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…..

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Checkers, Montgomery: Dining with the Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, the previous one for Montgomery, this one for The Checkers.

Montgomery, the former county town of a former county
The Checkers is owned by the self-described 'Frenchman and two farmer's daughters.'

Agen born Stéphane Borie, previously worked at the Waterside Inn in Bray under Michel Roux Snr, where he met his partner, pastry chef Sarah Francis, the daughter of a Shropshire farmer. In 2008 they acquired the Herbert Arms in Chirbury, and were joined by Sarah’s sister Kathryn working front of house. In 2011 the family team crossed the Welsh border to The Checkers in Montgomery (a distance of three miles), won a Michelin star within the year and have maintained it ever since.

Sarah, Kathryn and Stéphane
(Picture stolen from their own website)
The 17th century inn is in Broad Street, effectively Montgomery’s main square. Next door is the Montgomery Fish Bar, which is how an advertisement for Pukka Pies comes to stand outside a Michelin starred restaurant.

The Checkers, Broad Street, Montgomery
Like many of Montgomery’s old buildings, an unassuming exterior hides a surprisingly large interior. We checked in and were shown to our room on the first floor.

At 7.15, as instructed, we presented ourselves in the lounge for drinks, canapés and perusal of the menu. The latter took very little time as all diners get the same six course set menu (variations are possible if coeliac sufferers, vegans, pescatarians and fussy buggers identify themselves when booking). Each course is served at the same time to all tables. The only choice was whether to go with their recommended wines and, as no single bottle could suit the whole menu, we did.

Lynne ordered a gin and tonic and after a recent drowning incident requested the tonic be brought separately. The request was unnecessary, this practice is routine at The Checkers and I applaud them for it. My dry martini was good too, perhaps because I have returned to specifying Tanqueray, rather than trying out yet another new wave gin.

Canapés consisted of Roquefort cream on a parmesan biscuit, and ballotine of duck topped with pear chutney. The cream was exquisite, the biscuit delightful if structurally suspect and shameless finger licking was required after its collapse. The duck was well flavoured, though Lynne was unsure the pear chutney made an ideal accompaniment.

Ballotine of duck and parmesan biscuits with Roquefort cream
We moved from lounge to dining room
Just a part of the spacious dining room, The Checkers, Montgomery
The first course was an amuse-bouche sized Smoked Tomato Velouté with Goat’s Cheese Cream and Dried Olives. The velouté was rich and deep if not very smoky and the goat’s cream cheese a perfect complement though I was unsure of the point of the, almost flavourless, specks of dried olive. At the bottom was a little peeled fruit. ‘A grape’, I suggested tentatively, mainly on size – obviously not, it was a tiny cherry tomato (I think).

Tio Pepe sherry would have made an interesting accompaniment but ours tasted musty, so we sent it back, asking them to open a fresh bottle. Our complaint bought a visit from Kathryn with an apology and the information that they had no other bottle of Tio Pepe (really?) or any other comparably dry sherry. After a little discussion, we settled for a glass of Sancerre, which was pleasant but lacked the weight the sherry would have bought to the combination.

Being ludicrously over-privileged, this was our second Michelin starred meal this month. A fortnight ago at Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth I wondered why bread is routinely served at this juncture. In France good, ordinary bread is always on the table, some often eaten with the first course, occasionally more with the second. British bread does a different job, but restaurants have an atavistic need to ‘put bread on the table’; fine restaurants scratch this itch with specialist breads. The Checkers, offering modern and classic French cuisine to a largely British clientele, compromises by serving a French quantity of British speciality breads. If there was a danger of us going hungry this would be brilliant, but there wasn’t, so although it was excellent bread (we nibbled!) we had no real use for it. A stated aim of the ‘one menu for all' policy is to cut food waste, so what do they do with the surplus bread?
A platter of wonderful bread - for which we sadly had little use
The Checkers, Montgomery
Salmon is out of fashion with the chef fraternity (quite rightly, in Lynne’s opinion) so seeing Rotolo of Confit Salmon with Red Peppers and Basil Dressing on the menu was mildly surprising. A Rotolo (I had to look it up) is a pasta sheet wrapped round a cylinder of something, a sort of non-planar lasagne. Neither of us thought it did the salmon any favours, but I at least found the cube of salmon with the crispest possible skin very much to my taste. Neither the fragments of red pepper, nor the basil dressing contributed much and the little blobs of what look like tomato ketchup might have been better if they were.

