Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pumpkin and Treacle Gingerbread

I always forget just how much I love autumn. At the end of the summer there's always that lull, where evenings get darker and mornings colder, and I wish it could be May again; the trees heavy with hawthorn and cherry blossom and the promise of warm days to come. (Or, most likely, rain in June and July followed by a few muggy days in August if you're lucky.)

But then I remember why it's such a great time of the year; the smell of woodsmoke and wet dog; pints of bitter sat around the pub fire; colours changing from green to red to gold; rustling piles of leaves begging to be kicked; misty mornings; frost on lawns and firework parties. But best of all is the food. Gone are the salad, replaced by crispy jacket potatoes and hot sausages; sticky toffee apples, steaming bowls of soup and spicy gingerbread.

Good gingerbread is the type of cake which, if you have the patience, is better eaten a few days later. Kept wrapped from prying eyes in greaseproof paper it becomes even richer and stickier.
This easy recipe, adapted from Good Food's Pumpkin Cake, is the marriage of three great Autumnal ingredients; squash, black treacle and ginger. I roasted the squash first, instead of grating it raw into the batter, and added treacle for bitterness. A good slug of rum, orange zest, raisins, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg finish things off.

Despite the rich ingredients this is a surprisingly light cake, and a cinch to throw together. And, as it keeps extraordinarily well, a batch made from the discarded guts of a Halloween jack-o'-latern now will make the perfect Bonfire Night finale in a few days time.

Pumpkin and Treacle Gingerbread
300g pumpkin (or squash) peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
125g butter
100g brown sugar
100g black treacle
100g raisins
2 tbsp golden rum
2 eggs
150g self raising flour
1/ tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Zest of one orange
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Heat oven to 180C Butter and line a 24 x 24cm baking or small roasting tin with baking parchment.
Place pumpkin on an oven tray and roast for 20 minutes, or until soft and golden at the edges. Allow to cool and then roughly chop or mash.
Melt butter in a small saucepan, add the raisins, rum and treacle and allow to cool.
Put the flour, sugar, spice, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl and stir to combine.
Beat the eggs into the melted butter, stir in the orange zest, then mix with the dry ingredients till combined. Stir in the pumpkin mixture.
Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 30 mins, or until golden and springy to the touch.
Allow to cool on a baking tray before cutting into squares and storing in an airtight tin.
To warm those fingers and toes on a chilly evening serve hot with ice cream or cream, or enjoy a square or two with an afternoon cup of coffee.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Honest Burgers, Soho

Brunch for six hungry and hungover souls on a Sunday in Central London. Easy, right? Or perhaps not; with the capital's new found love of no reservation policies, and the ones that do appearing to all be fully booked or too far away from where we needed to be, a peckish panic began to take hold.

Luckily there are always b*****s, the foodie trend that will not die. (A fortunate thing, as Laandan Town now offers some of the best meat between a bun available anywhere) After Stealth had kindly saved me Giles Coren's review of Tommi's the day before, the beef-cravings were beginning to take hold. Quickly a consensus was reached. To Soho; where flesh is still king (in more ways than one).

I don't normally subject pictures of my friends on the unwitting, but here they are looking like butter wouldn't melt.... The eagle-eyed amongst you may also have notice the lovely Leona in the picture at the top (hopefully it won't put you off your food). As well as being a good friend she is also a very funny dining companion, and after making many attempts to feature on the blog (difficult, as the height of her culinary skills seems to be toasting crumpets), she's finally made it.
Although Honest Burgers don't take reservations, we arrived early enough to bag a table together, the staff rather helpfully allowing us to rearrange the furniture, and generally make a song and dance about seating ourselves. The place is pretty small and the decor is plain and simple - wooden chairs and tables and not much else - although there also is some handy seating outside, lovely on a sunny day. With the leafy trees and cobbled street it's almost possible to forget you're in the heart of the West End.

Keeping it simple, Honest offers a free range chicken burger; aged beef burgers from the Ginger Pig (with or without a selection of cheeses, or as an 'Honest' version); and a veggie fritter. Throw in a regularly changing special burger and three sides, and that's your lot.

Despite the brevity of the menu we still manage to thoroughly confuse our waitress with our indecision and questioning. Happily she was lovely and took it all terribly well, remaining good humoured even after she had to strike through our original burger orders after we decided that we all wanted them cooked different ways.

