Saturday 19 September 2009

The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree has been a part of my life for longer than I can remember. In the 1970s my parents came here to sit in the bar, eating what back then was considered exotica for such far flung boondocks. They recount overhearing neighbours send back a chilli con carne with the instruction to, "Tell Franco it needs more chilli powder, it's not hot enough".

As the clientele grew up so did Franco's cooking. By the time my brother and I made it through the door there was little sign of the chillis and spag bols that helped make the place. Lasagne had mutated into a dish of fresh porcini in bechamel, layered between fresh pasta with copious amounts of white truffel on top. God it was good. It was here that I got my first tastes of woodcock, porcetta, bresaola, samphire, laverbread and fresh cockles. The Walnut Tree was where we came for big birthdays and celebrations. When Franco sold up just after the millennium we were a family in mourning.

There have been several incarnations since then and the latest has Shaun Hill on board. I've been lucky enough to go three times in just over a year. The previous two visits were sublime- the food was knock out- so I was very excited as we arrived here to eat two days ahead of the Abergavenny Food Festival.

We had a kir in the bar. It's what we always do. And read the menu. It hadn't changed much since my last visit back in January. Still it made me hungry. The interior is perhaps best described as 'nouveau Presbyterian'....

More polished than in Francos day, but lacking the charm. The wine list wasn't quite as interesting as I remembered it, not bad, but pricey. We got a large 'little' something to go with our drinks.

A courgette flower stuffed with ricotta and this years fave cheffy ingredient, beetroot. Really good, light cripsy batter and almost sweet tasting centre. I'd happily scoff a plateful.
Our starters were smoked eel with brandade and horseradish cream and griddled squid with chickpeas.

The squid was over griddled and the chickpeas were chickpeas. The eel however was sublime, I've no idea if they smoked it themselves. The brandade appeared to be made with more smoked eel rather than salt cod. Good starter, really appetising, and worked brilliantly with the wine.

Delicious stuff. Minerally, not something I normally associate with Gewurztraminer, and with a lick of oiliness that complimented the fish. A really well balanced wine with nice acidity too. Will search this out again.
Main courses were venison, partridge, veal- escalope, kidneys and black pudding.

The venison was super. Perfectly cooked. Full of iron and tasting of the fields. The partridge was excellent too but I've had my fill of confited birds legs. And the veal.... well, it was nearly very good indeed.

The escalope was a bit overcooked and the crumb coating was dripping in fat. It may have been the kidneys dribbling theirs over it. The kidneys themselves were nice, but had a tad too much of a whiff of their original purpose. The sauce was a bit greasy. In fact the whole dish had a sheen, like it was varnished. It was off putting and underneath there was some lovely food struggling to get out. The black pudding was the exception. Utterly delicious.

Chose a bottle of Allegrini's 2005 to go with it. Apparently this has been on the list since Francos day. Fabulous wine. Plum, oak and polish. More Bordeaux than Italy.
Puddings were chocolate marquise, white chocolate and cherry pot, damson fool, Hungarian trifle.

All very good...

... except the damson fool, so sharp and acidic it could strip the enamel from your teeth. Can't believe this was tasted before sending out.

On the previous two visits Shaun seemed omnipresent. Like a reincarnation of Franco he'd pop up behind the bar for a quick slurp, then, on going outside to the loo I'd catch him through a window directing frenzied activity in the kitchen. A few minutes later I'd spot his bobbing head shed bound for ingredients. He was nowhere to be seen this time.

In an interesting interview with 'Silverbrow on Food' recently, Shaun Hill explained that it was necessary to be at The Walnut Tree much more than he'd originally anticipated. On tonight's evidence, I'd say he's right. There were some real highs on this visit but there were quite a few mistakes too....but without a doubt, I'll be back.

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