Abergavenny – a Welsh food & wine adventure
I am a very proud (and loud!) Welshman when it comes to most things, but mostly when it comes to rugby and food. I very rarely mention rugby in this blog (who would given our recent inept showings in the 6 nations?) but on more than one occasion I have written about welsh food, or more accurately, welsh restaurants. I was amazed at the value wine list at Ye Olde bull’s head in Beaumaris – I went back over the Christmas period any enjoyed another fabulous meal as well as a fantastic bottle of Domaine Prudhom St Aubin 2005 and a 2009 Au Bon Climat Pinot that cost me a couple of quid more than they would at retail. It is also impossible not to be impressed by anything undertaken by the softly spoken and modest superstar that is Shaun Hill; I was, and still am, so pleased that he took ownership of The Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny, back in 2006. I have eaten there a couple of times already and know for certain I will return.
A little break in February has become an important oasis at the beginning of another hectic year. We’ve enjoyed long weekends in Florence, Paris, Beaune and last year a magical few days in Cornwall. So it seems appropriate that this year the destination was Wales. I am a true Gog (what the South welsh call us northerners) but I’m not too proud to head South, so for Abergavenny we headed. As well as Shaun Hill, Abergavenny is famous for its annual food festival (which takes place in September) and its gastro-temples. Two of these establishments are owned and run by familiar faces from the TV; Steven Terry at the Hardwick and Matt Tebbutt at The Foxhunter.
So we booked ourselves into the Hardwick for 2 nights (check out the fabulous Sunday night promotion) and made reservations to eat at the Foxhunter on Saturday night (10 minutes in a taxi) and at our place of rest on the Sunday.
Let’s start with where to stay. The rooms at the Hardwick are delightful and modern, with a slight Scandinavian vibe. The beds are comfortable, the bathroom is luxurious and the overall feel is decadent; I can’t recommend it enough. And let’s not forget about the breakfast… Anywhere that offers eggy bread with smoked streaky bacon and maple syrup is a winner in my book!
For dinner on Saturday night we got a taxi to the the Foxhunter (£15) and received a very friendly welcome from Anne Tebbutt; all the staff are superb and there was a real warmth to the place as we sat down in the bar area with the wine list and the menus. The wine list is extremely well chosen with an excellent variety of grapes and countries to select from. We plumped for a half bottle of Muscadet from the clever selection of halves as an aperitif, and the bit of age on the 2009 showed a hint of oxidisation that was extremely appealing and rounded out the tart green apple and salty, mineral notes of this vastly underrated wine.
When we were taken to our table we were greeted with warm home made bread and sumptuously salted butter as we waited for our starters. I had a stupendous dish of game tagliatelle with Gorgonzola – a genius combo that I will use a great deal in the future – while the Fish went for a delicate and delightful plate of octopus carpaccio. There were only five main course options (three meat, two fish) but I could’ve happily chosen any of them. In the end I opted for the perfectly cooked duck breast (pink with crispy skin) served with Toulouse sausage and smoked bacon, the Fish opted for the lamb rump with broccoli and white bean mash. Everything looked amazing, was accurately cooked and the portions very generous. To drink we needed a wine with guts and the Gigondas 2010 was just the ticket with its blackberry fruit, dried herb and black pepper kick.
Deserts were also well executed and we left the restaurant very happy diners. The food isn’t cheap but, coming from the world of London eating, it represents very good value for the combination of well-sourced local ingredients and highly skilful cooking. The wine list is very finely judged and with mark-ups around 100%, you can feel comfortable ordering what you want without fear of bankruptcy. It is certainly a restaurant to which I will gladly return and encourage friends to do the same.
Our table at The Hardwick was booked for 7.30 on Sunday and after devouring the menu online we had already chosen our main course… the “taste of local beef” to share… But more about that later. The dining area is split into three rooms and is very spacious, with big tables and plenty of room between them. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and the overall experience is most agreeable. We both decided we were going fishy with our starters so The Fish plumped for a glass of local sparkling wine and I went for a glass of Albarinho from the extensive by the glass selection. My Albarinho was spot on with a nice balance of citrus, peach and savouriness, while the Sparkling wine from Ancre Hill, made from 100% Seyval Blanc, was deliciously dry with flavours of pastry and very tart Granny Smith apples; very delightful and a producer I will be searching out for sure.
The starters themselves were fabulous. The Provençale fish soup was rich and deep and my linguine with Devon crab, chilli, radicchio, courgette and brown butter breadcrumbs was quite simply one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten; lots of ingredients (it also contained anchovies, shallots and parsley) but everything played it’s part… even the courgettes, of which I am no fan! There is a choice of ten starters and every single one of them sounded marvellous – what a great reason to return in itself!
Our beefy-rich main course demanded a monster of a wine and the Director’s Cut Shiraz sure fit the bill perfectly. A true blockbuster of a wine with lashings of blackberry, damson, smoke and sweet spice. Huge concentration and a massive, rich palate – almost ripasso in style – but beautifully balanced by tart-cranberry acidity. And boy did we need the acidity. The taste of local beef consisted of 72h Braised Short Rib, Ox Tail Pudding, Rib Burger on Creamed Mushrooms with Onion Rings, and Braised Shin. All of this came with a big bowl of seasonal veg and triple cut chips. Oh, and we also ordered the deep fried polenta chips with tomato sauce and Parmesan! Each of the elements on the beef plate was rib-stickingly delicious, but they were just too rich all served together. A nice piece of succulent steak would add so much more than another slow-cooked winter warmer. But that is being very picky. The wine and the tomato sauce from the polenta side dish helped to clear the palate between sticky mouthfuls.
To finish I went straight for the “Lemon Crunch” which was a glorious jar filled with lemon cream, digestive and nutty biscuits, all topped with Italian meringue… then it was bedtime!
Abergavenny is a must-visit destination for any food lover and once more, Wales proved to be the place to go for value wine lists. I feel so proud!