Eating out: A bed of wild thyme
The Cors; Newbridge Road, Laugharne, Nr Carmartharne SA31 4SH. Tel: 01994 427219. Open Thursday to Friday noon to 2.30pm and 7 to 9pm, with extended hours over summer. Average price pounds 23 per person. Credit cards accepted
On such a trip, it is a great comfort to find a half-civilised place to eat a meal at the end of a day, if only to stave off the grim game of Trying Not to Listen for a few calm hours. And when you hit on somewhere really rather special, almost by accident, the effect on a flagging mind and body can be quite dramatic. So that instead of going back to the hotel, you decide to sleep under the stars, on a soft bed of wild thyme, with the night music of fluttering leaves and hooting owls to lull you into a tranquil reverie. Well, actually I did go back to the hotel - but, relatively speaking, my night was as described.
The establishment that brought on this thorough state of well-being is called The Cors, and you will find it in the village of Laugharne (pronounced Larne, in much the same way as my name is really pronounced Finall - not) close to Carmartharne, in south Wales. You won't find it, however, in many guides. I'm not sure why, because it's eminently guide-worthy (I'd give it a solid two by the Good Food Guide ratings system). I can only think that the foot soldiers of this usually reliable tome also ran into some pronunciation difficulties when asking directions.
It is true that The Cors is just a touch hard to find. My taxi driver was local, and he took several wrong turnings. After the second dead-end, we went back over the humpback bridge, and finally spotted the well-concealed entrance to the driveway, with its sign fixed at an unreadable angle at the bottom of a drystone wall.
At the end of the drive was a beautiful old stone building, big, but more farmhouse than manor - the kind of place that you know without looking has a crackling real fire in the grate. Once inside I was reunited with my film crew, who had been out locations hunting in the drizzle, while I was pounding the railtracks from London. So by that token they were rather more deserving of comfort and sustenance than I was. However, having seen the hotel I was ready to take all the comfort and sustenance I could get.
There were eight of us all told, including the delightful Welsh couple, Ozzie and Hilary, with whom we were to be filming the next day. So between us we were able to cover just about every dish on the menu - a sensibly short list showing an awareness of current food trends, without being in the least slavish or pretentious.
I started with potato and dill pancakes with smoked salmon, creamed beetroot and horseradish. The pancakes were wonderfully soft, satisfying in just a few mouthfuls all my comfort cravings. The other elements on the plate all came together beautifully: the smoked salmon was first-class (all melt and no grease), the creamed beetroot soothingly sweet, and the horseradish distinctly fiery (it was made freshly from a root grown in the garden). The fun of a dish like this is making each forkful a bit different, by excluding one or two of the elements. And the triumph is that, even when playing this rather fetishistic game, every forkful is a winner.
I dipped into just about everyone else's, starters too (as politely as my burgeoning enthusiasm allowed, which is probably not very), and found that some plump local mussels had been mariniered with skill (ie with speed); that bruschetta with grilled goat's cheese and roasted red peppers was as well executed as one could have hoped for this commonplace but dependable staple from the River Cafe school; and that the lamb's kidneys in a mustard sauce were, well, offaly good.
Most of us were tempted by the roasted rack of Welsh "saltmarsh" lamb, and though most of us also agreed that we'd have liked it a mite pinker, it was by no means spoiled. The diet of these hardy beasts comprises shore grasses and samphire when in season, producing a dense almost fatless meat with a light gamey tang.
Even the wildest Welsh characters often have a soft centre, and neither Ozzie nor the sheep on which we both dined, was an exception. Only Ozzie's florid theories about the secret life of Freemasons made the odd mouthful a little hard to swallow. But the pleasingly tart home-made crab-apple jelly that came on the side meant that, in the end, all the medicine went down.
The next most popular main course, char-grilled fillet of turbot, which came with sauteed leeks and a creamy chive sauce, was fat, fresh and curdy, and kept our "vegetarian" contingent more than happy.
I somehow managed a creme brule and my unending search for the perfect incarnation of this classic pud was almost at an end, but for a slight under-caramelising of the topping. The creamy vanilla custard underneath, however, could not be faulted.
You won't stumble on The Cors by accident, but if you choose to seek it out, and I strongly recommend you do, you may be pleased to know that they have a few bedrooms - unfortunately not enough to accommodate our film crew.
The walls are of solid Welsh stone, there are no televisions and, I am assured, no jangling pipes. As for surprising amounts of sex - well that's entirely up to you.
A new series of 'TV Dinners', presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, begins on Channel 4 on Monday 22 December at 8.30pm
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