by Silvana de Soissons•14th June 2011
I am standing in The Old Post Office Cottage, next door to The Walnut Tree Inn at Llanddewi Skirrid, between Abergavenny and Ross-on-Wye, with my bags on the floor, talking to Shaun Hill. I have travelled from Wiltshire and am due to dine at the restaurant later on this evening, and so have booked myself into one of two semi-detached cottages that lie at the bottom of the garden, to the side of the main building.
He opens the fridge to show me the breakfast provisions they have prepared for my stay. He has been Head Chef and co-owner of the restaurant for the last three years, and he tells me he works 12 hour shifts. “I start at around 11 in the morning and I go home at 11 at night. That’s the great advantage of being the Head Chef you see: once the last plate is served you can go home, and someone else has to do the clearing up.”
He is quite a self-effacing man, polite, welcoming but somewhat shy. Everyone in the foodie stratosphere knows his story, it is by now so well documented, yet he has always shunned the media spotlight in favour of the quiet informality that being a country chef provides. I know he needs to rush away to prepare for service tonight, and I feel guilty detaining him.
For many years he and his wife Anja ran The Merchant’s House in Ludlow, won a Michelin star, wrote a cookbook and earned a large following of devoted foodie fans who travelled for miles to eat Shaun’s simple, classic dishes.
The Griffiths family of Abergavenny decided to buy and renovate The Walnut Tree Inn which, since the departure of Franco and Ann Taruschio in 2001, had fallen on difficult times with new owners. Shaun Hill joined the restaurant and became a partner with William Griffiths, who is also the owner of The Angel Hotel at Abergavenny. Now it seems Shaun runs every part of the show. He answered my booking e-mails, he took my reservation, he welcomed me at Reception, and now he is showing me plates of smoked salmon, ham and butter and explaining how everything works.
Shaun warns me that the stone staircase up to the first floor is very tight and very steep. He celebrated his 40th birthday here and found it very hard to negotiate the steps after a few tipples, but I assure him that I won’t be drinking quite as much as that.
I am left to unpack and settle in, and am really very impressed, words that slip from my tongue or my pen with infrequent enthusiasm. The person who was responsible for designing and styling this cottage has thought of every single infinitesimal detail to ensure that its occupants are extremely comfortable.
As you enter there is a small living room, with upholstered chairs, a wooden table, a log burning stove and a coir rug. Through into the terracotta tiled kitchen, your eyes are drawn to three snow white, perfect orchids lined on the window sill. There is a wooden dining table, old school chairs, white china, a butlers sink, a bread bin with a fresh loaf and a serrated chopping board with a bread knife at the ready. There is every kind of accessory you would need for a two week self-catering holiday, let alone an overnight stay.
Some very kind soul has laid out two frying pans, some fresh eggs, ironed tea towels, freshly squeezed orange juice and napkins. In the fridge there are also local honeys, jams, yoghurt, wine, sparkling water and fresh berries.
From the kitchen you enter another living room with a multi-coloured Kilim rug, a big sofa covered with Welsh woollen throws and cushions, and you can sit watching a huge plasma television or venture out through the patio doors to enjoy the garden.
Up the said vertiginous climb and you are on a landing that opens out to two almost identical, carpeted double bedrooms. There are big built-in wardrobes, luxurious white linen sheets, freshly cut roses, a choice of mineral waters and more Welsh woollen throws. The views from the windows are of a beautiful escarpment, dotted with trees, cows, hedgerows and other small cottages.
A state of the art, spotlessly clean slate walled shower room, replete with power shower, toiletries from The White Company and snow white towels so fluffy you want to lie down next to them, complete the picture.
Both the cottage and the restaurant are located on the B4521, which is a small, but arterial country road that links two important Welsh towns, so you will hear traffic hurtling past at, sometimes, bewilderingly fast speeds. But all the windows are double glazed and the walls are made of stone, so once inside peace reigns.It is fair to say that this cottage is not really suitable for very young children, because of those stairs, unless you bring foldup beds and they can sleep in the second living room.
Showered, dressed and spruced I made my way to dinner and walked across a winding path through the most pretty restaurant garden I have ever seen. Again the same meticulous attention to detail has followed the design, planting, and maintenance of this garden. There are herbaceous borders on both sides, and they are interplanted with cutting flowers and fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. You brush past towering pink foxgloves, billowing roses, scrambling honeysuckle and wispy fennel, and you cannot help but reach out, touch the textures and smell the frangrances.
At the top of the garden, near the back kitchen door, they have positioned a very large, rectangular table where guests can sit and drink an aperitif, looking out onto the glorious Welsh countryside, bathed in the iridescent light of summer. I can smell grilling meat, baking bread and pan fried onions.
It is only 7.45 p.m. on an ordinary Friday night and The Walnut Tree Inn is almost full. I am stationed at a very good table, looking straight through to the kitchen. I can see Shaun’s silver head bowed under the low ceiling, while he and his brigade shake pans, ladle stock and wipe their foreheads in the rising steam.
The design of the dining room is very simple. There are rows of plain wooden tables with dark, cast iron legs, local art work on the ceiling, kitchen bay standards and fresh flowers from the garden.
The waitress brings me some very delicious puff pastry sausage roll and morel slices and a sesame seed cheese biscuit. The Menu is filed inside the covers of a very pretty black and white hand drawing of walnuts and their leaves.
