Eating out, and family strife, in the Welsh borders


This article is also published in the Financial Times.

To my right on the panel discussing the charms of family-run restaurants at the recent Abergavenny Food Festival in Wales were Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, the husband and wife team from London’s Honey & Co. To my left was Sam Clark, who with his wife Sam runs Moro and Morito in London, while alongside him sat Rory O’Connell who with his sister, Darina Allen, is part of the four generations of the family that run the restaurant, hotel and cookery school at Ballymaloe in Ireland.

As chair, and father of a restaurateur, I began by asking how dangerous their kitchens ever become in the event of a disagreement in the heat and inevitable pressure. Packer and Srulovich admitted that as Israelis they have no inhibitions in voicing their often very different opinions but then revealed that the large walk-in cold store in their tiny kitchen serves a secondary purpose. 'Whichever of us is upset just goes in there for a couple of minutes – that’s as long as anyone can stand – and calms down,' Packer explained.

In O’Connell’s experience the fact that ‘the show must go on’ and that there is so little time to harbour grievances before the next customers are sitting down combine to provide a particular form of ‘conflict resolution’. He also added, in a phrase that I envied, that what he believes family-run restaurants can uniquely provide is the opportunity to offer their customers ‘the cloak of hospitality’.

At the back of the audience were Ann and Franco Taruschio who definitely offered this sense of personal warmth during their 38 years running The Walnut Tree Inn at Llandewi Skirrid, two miles to the east of Abergavenny, although as Ann readily admitted, they did so in a more argumentative style than the panellists had admitted to.

For the past 20 years I have always followed Franco’s final instruction to cooking risotto in his book Leaves From The Walnut Tree, that of adding a knob of butter to the pan towards the end, putting the lid on, switching the heat off and leaving it alone for five minutes. This advice has never failed but I had never had the opportunity to discover precisely why.

When I asked him after the panel discussion Taruschio smiled, as he does whenever talking about food, before explaining, 'It’s to let it bind, to allow the rice to become creamier and softer. It’s bit like letting a steak rest for a few minutes once you’ve taken it off the grill.'

A dinner at The Walnut Tree Inn, now run by chef Shaun Hill with his wife Anja, and lunch at The Foxhunter, for the past 13 years the professional home of Martin and Lisa Tebbutt, at Nantyderry ten miles to the south, were to reveal not only how well these family-run kitchens are cooking but also more useful insights for the keen cook.

The first and most obvious pleasure, and one that can be enjoyed even via the internet, comes from merely reading Hill’s menu. This is a rare model of clarity and brevity, a list of over 30 dishes that reveal his travels over the years – from a fish and potato rasam, once enjoyed in India, to an Hungarian ‘somloi’, their trifle and a dish he first cooked at the now-closed Gay Hussar in Soho – all described without a single superfluous adjective or adverb.

While a first course of smoked mackerel ‘toastie’, fingers of a toasted sandwich filled with smoked mackerel alongside smoked eel and beetroot, owed its success to the primacy of the ingredients, a main course of skate with shrimps and dill was all about execution. The skate had been deftly taken off the bone before being sautéed, then the shrimps and dill were added alongside some creamy mashed potatoes.

From the customer’s perspective it appears that the end result is down to the confidence of the chef to add a significant amount of the finely chopped dill to enhance the fish. But when I quizzed Hill afterwards he explained that it is not just the quantity that counts as much as the timing of exactly when the dill is added. 'It has to be added right at the very end, just before the fish is going to be served on to the plate, otherwise its flavour gets dissipated in the pan.'

Herbs were to play a significant and joyful part in our meal at The Foxhunter, although Tebbutt brings a different approach to writing what seems initially to be a briefer menu.

But what Tebbutt achieved most impressively was to create a series of seasonal dishes where each main ingredient is thoughtfully counter-balanced by the most appropriate sauce or dressing. As he advised us on the menu by the log-burning stove in the bar of his restaurant that has been both a pub and a stationmaster’s home, he waxed lyrical about the thick aioli with braised octopus, the thinner ginger and shallot dressing he serves with seared salmon and the piquant chermoula with grilled red mullet and sardines.

We consequently were not disappointed at all in the Thai dip with the goujons of coley; the chilli and anchovy sauce with the artfully created oxtail lasagne; and the broth of ham hock, summer beans and John Dory topped with chives and dill. Herbs supplied, I discovered, by Amanda Stradling at Veggies Galore in nearby Ross on Wye. It's family run, too.

The Walnut Tree Inn Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales NP7 8AW; tel +44 (0)1873 852 797

The Foxhunter Nantyderry,Abergavenny, Gwent NP7 9DN; tel +44 (0)1873 881 101