Rotolo of confit salmon with red peppers and basil dressing, The Checkers, Montgomery
The rotolo (left) was standing on end before I started messing with it.
The Domaine Rougie Viognier was exactly the same wine James Sommerin selected for his beetroot dish. A Vin de Pays d’Oc, it is far classier than its ranking but unfortunately I am not a Viognier fan.

Passion fruit, lime and ginger granite was a tiny bowl of deliciousness, the passion fruit cream topping a prelude to the well flavoured granite below, where sharp lime and fresh ginger cleansed and freshened the palate. One of our neighbours found the lime over-acidic, another the ginger too aggressive (people speak louder when tables are well separated) but we thought it close to perfection.

Lynne with the small, but perfectly formed granite,
The Checkers, Montgomery

Although James Sommerin’s six course tasting menu consisted of half a dozen equally sized courses, I could not resist calling the guinea fowl the ‘main course’. The Checkers offered a ‘six course set menu’ rather than a ‘tasting menu’ with no suggestion the courses were of equal size or importance, the velouté and granite had been miniscule, Trio of Neuadd Fach pork, pomme fondant, artichoke and braising juice was a true main course, indeed a mighty meaty platter.

Trio of Neuadd Fach Pork, fondant potato and artichoke

Lynne has a strange prejudice against fondant potatoes, but cooked to perfection, soaked through with butter and braising juices I thought this humble spud was almost sublime. I was less impressed with the artichoke, both heart and purée, because I am less impressed by artichokes. James Sommerin gave us artichoke too; although ‘vegetable of the moment’ they taste of little and have an unappealing texture – I will be happy when the fashion changes. The (uncredited) asparagus, however was a delight, gently cooked and full of flavour.

I have left the best to last. Neuadd Fach Baconry in nearby Llandinam is a small-scale producer of high quality pork products and Stéphane Borie’s sympathetic treatment produced a plate of piggy heaven, the braised meat richly porky, the sumptuous belly pork crowned with the finest crackling. The black pudding completing the trio was at the soft, herby end of the black pudding spectrum, not my favourite, but a good example of the style.

A softish Fleurie should be a perfect partner, La Madone is the best vineyard in the village and Gilbert Chadunet is a respected producer, so why, then can I hardly remember the wine? Seduced by a surfeit of swine I must have lost concentration.

Dark chocolate and raspberry cardinal with vanilla ice cream, was as pretty a dessert as one could want. The cardinal was lovely – dark chocolate and raspberry as advertised - though I am unsure what makes it a ‘cardinal’, presumably not the pope. I love vanilla ice cream, that is ice cream tasting of vanilla not ‘vanilla’ as a synonym for ‘plain’. This was very sweet, but had little vanilla flavour, which was disappointing.
Raspberry and dark chocolate cardinal with vanilla ice cream

Toro Albalá’s 1986 Dom PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva is something else. Not so long ago Montilla was sold as a cheap alternative to sherry; it was never anything like this. Almost black and thick enough to coat your palate – if not quite stand a spoon in – its sweetness and intense flavour of figs and liquorice lingered for ever. I could not drink much of this – nor could I afford to, it is appropriately expensive – but a small glass is a big privilege.

Lynne, the dessert and a glass of PX
In another of the Frenchman’s compromises with British preferences ‘A Selection of Cheeses’ was the final course. It is tempting to compare his cheese board with James Sommerin's, who being Welsh has no difficulty in doing things the French way and putting cheese before dessert (or, in his case, desserts). Sadly, there was no comparison; instead of selecting from 32 cheeses we were presented with three. This accords admirably with the policy of minimising food waste, but the cheeses could have been more adventurously chosen. Roquefort, once a treat is now a commonplace, though theirs, cut from a large wedge, avoided the sliminess of much supermarket Roquefort. Vignotte is more unusual, but hardly unknown and despite its triple-cream sumptuousness fails to excite. The smoked cheddar should have stayed at the wholesalers. No complaints, though about the glass of Churchill Graham  2012 LBV port, the third fortified wine of the meal - but so what?

