We came, we saw, we quarrelled. But we couldnt go to Wales, the land without vowels in any of the right places, and not make a little journey to The Walnut Tree near Abergavenny - even though the original owners, the Taruschios, have retired after thirty five years of excellence.
We couldnt miss the dawning of the new age of Stephen Terry, formerly of Canteen, Coast and Frith Street, even though the forty five minute detour took two and a half hours in a hired car driven by a snapping turtle (me), and navigated by a myopic dimwit (him) who, apparently, has just realised he cant read while the car is in motion.
And we couldnt pass up the chance of a lovely family day out in the countryside in a car with a manual gear box which I havent operated in a decade, even though the Welsh hills are not the place to discover youve forgotten how to do a hill start, or the M4 a route to find that you dont know how to get out of third without reversing. And no, no, no - we just had to stop for Sunday lunch even though the children felt sick, the road signs looked like theyd been written by a dyslexic child and the hamlet of Llandewi Skirrid did not seem to exist on our inadequate map.
So, we yelled, we snarled, we circled the same roundabout seven times, arrived an hour late, barely speaking, and when forced to order a bloody Diet Coke because I was driving, I swear, I had tears in my eyes. Furthermore, The Walnut Tree, though justly celebrated for its cooking, is not exactly the Ritz. As a frequent, friendly customer at the next table pointed out - its still basically a no-nonsense pubby sort of place with really great food which means that people who make a special pilgrimage are often underwhelmed by the simple plainness of the surroundings. Frankly, I was just glad to sit down.
It was full to bursting, the staff bustling past like plate-carrying whirlwinds, too busy to do more that greet regulars briefly and seat them with the minimum of shmoozing. Our first offer of a drink was the only one. No wine list was proffered, and even after we requested it, no order was taken. Meanwhile, the kids romped through the bread basket while I started with a not so/italics/ interesting polpettone - a sort of meat loaf, in this case made with chicken and duck, cut into slices, rolled in breadcrumbs and panfried, served with grilled aubergine and a smooth sauce gribiche. The menu is almost 95% new but Mr Magoo chose one of the few remaining old favourites - Lady Llandovers salt duck with fresh pear and parmesan. Both arrived promptly but it was a full hour before the second courses came - probably due to our own very tardy arrival. In the old non-booking days would have meant we would have been lucky to get a table at all.
To follow we chose another Taruschio dish - vincigrassi maceratese - a hearty wintery baked lasagne dish which I believe has now gone into hibernation for the summer months, spaghetti with parma ham and barba de fratte, and some quite delicious and deceptively rich gnocchi with peas, peans, asparagus and pesto, all of which comforted and calmed. The roast Gressingham duck was served with a wedge of overly caramelized sweet and sour pumpkin but received no criticism from the eater who barely left enough for me to taste. But thankfully, the slices of moist, herby poached shoulder of lamb, sandwiched between layers of potato torte was a little too sophisticated for the nine year old (I told her she wouldnt like it but did she listen?) so I got to eat most of it myself.
Salads and vegetables are offered separately - we had excellent chips and chunky, flavourful chargrilled courgettes - almost a contradiction in terms anywhere else. Fish is also well represented on the menu in dishes such as John Dory with artichokes, and panfried red mullet with grilled peppers and goats cheese. And pudding was a parting joy. We had achingly delicious baked peaches with ricotta, amaretti and amaretto ice cream, a pristinely smooth vanilla pannacotta with strawberries cut by a bright, grassy green basil syrup, and a wicked grainy, dark chocolate tart with creme fraiche and orange marmalade. One day I will surely develop a deeper love for cheese than chocolate, but not any time soon.
Though I didnt manage to find a window in my action-packed life plan to visit even once in the last 35 years (or I would have known the way), I am reliably informed that the transition from old to new has been almost seamless. However, I admit I was a teeny bit disappointed, not by the informality or the food, but by the brisk air of hectic distraction more usual in a trendy London gastrodome than in a rural temple of food.
But, Ill be back - though next time, I am absolutely, definitely not driving. And Im going to get very, very drunk.