And here's the really great thing; Honest is a burger joint that proudly advertises that their burgers are cooked pink as standard, and they will cook your patty even rarer if you request it. Sure, there are other burger joints that will satisfy your blood lust, but it is still far too uncommon to see grey being offered as standard hue and restaurants quoting all manner of health and safety regulations as an excuse to serve up tough and leaden hockey pucks.

For cooking their patties rare Honest gets a many extra burger bonus points; unfortunately it loses half of those for not offering any milkshakes. Even with their limited space and brief menu, a shake is almost essential for perfect burger experience. And I had, rather rashly, promised there would definitely be some on the menu. Ooops.

In the absence of milkshakes, I had a rather nice Oxford Dy iced tea, served in an ubiquitous jam jar. The homemade lemonade was also voted very good (which is offered with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if that floats your boat), while there are bloody marys and Sam Smith's ales for those who want something a little stronger.

Four of us went for the Honest burger, their signature beef patty with onion relish, mature cheddar, smoked bacon, pickles and salad. My patty was perfectly rare, if a touch under seasoned, and had been nicely rested so it remained juicy without turning the bun soggy and disintegrating in hand. The bun was majestic, a shiny brioche number that was slightly sweet, slightly chewy and offered just the right amount of support for its cargo.

The cheese was nicely melted over the meat, while the dry cured smoked streaky bacon (also from the Ginger Pig) was the best I have ever eaten in a burger. Thick cut, smoky and crispy, I happily ate a rasher proffered from Leona's plate, too. The only jarring note was the onion relish, which was a sweet as jam and became rather too overpowering, despite all the other strong flavours nestling between the bun.

A mention must go to their rosemary fries, included with all burgers. I was a little dubious that the herb seasoning may have been a too overpowering, but thankfully I was wrong. These were really quite fabulous chips; crunchy, creamy, fluffy and so well seasoned that I eschewed all condiments offered alongside. Almost unheard of, and the very highest praise.

The Ewing and Ellen went for the special, a combo including chipotle slaw, Welsh Monterey Jack cheese and courgette. This was also taken down in double quick time, although the slaw was described as more of a 'relish', that lacked the punch of smoked chillies.

So, Honest Burgers; it does what it says on the tin. This is mighty fine meat, fabulous chips and good drinks, all served up with a side of impeccable service. There may be many other joints vying for your burger dollars, but although Honest may not be big, it is clever.

As a footnote I must include this photo, which I found on my camera after a night out drinking and dancing in Clapham. Not only had Leona and Ellen schlepped all the way down the Kennington Road for a kebab on their way home, they had also managed to artfully photographed Leona eating it and left me some for my breakfast. All in a desperate and shameful attempt to be featured on the blog. Well ladies, the bribery worked. (And the cold kebab was delicious, too.)

Honest Burgers (Soho) on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 October 2012

Bonnie Gull, Fitzrovia

Last Saturday I decided to treat the Ewing to crabs (behave) at London's latest pop-up turned permanent, the Bonnie Gull. After starting life as a seafood shack in Hackney, this 'clarion call to British seafood' has swum across town to new home in Fitzrovia.

Occupying a rather cute corner spot with blue and white awnings, inside is nautically inspired with whitewashed tables and chairs, a chalk board map showing where today's catch hails from and a sparkling raw bar, heaped with spanking fresh sea food piled up on ice. The Ewing was instantly charmed.

The menu is a perfect exercise in brevity. For brunch they offered a small selection from the raw bar, an English breakfast; a handful of egg options; kippers and a choice of three mains. Fish'n'chips, crab or gnocchi. It's rather nice to know that your eating what's fresh, available locally, and in season.

Razor clams came on their shells, in a trug full of ice. These looked the biz, and tasted very good thanks to being seasoned with chilli, garlic and parsley and served with a piquant cocktail sauce.  A word of warning for the squeamish (although, if these kind of things creep you out then you're probably in the wrong place) while the clams look great served whole it does mean some DIY dissection to remove their digestive tract; a messy and gory job.

