I’m glad there’s no weighing machine here in our borrowed house by the river near Hay-on-Wye where we have been these last three days. For the last week, my old friends Memo and Deniz from Turkey have been our guests, and as a result, we have been eating out a lot at lunchtime, and I have been cooking most evenings. It was restful to have been distracted from the endless talk about the eurozone crisis as there’s no TV here in Hay. In the evening, we have been lighting a log fire, and talking and reading in the living room. There’s something about a lively fire that promotes conversation. Outside the house, the river Wye gurgles past, with the occasional swan or duck gliding along.
Over the last decade and more, as more and more pubs have been closing across Britain, others have reinvented themselves as gastro-pubs, and have moved away from the standard fare of sausages and mashed potatoes (or bangers and mash) and steak-and-kidney pie to more eclectic and exotic menus. Some couples have bought failing pubs to realise their dream of running their own restaurant.
One such establishment is the Red Bull, about twenty minutes from Devizes. Here, for the last two years, locals can get some seriously good food in very pleasant surroundings. Sadly, the weather was cold and cloudy when we were there last week, so we couldn’t sit in the garden. Our dishes were carefully prepared and presented, and my main course of confit duck was meltingly tender.
Our local favourite, the George and Dragon, is only two miles from our house and has been very reliable, especially with seafood that is sourced from Cornwall. They seat us in the bar area as Puffin, our terrier, is not permitted in the formal dining room. On most evenings, a log fire is lit, making the small, wood-lined room very cosy.
Near Hay, at the end of a long, narrow country road that has room for only one car, is the Bull’s Head, an old stone inn where shepherds once gathered for a grog or a pint to keep them going. Even though this pub is about as remote as you can get, it gave us our best meal of the week. The food was flawless, and the chef, a gifted amateur without any formal training, bakes some great bread as well.
In a well-run restaurant, attention to small details is the key to success. The mashed potatoes that came with my rib-eye steak were smooth without being runny or lumpy. The meat was medium-rare, just as I had asked. The chef’s wife prepared the desserts, and they were as light and imaginative as any I have ever had. I had eaten at the Bull’s Head a couple of times before, but they excelled themselves on this occasion.
Out of all these, the best known is the Felin-Fach Griffin, about 15 miles from where we were at Hay. The car park there is always full, as people come from miles around. The bar area has lots of leather sofas where you can read the papers before a roaring fire. The restaurant is casual with rough wooden tables and friendly, efficient service. While I had a superb roast chicken, others at our table didn’t do as well.
In the evening, we have stayed at home, and I’ve been active in the kitchen. As a treat for our guests, I asked our local butcher in Devizes to get me a fillet (or undercut) of venison. Deer farming is fairly widespread in the UK, so I can eat the meat without feeling guilty. The fillet, weighing a kilo, was marinated in garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and some rosemary. I then seared the surface on a very hot ridged frying pan, sealing in the flavour. I then popped it into a hot oven for about eight minutes, the idea being to warm (and not cook) the interior. I let it sit on the chopping board for another 7-8 minutes while I prepared the gravy. The fillet was then sliced into inch-thick steaks. Venison is dense, flavoursome meat with very little fat, so I prefer it to beef when I can get it.
Pheasants were another item our guests had not tried before, so we got a couple of them to roast. These are again full of flavour, and as they were shot on the wing, they had a few lead pellets still in them. Marinated in red wine (pious readers can find solace in the fact that the alcohol evaporates in the cooking process) and roasted for about half an hour, these game birds make excellent eating. Memo liked it well enough to strip one of the birds with his fingers, getting every scrap out of it. I took this as a compliment.
For our guests’ last evening with us, we got a leg of local Welsh lamb, and asked the butcher to butterfly it. He duly removed the bone, leaving us with a two-kilo slab of meat. I made several small cuts on both sides and inserted slivers of garlic in them. Salt and freshly ground pepper went on next, followed by a drizzle of virgin olive oil. Finally, a few sprigs of rosemary that grow in profusion around the house, and the meat was ready to go under the grill. Before I slid the baking tray into the oven, I placed parboiled baby potatoes around the meat to soak up its juices.
With the grill set at maximum, the lamb took about 45 minutes to turn into a delicate pink colour when I sliced it to check for doneness. We like our lamb underdone, so it was perfect. After it had rested for a few minutes, everybody tucked in. The potatoes were delicious, too, with slightly charred skin and soft interiors. There were only six of us, and everybody said there was too much meat, but it had all gone by the end of the meal.
Oh yes, between all this cooking and eating, I did manage to go into Hay and browse in some of the scores of second-hand bookshops the town boasts of. After all this gluttony, I’ll have to punish myself with some serious dieting.