13 May 2012

Will Satch; Henley's New Rowing Hero

Will Satch with Silver in Belgrade

With a silver medal from the first World Cup Regatta of the season around his neck there is a new confidence in the stride of young Henley athlete Will Satch. Still only 22, this is his first year on the Men's Senior GB RowingTeam. Though quiet and unassuming he is an imposing figure, at 6ft 5inches and 100kg with a shock of copper hair he dominates any room not already filled with rowers. Currently rowing with partner George Nash of Cambridge University in the technically challenging coxless pair, the duo have quickly made an impression on the international rowing scene, raising expectations for the remainder of the season and with the hint of an Olympic medal in their sights.

But Will doesn't share his partner's Oxbridge background; brought up in a small house in Hurley he came to the sport because his best friend had started with Henley's Upper Thames Rowing Club. He is remembered there at the age of 12 as a little round ball of ginger energy, even then with a racers unrelenting desire to win. Former chairman of Upper Thames Steve Dance, recalls,

"He was small for his age, and seemed to be on the chubby side, but he won his first race for us almost exactly 10 years ago in under 13 double sculls and hasn't really looked back. It has been amazing watching his transformation over the years, as the puppy fat has been replaced with height and muscle, and he just keeps on winning."

Will as a junior at Upper Thames
Continuing his rowing at Shiplake College where he gained a rugby scholarship, having been something of a tear-away at his first school, he rowed in the First Eight under inspirational coach Athol Hundermark, while out of school he continued to perform for Upper Thames. My own memory of him at that age is of sitting in the seven seat while he was at stroke in a scratch crew for the Eight's Head of the River Race, when he was just 16. I was amazed at his strength and the relentless metronomic rates he produced over the 4 1/4 miles. Clearly the boy had talent.

As we share a coffee just down the street from his small flat, shared with three other rowers in Henley, I ask Will to reflect on his transformation from promising junior to potential Olympic medal winner.

"It's been very hard work with a lot of highs and some real lows, but it's not that long ago I was catching crabs in junior 14 octuples. I didn't go to the Junior World Championships so for me the step up has been very demanding; a lot of people have helped me on the way, particularly at Leander Club, where Arnie Zarach got me to scull properly, Brian Armstrong was a great coach and Mark Banks still supports me with help and advice. It's very much my club now, being local it means a lot to me and I love being there."

His modesty hides what is a a clear determination to win at the Olympic's, nurtured since his early teens. But it was his success at Henley Royal Regatta winning the Thames Cup when still only 18 that gave him the belief that he could do something special.

"We won the Thames and the following year came close in the Ladies Plate, it was then I started to believe that I could make it as an athlete. I gave up the chance to go to university to pursue my dream and while it's a huge sacrifice, I feel as though it's worked in my favour."

Amongst the many people who have helped Will on his way he gives a lot of credit to his mum Sally and step-dad Martin a lecturer at Henley College, who have supported him through thick and thin. Sally a teacher at Shiplake College explains her admiration for her son's mental strength;

Stroking the Shiplkae VIII at Henley Regatta
"I am of course proud of Will, but I'm his mum I've been proud of every step he's taken. The huge thing I feel is the most tremendous respect every day for a boy that is able to dig so deep into seemingly fathomless resources, physically, but more mentally and emotionally, to do this again and again and again. He is one of the most mentally tough people I know. Awesome." 

Progressing in to the GB team that went to the Youth Olympic Festival in Australia in 2007 and then the under 23 team at the age of 19, Will mentions former partner Will Laughton as the rower who taught him how to row a coxless pair, a lesson that remains with him to this day. Staying in the under 23's for 3 seasons gave him invaluable international experience and two World Bronze medals in the VIII.

It's obvious that Will has matured from the tear-away of his early teenage years, in fact he spent 3 years while training at Leander coaching youngsters at his old club Upper Thames, an experience he describes as "very fulfilling." He now talks of rowing as a sport that is all about setting small goals and making incremental progress, the language of the international athlete. But he is aware that he is privileged to be in the position he now occupies having seen many of his former colleagues drop out.

"The training is incredibly hard, we do three sessions a day normally involving a weights session, followed by two sessions of 20 plus kilometres on the water or the ergo (rowing machine). During the course of an average week we'll row over 200 kilometres, though we try not to think of it like that. It's undoubtedly hard and it's easy to pick up an injury, but I've been lucky so far."

His favourite part of the day is the breakfast back at Leander Club in Henley, between the early morning weights session at Bisham Abbey and the rowing and ergo sessions at The Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Caversham. But even Leander's fabled breakfast can't make up for the time away from home,

"We have a number of overseas training camps plus all the international regattas away, so we don't get to see our friends, family or girlfriends very much, or have much of a normal life at all. Right now though with London 2012 looming, everyone in the team is happy to make the sacrifice."

