On first appearances you might well be forgiven for not realising that The Stagg Inn in Titley, between Kington and Presteigne in Herefordshire, is the destination eaterie of choice for miles around. There is a very pretty box lined parterre garden at the side of this attractive roadside inn, right in the middle of the black and white villages of The Marches border country, but when you enter its doorway there is neither pomp nor circumstance. All pretension is cast aside and what you have, at its heart, is a very friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere that belies the skills behind the kitchen door. There is more modesty here than you could shake a Welsh stick at.
Owner Nicola Reynolds, wife of Chef-Patron Steve Reynolds, and front of house manager, greets you and seats you cheerily. You may well stop to admire the collection of over 200 jugs hung from the timbered ceilings as you go through into the dining room. There are no linen tablecloths, few ornaments and a very plain and simple décor that is clean, fresh, light and minimalist.
You sit on upholstered dining room chairs, at a wooden table set on a wooden floor, you read the Menu and then the penny drops. You are in Michelin territory here and yet the Chef has managed to create an offering that alienates no local diners and drinkers whilst still attracting the discerning fine dining clientele that drives for many miles to eat here. That is no small accomplishment.
The dining room starts to fill quickly this Saturday lunchtime: suited business men, grandparents, parents, children and farmers, the popularity of the place is easily demonstrated by a distinct lack of empty chairs in the building.
And then behold the starters: Hereford snails so soft and tender they melt in the mouth with black pudding and new potatoes that are rich, salty and crisp. Razor thin slithers of cooked beetroot lie underneath creamy nuggets of goats’ cheese, fragrant orange segments and crunchy walnut pieces all drizzled with an oily-honey vinaigrette that is so delicious you wipe the plate clean with bread.
The main course gnocchi are a surprise: they are very big, extremely soft and pillowy, perfectly seasoned and served with ricotta, fresh peas and samphire. This is the winning dish of the day, and it has spurred me on with my own gnocchi-making technique. The lamb’s sweetbreads and kidneys with potato rosti and fennel puree are labelled by my dining partner as “SGF” a secret acronym for when one has entered the hallowed portals of a “Seriously Good Food” establishment.
And then comes a strawberry and rose jelly served on top of a vanilla pannnacotta served in a Kilner jar alongside some syrupy glazed strawberries and a raspberry sorbet. Each of the flavours is separate and distinct and yet the fruit, vanilla, sugar and cream gel together as a smooth ensemble. What a good idea to layer pannacotta and jelly under glass, so that, in the frenzy of lunch time delivery, the patisserie chef can just take the Kilners out of the fridge and voila, a ready-made heavenly pudding.
The wine list encompasses 80 excellent bins and there is a local cider, perry and ale list as well as excellent Ports and pudding wines.
The standard of cooking is excellent: it is fine dining at its most restrained, pared down and simple, with respect for traditional, well sourced local ingredients. Flavours are layered, refined, concentrated and pure. It’s also a rare find indeed, in the middle of very nearly nowhere, to find such efficient staff, so well trained and fast.
There are three ensuite bedrooms in The Stagg and you can also stay across the road in The Old Vicarage, which is home to Steve’s Mother. The sights to see around this little corner of heaven are many, including Presteigne, Hay-on-Wye, Leominster and Ludlow, and you would do well to use this as your central base to all the attractions.
An Associate Editor from The New York Times, R.W.Apple wrote of his experience here with these words: “…a genuine, no fooling old road-side pub, where substance triumphs over show…” That is exactly correct and how fortuitous that, after 13 years at the helm of this treasure, the owners have not been swayed towards “chichification” by their many awards and accolades. All home owners throughout Britain dream of moving into a village with a pub as good as this. The residents of Titley have much to be grateful for.
The Stagg Inn website: www.thestagg.co.uk
Titley, Kington, Herefordshire, HR5 3RL
Telephone: 01544 230221