My family used to gather samphire on the marshes of the Thames estuary. But that was years ago - before "the environment" was invented. We would never have gathered it in South Wales. Too many industrial pollutants - or so I thought.
My family used to gather samphire on the marshes of the Thames estuary. But that was years ago - before "the environment" was invented. We would never have gathered it in South Wales. Too many industrial pollutants - or so I thought. But, to get to The Foxhunter, I drove past the vast, unspoilt beaches of the Gower peninsula. Clearly I was wrong about South Wales. The Gower is where The Foxhunter gets its samphire and sea beet. The elvers come from the River Wye, and the gulls' eggs from Pembroke. The chef, Matt Tebbutt, is intent on making the most of his surroundings.
His restaurant is on a by-road of a by-road, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. You've got to want to find it. The building was originally a stationmaster's house. It was then converted into a tea-room - and a pub. The dartboard is long gone, but the flagstone floor is still there. The beech furniture, the uncurtained windows and the gourds are a more recent introduction.
My starter of mozzarella with Italian tomatoes, basil and pan catalan (£7.95) arrived on a warm white plate. The small, bite-sized balls of cheese, known as bocconcini, had a very thin skin the colour of porcelain, and a mild, sweet milkiness. The tomatoes were bursting with the flavour of summer afternoons.
I was surprised by the pan-fried foie gras (£12.95). The portion was huge - not as huge as the whole distended liver, you understand, once the poor goose has been force-fed. But huge none the less. My in-laws loved its melting quality, as it oozed into the dark chocolate and prune brioche. The sweet and bitter flavours managed each other quite well, so to bang on about the cruelty of gavage would be churlish.
Portion-size is all that's left of the pub mentality at The Foxhunter. A pile of girolles came with the venison. There was a veritable bush of rosemary stabbed into the warm focaccia, and half a fat lemon with the Old Spot pork salad (£6.95). The Old Spot was thinly-sliced. And cold. To me, cold pork is bland, and although this wasn't the exception that proves my rule, it was saved by the bite of rocket.
The restaurant's proximity to the legendary Walnut Tree certainly hasn't harmed business. Nor has Tebbutt's reputation. He trained with everyone from Alistair Little to Sally Clarke, and gets to show off with his main courses. Especially the hake steak (£16.95), which he serves with gremolata. Gremolata usually goes with osso bucco before, but the taste of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest gave the buttery fish a punch of fresh flavour.
Filling every inch of my huge plate was a trawl of whelks, clams and fat, juicy mussels. Anthony Bourdain will never eat mussels unless a) he knows the chef personally, or b) he goes into the kitchen to inspect the mussels beforehand. I'm known for being less picky, but will never eat mussels if they're a) green. And apart from that one lunch in Normandy, I have never been called to account. Live a little, Anthony.
My only complaint (and I realise this is a little specific) was that our waitress couldn't identify my whelks. I only wanted confirmation that they were whelks. Does that make me too demanding? She just smiled. And shrugged. I tried the red wine. When the white arrived, and I wanted to try that too, she asked if I needed a new glass. In Britain, we're still waiting for waiting tables to be recognised as a job for life, not just for Christmas or the summer holidays.
When we sent back the overcooked braised lamb my mother-in-law chose, a free-range chicken breast (£16.95) arrived in its place. It could have been ordinary. But it was extraordinary. It had the texture of ripe brie, and the flavour of the countryside. The samphire, served alongside pan-fried sewin, was nicer than anything my family ever found on the Thames estuary. There's no specific thing as Welsh cuisine, but The Foxhunter is bringing the best of Welsh produce to the table. And how.
The Abergavenny Food Festival, in association with 'The Independent', is taking place today and tomorrow. For full details visit
The Foxhunter, Nantyderry, Abergavenny, South Wales (01873 881101)
SECOND HELPINGS: SOUTH WALES WONDERS
By Caroline Stacey
The Bell at Skenfrith
With a clutch of awards and a full car park, the inn's good news rings out: bedrooms are gorgeous, the flagstoned bar's ales are real, and the dining room showcases local food wonderfully.
Skenfrith (01600 750235)
A reassuringly good restaurant, special without being swanky, in the Manics' home town. With a fish pie lavish with lobster, it's reputation for seafood is second to none.
77-78 Lower Dock Street, Newport (01633 256622)
What makes this inn with rooms beside the Usk more of a restaurant than a plain gastropub? Chef Iain Sampson shows what when he cooks some knock out Old Spot pork at the Food Festival this morning.
Tredunnock, near Usk (01633 451000)
The Walnut Tree Inn
The legendary Italian-meets-Welsh restaurant got prime time advice from Gordon Ramsay, resolved the recent kitchen hiatus, and is back on track with dishes like Welsh lamb with caponata.
Llandewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny (01873 852797)Reuse content