Racing for GB with George Nash in Belgrade
As far as the relentless training is concerned, Will embraces the challenge,

"It is Jurgen's programme (Jurgen Groebler GB Head Coach) that gives the GB men's team the edge, every stroke we row, every weight we lift brings us closer to the Olympic final and the chance of a medal. I have real belief in Jurgen and the other coaches, and huge respect for his achievements." 

It was Rio 2016 that Will originally set his sights, so his current success is unexpected. He puts it down to the way he has worked his way up through the team, working hard and taking nothing for granted. Indeed others speak of his positive attitude and perseverance, uncomplainingly doing everything that's asked of him. Now after the first World Cup Regatta of the season, where he and George rowed a mature race to win Silver in Belgrade the rowing world is starting to pay attention.

The GB Men's 2- George Nash & Will Satch
"We know there are other crews to come into the mix, the Kiwi's and Italians weren't in Belgrade so we know it will be harder as the season goes on, we have to perform in Lucerne and Munich, but from not even expecting to be in the team for London 2012 we really believe we can win Gold for Britain, we're the underdogs and that works for us."

Indeed the crew of Will and George is going faster and faster and with a specially built new boat and the confidence of youth, Henley's newest Olympic medalist could well be Will Satch.

7 February 2012

Foodie Round-up

It's been quite some time since I updated this blog, so this post will be something of a foody based round-up of the last few months...and then who knows I may get around to updating all the extra columns, I'm planning on introducing something new down the right hand side as I'm sure finding out what I'm eating every day is as dull to read as it is to write!

A Pignata Corsica

High in the Corsican mountains with glorious views overlooking the granite peaks of the Alta-Rocca, A Pignata is reputed to be the best restaurant on the island, favoured by pop stars and politicians who arrive by helicopter. The menu is fixed price and consists of traditional dishes, 5 of them for €40 and may consist of dishes of beans, cannelloni with local Brocciu cheese, charcuterie and desert. The portions are generous and come in rustic sharing dishes or platters, all entirely consistent with the setting. The meat is fabulous, a mixture of dried hams and sliced sausage, the Copa, Lonzu and Saucison are all worth the price of entry alone. Drink a bottle of locally produced wine, Propriano's Domaine Fiumiccicoli makes a great reasonably priced red, and you'll be in for a stomach stretching treat. 

Ottolenghi's flavour complex

Open for nearly a year now Nopi is the west end, all day restaurant opened by acclaimed flavour master Yotam Ottolenghi. A bright white space upstairs with a vast kitchen table and a view in to said kitchen in the basement, Nopi's decor is perhaps best enjoyed when the light is low. However the food offers fascinating and complex flavours at any time of day. Take the Roasted Pumpkin Tart with Rainbow Chard, it sounds dull but the blend of flavours, sharp then sweet and drizzled with truffle oil to add a little buzz of complexity was quite stunning.

The dishes are small designed for sharing, as is the modern way, but it gives you an excuse to try multiple plates where a regular meal wouldn't allow you. There are lots of names on the menu you won't find in so the Chargrilled Octopus with Salmorejo sauce and Morcilla is a plate of tenderly cooked seafood in a light tomato and garlic sauce with a delicate black pudding, not a combination you'd expect but a beautiful whole.
Theres a lot on the menu that deserves tasting including Barramundi with Salsify, Rabbit Pastilla and a delightful selection of puddings, plus a well priced and carefully chosen wine and cocktail list. If it's seasonal, imaginative breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner that you're after in 2012, then Nopi has to be high on the list.

In search of Pernod and Black

Back in the late 1970's it was part of unwritten pub lore that if you were underage you'd be served provided you kept quiet with your little gang of mates in the corner and didn't cause any trouble. This is when I first went to the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, between the ages of 16 and 18, a couple of pints of Hofmeister (whatever happened to that?), a packet of scampi fries, a pernod & black and a couple of No6 fags to round the night off, before wobbling home on my bike. An excellent teenage night out.

Since then the Hand & Flowers has gone up market and while I'm sure they would have provided a pernod & black if asked I think they may have frowned on the scampi fries! Now the possessor of two Michelin stars and the AA restaurant of the year 2011/12 it packs a big reputation embodied in chef patron Tom Kerridge, who's profile is rising all the time (hence he's hardly ever in the kitchen which is now run by Aaron Mulliss).

