of the day was Ben Tish from Ember Yard, who was talking in the Cooked Kitchen Theatre. He was joined by his head chef Jack, and the duo made a salt-baked sea bream, mushrooms stuffed with a soy butter, and barbecued greens.

There's so much you can do on a barbecue!
The salt baked sea bream looked fantastic

It was interesting to hear about all the things you can make on a barbecue, (so much more than just sausages and burgers!), including coffee and walnut cake. Yes, really! Ben and Jack explained how it took them about 10 attempts to get it right, but it’s totally doable and the recipe is now in Ben’s latest book, Grill, Smoke, BBQ. We bought the copy of the book at the festival, and made the mushrooms for dinner that evening.

Ben and Jack cooked a trio of barbecue delights
Ben and Jack cooked a trio of barbecue delights

With all good food festivals you leave with a full, contented belly, and hopefully some tasty things to enjoy at home, but with Henley on Food, we also left feeling totally inspired. Each talk was really insightful and it was impossible not to get swept up in the chefs’ enthusiasm for cooking. Pairing the elements of a traditional food festival with a focus on chefs and their cookbooks, is a winning combination, and I can’t wait to see how Henley on Food develops in the future. Really this sign says it all:

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Henley Literary Festival: Candace Bushnell

Henley Literary Festival: Candace Bushnell

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There was a moment during Candace Bushnell‘s talk at Henley Literary Festival when she asked the room, (almost entirely filled with women), if they had ever been hurt by a man.

Pretty much every hand in the room went up, including mine rather sheepishly. It reminded me of the gym scene in Mean Girls when Ms Norbury asks the girls to put up their hands if they’ve ever said anything bad about a friend behind their back and everyone sticks their hands up.

These are intrinsically female experiences, and they’re the reason we quote Mean Girls endlessly, and why we adore Sex and the City.

Hannah Beckerman and Candace Bushnell
Hannah Beckerman and Candace Bushnell

Like many 20-something women, Carrie Bradshaw was one of the reasons I became a journalist. Admittedly I was a little swayed by the thought of writing columns in expensive shoes while swigging a cosmo, but it was also the experiences her career gave her, and her ability to put that into funny, wild, compelling articles, which made me think, ‘I want to do that too’.

Candace’s talk at Henley Literary Festival, where she was interviewed by author and journalist Hannah Beckerman, was wonderful. It made me feel empowered as a woman and a writer, and there were plenty of snippets which just struck me as bloody brilliant advice.

Here’s a few gems from Candace:

  • In a world of social media, our ‘Monica’ self is increasingly important. (This refers to Candace’s new book Killing Monica in which a successful writer, Pandy Wallis, has to deal with the huge success of the character she has created).
  • “I want to see woman who are able to be the primary person in their lives, as opposed to a person who is defined by their relationship to other people.”
  • What do we give up as women when we get married?
  • When you are 40 you have 20 years career experience. (This made me think about my own career and the fact I’m only really six years in. There’s so much more to come).
  • Love is something that you give, and being loved is not actually a right
  • Be wild like Lena Dunham (hell yeh!)
  • “What I would have said to my younger self is really go for it and don’t care what people think”
  • On social media: “The good stuff and the bad stuff doesn’t matter, it’s all just floating by like a body on the river”
  • Sex and the City is like lightening in a bottle

Candace touched on Sex and the City, “yes there was a real Mr Big!”, but the conversation spun into all sorts of topics including feminism, social media and women’s role in society, Hollywood and publishing.

Candace is an inspiring woman and I was also lucky enough to bump into her outside the green room where she was patient and lovely as I did a bit of fan girling about SATC and we had a brief chat about English weather and how pretty Henley is.

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Henley is the perfect venue for a literary festival and each year I’m taken aback by just how good the line up is. It’s well worth checking out the festival website to see what they’ve got tickets left for. I’m booked in to see Sue Perkins on Friday and absolutely cannot wait.

Candace’s talk was a fantastic start to the festival, and to the week. All that’s left now is to take off the heels and finish my cosmopolitan.