There are very simple, seasonal starters: “Red mullet with tomato and olive beurre blanc”, “Rober Carrier’s pate aux herbes with cornishons” (He was Shaun’s very first boss) and “Grilled aubergine, tomato and parsley with chickpea crostini”.
My “Asparagus with broad beans, morels and hollandaise” is cooked al dente and tastes fresh and grassy next to the smooth, earthy tones of the shallot and morel mirepoix. The portions here are very generous, I warn you, you will need to pace yourself.
The bread is truly well made. There is a white roll, whose dough was sliced in gradation, so that the exposed edges are a golden brown colour, and there is also a wholemeal granary slice, both served in a warm metal basket with clean, fresh, unsalted butter.
You can so often tell the calibre of a kitchen brigade by the bread: if the bread is good, honest, homemade fare then the chances are attention will have been paid to all the other areas of the kitchen. If the bread is bought in from elsewhere, and merely re-heated, then the hand that steers the rudder does not really care, and all follows in that vein.
The mains seem equally simple in description, but the brevity of the descriptions belies a deeper understanding of provenance and preparation. My “Halibut with shrimps and dill” actually comes served with an emerald green spinach puree served with fresh pea pods. The salty, creamy shrimp sauce is poured over very moist, pan fried halibut fillet.
There are many things that struck me as I ate here. Firstly, just how many waitresses there were. Many restaurants of 20 tables and 70 diners would cut corners and employ four girls, but here there is a veritable army of serving ladies, of all ages and nationalities, dressed in black and working the room like troopers. The service is very slick, quick and focussed, and the kitchen door is left open, so we can see the inner engine, warts and all. Nothing is hidden.
Secondly, I was quite dismayed at how awfully dressed the average diner was. To my left was a very nice couple, bantering away in robust Welsh, but, let us be perfectly honest, they had not really made a great effort. To my right there was a table of six, out to celebrate Granny’s 86th birthday, and they looked as if they had not stopped home to change from wherever they had been before. To my great alarm, a young couple walked in, he with flip flops, khaki short cropped trousers and a polo shirt, and she with a bin liner mini skirt, plastic, shiny red high-heeled shoes and tattoos.
I wanted to formally stand up, coughing rather loudly, taking my knife in my right hand and my glass in my left hand, bringing the two together in clinking alarm, and stopping the room in its tracks. “Excuse me” I wanted to bellow, “I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Shaun Hill is in the kitchen: he has worked solidly now, doing 60 hour weeks for over 43 years, won a Michelin star and written a foodie bestseller. He has to commute every day from Worcester and back. Would you mind showing a bit more care and respect? I want you all to get up, go home and come back suitably attired, please. Thank-you.”
As I am thinking these thoughts, I look across the room and Shaun’s eyes meet mine. I quickly bend my head to focus on my “Chilled cherry soup with crème fraiche and toasted almonds”. I may have been silently admonished but I still think I have a valid point.
One redeeming customer is at the far end of the room. “At last! An Italian!” I think to myself. He is a very handsome man (Milanese, for sure), 50 or thereabouts, wearing a teak Portofino tan, a smart, pink cotton, cufflinked open necked shirt (could be Etro) with a very well cut blue blazer (methinks Ermenegildo Zegna). Alas, I look down to see he has yellow and black stripy bee socks.
Never mind the mental sartorial assassination, let me tell you about the Wine List. It is very easy to read if you are a non-oenophile and it is divided into sections of essential, basic varietal based wines that will suit most of the Menu, the core body of reds and whites that offer good value but are of good repute, and then the classic connoisseur vintages. There is a very good selection of wines by the glass.
When the pudding Menu arrives there is a also an interesting choice of pudding wines, tawny ports, brandies and teas and tisanes. I was surprised that they do not serve Welsh cheeses, preferring instead Charles Martell’s offerings from Gloucestershire, which I know well and love, but they are far from local. There must be a personal connection here, maybe from Ludlow days. You can share a cheeseboard of single Gloucester, Stinking Bishop, Nuns of Caen and May Hill Green for just £10.
The puddings themselves are quite retro: rice pudding, lime curd, tiramisu parfait, buttermilk pudding and Vin Santo with cantucci. My cherry soup was very light, fresh, sweet and fragrant, and I was wise to choose it because it was not too filling.
The time has now arrived, no doubt, for a publisher to commission “The Walnut Tree Cookbook” by Shaun Hill, photographed, no doubt, by David Loftus or Jason Lowe. There are several recipes from the Menu that I would like to buy.
Above all else, The Walnut Tree Inn is a family restaurant, frequented by locals and run by (mainly) locals, its popularity and prosperity fuelled by quality, consistency and value for money. For my dinner and overnight stay I paid only £155, which is extraordinarily good value, considering the high level of standard throughout. Reader, I have travelled the world, from castles to cottages, from yurts to youth hostels: The Old Post Office Cottage is a rare find indeed.
If God had a weekend off, this is where he would come. And Shaun Hill would take the booking, without even batting an eyelid, showing the same exemplary sang froid that precludes him from frowning about the appearance of some of his clientele. And that, after all, is the definition of good manners.
The Walnut Tree Inn and The Old Post Office Cottage
Address: LLanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthsire, NP7 8AW
Telephone: 01873 852797