Friday, September 08, 2006

FACE STUFFIN':The Bell at Caerleon

The Bell
Tony and Ceri Willacomb took over The Bell in Ultra Pontem, across the Usk from the historic Roman legionary outpost Caerleon, eighteen months ago - and now just can't stop winning awards. This June The Bell won the prestigious Penderyn Welsh Restaurant of the Month certificate; not to mention - by popular demand - the local Independent Voice magazine Pub restaurant of the Year Award in 2005.
A 17th-century coaching inn, dressed slate (you know the drill) on the tarmac ribbon that was once the old road from Newport to Usk, it's a one-roomer, with bar segueing into restaurant, in unpretentious buttermilk shades with warming Burgundy trim. A hard trick to bring off, but successful, as is the fulfilment of the oft-voiced fiction of 'locally-sourced produce'. Willacomb will give you details of his suppliers, but this foodie quibbling fades with chef John's work with the actual kit. This is provincial cooking of a very high standard, with a Burgundian or Bavarian richness. And faithfully seasonal.
Traditional Welshness, often leaking in from obscurely-sourced recipes (patron has the refs) is riffed on with good taste and imagination. Sautéed wild boar with mushroom risotto has a nicely unexpected tartness thanks to the delicious local Gwynt-y-Draig cider. The startling Welsh blue, Perl Las, adds a splendid bite to tender scallops and more-more-more samphire (remember, Wales has a long coastline). The bafflingly overpowering Black Mountain liqueur - blackberries, honey, whisky - battles it out with the richness of young (too young?) duck. Not for the fainthearted, but one no tastebud is likely to ever forget. This is the cooking of ruggedness, of terroir, that terror of the British menu for years.
Breton seafood galettes are also well-represented; this may be the only authentically Breton food in any pub in Britain. The amniotic nectar that is Kerisac Breton cider is also served in 75cl bottles, albeit slightly pricily at #6.00.
We're not talking iconic like The Stagg at Titley or the hideously-underrated Lough Pool at Sellack, other pearls in the Marches' amazing swathe of great gastropubs, but we are talking you-wish-you'd-been-there-at-the-start. In France, only the likes of Bocuse can turn the master craft of cuisine à la paysanne into art; in Britain's pubs we still deny the paysanne. Why, for example, are there so few Kentish pubs serving the county's specialities- lamb and shellfish - in any way acceptable to a sentient human?
Informed advice re accompaniments from casual bar staff are not British - this is what makes the Bell unusual, not to mention its boldness, and the audacity is not just in its choice of menus. Willacomb is riding an underground wave of enthusiasm for Welsh ciders that are picking up awards from beardie societies but also starting to attract attention from large chainstores. Gwynt y Ddraig (Dragon's Breath) from Llantwit Fardre could and should be the next Weston's or Thatcher's - craft, good taste, modesty and acumen.
Willacomb has struck gold with this truly original establishment. The music, for example, is pitched perfectly, audible for those that want to listen, ignorable for those who want to talk. From Breton harp solos to lounge jazz from Julie London - find that in the capital, and I'll eat my leek.
The Welsh Tourist Board should take a leaf out of Willacomb's book of pushing local class as well as culture. After a superbly-presented platter of local cheeses, we wanted nothing more than to check out local properties and sign in for the Welsh lessons held here every week.

1 comment:

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