What Hay seems to lack, however, is a restaurant of any distinction. Locals seem somewhat baffled when one mentions eating. Even the guidebooks are blank on the matter. Not one Hay restaurant has gained a full entry in The Good Food Guide. I heard about the Old Black Lion from a researcher at the The Good Food Guide offices, who proposed it with some circumspection.
I arrived at 6.45 last Saturday evening. The innkeeper offered me his armchair and poured a half-pint of Flowers ale, saying there would normally be Bass as well, but that the new batch needed time to settle. Here was an amiably chatty host. 'Hay is the Lake District of Wales,' he said. 'It's popular all year round.' This seemed a strange assertion, since the beamed and candle-lit rooms were empty. Minutes later, however, the place was packed with hearty hillwalkers. I had arrived half an hour before opening time, and this kindly gent had thought it only civil to entertain me.
His partner, a delightfully cheery woman, smartly turned out, appeared at 7pm. She had a knack of charming each group. There was food, but to dwell on it would be to miss the point. What The Old Black Lion is good at is bonhomie.
So, to eat well one will probably have to cook - or drive. My favourite restaurant in Britain, The Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny, Gwent, is about a half-hour's drive south of Hay on winding A-roads. Regular readers will have seen much written about its green tomato crostini, Welsh salt duck with pickled damsons, wild mushroom lasagne, salad garden, heroic wine list, and wonderful waitresses who seem always to have been there. Just bear in mind that reservations are taken only for a small dining-room. The rest of the food is served on a first come, first served basis. Arrive early or late, or be prepared to queue.
Another option when setting out from Hay is to nip back into England: the border lies down the hill from the Old Black Lion. A half-hour's drive east into Hereford and Worcester leads to a pub called the Roebuck in Brimfield. Meals are served in its maze of darkly panelled rooms, and posher nosh in a fancier, lighter dining- room. Confusingly, rooms where food is served seem to be called 'Poppies at the Roebuck'.
The chef is a Welshwoman called Carole Evans, a mother of five. Throughout our meal she boomed orders behind the swing door. She hails from Abergavenny, from a family (word in Gwent has it) of excellent cooks. Word in Gwent has it right. If Britain has an equivalent of France's cuisine du terroir, it is in Mrs Evans's kitchen. When she makes a beef stew, she casseroles it in beer. The meat is melting and rich, onions and carrot slices sweet with just the right firmness. A horseradish dumpling is reinforced by a side dish of horseradish cream.
Even the poshest kitchens do not go to the trouble to get firm, fresh chicken livers. Unforgivably, butchers greedily keep them for freezing. Yet Mrs Evans serves four or five of them, perfectly pan- fried, on a herby brioche base. The accompanying sauce tasted piquant and fruity, as if made by deglazing the frying pan with really good wine vinegar. The whole dish was perfectly delicious. Herbs and salad leaves are grown in her kitchen garden at the back.
I ate in the pub; so did an impressive turn-out of locals, who seem to value this marvellously earthy food. Service is friendly and smooth, particularly from a suave Italian waiter who insisted that I order coffee after the meal.
Another, older and portlier gentleman, who bore more than a passing resemblance to a 50-ish Robert Morley, wandered around offering the odd customer the odd drink before, looking bored, he retired upstairs mid-service. I flagged down the Italian waiter for a glass of house red, which was a brutally strong Spanish number that tasted of rancid wood and plimsolls.
Llangoed Hall is a country pile near Brecon, Powys, which has been converted to a living museum in honour of a girl from Merthyr Tydfil. The drapes are Laura Ashley, the upholstery is Laura Ashley, the owner is her widower, Sir Bernard Ashley, and the glorious house has been togged out in perfect taste by her son, Nick Ashley.
The result is breathtaking. If decorating catalogues drive you into a materialistic frenzy, expect to come away an acquisitive wreck: life may not be worth living without flowing chintzy drapes, deep red sofas, big sideboards, a straightback Steinway in the hallway and grand piano in the sitting- room, folded silk lampshades, a small collection of Whistler drawings, a billiard room and spotlit oil paintings.
There is trouble in paradise, however: first, the price. I am told there is a snip of a Sunday lunch, but we, who had arrived as a party of three last Sunday evening, simply wanted dinner. One of us had two starters and a dessert; another a main course only; I had a starter and main course. We also had two mineral waters, a gin and tonic and half a bottle of decent dry Pieropan Soave (full bottles of which used to sell in Oddbins for about pounds 4). Two coffees tipped the bill to near on pounds 100. Had we each had three courses and a full bottle of wine, it would have cost pounds 181 - which could buy many metres of Laura Ashley fabric, or a meal in one of the world's best restaurants.
Evidently, the chef has been through a succession of country-house hotels. To judge by his cooking, they were pretentious places. A breast of local duck was good, but the fat was unrendered and there were slices of black truffle over it, a pointless extravagance. If the truffles had any musk when he shaved them, it had been killed by a heavy sauce and curious flavouring of cinnamon. Next to it was a faggot, whose caul had not been seared and was slimy. A loin of local lamb ( pounds 21.50]) came with a twirled pile of noodles in a creamy garlic sauce. All the savoury dishes had way too much salt. Something called 'poire william brulee' comprised a big caramelised pear sitting on a nougat confection in a pool of plum and apricot sauce. I could taste no poire william.
Now for the good news. The manager, a local lad called Gareth Pugh, and his wife, Helen, are delightful. I am told they were brought in to liven up the place. The place needs it. That evening some local businessmen celebrating a 60th birthday were in full voice. But when they left, Llangoed Hall reverted to a self-conscious and prissy whispering gallery. It deserves better.
Old Black Lion, 26 Lion Street, Hay-on- Wye, Powys (0497 820841).
Walnut Tree Inn, Llandewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny, Gwent (0873 852797).
Poppies at the Roebuck, Brimfield, Hereford & Worcester (0584 711230).
Llangoed Hall, nr Brecon, Powys (0874 754525).