Far simpler were the Loch Ryan oysters and periwinkles (advertised on the menu as cockles, but these turned up instead). Again, thumbs up for the shell-shaped serving platter and silver pins given to us to extract the sweet squiggles of sea snail from their shells, these were also great dunked into the Ewing's mignonette sauce.
And onto cocktails; these didn't materialise until we were well stuck into our starters, but they proved worth the wait. My Smoke on the Water cocktail consisted of Chase smoked vodka, dry vermouth, an (absent in this case) black salt rim and a smoked salmon chaser. The martini was nice; bracing and strong. But the magic really happened when you ate some of the salmon afterwards. The persistent smokiness of the fish with the tingle of alcohol was a lovely combination.

The Ewing's Beetcar: Portabello Road gin, lemon juice, beetroot, fresh ginger, coriander and egg white, served martini style. This was a beauty to look at, and, despite its 'healthy' star ingredient, there was plenty of alcohol there too. An earthy and fragrant combination of flavours with a savoury edge that would make a good choice instead of a bloody mary. (Also available here too, complete with oyster garnish.)
And so to the main attraction: Devonshire cock crab with Shack Mayo and sourdough. And what a beauty it was. I love crab; many people (the Ewing and my dad and sister included) prefer it to lobster, (although I still have a rather large soft spot for lobster rolls with mayo and celery, or grilled with lashings of cheese sauce). It certainly also has far more flavour and is far less expensive than their crustacean cousins.

Of all the crustaceans I have enjoyed, from snow crabs in Florida, mud crabs in Sydney and spider crabs in Spain, the humble brown crab remains my favourite. And this was one of the finest I have eaten. These bad boys were huge (the fuzzy photos don't really do it any sort of justice) Two huge, partly cracked claws and other assorted smaller limbs full of sweet white meat were delicious, but the real revelation was the brown crab. Extracted from the body; thoroughly picked over; mixed with Shack Mayo and put back into the cleaned shell; this was simply outstanding.

Often the brown meat (made up of the rich liver and digestive glands) is disregarded for being too strongly flavoured. A tragedy as all crab aficionados know that all the real 'crabby' flavour lurks within the shell. Eating this glorious mixture on slices of crunchy toast, before thoroughly chasing all the last traces around the shell with a teaspoon, is pretty much as good as life gets (throw in a few glasses of Piquepoul and a sea view and I might think I'd died and gone to heaven).

The Ewing was also in her element and spent a good hour picking over her bounty, armed with just seafood pick, claw-crackers and fingers. The poor waitress looked amazed every time she approached our table, only to find her still diligently attacking the huge mountain of shells in front of her.

Eventually she downed tools, and luckily there was still just enough room for us to both share a pudding. Choices were between a brownie with caramel sauce and a lemon tart with creme fraiche; we picked the latter, and it was a very fine choice. The curd filling was lip-puckeringly tart, causing us to pull happy grimaces at each other, which is as all good lemon puds should be. While the base was a little pale and underbaked it was atoned for by a lovely, brittle, bruleed sugar crust.

Our lunch at the Bonnie Gull was long, boozy and filled with laughter; just as all good meals should be. Service was very eager and charming, if slightly ramshackle, but the friendliness and welcoming nature of the place meant we would have happily stayed there until dinner time and eaten it all again. (We nearly did, finally leaving just as they switched to the evening menu.)

There may be plenty more fish in the sea, but the Bonnie Gull was certainly our catch of the day.

Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ysbeidiau Heulog

Ysbeidiau Heulog; not only one of my favourite tracks by Welsh songsters the Super Furry Animals, but also the title of this Welsh round up. It translates as 'sunny spells', rather apt as they were something we become rather used to during our lovely week in South Wales.

Brief spells of torrential rain, followed by glorious blue skies and rainbows (I must have seen half a dozen or so in just three days), it was the perfect autumnal weather for sightseeing and exploring, and far preferable to the horrible grey drizzle that soaks you to the bone and thoroughly dampens your spirits. (Although spirits of a different kind often revive and refresh should you find yourself in these situations.)

Reminiscences about the weather aside we were here for some good eats and what better place to start than Swansea Indoor Market. I still vividly remember being taken here while visiting a friend in Swansea a decade ago. Although we had plenty of fun trying on bad polyester wigs and over-sized housecoats, the thing that really stands out in my mind were the stalls selling warm Welsh cakes.

Luckily the sugar-crusted, raisin-studded little drop scones are still sold across the market and, of course, we couldn't leave without trying a few for ourselves. On this visit we bought two paper bags full of the hot puffy cakes, sprinkled with crunchy caster sugar; one to eat while we stood there, and another to take home. Delightful, and just as good when enjoyed with a cup of Welsh Brew later, too.

