Cowie and I always try to steal a fleeting weekend for ourselves before Christmas as a way of fluffing ourselves into the festive spirit and as something to look forward to during the manic rush of London life in December. It’s a time of false deadlines, mounting workloads and indulgent parties that cries out for a healthy dose of rural relaxation.
Cowie booked us into a phenomenal BnB which is on the Glanusk Estate which is one of the corners of the world that when you discover it you want to simultaneously tell everyone all about it, but also put people off visiting because you want to hoard the experience for yourself.
Ty’r Chanter looks across at the Brecon Beacons and up at the Black Mountains, with the River Usk roaring past in the valley below so loudly that you could easily convince someone living in Reading that it was the M4. But, whilst the motorway may be spirit sapping, this is the sort of multi sensory experience that lifts the soul. The view below, of the snow capped mountains, is from our bedroom window. And if this isn’t amazing enough, we saw a kite swoop to pluck a pheasant from the field for supper. If you are planning to stay somewhere in this part of the country, you'd be mad not to stay here.
Inspired by the view and with a major meal ahead of us, we decided to head out for a run. There’s nothing like a thirteen mile yomp through the Black Mountains past fields full of sheep and along the river Usk’s salmon rich banks, teeming with waterfalls to build up an appetite. It’s like doing a spinning class in the Ginger Pig in order to stimulate your yearning for a juicy steak, or doing some pilates in the Fromagerie to put you in the zone for a cheeseathon.
So we arrived at The Hardwick with enormous appetites and even bigger expectations. And left with the former negated and the latter more than exceeded. For this is a seriously impressive restaurant.
After spending so much time next to the Usk and having seen so many pictures in our BnB of people proudly holding enormous fish, it would have been criminal for one of us to have their locally smoked salmon and confit salmon to start. Cowie adored it. Iridescent slices of salmon were served with beetroot crisps, a mild horseradish cream and pea shoots that matched with our Gruner Veltliner/Pinot Blanc to perfection. Whilst the confit spoke for itself with a demure confidence, its smoked sibling showed off like a diva glamming up for a performance. Bold and sexy it lingered in the mouth and teased us with whisperings about what was to come next.
My salt cod belly with creamy beans and chorizo was another hit. Everything about the dish screamed try me and I couldn’t resist. The beans were soft by full of integrity, whilst the mild chorizo added a salty stockiness to the sauce. But the star was the slippery morsel of flaky white cod that sat on top that has to rank as one of my favourite tastes this year. It was rustic to look and somewhat out of place on a menu in hilly Wales, but it worked brilliantly and helped to lift the menu to a new level without being pretentiously chefy.
We toyed with the idea of sharing Dear for Two and the Taste of Local Beef for Two, but having seen so many deliciously fluffy sheep on our run, it seemed only right for us to share their iconic Baa Baa Blacksheep sharing dish. It arrived with a satisfying thud on our table and a grin from our waitress – as if to say we’d made a good choice. It was a tour de force in how to cook lamb which demonstrated amazing skill that showcased the different aspects that make this meat so special.
The highlights were the surprisingly juicy merguez sausage; the unctuous neck; the light as a balloon faggots; the decadent shepherd’s pie; and the pressed leg that came like a sheepy schnitzel. The only element that could have been better was the loin that could have done with less time over the coals. But we’re just being picky. It’s hard enough to cook lamb well one way. Let alone creating a postmodern bricolage that showcases the multifaceted essence of this magnificently local sheep.
We finished with a jar of crackly lemon pudding with curds and meringue and were impressed to see the chef walk the room after his stint at the stove. This final touch may seem frivolous. But when you make an effort to try a chef’s cooking, it makes a big difference psychologically when they are actually in the restaurant. Thinking back to other memorable meals, it certainly made our meal more special when we spoke to Heston Blumnthal at the Fat Duck and also when we were given a quick tour of El Bulli’s kitchen’s by Feran Adria. It’s not that we have got a chef fetish, but seeing Stephen Terry did help to round off a memorable meal.
We are going to return in the spring to learn to fish on the Usk, cycle up and down the Black Mountains and most importantly to eat more of The Hardwick's soulful food.
We hosted a big dinner party for Cowie’s birthday recently which involved us catering for 22 people. We decided on the menu about a month beforehand which had to balance taste, generosity and budget. A large joint of meat was an option, but with this number of people it would have been hard to have cooked it just right and have fun ourselves. So we opted instead, to have some X rated fun with the sausage maker.
My first batch of what I had termed Somerset Sausages, involved mustard, cider and sage. I thought they gave the mighty Cumberland Sausage a run for its money, but Cowie thought they smelled of sick. So we jettisoned the unfortunate sage and dialed up the thyme and added some chunks of apple and a slosh of cider brandy. The result was a rich, herby, apply taste of Somerset. All we had to do now was to make enough sausages for 22 people. Gulp.
And for our starter we popped down to Mere Fish Farm to collect a dozen trout which we planned to smoke over apple wood chips and serve with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce, slices of cooked beetroot and a handful of local watercress.
With the meat and fish courses sorted we sat down and smugly gulped down some coffee. But something felt wrong. Oh God. We’ve forgotten about our vegetarian friends! Having gone to so much effort with the starter and main course we had to cook them something on a par – at least in terms of effort – but hopefully from a taste point of view as well.
The punning side of my brain kicked in as it often does in times of crisis. How about we serve a pastry-less veggie strewn quiche inside a squash and called it a squiche? Bingo.
The dinner party went brilliantly and we have subsequently made a squiche for a midweek supper together which is detailed below.
1 squash – Butternut, Crown Prince or any other firm textured but creamy medium sized squash 5 eggs 150g of rehydrated wild mushrooms 2 garlic cloves 1 roasted courgette 1 flamed red pepper 100g goats’ cheese 100ml cream 50g mixed chops nuts Tarragon Salt and pepper
Cut the squash in half and scoop out the brains. Smear with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped nuts and pop a garlic clove, still in its skin, into each squash half. Season. Roast for 40 minutes until the flesh is cooked but well before it starts to lose its structural integrity.
Then make the quiche mixture as you would do normally and feel free to meddle this combination of flavours. Roast the courgette in smallish pieces and blacken the pepper over a flame before peeling the charred skin off and cutting into small pieces. Then beat the eggs and add the cream. Then mix in the tarragon, vegetables and rehydrated wild mushrooms. Add a splash or two of the mushroom liquor which will add some woody depth. Then plop in goats’ cheese in chunks and give it all a good mix.
Remove the garlic cloves and pour the quiche mixture into the squash halves. You may need to find a way of balancing the squashes so they don’t topple over and cause chaos. Season and cook in a medium oven for 30 minutes. The egg mixture should be firm to the touch but have some springiness to it. Serve whole or in slices with a watercress salad and lentils.
So if you are struggling for ideas of what to cook a vegetarian friend, or even are wondering how to cut back on meat whist still eating something interesting, give the squiche a bash. You could give it an exotic Moroccan twist by using cumin, chilli and a scattering of nuts… or keep it more simple and let the squash speak for itself along with some complimentary ingredients from the Flavour Thesaurus.
We still love to go on trips around the UK, staying in BnBs or camping in search of a good meal or two - hence, Around Britain with a Paunch. Quite often the trips have been prompted by Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook. Here's where we've been to: