Thursday 25 July 2013

The Walnut Tree - Abergavenny

So, I finally got to eat at The Walnut Tree last week, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for bloody ages. Located just outside Abergavenny, (in Wales in case your geography is as shit as mine) it’s long been regarded as somewhere a bit special.

‘Special how?’ I imagine you spitting at your screen in an agitated manner.

Well, let me furnish you with some restaurant history that’ll explain what’s what.
It doesn’t really matter what happened at the place before 1963, when Ann and Franco Taruschio took over. For the next 37 years, under their care The Walnut Tree became one of the most highly regarded places to eat in Britain, a favourite of Elizabeth David no less. If you’d been lucky enough to eat a meal there, cooked by Franco, it would almost certainly be a highly prized memory.

Ann and Franco sold The Walnut Tree in 2001, and the restaurant had a couple of owners in the proceeding years but it wouldn’t be till 2007 for it’s legendary reputation and fortunes to be finally restored by Chef Shaun Hill, the current owner and something of a legend himself.

Having begun his career under Robert Carrier (how many legends are involved in this frigging thing?), he went on to get a Michelin star at Gidleigh Park. But where I first heard of him was when I first really started becoming interested in food. Then, the restaurant everyone seemed to be talking about was Shaun Hill’s, The Merchant House in Ludlow, which was once voted the 14th best restaurant in the world.

So, acclaimed restaurant meets acclaimed chef. Here ends the history bit.

Believe or not, Abergavenny is no more than an hour from Bristol. It’s incredibly easy to get to on the train and once there, The Walnut Tree is an £8 cab ride from the station. Being from Essex, I still can’t quite get my head round how close Wales is.

I had an early lunch booked and service hadn’t quite kicked off as I walked in. I spied Shaun Hill standing near the bar. Elly and I ordered G&T’s and the man himself complimented us on our choice of drink before heading into the kitchen. I am not worthy and all that.
As the weather is suitably scorchio right now, furnace Britain etc, we sat outside to finish our drinks. Amuse in the form of delicate little ├ęclairs filled with salmon and cream cheese with pickled cucumber were brought out. Perfect for a hot day.

I’m going to get this out of the way. If you’re ordering a la carte, I reckon The Walnut Tree is pretty bloody expensive and I speak as someone who doesn’t mind throwing a bit of moolah at a meal. The average price of a starter is around the £12 mark and a main £23. Throw in £8 for a dessert, bit of wine and a tip and it soon adds up. But, happily there’s a really good value three course set lunch menu at £27.50 and you are having your food cooked by a culinary God, so I’ll pack it in with the complaining but consider yourself warned.
Now seated in the main dining room we picked at some rather superb bread, served with unsalted butter, which I just don’t get, I want salted, godammit. I still ate it though and it was lovely.
Elly’s starter of lobster with sweetcorn and chilli looked absolutely belting, no fiddling with claws and what not, this was just the good stuff, big chunks of meat. I tried a bit and it was lovely.
My quail, bacon grapes and verjuice (unripe grape juice) was phenomenal. The quail, normally pretty fiddly to eat, had been butterflied and de-boned. The whole thing was so beautifully balanced, the sweetness of the grapes, saltiness of the bacon, the sharp acidity of the verjuice sauce and the bitter accompanying chicory leaves. It was without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I even mopped up all the juices with some bread, the plate went back so clean they could have reused it straightaway.
Elly, having decided to slum it after her lobster starter, had ordered turbot with spiced cauliflower and chermoula. For her, this was the highlight of the meal, a real treat and beautifully cooked.
Meanwhile, I was eating rib-eye of beef with braised chicory and salsa verde (well someone has to). A massive plate of food, and I couldn’t have been happier. Beautiful meat, medium rare and a nice sharp salsa verde. Perfect.
Accompanying this were dauphine potatoes, which were pretty damn nice but being a greedy bastard, I’d also ordered jabron potatoes as an extra side dish (I'd seen them featured on Simon Hopkinson's latest TV program, last week) and I really only had eyes for these. Let me just tell you now, jabron potatoes are frigging epic. Cooked potato chunks, baked with cream, garlic and cheese. Definitely as beautiful as it sounds.
Finally, something so simple but so elegant and well made, both of us were gobsmacked. Accompanying Elly's turbot was a small plate of tomato and red onion salad dressed and sprinkled with (we think) chervil. It was topped with green beans in a light tempura batter and it was just ridiculously good. It's a combination that neither of us had seen or tried before. 

Onto desserts and Elly’s berry brulee was a bit workmanlike and unphotogenic, so I didn’t bother taking a photo. She also reckons she’d prefer it to be set a little more. Nevertheless it was still delicious, apparently. I didn’t get a look in.
I’d ordered chocolate marjolaine, a classic French layered dessert (I didn’t know this at the time, in fact I’d never heard of it before). It was nice, probably not £8 nice, but good.

Neither of the desserts we ate really lived up to previous courses, but I’m not complaining. Lunch at The Walnut Tree was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had anywhere, really special. The service was spot on, not too formal, pitched just right. The food was just beautiful and it tasted phenomenal. Expensive? Yep. Worth it? Yep.

At the end of the day, you’re eating food cooked by Shaun Hill and I’d say it’s every bit as good as what that promises.

The Walnut Tree

Llanddewi Skirrid,
NP7 8AW.

Telephone: 01873 852797

Thursday 18 July 2013

New Potatoes - To peel or not to peel?