Selection of Cheeses, The Checkers, Montgomery
I had coffee and we shared the petit fours, and that was the end. As at James Sommerin I eschewed a digestif; this is either wisdom, or lack of staying power, either way it is a function of age.

After 42 years of marriage this was our 13th anniversary meal and the 8th to be recorded on this blog. It was very good, but not the greatest; the first Michelin starred meal I ate so blew me away I thought it perfection, these days I have become picky.

'Fine Dining' posts

Montgomery: Punching above its Weight

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, this one for Montgomery, the next for The Checkers.

The Historical Counties of Wales
Montgomery, only just in Wales and the former county town of a former county

Our visit to the Welsh Marches did not start well, but by Welshpool the sky had a few blue patches and the rain was no longer continuous. South of the town I swung confidently into Glansevern Gardens only to discover they were closed. Their website clearly says the gardens will be closed for 2017, but I missed it. Ah well, next time.
Instead we headed straight for Montgomery only to meet a ‘road closed’ sign. A diversion onto single track roads, including a do-it-yourself level crossing, brought us into Montgomery at The Cottage, the visitor centre for Monty’s Brewery. Things were starting to look up.
Lynne outside The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre
Inside we met Pam Honeyman, the head brewer who founded Monty’s in 2008 with her husband Russ, the commercial director. She left for the brewery a mile down the road while a charming and knowledgeable young lady talked us through the beers and sold us three ⅓ of a pint tasting glasses each.

Talking us through the beers while pulling a ⅓ of Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Cascade hops give Monty’s Sunshine (4.2%) floral and citrus aromas. It is a very good beer and (for my taste) a little more bitterness would make it a great beer. Monty’s Pale Ale (4.0%), lighter in colour, alcohol and flavour is, at first sip, a tad underwhelming, but it grew on me. Old Jailhouse is a darker, maltier brew and at 3.9% as good a session beer as you will find.
Left to right, Sunshine, Pale Ale and Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Lynne’s trio consisted of Sunshine, Pale Ale and Best Offa. Best Offa (4.0%) is a clever name and each pint triggers a donation to the upkeep of the Offa’s Dyke footpath, which passes a mile or so east of Montgomery but, for me the fine balance of hop and malt left it short of personality.
Lynne with Sunshine, Pale Ale and (left of picture) Best Offa
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery
Monty’s beers are interesting, individual and worth seeking out. The same cannot be said of their ‘gourmet' sausage roll, a stodgy relic of the 1970s and best avoided.
We drove into town and took the road that winds up the hill to the castle.

After 1066 William the Conqueror quickly established control over England, but having left Wales for another day he needed a strongman to guard his western flank, so in 1071 he made Roger de Montgomery* Earl of Shrewsbury.

Like the Romans before him, Montgomery realised that controlling the broad valley of the little River Camlad, which flows into the Severn at a fording point, was the key to blocking Welsh marauders from English lands. The Romans built their fort on the lowlands near the confluence, Montgomery built a wooden motte and baily castle on high ground overlooking the valley. When Roger de Montgomery died in 1094 the castle soon passed to Baldwin de Boulers whose family held it for the next hundred years.

The route into England. The River Camlad flowing along the far side of the valley (aka the Vale of Montgomery) marks the English border
The town that grew below the castle became known as ‘Montgomery’ in English and ‘Trefaldwyn’ (Baldwin’s Town) in Welsh.

The weakness of King John encouraged Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd to flex his muscles, and he destroyed the castle in 1215.

John died the next year and his son, Henry III, became king at the age of 9. With a boy king to the east and a clever and ambitious Welshman to the west a stone castle seemed a good idea. Architect Hugh de Burgh chose a new site, a prominent outcrop immediately above the town, which by 1227 had become important enough to receive a Royal Charter. In 1228 the inner ward was completed and another attack by Llewelyn was repulsed, but for more security, middle and outer wards were added. By 1233 Llewelyn had established himself as the first ruler of a united Wales, so he had another crack at Montgomery and failed again.

The inner ward of Hugh de Burgh's Castle, Montgomery
Our visit started with a sit in the car park while large raindrops belaboured the car roof. The path to the castle, through the long gone outer ward uses the only level approach to the outcrop. The ditches, now spanned by modern bridges, made the castle impregnable to any medieval army, and a well, hacked through 25m of solid rock, meant they could hold out almost indefinitely.

