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January 13, 2012 10:14 pm
There is not much logic to the topography of restaurants. There are hundreds of affluent neighbourhoods – the Hampsteads, Newburys and Wilmslows of this world – that are meagre in their provision of good restaurants. There are other areas that defy gravity. For a while Ludlow was the envy of all, boasting three Michelin-starred restaurants and with a thriving food culture that included a good market and no less than five independent butchers in close proximity.
With the departure of a couple of chefs, Ludlow may have lost a little of its lustre. However, what it has lost Abergavenny, on the other side of the Welsh Marches, has gained. Not even the most loyal townsman would claim there is much else special about the place. It is certainly architecturally undistinguished. Geographically it is more significant, sitting at the confluence of the “Heads of the Valleys” road and various highways leading up into the Brecon Beacons, back into the Marches or down into Newport or the Forest of Dean. Yet this in no way accounts for the galaxy of gastronomic talent that has clustered around the outskirts of the town.
To the south, Matt Tebbutt has The Foxhunter, where he pursues his honest and uncluttered style of modern British cooking, not dissimilar to that of Stephen Bull, another London refugee, who is half an hour away up in Herefordshire. Nearer Monmouth, James Sommerin executes his highly wrought, visually arresting gastronomy at The Crown at Whitebrook. Back nearer town is Stephen Terry, once a modernist iconoclast and now a more rounded but still technically brilliant cook. However, the godfather of this chummy band is in an unassuming pub a couple of miles out on the north side of the town at The Walnut Tree, in the person of Shaun Hill.
Shaun took over a somewhat distressed Walnut Tree three years ago and has restored it to the glory it enjoyed under the reign of the great Franco Taruschio. Franco and his wife Ann came to Abergavenny in 1963, to a very different gastronomic climate than the one enjoyed by its current inhabitants. Having trained in France, he started with classic French cooking and slowly branched out. By the time he finished nearly 40 years later the menu was a splendid mélange of French, British, Thai and, supremely, Italian cooking. It is this legacy that has perhaps led the locals to have high gastronomic expectations.
One of Franco’s most popular dishes was Vincisgrassi, an obscure lasagna dish from the Marches of Italy. Franco’s version is powerfully rich but perhaps not so rich as the original which features coxcombs, sweetbreads and brains in addition to the prosciutto, porcini and truffles of his version. Although a pasta dish – and Franco used to serve it as a starter – it is a brave appetite that attempts another course afterwards. Now that the weather is properly cold and we can manage some hearty food, I commend to you my adaptation of the dish.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Rowley’s drinking choice
Sagrantino Di Montefalco 1998 from Arnaldo Caprai is not from Le Marche but neighbouring Umbria, yet I can think of no more appropriate a wine to cope with this particular pasta.
Vincisgrassi (cep lasagna)
Frozen ceps are excellent, if you can’t find fresh ones. Dried ceps will be chewy in this recipe. Serves a hungry six or a more temperate eight.
1 litre milk
1 onion studded with 8 cloves
2 bay leaves, sprig of thyme, fresh nutmeg
60g unsalted butter
60g plain flour
200ml double cream
300 grams ceps (porcini)
2 tbs olive oil
100g Parmesan cheese
200g Parma ham in thin slices
● Bring the milk to the boil in a saucepan with the onion, bay leaves and thyme. Season with a grating of nutmeg, black pepper and sea salt and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to the boil and add the lasagna a few sheets at a time. As soon as they soften, remove them and refresh in cold water and lay on a cloth, covered, to dry.
● Make a roux by melting the butter and stirring in the flour, cooking it on a gentle heat for a minute. Pour in a little of the milk and work this with a wooden spoon to make a smooth paste before adding the rest of the milk and whisking vigorously as you bring it to the boil. Allow to cook for a few minutes, and keep stirring, before adding the cream.
● Clean the ceps by trimming the bases and any damaged parts and rinsing briefly, if necessary, in cold water. Slice them thickly. Heat the oil in a large frying pan until very hot. Sear the mushrooms on both sides and then drain them in a colander, saving the juice to flavour the sauce.
● Take a 30cm x 20cm oven dish and ladle a small amount of sauce on to the bottom. Arrange a layer of lasagna on top, followed by a little more sauce, a sprinkling of Parmesan, a layer of Parma ham, a layer of mushrooms, more sauce and then top with more lasagna. Continue until the ingredients are used up, finishing with a layer of sauce and a final sprinkling of Parmesan. Place the dish in a pre-heated oven (180C) and bake for 30 minutes, until browned on top.
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