With the famous Walnut Tree in its back yard, Abergavenny has long since been a destination for the travelling foodie. Amanda Afiya visits another one of its restaurants of note, at Llansantffraed Court hotel
It may be quite a modest town, but with restaurants such as the Walnut Tree and the Hardwick in its midst, as well as one of the most respected food festivals of its kind, Abergavenny is certainly creating a cult following and fast becoming the next Ludlow.
Just on the outskirts of Abergavenny is Llansantffraed Court hotel. The Grade II-listed building sits proudly at the end of an imposing drive and while much of the house as it stands today was redesigned in 1912, parts of it actually date back to the late 17th century. The house has traded as a hotel on and off for over 50 years and was acquired by its present owner, Mike Morgan - one of the founders of the Abergavenny Food Festival - and his family, in 1997.
It was its captivating scenery that snared head chef Steve Bennett. "When I arrived in the early spring nearly four years ago and saw the grounds and could hear nothing but the sounds of nature, I knew I wanted to be part of it. It's a very inspirational surrounding."
Bennett, who originates from Cardiff, is a true Welsh produce champion. His menus are brimming with indigenous produce, proudly name-checking local suppliers such as vegetables from Phil Jones of Goytre and John Lewis of Monmouth, meat from Neil Powell of Ewyas Harold and Country Butcher of Huntley and honey from Wye Valley Apiaries of Ross-on-Wye.
The à la carte offers five options at each course or, alternatively, diners can opt for the nine-course tasting menu (£60) along with tasting wines (£90) selected by Polish restaurant manager Kris Kwarciany - with a little help from enthusiast Morgan - which include a fabulous Seyval Blanc from the nearby Ancre Hill Estates vineyard in Monmouth.
Among the dishes on both menus is butternut squash, goats' cheese and hazelnut cannelloni (£6.50) which uses the neck from the butternut squash, marinated in a hazelnut oil, maple syrup and fresh lemon juice dressing, and filled with crumbled goats' cheese, toasted hazelnuts, roasted diced squash and baby mizuna leaves.
For the caramelised brill, oxtail mash, bourguignon garnish (£18), Bennett and his team - Nick Buckle, Sarah Cornthwaite and Lewis Rogers - cook the fish on the bone, then carefully fillet it after cooking. It is served on a line of piped mashed potato enriched with crushed braised oxtail and some of the cooking liquor for deep flavour. The bourguignon garnishes - trompettes de mort, bacon and pearl onions - are cooked separately and scattered around the fish which is dressed with a light vinaigrette mixed with oxtail jus.
Bennett has a constant appetite to learn from others. His latest holiday took him to the recently crowned three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Alinea and he regularly refers to his library of 200 cookery books for inspiration. Among his favourites are Grant Achatz's Alinea, Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook and the ubiquitous White Heat from Marco Pierre White.
On top of his globe-trotting exploits - keep up with him on Twitter.com/chefbennett01 - Bennett also recently took part in Street Market Chefs, currently showing on Five, in which two chefs from different areas visit their local farmers' markets and cook two dishes each.
"The whole premise of the show is to encourage people to return to shopping at their local markets rather than supermarkets, to connect with local producers to help keep UK farming alive," says Bennett, who appears on Tuesday's programme (14 December).
When it comes to supporting local produce, you'd be hard pressed to find a better role model.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
STARTERS Cassoulet of Morteau sausage, confit pork and calf's tongue, parsley £7.50 Indian-spiced scallops, roast artichoke, chickpea purée, chermoula £7.50 Ballotine of salmon, avocado, dill, potato vinaigrette, caviar £7
MAIN COURSES Roasted halibut, mussels, leeks, trompette mushrooms £19.50 Rare roasted Bwlch venison loin, braised shoulder, caramelised sprouts, honeyed chestnuts, pancetta £21 Twice-cooked Bryn Derw farm chicken, pine nuts, Toulouse sausage, Savoy cabbage £20
DESSERTS Caramelised banana galette, crème fraiche sorbet, salt caramel £6 Blackberry, cinnamon and apple "cheesecake", Demerara biscuit, blackberry jelly £7.50 Selection of exclusively Welsh artisanal cheeses (Perl Wen, Edwinsford blue goat's cheese, Caws Mynydd Du, Perl Las, Celtic Promise), celery, grapes, bara brith and wheat biscuits £9