WELSH WIZARDRY

For his monthly series on Britain's new regional food, Michael Bateman goes to Wales where Franco Taruschio translates classic Welsh ingredients into Italian poetry

NO ONE is quite as passionate as Franco Taruschio on the subject of Welsh cooking. But, then, he has spent half his life reinventing it.

The Italian-born Franco and his English wife, Ann, have been running The Walnut Tree Inn in Llandewi Skirrid near Abergavenny for 33 years. It is a pub-restaurant of extraordinary warmth that inspires devotion among its customers. The great food writer Elizabeth David claimed it was the restaurant she most looked forward to visiting, a view endorsed by the Independent's restaurant critic, Emily Green.

His menu is a feast of Welsh-Italian invention, combining the skills of his native land with the fresh ingredients of his adopted country. As he puts it: "The key to Italian cookery is using top-quality ingredients."

Some of them he still gets from "home" - wine and oil from his village, Montefano, the odd truffle, some parmesan cheese - but most are sought out locally if not actually bought in local food shops. Most dishes derive from what people from round about bring in. "Someone will come in with 40 partridges, a brace of woodcock," he says. They supply venison, suckling pig, free-range chickens, vegetables, fruit. He himself hunts down fungi, berries, wild herbs.

This part of Wales, the Marches of the Anglo-Welsh border, with its mountains, green valleys and proximity to the sea, is similar to Franco's homeland, the Marche of the Adriatic coast. (Marches in both English and Italian mean borders, not marshes.) The local produce is almost identical, he says.

But surely the parallel stops there? Welsh cooking is not exactly world- renowned. The smiling and gentle Franco won't hear of this. The Welsh have their birthright, of that he is sure. "I'm passionate that Welsh cooking shouldn't be forgotten."

What can he mean? Sitting around the fireside with his customers, many of whom are also his suppliers, a glass of wine in his hand, he listens to their memories of family cooking and allows his imagination free rein as they talk of stews of lamb, game, rabbit, pungently flavoured with herbs. Or fish and cockle pies and breakfast fry-ups of laverbread (a mixture of boiled seaweed and oats).

Laver is a peculiarly Welsh taste and, in fact, a useful mineral and vitamin supplement (the Japanese rate very highly its cousin, nori). But does it not take a leap of the culinary imagination to embrace its iodine flavour in cooking?

"The Welsh love laver," says Ann Taruschio. "So we had to find a way of including it on the menu." What did Franco do? He used some deep-fried to accompany a dish of roast monkfish and also made it into a tangy sauce - and very good it is too. We've chosen it as this month's New British Classic (see recipe, below).

We could as easily have chosen his cockle and mussel pie, cockles from the Gower peninsula being almost a staple food of the Welsh (Franco combines them with mussels as he might in Italy). Or we could have shared Franco's famous salted Welsh duck, his interpretation of (and improvement on) a dish from the classic 19th-century cookbook by Lady Llanover (her husband, a reforming Liberal MP, commis-sioner of works and a towering 6ft 2ins, gave his name to Big Ben). Salted Welsh duck takes three days to make, but the silky, delicate breast is like no other meat.

Or we could have given his recipe for bubble and squeak, suggested Ann Taruschio, Franco's twist on a Welsh favourite. That's Welsh? Thanks, but no thanks. One doesn't like to be rude, but really, we victims of boarding-school food don't need to be told what bubble and squeak is. It used to be the institutional cook's way of recycling left-over mash and (shudder) overcooked, wet cabbage.

Enough. No, I must go on. This mess was then fried in bacon fat (left over from breakfast rations and scraped from pans where it had congealed). As it carbonised into a black crust in the frying pan the cabbage would release sulphurous fumes from hell.

Ann Taruschio sends Franco's recipe anyway and, of course, his "Welsh" bubble 'n' squeak recipe is from heaven, a measure of his genius. No cooked cabbage features in it, luckily, but a generous handful of wild garlic stems plucked from the local hedgerows.

Franco chops the stems and sweats them in butter, then adds a little water, continuing to cook till it evaporates and the leaves are cooked. He blends them into freshly mashed potatoes (boiled in their skins, peeled while still warm, passed through a mouli-legumes), which he combines with crispy-fried bacon strips (fat poured off), mint and black pepper.

This mixture he rolls into a 5cm/2in thick cylindrical shape. He cuts it in slices, flours them, and fries them in a mixture of olive oil and butter till crisp on both sides. Absolutely delicious. Some bubble, some squeak. (Ingredients for four: 1 kg/2lbs potatoes, l00g/ 4oz streaky bacon, 50g/2oz wild garlic leaves, 15 chopped mint leaves.)

Where does one start with Franco? A series of accidents led him to Wales. He was 16 when he left home to become a student at catering college in Como, north Italy. "I wasn't ambitious to cook," he says. "All I could think about was girls. I headed for Switzerland, France, and then thought I should learn English and arrived in the Midlands. It was a cultural shock."

He met his wife in Rugby, where she was teaching. The notion of opening a hotel or even a restaurant foundered when they examined their savings. So they settled for a pub in what was then a remote spot in the Brecon Hills (this was 1963 and the Severn Bridge was yet to be built - when it was, it brought England to within 35 minutes by car).

The smell of garlic coming from Franco's kitchen puzzled theWelsh, as did the menu; in the early 1960s no one in Wales had tasted spaghetti bolognese, let alone lasagne or cannelloni. "Ignorance of Italian food was enormous," laughs Franco. "People here really believed the April Fool joke on TV showing spaghetti growing on trees. Olive oil was something people bought in tiny bottles in Boots to clean their ears."

