Read on for my review of the awesome Hare & Hounds and an interview with Head Chef Tom Watts-Jones about his food and, the all important question, do his kids eat their tea?!
For the last three years, one of the first things we have done on coming back to Wales is make a reservation at the Hare & Hounds in Aberthin. This usually turns into two or even three reservations as we take friends who come to visit, last year we even took Eirlys’ godparents for a pre-christening meal. We heard about the pub because all our friends in the area were raving about the food and (name drop!) my Tom went to school with the Head Chef. We keep going back because everyone really was right to rave about the food. Not going to apologise if my write-up turns into a bit of a love–in! This time I called and booked the full tasting menu as a surprise belated 5th anniversary meal. Tom also got the paired wines, which turned out to be bloody amazing and did not make me, at 4 months pregnant, jealous or annoyed at all…luckily the food was too good to be annoyed for long!
The Hare is always really welcoming and relaxed. The bar area has been kept very traditional (apart from a bit of an upgrade in the drinks available and some well thought out bar snacks) and is kept busy with regulars from the local area as well as those having a drink before their meal. The bar man quickly suggested he make me their special raspberry prosecco fizz, minus the prosecco, so I didn’t feel too left out. We were starving, as we’d been saving room for the nine courses to come, and were extremely happy when Alex (their exceptional general manager) came to say we could sit and start eating!
Their dining area is just as comfortable as the bar. Big wooden tables, bright bunches sunflowers and a tiny open kitchen so you can watch everything being made. The menu is always changing to match the seasons and what produce the kitchen gets from the local area. There are usually some “favourites” on there, like crispy pig’s cheek, Torgelli Farm lamb and sewin, but they are always presented differently. Watts-Jones (going to use surname here to prevent Tom confusion) also puts some specials up which sell out fast. Some of the best are specials for two or three people to share. Braised lamb-neck in the Winter arrived in a hot cast iron pot with generous bowls of duck fat roasted potatoes and braised red cabbage. In Summer, there has been roast rib of beef with chips and a huge jug of béarnaise sauce (that was a good evening!) or a baked brill in champagne.
Anyway, back to the tasting menu. “Snacks” were up first, which is a huge understatement. A small board arrived with tiny glasses of beetroot soup, amazing as always, a little smoked tomato tartlet and these crispy slivers of pork belly which only the promise of eight more courses to come allowed me to let Tom share. Next up were rock oysters with Bloody Mary granita. Technically I’m not supposed to eat those while pregnant…I have included a picture to try to explain myself. No way I was going to let Tom eat both of those.
Moving on to the homemade sourdough with cultured butter, they sometimes have classes on how to make this and their equally tasty focaccia so it’s worth keeping an eye out for those. Next up came Ricotta and Hafod gnudi/dumplings with peas and seeds. These were light and fluffy and the fresh peas, broad beans and seeds added perfect crunch along with the soft dumplings. Then Alex brought over Tom’s favourite dish of the evening; scallop with lovage, pea and smoked bacon. The staff all work together brilliantly here and each dish came with a detailed description of where the ingredients came from and how they had been prepared. A new drink also arrived for Tom to match each food, again with a description.
Our next course was home cured bresaola, smoked tomato, red pepper puree and rocket, Tom’s was paired with a delicious (so he says) sherry. Then, this was my favourite, pan-fried sewin, courgette and cardigan bay crab. The sauce at the bottom of this dish was wonderful. A crab bisque and brown crab meat had been folded into a mayonnaise and I spent a while trying to work out if baby-brain counts as an excuse for licking a plate in public. Next up was the lamb, which came two ways, and is bred on a local farm. We were definitely getting a bit full now and the waiter said there were still three courses to go. Extra courses had appeared or we had lost count in a food-induced stupor? Cleverly, the next turned out to be a lime and gin (or not) granita which actually helped us enjoy the faultless raspberry soufflé and ripple ice cream that followed. I had to admit defeat and couldn’t even manage a bit of the fabulous petit-fours that came with our coffee.
What makes the Hare such a great place to eat is the combination of wonderfully prepared, seasonal Welsh food, welcoming staff and a warm, cosy dining room. They also have a small beer garden outside with a kitchen garden, ideal for when the sun puts in an appearance. Their prices are reasonable and you could easily spend more on an average three course meal in a high street restaurant than here. We always miss their special events but evenings of paired local beers and food, events like “dinner in the orchard” and tasting menus are announced fairly regularly and would be well worth a trip. Watts-Jones says they are planning for some rooms in the pub but for now there are plenty of places to stay in the area. If you live locally and still haven’t been, you should have. If you are based elsewhere then get planning for a Welsh trip. I’ll be blogging more about things to do in the area so check back soon!
Interview with Tom Watts-Jones
LM: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
TW-J: I knew I wanted to cook from an early age but, like a lot of us from Cowbridge, my parents wanted me to go to university first. I started cooking in my third year of uni, I was 20.
LM: Where do you get your inspiration from?
TW-J: My inspiration comes from the seasons. I pride my restaurant on being the most seasonal place to eat in Wales. I want my food to mirror our local environment. The French call it the ‘terroir’.
LM: Do you cook a lot at home?
TW-J: I cook a hell of a lot at home, especially with my little boy Wilf.
LM: Do you have a favourite gadget or piece of kitchen equipment?
TW-J: My favourite piece of equipment is my Japanese knife. It holds an excellent edge.
LM: What are your goals for the future?
TW-J: My future goals would be raising the standard and awareness of good seasonal cooking in South Wales. We’re massively behind the times here. Hopefully with the opening of a few more pubs we might have a chance!
LM: What is your favourite food/meal?
TW-J: My favourite food/meal would have to crab. I ate a lot in Asia. Freshly caught crab, lime & coconut dressing and a couple of cold local beers!
LM: Do your kids eat all their tea?!
TW-J: Renley has just stated eating solids so we’re currently on sweet potato with him. Wilf on the other hand eats everything! His favourite food is grilled mackerel with cold beetroot!
LM: Can we have the recipe for your beetroot soup?
TW-J: The recipe is so simple. Put the beetroot into a baking tray with the skin on. Poor over two parts water to one part balsamic vinegar until it’s just under half way up the beetroot. Wrap the top of the baking tray with foil and bake until soft, usually about two hours at 180’c. Once cooked, peel and put into a food blender adding a little of the cooking liquid to make a thickish purée. Pour some of the purée into a sauce pan and let back with double cream until the right consistency. Season and serve. Easy!
Find out a bit more about the Hare & Hounds here:
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