A little damp and windswept, Lynne stands on the bridge between the middle and inner wards, Montgomery Castle
After treaty negotiations here in 1267 Henry III granted Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the grandson of Llewelyn ap Iowerth, the title of ‘Prince of Wales,’ though it was more a recognition of reality than a 'grant'. 15 years later an army gathered at Montgomery before marching south and killing Llewelyn ap Gruffud, the last indigenous Prince of Wales, near Builth Wells.

Montgomery Castle, the inner ward on its impregnable rocky outcrop
With Wales subdued, for a while, Montgomery castle lost its importance. In 1402 however, during the uprising of Owain Glyndŵr (who also has a claim to be ‘last indigenous Prince of Wales’) the castle was attacked, but again could not be taken. The town, though, was destroyed and remained abandoned for almost 200 years.
In the Civil War, the castle was surrendered to the Parliamentarians in 1643, and like so many other medieval castles, subsequently demolished.
From the car park a sign points up Town Hill to the Montgomeryshire War Memorial. Starting steep and overgrown the path soon reaches a larger track…
Towards the Montgomeryshire War Memorial
….which eventually leaves the woods and heads for the hill top memorial. The 6m tall Portland stone column was dedicated in 1923 to Montgomeryshire’s 1914-18 dead. It has since been re-dedicated to the victims of all wars.
The Montgomeryshire War Memorial (from this angle looking more like an industrial chimney) on the top of Town Hill
Returning to town we dropped into the Old Bell Museum. The 16th century building, which has previously been a slaughterhouse and a temperance hotel among many other things, is like the TARDIS, larger inside than it looks from the outside. Its eleven rooms are crammed with exhibitions of local history including many fascinating old photos. Local medical practices, the Cambrian Railway, the workhouse, the castles including models and artefacts from excavations and even the architecture of the building itself are all covered. Run by Montgomery Civic Society volunteers, it’s the sort of quirky local museum every self-respecting town should have, but very few do. And it only costs £1.

The Old Bell Museum, Montgomery
After looking at the old pictures we walked outside to find the town has changed remarkably little. Of its two main streets, Arthur Street has gained some parked cars, but little else..

Arthur Street, Montgomery
…retaining its timber frame buildings…
Timber framed buildings, Arthur Street, Montgomery
…and Bunner’s Hardware store which is well into its second century. Another Whovian enterprise this TARDIS stocks everything from a coffee cup to a lawn mower.
Bunner's Hardware store, Arthur Street, Montgomery
The Dragon Hotel, a 17th century coaching inn, still provides food drink and accommodation.

The Dragon Hotel, Montgomery
While Broad Street, the other main street ends at what looks like the town hall.

Broad Street, Montgomery

The Checkers is also in Broad Street and we went there next. It is the subject of the following post, so this one skips nimbly forward to ….


After an excellent breakfast – and more delicious pork products from Neuadd Fach - we walked down Broad Street, across the B4385 (the ‘main road’ through Montgomery) and up Church Bank…

Looking down Broad Street from Church Bank, Montgomery
…to St Nicholas’ Church. The photo below was taken across the town from near the castle, about the only place you can see the building in its entirety. The nave is early 13th century (c1227) and the transepts were added around 1275. A spire was added in 1543 but that was taken down and replaced by the current tower in 1816. That late addition looks wrong to me and spoils the exterior….

St Nicholas, Montgomery
…but the interior is wonderful. The western part of the nave has a 15th century hammer beam roof, visible at the top of the photograph below, while the central part has a slightly later barrel ceiling.

Hammer beam ceiling (top of picture) and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas' Church, Montgomery
The rood screen is 15th century and was brought from nearby Chirbury Priory at the dissolution of the monasteries. The ceiling beyond is part of the 1865 restoration.

Rood screen and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the South transept is an Elizabethan canopy tomb.

Elizabethan canopy tomb, St Nicholas, Montgomery
The occupant is Richard Herbert, Lord of Chirbury who died in 1596. His family were the last to hold Montgomery Castle and it was his eldest son Edward (b 1583) who surrendered the castle in the Civil War. His 7th child was the poet George Herbert while Thomas (the 10th and last) was born posthumously. The tomb also contains an effigy of his wife Magdelene, though she is not buried here. She must have been a tough lady; despite giving birth to 10 children in 14 years she survived her husband by 31 years. She remarried and is buried in Chelsea.