Two more legendary Swansea delicacies are the humble cockles and laverbread that can be found all through the town, including at the famous Carol Watts, who's stall is situated at the rotunda in the centre of the market. The tiny, sweet shellfish have been harvested at Penclawdd on the Gower since Roman times. While the sinister-looking, black-green seaweed is an integral part of a Welsh breakfast when fried into cakes with oatmeal and bacon.

I used to relish trips to Watford (not quite as glam), with my aunt Celine when I was a small child as it meant small, sweet pink prawns and gritty little cockles from the fish stall in the market. A pot of these little grey and orange bivalves took me straight back to my youth. Doused in malt vinegar and white pepper I was in my element chomping through the little nuggets of fishy goodness.

The laverbread was a somewhat different matter; The Ewing gamely bought a bag to try, but it sadly remained in the fridge of our lodge until it was, rather unceremoniously, dumped on the morning of our departure. Never mind, there's always next time.

Faggots, chips and peas at the King's Arms in Abergavenny.  Faggots (caul-wrapped meatballs made from pig's heart, liver and pork belly or bacon, minced together with herbs and breadcrumbs) may not be as commonly available as they once were, but they're certainly still very popular in Mid-Wales. We saw homemade trays of them everywhere; from market stalls to butcher's shops, to here on a pub lunch menu.

They were glorious; forget about the unfortunate name and the unmentionable contents (probably no more scary than an average sausage) this is exactly the sort of thing we should be eating more of. Simple grub that uses everything but the oink and tastes bloody good. The faggots were piping hot,  juicy and nicely flavoured with sage, gravy was proper, spoon-standing up in stuff, the chips gloriously crisp on the outside, sticky and fluffy within; and all this for a fiver. Although they sadly don't seem to brew their own beer any more, a pint of Iron Brew washed things down nicely.

Another day, another dinner. This time my quest for deliciousness was incorporated into a morning visit to Carreg Cennen, once of the only privately-owned castles remaining in Wales. Although the castle up keep is undertaken by Cadw, Wales' equivalent to English Heritage, the farm is still run by the Morris family and includes a tea shop selling their homemade meals and cakes. The real raison d'ĂȘtre for my visit.  Here they take longhorn beef, reared in the fields around the castle, and use it in salads, sandwiches and a fabulous sounding cottage pie that I was determined to make my lunch.

Unfortunately The Ewing had the same idea, and as there was only one portion prepared there was an excruciating twenty minute wait, with wonderful beefy smells floating up to the upstairs seating area where we were enjoying a cuppa, before the second portion was ready to eat. It was all worth it in the end though. This was a 'proper' pie, deeply savoury, full flavoured meat and gravy, sweet carrots and onion, and all topped with a burnished lid of creamy potato. The whole thing went rather nicely with a bottle of Tomos Watkins Cwrw Haf summer ale. The perfect food to fuel a walk up the hill to the castle.

Of course, it wouldn't be a holiday with out some judicious sampling of the local ales. Tomos Watkins beers, as seen above, are brewed in Swansea and seemed to pop up every where we went. We enjoyed, amongst others, a few bottles of their sweet and hoppy Magic Lagyr with a curry on our first night there. A lovely match with spicy lamb biryani and dhal.
Brains beers, from Cardiff, were also pretty ubiquitous. Their flagship 'Skull Attack' is a nice, malty bitter when supped moderation (it didn't get its nickname for nothing), while the Reverend James (previously brewed by Buckley's) made a fine drop to accompany a roast dinner of local beef and 'Welsh' pudding.
Finally, making the most of some fine weather during our trip to Hay on Wye, we enjoyed a few pints of Wye Bitter and Butty Bach in the pub garden. Based just over the border, in Hereford, their beers were the perfect refreshmnt for a sunny afternoon, slightly peppery with a balanced and slightly floral finish. 
Moving on to the hard stuff; we spent an very enjoyable morning Whisky tasting at the Pendryn Distillery, the only whisky distillers in Wales. Our guide, Alan, gave us a great tour (its location, in the Fforset Fawr National Park, means Penderyn has its own spring to draw water from as well as a unique single copper still that is all one level, as so not to spoil the landscape), before letting us sample some of the goods.
Having had some bad whisky-related moments in the past, I was a little dubious, but I really enjoyed it (and not just because it involved getting pissed before lunchtime). The peated version tasted a little too much like iodine and smoke for my tastes, but I loved the toffee and raisin notes in the portwood and sherrywood versions.