Still possessing the feel of a converted pub rather than purpose built restaurant and serving cask ales, it is the well priced seasonal menu that keeps a loyal customer base returning and booking well in advance essential. Crispy pigs head with artichokes, crackling and pancetta is a wonderful little starter. A crumbed "fish finger" of rich, deeply satisfying meat that lingers in the mouth, shows remarkable skill and patience. Simple things are done well too such as salty whitebait served in a paper cone with homemade tartar sauce.

Described by knowledgable and friendly waiting staff as an upside down toffee apple, the Essex Lamb Bun oozes slow cooked lamb shank and sweetbreads wrapped in a pastry bun, placed on the plate with the bone pointing upwards, it's novel, attractive and most importantly bursting with rich flavours. Duck breast comes slow cooked, which renders away the fat but is still moist and matched by some crisp, fat chips cooked in duck fat. A serving of salt baked potatoes for two arrives in its own bread container which you have to knock the top off to get at the steaming potatoes within. An excellent cheese board with homemade grape chutney complements the rustic simplicity of the meal. 

What surprises me is that the Hand & Flowers has 2 stars. It is lovely, the food and staff are excellent, even exceptional, however it doesn't have the fancy flourishes that you normally associate with Michelin dining. I think that's probably a good thing but I would love to know how the judges make their decisions.

The Pre-Theatre Menu

Us provincials don't get up to the big city that much, so when we do it's good to have something nice to eat. However with theatres starting their shows just at the time you should be tucking into a mighty fine dinner, and what with us having to catch a train so we can't eat later, the Pre-theatre menu comes into its own. It works for the restaurant too filling in that dead space after lunch so that when dinner clientele arrive there's already a buzz in the restaurant.

Of course the menu is limited but if you try somewhere like a Arbutus in Soho, they make a proper effort and don't treat you like a second class citizen. Try the exquisite warm porchetta, thinly sliced, infused with sage, it's a generous portion of melt in the mouth pork. Pheasant pappardelle and a rich bitter chocolate mouse arrive swiftly but there is no rush to turn the table, and at £18.95 for three simple but well put together courses  it's a great option.

8 September 2011

Glitterball in the Forest 
End of the Road Festival has grown up but still enchants 
Deep among the undulating Quantock Hills, difficult to find and obscure of music lies the last festival of the summer. End of the Road at Larmer Tree Gardens has been thrilling hardy festival goers since 2006 when its free spirit and exclusivly non commercial attitude excited a group of music fans exhausted by the mega-fest of Glastonbury, disappointed by the mainstream festivals or new to the whole festival thrill.

Gruff Rhys shows his appreciation
As someone falling into the last category it was exciting to find a festival restricted to relatively small numbers (about 5,000 at the first one), with good food & beer options and the sort of bands that appealed to my left-field mindset. Richard Hawley, British Sea Power, Brakes, Josh Ritter, Howe Gelb, Guillemots, and I'm From Barcelona were amongst the eclectic mix at that first EOTR, none of them liable to crack the charts any time soon, but all of them quietly fantastic.

And so six years on the festival has grown, over the years we have seen other thrilling acts, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Super Furry Animals, Calexico, King Creosote, Seasick Steve, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, Conor Oberst, The Felice Brothers, plus the wierd such as Bob Log III and the hauntingly lovely The Low Anthem, Lanterns on the Lake, The Accidental, Bon Iver, The Unthanks and yet more Richard Hawley.

This year a lot has changed, with a new stage where toilets, showers and tents once stood, a different entrance, rejigged car parks and a new comedy stage deep in the woods. With it have come more people, there must be over 12,000 now and it shows in the way that everything is just a little more crowded. I'm not complaining however, it's still a wonderful festival, free of commercialism and with some wonderful touches.

Tony Law lets the kids take charge on the
Comedy Stage in the woods
That comedy stage is a tiny, permanent, wooden and canvas structure, halway down a hill open to the elements, in the forest. At last all the people who want to see the performers can, perched on straw bales or sitting on the leaf litter. Joanna Neary's neurotic, illustrated explanation of how to spice up the marriage bed was beautifully acted while Tony Law's willingness to have his set overrun by tiny children wanting to sing nursery rhymes was brilliant, as he ran with the moment. The Balconettes comic songs had great punch lines while Phil Kay's long, scatalogical, improv, folk was a real tour de force.

Grooving at the Secret Disco
Talking of fun in the forest, out past the Healing Fields and Dish Cafe is the Secret Disco. I'd tell you more but I really dont want to encourage more people to go. But if you can imagine DJ's perched in a wooden boat playing soul, R&B, indie-pop and boogie woogie hits while a grinning crowd dances on a small stage under a deep green, illuminated, forest canopy, complete with glitter ball you get the idea.