Richard Herbert (present) and Magdelene Herbert, née Newport, (absent)
Canopy tomb, St Nicholas', Montgomery
Beside the canopy tomb are two more tombs with heavily restored effigies.

The one with the helm is said to be another Richard Herbert who died in 1543, though the carving probably dates from earlier. The man with the flowing locks is Edmund Mortimer, who died in 1408 supporting Owain Glyndŵr at the siege of Harlech. He married Glyndŵr’s sister Catrin, while his sister Elizabeth was the wife of Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy. He features in Henry IV Part 1 as Hotspur’s brother-in-law, though Shakespeare conflates him with his nephew the Earl of March.
Richard Herbert (possibly) on the far side #, Edmund Mortimer, nearest the camera
St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the cemetery is the ‘Robber’s Grave.’ John Davies (not my father-in-law but a man of the same name) was sentenced to hang for highway robbery in 1821. Protesting his innocence, he said God would prove him guiltless by not letting grass grow on his grave for a hundred years; and so it came to pass (allegedly). There is, of course, plenty of grass on it now, except where it has been worn away by the feet of tourists. I wondered as I took the photograph if the virtuous people in the surrounding graves ever get the hump that the only one to get any visitors is the convicted felon.
The Robber's Grave, St Nicholas, Montgomery
And finally…

On our way home, having crossed the Vale of Montgomery into the Shropshire Hills we stopped at Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, or rather we stopped on the road and walked to it, a mile there and back, across an increasingly exposed and windswept moorland. And was it worth it? Of the 1,000 or so Neolithic/Bronze Age Stone Circles in Britain and Ireland, it probably ranks in the top 950, but only just. Of the original 30 stones, 15 survive, not all of them vertical. The largest stone, was once one of a pair.
Mitchell's Fold stone circle
It is difficult to appreciate what our ancestors saw in sites like this. We look down from the moor onto rich agricultural land, but when Mitchell’s Fold was erected all they would have seen was forest. I find it easier to understand the storyteller who dreamed up the medieval explanation. As the plaque at the site tells it ‘during a time of famine a fairy gave a magic cow that provided an endless supply of milk. One night an evil witch milked her into a sieve. When the cow realised the trick, she disappeared. The witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones was erected around her to ensure she could not escape.
Looking back towards Wales from Mitchell's Fold stone circle
If you are in these parts I would not bother with Mitchell’s Fold, but little Montgomery has an important Marcher Castle, an impressive church, more old buildings than you can shake a stick at, a Michelin starred restaurant, cheaper places to eat and drink, a fascinating little museum and its own brewery. Many much bigger places have less to offer.

*Roger de Montgomery came from what is now the Calvados department of Normandy where the villages of St-Foy-de-Montgommery and St-Germain-de-Montgommery (both with two ‘m’s) can still be found. Nearby Colleville-Montgomery (one ‘m’), previously Colleville-sur-Orne, changed its name in 1946 in honour of Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Although born in London, Montgomery’s family came from Ulster and were members of the Clan Montgomery who had emigrated from lowland Scotland to form part of the Protestant Ascendancy. The Clan Montgomery had emigrated to Scotland in the 12th century from the Welsh border country as vassals of the FitzAlans, so Viscount Montgomery (as he became) took his name from the Welsh town, though not from the family of Roger de Montgomery

Friday, 14 July 2017

Penarth and Restaurant James Sommerin

Our wedding anniversary excursion into the world of ‘fine dining’ happens later this month, but first a bonus; a visit to Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth. This excellent idea came from Anne, a friend of forty years and Vale of Glamorgan resident, who has featured in the blog before (Cannock Chase Through Fresh Eyes).

Lynne outside Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Born in Caerleon, James Sommerin started his career in Wales before moving to the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy (which sounds Welsh but is in Scotland). He returned home as sous-chef at the Crown at Whitebrook in the Wye Valley. He became executive chef there in 2003, won a Michelin star in 2007 and maintained it until the Crown closed in 2013. He opened Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth in 2014 and was awarded a Michelin star last October.