They also make a (very good) Brecon gin and a five times distilled vodka, which they also use for their Merlyn cream liqueur and chocolate truffles. Of course it would have been rude not to bring home a couple of bottles to sample.
Birthday buns. These came courtesy of Hay on Wye baker Alex Gooch. We had bought them the day before, as well as a nicely charred ciabatta and a dense, nutty spelt loaf, from his charming father who runs a stall at the Hay farmer's market. As good as the bread was, they paled in comparison to these plump and sticky beauties. Heavy with fruit and spice, and with the welcoming bitter note of black treacle and the crunch of sugar on top, these celebratory morsels made a very fine start to my day and end to our fabulous Welsh adventures. Mwynhewch eich bwyd!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid

Back in the summer we had my dad staying with us for a while. When I mentioned I was off to the Brecon Beacons in October he, knowing my propensity for eating good food, told me about about a memorable visit to a famous Monmothshire restaurant that he had made over 30 years before.

Of course, that place was the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, the venue for our final lunch 'over the border'. While fashions and fads may change, I can imagine my father - with the mullet and tash combo he had so carefully cultivated - eating pretty much, give or take, the same kind of food we were presented with all these years later. Simple, local and seasonal, it seems, never go out of style.
For such a staid and peaceful setting the Walnut Tree has had a lively history; opened by Franco Taruschio in the 60's it soon gained attention for its Italian/Welsh fusion food and remained a popular spot for many years. In the early part of the century it was taken over and awarded a Michelin Star, before rocky times saw it losing said star and turning up on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, finally closing in 2007. Luckily the story has a happy ending, as the restaurant was revived, along with its Michelin Star, a year later by chef Shaun Hill who now capably owns and runs the place.

None of this tumultuous excitement presents itself  in the exterior; the Walnut Tree is a simple white-washed building, with a sunny cottage garden and terrace that you walk through from the car park at the side of the building. A though not on the scale of Le Manoir earlier in the year, it is a sweet little space with magnificent views.

As we arrived the place was buzzing, the small bar area was filled with a party of twelve there to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary and who ended up being seated opposite us in the dining room, bringing a bit of colour and life to proceedings. The dining room itself takes its lead from the exterior of the building; solid and efficient with bare wooden tables and white walls hung with an array of animal paintings that kept us amused while waiting for our meals to arrive.

We also had a selection of snacks keep the wolves at bay; a friable light blue cheese and sesame biscuit, a spicy Thai fish ball and some freshly baked breads from the kitchen including a feather light white roll and a multi-seeded loaf, that could be described as pretty virtuous had I not trowelled on the butter to each warm slice.

It's a difficult menu to chose from, as it all looks so damn good.  Everything seemed to be calling to me; 'lobster with chickpeas and coriander. 'veal sweetbreads with potato and olive cake', wild duck with morels' saddle and haunch of hare with salsify'.  As I was still suffering, after a surfeit of lamb the day before (and possibly from the sausage sandwich I had already consumed for breakfast), I decided to make the choice a little easier for my protein-addled brain and groaning stomach and go with, the rather good value, set menu; featuring such seasonal delights as Tuscan tomato soup, red-legged partridge and apple and blackberry pudding.

We both started with the Keralan fish curry. This was far finer that my fuzzy picture suggests; rich chunks of perfectly cooked white fish, green beans and tomato in a clean and spicy gravy with heady notes of ginger and citrus. This was a snorter of a dish, my only criticism being the over-sized Staub casserole it came in, rendering its bright colours mute and making it rather tricky to scrape up those precious last drops of wonderful liquor.

My main was red-legged partridge with cavlo nero, morcilla and coco beans; the shallower Staub this hearty dish came in was much better suited for the job. This was the perfect plate of food to enjoy as the weather starts to close in; hearty and warming, but not too rich and heavy.

The whole bird had been jointed ( I found the breast a touch dry, but the legs were lovely) and laid out on a smoky broth of beans, tomato and paprika, accompanied by some nicely bitter cabbage and wonderful chunks of inky-black morcilla. A simple and delicious combination.

