Walnuts are the oldest living tree food in the world, and it looks like The Walnut Tree at Llanddewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire is going to be around for just as long. For, despite having had quite a few ups and downs over the years, it’s still standing tall, with people journeying from far and wide to experience a taste of Welsh culinary history. A simple, white-washed property, The Walnut Tree was originally made famous by Franco and Ann Taruschio who arrived in 1963 and continued at the helm for 37 years, establishing a loyal clientèle which included the likes of Elizabeth David. However, those who followed in their footsteps did so with mixed success; from the heights of the first Michelin star in 2002 under head chef Stephen Terry (now chef/proprietor of The Hardwick) to insolvency in 2007 following a catastrophic appearance by then owner Francesco Mattioli on the TV show Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Current head chef-proprietor, Belfast born Shaun Hill, was a regular diner during the days of the Taruschios, when The Walnut Tree was often voted the best Italian restaurant in Britain, and although many in the trade thought that he was mad to come out of semi-retirement to take over, he has succeeded in putting the restaurant back on the culinary map, and with an altogether more rustic style of food than he was originally trained for. Hill began his career working for the late Robert Carrier (whose cookbooks my mother was a keen collector of in the 1980s), and went on to achieve a Michelin star at Gidleigh Park, followed by another at his own 24-cover restaurant-with-rooms Merchant House in Ludlow. With this track record, it was little wonder he took just two years to gain a star for The Walnut Tree, which he has held since 2010. The restaurant is now regularly lauded as not only the best in Wales but one of the best in the UK.
Hill’s affection for both the premises and the natural surroundings are obvious from the first glimpse of the ever-changing menu, which wisely steers clear of Italian cuisine, nor does he trade on the restaurant’s colourful history; it’s a new era and local diners are fully justified in having fallen in love with The Walnut Tree as if they had never met her before. Having last dined here just after the Gordon Ramsay episode, it was a pleasure to note the wonderful ambiance in the L-shaped dining room and the fact that what used to be a nightmare is now a dream; the days of dress codes have long gone, the tables are not draped in linens, and whilst the service is attentive it isn’t fussy, for example the waiter (no sommelier here) will pour the start of your wine, but not the rest. The authenticity and informality celebrates its heritage as an old country inn and is what ultimately draws people back. In keeping with their relaxed approach, they hold a few tables back even on their busiest nights, making it possible to rock up without a reservation at 8pm on a Saturday night and still get served (although I wouldn’t personally chance it).
The Walnut Tree’s philosophy is to take superb ingredients (many of which are from their own kitchen garden) and treat them with love, with a menu which provides only the vaguest outline of the dish. Being oyster-season I was naturally drawn to the award-winning Porthilly oysters, which, doused in a decadent chive cream sauce and served on a bed of champ, was a tantalising opening, only superseded by the game-rich main of wild duck, ingeniously partnered with faggots, morels and a game gravy, Parisian potatoes, sautéed Brussels sprouts and a smooth celeriac purée. The meal was rounded off with a wonderfully moist orange, almond and polenta cake, although my guest’s chocolate marquise wasn’t as bitter as I would have liked.
It’s good to see this unpretentious style of food experiencing a revival – it seems that diners are increasingly bored with chefs who employ smoke and mirrors techniques and pointless party tricks designed to wow but which ultimately detract from the food itself. Whilst prices here are more London-town than South Wales, the portions are the opposite of stingy fine-dining, nor will you see a foam, smear or quenelle in sight. The wine list has also been astutely compiled, and being of good value, encourages diners to splash out.
We retired to the fireside in the bar for an after dinner tipple, as we weren’t in any hurry due to staying in one of the Walnut Tree’s luxury self-catering cottages – the ultimate foodie getaway. The larger of the two, Ivy Cottage is immaculately furnished; both of the two double bedrooms have super king beds and glamorous ensuite bathrooms featuring roll top baths (White Company toiletries); the conservatory is a delightful sun trap and opens out onto a patio with tables and chairs for the warmer months, and there’s an open plan farmhouse-style kitchen/diner perfect for entertaining, (although cooking equipment is a bit thin on the ground, so you may have to ask the restaurant if you can borrow a baking tray and a wooden spoon should you be planning anything elaborate). They could easily promote foodie breaks more, for example it would be nice to have a couple of The Walnut Tree’s signature recipes to try out and Abergavenny’s renowned Farmer’s Market (the forth Thursday each month) is the ideal place to gather the finest local supplies.
With cows for our neighbours, (as one look out of the panoramic kitchen window revealed) we found our next day’s breakfast in the Smeg fridge; generous amounts of orange juice, yoghurt, ham, smoked salmon, French butter, jam, milk and eggs, along with a bottle of wine, artisan bread and store cupboard essentials such as tea, coffee and cereals. It was also nice to find a Nespresso machine, Dualit equipment and a Roberts radio, and the separate television lounge featured a high quality flat screen. Quite frankly it’s a midweek bargain at £140 per night.
On our last day we visited The Walnut Tree’s sister property, The Angel Hotel, located in the centre of Abergavenny, where we enjoyed their award-winning High Tea, a three tier stand crammed with deadlies; savouries including a mini quiche, cheese scone, and a filled gougère; a generously filled selection of sandwiches; light freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam, followed by tempting fancy cakes. Although I defy anyone to finish, it was the ideal way to spend time with my Welsh relatives. I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never enjoyed visiting them much before (I hope they don’t read this), but The Angel and The Walnut Tree have made me want to see them more often.
The Walnut Tree Inn, Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire NP7 8AW. For more information and reservations visit the website.