Wales has only 7 such restaurants, the other six in country houses or other rural locations relying mainly on visitors. Restaurant James Sommerin is different but, I wondered, is Penarth the right place? Why not central Cardiff, or the Bay Development? Wikipedia rather strangely describes Penarth as ‘the wealthiest seaside resort in the Cardiff Urban Area’ though I struggle to think of any others, and although within the urban area, Penarth is not actually in Cardiff being west of the River Ely and thus in the Vale of Glamorgan.

South Wales and the Bristol Channel
Caerleon is NE of Newport, almost but not quite a suburb, Whitebrook is in the Wye Valley between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye. Flat Holm and Steep Holm (see later) are either side of the 'W' of Weston-super-Mare
I had previously visited Penarth once. My father was an only child and uninterested in his wider family so I was ignorant of his wealth of cousins until Lynne took up genealogy. She discovered Cousin Jude and her husband John and we visited them six or seven years ago when John was Mayor of Penarth; we would have called again this time but for a delayed letter. Penarth had seemed a pleasant enough small town, without making a big impression on us.

Our taxi failed to arrive so Anne drove past Cardiff City’s impressive new(ish) stadium before turning west and then south to Penarth. After negotiating the tidy and prosperous town centre the road drops sharply to the coast.
Penarth was en fete, the esplanade closed to cars, so Anne dropped us by the pier and went to find a parking space. On a balmy summer evening we strolled through the crowd…
Penarth Summer Festival
… pausing to photograph the pier…
Penarth Pier
…and Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the unusually calm and blue Bristol Channel. From this angle they looked much closer together than they really are.
Welsh Flat Holm on the left and, several kilometres beyond it, English Steep Holm (though it does not look that way)
The restaurant sign is suitably understated and we walked past, only realising our error when we reached their kebab stall. ‘Harrumph,’ went my resident Food Snob, ‘a fine dining restaurant peddling kebabs to revellers?’ ‘Lighten up,’ my Better Nature shot back, ‘community involvement is to be applauded.’ ’And why ignore a money-making opportunity?’ added my Inner Cynic.

The interior was better lit than most of its kind (though not as bright as Loam in Galway last year) and felt a touch functional with no bar, just a few small tables at the side for perusing the menu and ordering aperitifs.
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Only the tasting menus are available at the weekend and although I might once have argued for the 9-course version I have now reached a state of maturity (or decline) where even 6 courses sounds daunting.

Menu, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Anne re-joined us before we ordered drinks – gin and tonic for Lynne (drowned), dry Martini for me (too much Vermouth) and Noilly Prat for Anne (who maybe knows how to pronounce it!).

Moving to our table we were presented, 6-course or not, with canapés. An espuma (creamy foam) of garlic with toasted seeds eaten from a glass pot with a wooden spoon only slightly more sophisticated than an ice cream spoon. For me, it could have been a tad more garlicky but the seeds had a pleasant crunch and we enjoyed failing to identify them. Taramasalata on tapioca crackers was a lovely combination, not too aggressively fishy, and gougères injected with flavoursome goat’s cheese were a finger licking delight.
Lynne, Anne and Taramasalata on tapioca crackers, served in a box of pebbles, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
I have no idea why Lynne looks so worried (I wasn't worried, I was eating! L)
I am unsure why bread always appears at this juncture, but it happens at every level of restaurant. At James Sommerin, as you would expect at Michelin star level, the bread was spectacular, or as spectacular as bread can get, but did we need bread? I don’t know, but we ate it.

Now we were ready for the first of the six: 'Beetroot'. Linguine of yellow beetroot (fun with a spiraliser), morsels of ‘normal’ beetroot, cubes of feta and a sprinkling of pine nuts. There was more, too, though I couldn’t say what. A clever dish proving that beetroot can be pickled but does not have to be, and is brilliantly complemented by feta cheese, well who knew that?

The accompanying wine was a Viognier, only a Vin de Pays but with far more class than that suggests. Viognier is not my favourite grape, but that is my problem, it has its fans and this wine would impress them.

‘Venison’ was a tarragon flavoured pile of venison tartar, as tender and rich as could be wished for, a mandolin slice of raw mushroom, a trio of carrots, a dusting of nutmeg a covering of beetroot leaves and a small oil slick, walnut oil, I thought. Not much cooking involved but the ingredients were so well chosen I could happily have eaten it twice.

Venison, Tarragon, Carrot and Mushroom, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Chilled Cheverny, a Pinot Noir/Gamay/Cot blend, was the perfect partner. The lightness of Loire valley Pinot Noir gaining body from the Gamay with little loss of character.