Food plays an important part in the festival experience and again EOTR has it right, there is nothing overly branded or brash. Many of the vendors are local, mostly using organic produce. The one disappointment this year was Pie Minister who had run out of Matador (beef, chorizo, olives, butter beans & sherry) pies by 5pm on Friday (despite my Tweeted requests before and during the festival). I was looking forward to that nearly as much as I was to seeing Midlake!

Foody find of the festival was The Story, smoked pork and beef platters, warm and tender, packed with flavour, just right for a chilly evening. A special mention too for The Tea Stop and their double decker bus, great toasties and real china.

Midlake concentrate hard on growing
their beards
So what of this year's crop of bands. Beards as ever played a prominant role for those on stage, especially amongst the men. Midlake were the beardy beauties of Sunday evening, thankfully ditching the two flute attack from earlier in the year for a more festival friendly, almost Neil Young, guitar heavy approach amidst the harmonies and tales of the dark woods. The Fall showed that sticking single mindedly to what you do best and ignoring the audience while relying on a pounding beat with incomprehnsible vocals is as exciting as ever. Lykie Li should be a big star: Adam & the Ants driving, heavy drums, goth outfits, Siouxsie vocals and soaring choruses with looks to die for make a wonderful live show. Gruff Rhys helped the sun come out on Saturday afternoon. Laura Marling benefitted from a full band, bringing her glorious voice alive, while Okkervil River played an unexpectedly full-on country rock show.

Find of the festival were Megafaun, rootsy, harmonies, humour and musicianship, just the thing for a Sunday afternoon at the Garden stage. While Lanterns on the Lake shimmered with their dream pop cross between Mazy Star and The Cocteau Twins and Beth Jeans-Houghton's mellow voice belied her funny, acerbic lyrics.

But its not all about the music at EOTR, its the attitude of all the festival goers, chilled, relaxed, happy and tolerant. It's the 3 year old's in Half Man Half Biscuit T-shirts, the Somerset Cider Bus, the views over the hills, the peacocks and Victorian folley's, the elderly couple rocking out to Brakes and the gentle sound of rain on the canvas of your tent to accompany the pluck of  Joanna Newsom's  harp.

30 August 2011

du Vin Value Meal

Hotel du Vin Bistro offers good value with its £35 Food for thought deal for two

Exhausted from a weekend of entertaining and cooking for guests, the Henley Henley Hotel du Vin's offer of £35 for 2 courses, including a bottle of wine and coffee for two people seemed like a great option for dinner.

Henley on Thames now has numerous cafe's, bars and restaurants most of which offer some kind of deal during the week. Pizza Express, Zizzi, Cafe Rouge, Brasserie Gerard, all the chains are working hard to build and retain custom. Hotel du Vin is no different in many ways, however it does provide a much nicer ambience and sophisticated atmosphere in its Henley Bistro, while the food in the limited Food For Thought menu is mainly a cut above the average.

In a surprisingly full dining room for a Bank Holiday Monday evening, service was still attentive, though slightly unctious from the sommelier, despite our choice of the 'deal' option. This restricted menu with four starters, mains and puddings still has a nice range including Vichssoise and Moule Marineres as starters and Onglet Steak and Risotto amongst the mains.

My Chicken Liver Salad had soft, tender livers with a light balsamic sauce while the Smoked Mackrel Tian and Potato Salad was very rich, packing a proper fishy punch. A main of Grilled Hake with Curly Kale was overcooked and lacked any sauce, making it dry and bland, though the application of lemon juice helped. It's vapid smear of something brown and sauce like on the plate wasnt enough. A good, simple butter and lemon sauce and properly cooked fish would have improved the dish out of all proportion. On the other hand Sausage and Mash boasted two fat herb filled pork bangers with creamy mash and a rich gravy that barely touched the sides.

The House Merlot was perfectly palatable and despite some confusion over a side dish of Green Beans that were replaced, unasked for by Brocolli (any one who knows me would know that I would never ask for Brocolli) and an espresso that apparently isn't the coffee they mean when they say coffee included, it all represents great value for money, especially in comparison to Pizza Express, Zizzi and the others, where the wine can be both poor and expensive, even in the meal deals.

New Riverfront Cafe
The old Henley Tea Rooms, on the riverside in Henley has been taken over and transformed into The Chocolate Theatre Cafe. A picture window into the kitchen is supposed to provide a view onto the chocolate making process while pale green decor, a few comfortable sofas and chairs plus a plethora of cafe tables, make it a comfortable and friendly room. More expensive for coffee and a pastry than Cafe Nero with coffee not as rich and well presented as Hot Gossip in Friday St. nevertheless it is a welcoming place to be. I'll pop in again for lunch one day and report back.