By virtue alone of the sheer volume of potatoes I’ve consumed in my lifetime, I consider myself something of an expert on spuds and the preparation and cookery, thereof. So, consider if you will my rapt attention whilst watching Simon Hopkinson prepare buttered new potatoes on his new TV program last week (yes, my Hoppy fixation rears its ugly head once again). He cooked them, OK, yes. But then…he peeled them.

This is something new to me, I mean, I realise you can peel cooked new potatoes but it’s such an utter frigging ballache to do, and the skins are supposedly so healthy and supposedly full of life enhancing nutrients that make your wanger strong or sumfink, so why bother? I’ve always been an unrepentant subscriber to the boil em, drain em, season em and whop a lump of butter to melt on them school.

Yet, Hopkinson’s bare spuds (steady) slowly cooked off in melted butter until glossy had me in a hypnotic daze with my tongue practically brushing my toes within seconds of appearing on the screen.

Hopkinson himself had nothing but utter contempt for the skins

“Now, would you want these little, leathery jackets on your potatoes when you could have them like that? My answer is No. Never. It’s worth all the effort, such as it is”

Which definitely reinforced my dawning realisation that I don’t actually know how to prepare new potatoes at all.

So, what to do but educate myself by cooking some spuds immediately, peeling those bad boys and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Of course, I’m sure you know how to boil some potatoes, but bear with me and I’ll remind you anyway, in case you’ve errr…somehow forgotten.

Hoppy prefers Pink Fir Apple potatoes. I used Jersey Royals, four per person.
Put em in a pan, cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt and bring to the boil, for 10-12 minutes until tender.
Peel your potatoes whilst hot, this is apparently ‘easier’. I still found it maddening but ‘deep breath’.
Return your beautifully peeled potatoes to a pan, with a knob of butter and move around on a low heat until your spuds are nice and glossy. Season with salt and pepper, and then eat.

The result?
How could I ever doubt you Hoppy?
Buttery, perfect potatoes and on the plus side, no hidden manky bits lurking beneath the skin (my personal horror).

Consider me converted.
Definitely peel em.

Sunday 7 July 2013

An English Lettuce Salad

When I was a kid, we used to spend a fair bit of time at my Nan and Granddad’s house in East London. Quite often, if a lot of family were around, there would be some kind of buffet dinner going on. Often a component of this would be a classic English lettuce salad. The assembled adults all seemed to love it. I on the other hand thought it was disgusting. Whiffy hard-boiled eggs, the yolks lined with an unappetising grey ring; eye watering peppery radishes, rasping raw spring onion and just salad in general. Utterly minging. I just didn’t get it. I’d rather have eaten chips and baked beans.

Fast-forward 30 years. A bit older, a bit less finicky and a just a tad less imbecilic, flicking through ‘Second Helpings of Roast Chicken’ by Simon Hopkinson, a recipe for the exact same horror salad of my youth leapt from the page. Instead of retching and scurrying to the kitchen to find comfort in chips and a tin of beans, I was intrigued. It’s a British classic.

The upshot of all this waffling is, I made the salad and as well as being bloody delicious, it confirmed a few truths. First, once again, Simon Hopkinson is a God. Secondly, my Grandparents knew how to put together a salad; I was just too unsophisticated in my tastes to appreciate it. Soz. Finally, homemade salad-cream is absolutely banging, seriously good.

I’ve copied Simon Hopkinson’s recipe out verbatim below, but have a few points of my own to make.

The unappetising grey rings around a yolk are the result of not cooling down your hard-boiled ouefs in cold water. Do that and they won't materialise.

Six hearts of lettuce seems a bit much, I used three and that was plenty for four portions.

The mint really adds something, so I'd say stick a fair bit in, more than a 'few leaves' anyway.

Tarragon vinegar, you’ve either got it stocked locally or you haven’t. If not, stick some tarragon in a bottle of white wine vinegar, et voila, job-jobbed. Even if it’s only a couple of hours before you want to use it, that’ll work.

The salad cream I made, maddeningly split, I was whisking by hand, I couldn’t be arsed to get the blender out, resulting in me breaking out an impromptu, Basil Fawlty ranting impression. If you’ve got a blender, I suggest you employ that. If it does split, add a little sunflower/vegetable oil, a trickle at a time and blitz it, then add a bit more, blitz , repeat, etc. It should eventually re-emulsify and come together again. Sighs, relieved grins and hearty backslaps all round then.

Lastly, I love how Hoppy advises to use your good taste when arranging the salad on a plate. If you’re unfortunate enough to have none, then don’t panic, the finished article may indeed look like a frigging (strangely vegetarian) dog’s dinner, but it’ll still taste amazing anyway.
An English lettuce salad

Serves 4

You’ll need:
6 hard-boiled eggs, separated: the yolks sieved into a bowl, the whites coarsely chopped to add to the salad.

For the salad cream:
2 tsp sugar
salt and cayenne pepper
2 Tsp dry English mustard
1 ½ Tbsp tarragon vinegar
300ml whipping cream
1 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh tarragon

For the salad:
6 hearts of very fresh round lettuces, separated into leaves, washed and dried.
12 thin, fresh spring onions, trimmed and sliced into 3cm lengths
12 radishes, washed, halved and put into ice-cold water for 30mins, to crisp up
½ a cucumber, peeled and not too thinly sliced
a few leaves of mint, torn to shreds.

To make the dressing, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, seasoning, mustard and vinegar. Add the cream and tarragon and mix thoroughly.

Arrange the ingredients for the salad in a large shallow dish, employing good taste the while, so achieving as a natural a look as possible. Sprinkle over the chopped egg whites and then spoon over the cream dressing in dribbles and swirls.

Serve straight away.