There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 26 July 2010

Abergavenny and The Walnut Tree

Wedding anniversary dinners have become a tradition over the last few years, and this year we went to Abergavenny to celebrate our 35th. 35th? Surely that can’t be right - but it is. Where did all those years go?
Abergavenney Castle

It’s a pleasant, prosperous looking little town, Abergavenny. It has a castle and a museum, water meadows where we strolled in sunshine beside the tumbling River Usk, an ancient church and an 11th century Tithe Barn containing a 21st century café and exhibition. And it’s full of people who welcome you and tell you things you never knew you wanted to know but are actually quite interesting.

Abergavenney Tithe Barn
We visited on the wrong day for the market, but the town has long had a foodie reputation, and the first and foremost reason for that, and for our visit, is The Walnut Tree restaurant a few miles away in the hamlet of Llanddewi Skirrid.

Opened in 1963 by Franco and Ann Taruschio, The Walnut Tree was once a beacon in an era of gastronomic darkness. They maintained the highest of standards for over thirty years, but after their retirement the restaurant fell on hard times. It eventually closed in 2007 despite, or maybe because of, featuring in the first of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant rescue series. It reopened in 2008 and Shaun Hill, who held a Michelin star at the Merchant House in Ludlow, has returned the restaurant to its former glory and to Michelin star status.

The Walnut Tree, Llandewi Skirrid near Abergavenney

Restaurant reviews traditionally start with the décor. That’s not my interest, but I did notice that we sat in a rustic style bar for our pre-prandial Pernod before going through to a restaurant which was much bigger inside than it appeared from the outside. Not all the twenty four tables were full on the day of our visit

Tinned tongue used to be a Saturday lunch regular in my youth, but I haven't seen it for years. Lynne’s starter of poached tongue bore only a slight resemblance to the Sixties stand-by. Thin slices of tongue surrounded a salad of rocket and green beans like the petals of a flower. Such soft and exquisite meat with a fine, delicate flavour required, and got, a salad with a gentle and unemphatic dressing. It seems a shame that tongue is so rarely available in supermarkets.

My monkfish sat on what the menu called a tomato, ginger and chilli sauce, though it was actually half way between a sauce and a salsa. If the tail was char grilled to perfection, the deceptively simple sauce was possessed of magical properties. At first it seemed merely tomato, then the ginger emerged, growing gently to dominance before finally the chilli ran a little dance round the edge. Another forkful was required to see if it happened again. I could quibble by saying a sauce should accompany the fish, not vice versa, but it was too good to bother with such trifles.

Sadly, Lynne's main course sole was also char grilled, and what may be appropriate for a robust monkfish was far less suitable for a delicate sole. It was over cooked and over-charred. A complaint brought an offer of an alternative main course (but by then it was already eaten and the human stomach is finite) but no apology and no visitation from the chef to discuss the issue.

I had rack of lamb on a casserole of spring vegetables. The tender, pink chops were from the youngest of lambs and provided texture, while the lamb breast in what was really a cawl beneath provided as much sheepy flavour as anyone could want. The spring vegetables, even the remarkably earthy potatoes, were packed with flavour and freshness.

We took a rest for digestion and to finish our wine. With the mix of fish and meat we had required two half bottles, thus effectively reducing the vast wine list to about a dozen choices. For the white we chose a Chardonnay from the Ste Michelle winery in Washington (the west coast state, not the east coast capital city), the red was a Gigondas from a well know producer. I ordered the Chardonnay with trepidation; during our time in Washington we learned that the locals had no great regard for their state's oldest and largest producer. But that was twenty five years ago, this unoaked chardonnay was light bodied but had varietal character, good acidity and a pleasing dryness. The Gigondas, though, was disappointing. I always look at the appellation and the bottler, but need to remember to check out the vintage; I am sure this will open up in a few years and be a fine wine, but it was too young, too dark and too closed to live up to expectations.

Lynne’s dessert involved intensely flavoured redcurrant and blackcurrant sorbets presented in a brandy snap basket. I had Bakewell tart with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. When I was little and holidays meant two weeks with my grandmother in Porthcawl, a visit to Borza's ice-cream parlour was a special treat. Their ice-cream was like nothing else I had tasted and I used to spend weeks anticipating the visit. The secret, I know now, was real vanilla; while the rest of the world used vanilla as a synonym for 'plain', Borza's treated it with respect. Borza's is long gone from Porthcawl and many of the Borza clan now lie beneath a modest mausoleum in the municipal cemetery (just across the path from my grandmother). This scoop of vanilla ice-cream took me back to my childhood and was undoubtedly the best I have eaten for fifty years. The Bakewell tart became something of a sideshow, so its amazing lightness was almost unappreciated, and its lack of jammy/marzipanny flavours somewhat overlooked. I drank an Austrian Beerenauslese with the Bakewell tart which was, in its very different way, as sweet, subtle and wonderful as the ice-cream.

Overall, four and three quarter wonderful dishes out of six, is not bad, but the amuse-bouche were no more than a tiny cheesy biscuit and the limp cherry hiding in the petit fours was disappointingly slimy. The meal was touched with greatness, as it should be in any Michelin starred restaurant, but there were faults, too. Maybe we were unlucky on the day, but we have eaten better at this price elsewhere.