Yet within a year Franco and Ann had built up that sense of loyalty which characterises The Walnut Tree customers. On a January afternoon in 1964, when they'd prepared dinner for a party of 12, the snows came down, and so did the telephone lines. The road became impassable. At 8pm, when they were sure no one would arrive, 12 "snowmen" walked in, shovels over their shoulders. They had walked the three miles from Abergavenny.

Many of their customers today are suppliers too. Franco casts his net wide, visiting farmers and asking if they can sell him a suckling pig for roasting. "They wanted to sell me bigger ones, so I had to say, give me a smaller one, I'll pay you the same money."

He counts among his friends gardeners whom he can persuade to plant seeds he brings back from Italy, such as the coarse black cabbage, cavalo nero, and globe artichokes or the herb rocket.

He buys cheese from another Welsh Italian, a storekeeper from the valleys, now retired. "He found himself one day at the market with nothing to do," Franco says. When he got home that day he told his wife; 'I've just bought a farm and a flock of sheep.' She was furious and made him sell the farm. But he kept the sheep." Now he sells Franco ricotta, the fresh Italian cream cheese, and the dry sheep's cheese, pecorino, for grating.

Franco's kitchen is his laboratory ("he's in love with his kitchen," says his wife) and there are few areas where he doesn't experiment. One day he will make Glamorgan sausage (that's with cheese), on another his native fig sausage (a dessert known as lonza di fichi), a concoction of dried figs pounded with dates, almonds, walnuts, pistachio nuts, four kinds of liqueur, rolled into a salami shape and then wrapped with rice paper.

He bought local hams to try making parma ham, utilising his father-in- law's garage to dry the hams out, after salting. "My father-in-law wasn't very happy. The salt drips and it ruined his floor." These days Franco limits himself to making his own bresaola, the marinated, air-dried beef that is also sliced thinly like parma ham to make a delicious first course. He uses the superb local beef.

There's no mystique to making it and, unlike parma ham, which is many months in the maturing, his bresaola is made in a fortnight. The only inhibition is cost, since you need to make a large piece, that's to say 4kg. But it keeps for three months in the fridge, so it's a pretty good investment (see recipe in box).

For the first 13 years Franco worked without professional staff, but now he recruits young cooks. Most are from the North, brought up on baked beans and tomato ketchup. So they are slightly bemused when he takes them out on mushroom forays, or picking wild damsons, blackberries, rowans. He pounces on edible herbs growing beside the road, young nettles (the Welsh have a fondness for nettle soup), erba di campo (that's dandelion in English) and wild garlic. Or wild samphire, the salty marsh shoots, gathered in the estuaries. One day he drove to Barry docks to dig up wild fennel for his allotment.

It takes some time for new staff to adjust to the idea that Franco's way of cooking involves a lot more work. "The problem is," Franco says, "they are all attracted to becoming superstar chefs but they don't want to put the extra effort in. I had to give one girl a real dressing-down. I said, 'You do it, but you don't do it with love. Do it as if you mean it, as I hope you do when you make love.'" He smiles. "There was an improvement the next day."

ROAST MONKFISH WITH LAVERBREAD SAUCE

Serves 6

6 pieces monkfish 175g/6ozs each

6 whole scallops, cleaned

6 king prawn tails, peeled

olive oil

knob of butter

a little flour

salt and freshly ground pepper

zest of 1 Seville orange, cut in fine strips, blanched in boiling water

125g/412ozs laver seaweed

vegetable oil for deep-frying

teaspoon coriander seeds, roughly crushed

Lightly flour and season the monkfish, scallops and prawns. Heat enough oil to cover the base of an oven-proof frying pan large enough to take all the fish. Add a knob of butter and when it foams add the monkfish, scallops and prawns. The scallops and prawns will cook quickly, so remove when done and keep warm. Fry the monkfish till golden brown on both sides.

Transfer the pan to a preheated hot oven, 220C/425F/Gas 7, for approximately four to five minutes. Cooking time depends on thickness of fish, so be careful not to overcook. Leave the fish to rest while you prepare the plates.

Wash the laver seaweed thoroughly. You will have to wash it many times to remove the sand that adheres to it. Leave it to drain in a colander and then dry thoroughly. Tear the laver into strips, dip it in flour and shake off the excess. Deep fry the laver until crisp, about two to three minutes. Sprinkle with a little roughly ground fresh coriander seeds.

Put three tablespoons of laverbread sauce (see below) on each plate, slice the monkfish pieces into two, cutting diagonally. Place the pieces slightly overlapping, adding the scallop and prawn. Surround with deep- fried laver and a few julienne strips of orange.

Serve immediately.

LAVERBREAD SAUCE

3 carrots

1 leek

1 onion

2 stalks of celery

3 sprigs parsley

1 large potato (250g/12lb)

1 bay leaf

5 peppercorns

600ml/1 pint milk

150ml/14pt Seville orange juice

3 knobs butter

2 tablespoons cream

175g/6oz processed laverbread

Make a strong stock using the first nine ingredients above.

Strain the stock, return half the potato to it, add the laverbread (which you may be able to find outside Wales in packet-form in specialised food shops), the cream and the butter. Liquid-ise and add the Seville orange juice. When adding the juice, keep tasting. More or less may be needed; the sauce must be balanced.

Return the sauce to the heat and bring to just below boiling. Check the seasoning.

! Franco Taruschio is author of 'Leaves from The Walnut Tree' (Pavilion pounds 15.99, hardback; pounds 9.99 paperback), which includes the dishes mentioned here as well as favourites from Franco's menu.

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