Number three, ‘Langoustine’, was a single largish ravioli (a raviolo?) of flaked langoustine in a sauce à la Indienne accompanied by broccoli, carrot, globe artichoke and fresh, crisp samphire. The langoustine was excellent and the sauce sublime but I could have done without the flabby artichoke heart and the pasta could have been thinner – or possibly even absent.

The accompanying Saar Valley Pinot Grigio was a revelation. In a Burgundy-style bottle it had more body and less sweetness than Germany is noted for, more flavour than Pinot Grigio usually manages and enough acidity to cut through the sauce. I enjoyed it but sometimes wonder if traditional German wines, their reputation long ago sullied by cheap Liebfraumilch, are due rehabilitation.

All courses were of similar size, but it was hard not to think of ‘Guinea Fowl’ as the main course. The thigh meat was excellent, the breast, rolled and water bathed, was tender but lacking in flavour. The menu mentions sweet corn, truffle and potato. In the picture the corn is obvious, the truffle, inevitably invisible, could have been more assertive, but where is the potato? The answer was, in the jus, which somehow had an intense flavour of jacket potatoes. I do have no idea how this was contrived but I was delighted, even if potato lover Lynne was disappointed not to have the real thing.

Guinea Fowl, Sweet corn, truffle and potato, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
With it we drank Devil’s Corner Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Henning’s Wines describe it as ‘A strongly perfumed style redolent of black cherries with hints of violets and even a touch of ginger spice. Soft and full of flavour this wine is showing upfront flavours of cherry supported by some savoury elements. The finish combines fine tannins and firm acidity but the overall impression is of soft lingering flavours...’ I have nothing to add except that it was a grown-up contrast to the charming if lightweight Cheverny.

Lynne and Devil's Corner, Pinot Noir, Restautant James Sommerin, Penarth
At least she looks happy now
We decided to go for cheese before the dessert; although not included among the six courses the choice of 32 cheeses, all British, was irresistible. We were talked through them, from the goat’s cheeses through hard cheeses, washed rind cheeses and blue cheeses. There is an artisan producer for every style imaginable, though I was slightly disappointed that apart from the local Caerphilly they were all described in terms of a foreign cheese, ‘like Manchego’, ‘like Brie’ and so forth. It is a shame we do not have our own points of reference.

We let them make the choices for us, five cheeses each, all different, meant we had a taste of 15 different cheeses. Dairy heaven lubricated by a glass of ten-year-old tawny port!

Lynne, Anne and more cheese than you can shake a stick at
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
As they had suggested we gave front of house a nod after course 3 so they could order us a taxi. Together we estimated an 11.15 finishing time, but the marathon cheese course put us behind. Consequently, the desserts, ‘Pear’ and ‘Apple’ followed each other swiftly, both accompanied by Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh. In the days when I sought out unusual wines this Gascon oddity would have delighted me, now I can enjoy its sweetness while wishing it had a little more acidity.

I have little to say about ‘Pear’ with flapjack, honey, cream and hazelnuts, other than it was sweet, surprisingly light and very pleasant. ‘Apple’ with puff pastry, caramel and vanilla, was a warm tarte tatin except the pastry lay on the plate in shards. The courses had been small, but there were six of them, plus cheese, so shards were enough. It looked a tad untidy, but the vanilla ice-cream actually tasted of vanilla and the caramel sauce was nicely restrained so all was forgiven.
Lynne with apple, caramel and vanilla, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth

Between courses Anne interrogated the Romanian sommelier who worked part time while completing a degree and certainly knew his wine, and the head-waiter (?) who was remarkably confident on his second day in the job. A window let us see into the kitchen from where dishes were brought out and explained by a succession of personable young men and women, perhaps those who had actually cooked them.

With a taxi waiting we omitted coffee and brandy - probably a good thing, there had been ample wine already – and were driven home by a friendly and loquacious east European who had been in Wales long enough for his accent to occasionally take on the local lilt.

And so ended an excellent evening at a restaurant thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star. A big ‘thank you’ to Anne for having the idea and for putting us up for two nights - and for rather more. In the morning I showed my gratitude by giving her a lift back to Penarth to collect her car. I could have made her take the bus, but I am not that kind of guy.