I have to confess, as lovely as mine was, I did have a little food envy at the Ewing's gorgeous looking (and tasting) hake with a shrimp and dill sauce, served with new potatoes and runner beans. Again, a perfectly seasonal dish for a crisp and sunny early October lunchtime. The huge tranch of milky white fish was cooked expertly, the sauce was deliciously creamy; the salty-sweetness of the shrimps and the herbal dill cutting through the richness.

It was the kind of dish that made me want to call into the fishmongers on the way home and cook it all over again for dinner. The highest praise.

Solomi, 'Hungary's answer to trifle' should probably be more accurately named Hungary's answer to sure-fire cirrhosis of the liver, due to the huge amounts of booze that had gone into its creation.

The desert comprised of a thick dollop of lemon zest-flecked cream, covering layers of walnut-flecked booze-soaked sponge and custard, in a pool of apricot sauce that tasted like the last throes of summer. Very rich and very nice .Although it wouldn't be the flavours I would chose for a pud, it certainly packed a punch, and not just from all the rum.

The Ewing was in heaven with her chocolate marquise; a slice of terrine featuring a light sponge outside with dense ganache middle, doused in chocolate curls, cream and raspberry sauce. I was surprised to even get a look-in with this, an can confirm it was certainly a 'plate-licker' (don't worry, no plates were licked in the making of this blog, but it was a very close thing...).

A macchiato and an espresso came with (highly unnecessary at this point) dried fruit-studded brownie pieces and triangles gorgeously smooth and sweet vanilla fudge.

I was a little worried on our arrival that our meal may, in contrast to the day before The Hardwick, be a little more than a pit stop. The couple who were in the car park as we pulled in had already been served their amuse bouche and bread, and were having there orders taken, before we had even been seated. But I needn't have worried. Although the food initially came out the kitchen at rather a pace, it turned out to be the sign off a well-drilled kitchen trying to keep ahead on a packed Saturday lunchtime. By the time we had reached our mains things had settled down, and by pudding we were well ensconsed in the happy atmosphere, watching the afternoon slowly roll by.
Indeed, I could have quite comfortable spent an agreeable hour or two in the garden admiring that magnificent view, if we didn't still have the journey back to Bucks to still contend with. So off we went, through the Heart of England and back home, still carrying a small piece of Wales in our hearts (and a somewhat larger piece around our waists...).
Square Meal

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Hardwick, Abergavenny

Regular readers of the blog (if, indeed there is such a thing) will know by now that birthday and lunch are two of my favourite words to see in tandem. Although getting a year older soon loses its appeal, getting together to eat, drink and spend time with friends and family is worth the crows feet and expanding paunch.
I was very much looking forward to our visit to the Hardwick, a pub and restaurant with rooms set in the rolling hills on the outskirts of Abergavenny, which has been owned and run by chef Stephen Terry since he left the Walnut Tree, situated just down the road. From checking out the website and reading a few reviews of the place I was instantly sold; a traditional pub with a hearty menu of 'proper' food served in big portions is certainly the way to this birthday girl's heart.
We were out and about early on the day of our visit, whisky tasting at the Penderyn Distillery in the Brecon Beacons, and so I was already feeling pretty jolly by the time we arrived for our late lunch. A feeling that didn't dissipate when were greeted warmly and lead through to the dining room; a dark-beamed and cosy space, the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air providing a cosy respite from the drizzle and damp outside.

We started with a pint, Rhymney for the Ewing and Wye Valley for me, and a wooden board laden with Hay on Wye baker Alex Gooch's sourdough bread, served with Nethrend Farm butter and Planeta Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

The bread was fantastic (I had already eaten one of his sticky fruit buns, bought from Hay on Wye market the day before, for breakfast), although at first I though oil and butter was a bit belt and braces, but after trying them both I'm very glad we had the option; creamy, salty local butter and a gloriously peppery, fruity oil which they also sell at the bar to take home.

My rolled rabbit lasagne on a bed of cavlo nero and lemon. This was a cracker of a dish. The rabbit had been turned into a forcemeat, which was layered up with bechamel and more greens before being rolled in a large sheet of pasta, cut into slices and pan fried for a crispy finish.

