Blow in and stuff your cheeks

The Hay Festival is finished and the world's literary elite are gone, but the menu at nearby Nantyfinn Cider Mill remains required reading for anyone who enjoys exuberant cooking, generous portions and stylish decor
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When the world's weightiest authors landed in a muddy field for the Hay Festival, which ended last week, the ripples were felt as far away as Crickhowell. It meant the Welsh Dining Pub of the Year was packed to the rafters of its stone-walled dining room with a crowd that must, I imagine, have been more eclectic than usual. The pointy facial hair, climbing boots and berets (young men), the dirndl skirts, Clarks shoes and finer facial hair (older women) seemed to represent the exotic influx of those who'd come to clap eyes on Zadie Smith, Andrew Motion and other literary characters assembled in a marquee 20 miles away.

When the world's weightiest authors landed in a muddy field for the Hay Festival, which ended last week, the ripples were felt as far away as Crickhowell. It meant the Welsh Dining Pub of the Year was packed to the rafters of its stone-walled dining room with a crowd that must, I imagine, have been more eclectic than usual. The pointy facial hair, climbing boots and berets (young men), the dirndl skirts, Clarks shoes and finer facial hair (older women) seemed to represent the exotic influx of those who'd come to clap eyes on Zadie Smith, Andrew Motion and other literary characters assembled in a marquee 20 miles away.

The reading aloud I enjoy best is when the day's specials are recited, and so I escaped the wordy mudfest and rounded up friends who live nearby and whose unopened novels also gather dust on the bedside table, and headed off for the Nantyffin Cider Mill, opposite the AA box on the Crickhowell to Brecon road. Its evolution into the area's best-known restaurant predates the arrival of these energetic and imaginative good-lifers who've run a B&B for seven years. But though they recommend it to their guests, my friends had never eaten there.

On the understanding that it isn't a gin-and-tonicky, jacket-and-tie or frock-and-slingbacks kind of place, borne out by the number of parked cars with mountain bikes strapped to the roofs, we'd put on clean jeans and went with appetites of the type developed by hoeing and mowing (or mountain biking) and industrial laundering. It was somewhat galling, then, that as we stepped in, the occupants of the table nearest the door gave us the kind of unreserved stare usually bestowed by locals on tourists. Perhaps they were expecting Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, for, as proof of how far some of the customers had come, the rubberneckers who momentarily made us feel like aliens turned out to be American.

What also immediately struck us was the colour of the walls, a shockingly lovely deep pink signalling a boldness and sense of style often lacking in country pubs. Posters of Napa Valley vineyards, as well as watercolour landscapes, also indicate a confident and wider-than-usual outlook, although it doesn't feel like a pub that's got above itself. Another door leads to a snug brown bar for drinking beer, not the California wines in which the Cider Mill specialises.

Most people eat in the beamed and stone-walled former apple store; we were lucky to get a corner table in the more colourful bar, which glowed with good cheer and painted walls. Hunks of home-baked granary bread thicker than a farmer's thumb made a warm and rustic introduction, and showed an understanding that hunger needs to be addressed immediately as well as expectations of good cooking satisfied gradually. There's no need to order more than a bowl of soup, but that alone would fill in the sunken cheeks of anyone cultivating the starving-in-a-garret author look.

Starters - two from the blackboard, one from the printed menu - arrived sizzling, with a speed that showed the kitchen had got cracking the minute we'd ordered. Scallops were sweetly perfect, on a lovely light stew of peas, bacon and broad beans, peeled. "I've never had broad beans shelled before," said the man who'd spent all afternoon on a tractor mower and might not have been expected to notice such niceties. With a gardener's practised eye, he also appreciated the lamb's lettuce and basil leaves with it - but not the fake gerbera in a vase on the table. Squid chargrilled with bright red chilli jam was as resonantly smokey and fruity a combination as the timbre of Martin Amis's voice heard earlier up the road. Kofta on couscous sweetly studded with raisins, pine nuts, cucumber, red pepper and tomato, with a punch-packing harissa, represented the more permanent menu, and was the least successful of the three.

These starters were substantial, but hardly a warning of things to come. A massive lemon sole, cooked with flagrant disregard for the discomforting effect of lavish amounts of butter and oil eventually overwhelmed the laundress. Cod came with gremolata, a parsley, garlic and breadcrumb crust, on a cauliflower purée with saffron and with slices of not too fiery chorizo. Result: fish slightly swamped by what became a savoury but sludgy yellow-and-red mix of the saffron-tinted cauli and chorizo-stained juices. That we'd been persuaded by the blackboard to choose so much fish on a wet Sunday night inland in Wales is testament to excellence of their supplies, apparently from Cornwall and Loch Fyne. To my right the knife was whizzing through thick slices of Gloucester Old Spot topped with salty crackling, and with baby baked beets tucked between the slabs of tender. There was also a sweet potato cake with it; "a bubble-and-squeaky type of affair," according to lawnmower man, who dispatched it with astonishing speed.

Though there was more exuberance and generosity than precision to the cooking, it made it all the more enjoyable. It did however make the idea of pudding less appealing, but coincidentally, the kitchen's vigour also seemed to dwindle with each course. A sticky toffee pudding "lacks stick and a bit of toff" but was wonderfully light; lemon tart was gorgeously filled, but the pastry needn't have been so grey. "But then I'm not really in the market for pastry by now," my landlady friend conceded, scraping out the contents.

Our first drinks had been fine home-made lemonade, the last was coffee made with scant amount of beans; with a bottle of house wine in between it was £30 a head. When the literary visitors have left Hay-on-Wye high and dry, the Cider Mill will still be producing meals easily good enough and almost too voluminous for anyone else in the area.

Nantyffin Cider Mill, Brecon Road, Crickhowell, Powys (01873 810775) Wed-Sat lunch 12-2.30pm and dinner 7-9.30pm. Major credit cards accepted. Disabled access.

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