The rabbit 'sauage' was gloriously juicy, the pasta light and the garlicky, iron-rich greens gave the dish an autumnal note. If there were a criticism it was very well seasoned, bordering on over-salty, but plenty of Wye Valley Bitter to wash it all down helped.

The Ewing's confit duck leg and duck liver hash with duck egg; a fabulously rich cake of shredded meat and offal with a gloriously gooey yolk that created its own little pool of sauce for the meat, the richness cut through with wholegain mustard and a green salad.

BahBah Black Sheep - A Taste of Local Organic Pen Y Wyrlod Lamb, Roast Loin, Merguez Style Sausage, Faggot & Braised Neck, Shepherd’s Pie and Crispy Breadcrumbed Leg with SautĂ© Potatoes and Seasonal Greens. As it was my birthday (I may have mentioned this already) the Ewing very agreeable allowed my to select this sharing feast for two as our joint main (they also offer a taste of local beef, which sounds equally excellent offering dieters delights such as suet pudding and triple-cooked chips). Luckily it was worth her compromise.

I swoon every time I look at this photo (it's probably still the meat sweats). After diligently eating breakfast lunch and dinner (and sometimes brunch, tea and supper too) every day since my last birthday, I can confidently say that this was up there in the top five dishes of the year. It epitomises everything that, to me, great meals are about; generosity; big flavours; seasonality; sharing and simplicity.

I was in raptures over every morsel, but standouts were the faggots and neck, braised in a wonderfully rich gravy; crispy breadcrumbed shredded leg, mixed with more greens then deep fried and served with a punchy mint sauce; and a cottage pie of such unctuous magnificence I'm still dreaming about it now. The Ewing loved the slices of butter-soft and simply seared loin the best, although she found the merguez with harrisa paste a little too spicy, offering the rest across the table to me. Result.

Enjoyed with a glass of rioja for me, and a malbec for the Ewing, the dish was fabulous; even the simply fried potatoes seemed to taste more 'potatoey' than your average spud. And although a full-on meat-feast of gargantuan proportions may not for the lily-livered amongst us, the Ewing and I have famously iron constitutions, and managed to take the whole thing down with only a few lonely potato halves left as evidence.

A plate of 'Chocolate Loveliness' for two to share. From right to left peanut butter and jelly parfait on a Valrhona chocolate brownie, white chocolate ice cream with salted peanut brittle, billionaire's shortbread and chocolate mousse with Grue Tuile, all served with a Halen Mon salted caramel sauce. This arrived at the table when the Ewing had nipped out, and I was sorely tempted to get stuck in before she could return; it was only my difficulty in managing to pick up the spoon after such gargantuan quantities of lamb that stopped me attacking it with abandon.

I hardly need say it was all quite delicious. The white chocolate ice cream was like a frozen, crunchy Milkybar on steroids; the billionaire's shortbread being a step up from mere millionaire's, with shortbread totally encasing a gooey caramel filling, the whole thing doused in chocolate to finish; and the mousse like a marshamallowy cloud of pure, sugary-laden joy. A special mention to the wicked pb&J parfait, sitting atop the finest brownie i have had the pleasure to eat for a long while (sorry, darling).

As it was my birthday the Ewing indulged my lunchtime drinking with a glass of Visciola Piergiovanni Giusti, Le Marche, from near where we stayed in Italy this summer. Described on the menu as 'perfect with chocolate lovliness', this slightly chilled, cherry-infused sweet wine was indeed a fine match.

A macchiato rounded off the evening, although we had to pocket the handmade cantucini for later, being fit to bursting by this point (I think they might still be slowly dissolving into crumbs at the bottom of the Ewing's  handbag...).

The Hardwick really is a great place; cosy and welcoming with fabulous food and good value (while the a la carte could get expensive if you were indulging, and we certainly did, it is still very good value, and the set lunch, at £21 for three courses, is exceptionally priced). We even got to see to Mr Terry himself, who was busy behind the pass for lunch service, and came out of the kitchen several time to walk around and talk to the guests.
Thanks must go to the lovely Ewing, long suffering wife and chauffeur, who treated me to to this lovely lunch and then drove me home - while I was rather merry, and probably rather annoying -afterwards.
Yet again we managed to eat and drink ouselves into a comfortable fug, where breathing became slightly laboured and buttons strained. And all of which merriment necessitated a short (long) rest on the bed when we got back to the lodge. A year older, but happily no wiser.

Square Meal