GFG archives

Through the archives: Shaun Hill – The Walnut Tree 2008-2020
Published 16 May 2022

Credit: The Walnut Tree

The chef Shaun Hill has spent five decades behind the stoves. After finding fame feeding the diners of Ludlow (The Merchant House) and Devon – where he put Gidleigh Park on the gastronomic map – Shaun Hill reopened Franco Taruschio’s much-loved Walnut Tree in 2008, and quickly restored it to its former glory: though ‘glory’ may be too pompous an epithet for this whitewashed country inn on the B4521 near Abergavenny.

The Good Food Guide 2009

It needed a name (and a talent) like Shaun Hill’s to turn the Walnut Tree’s fortunes around, and early signs are very promising. The place itself looks spick and span, from the well-tended garden to the cosy stone-floored bar and simple dining area. This is a relaxing environment; a place where the staff seem happy and the ingredients are truly themselves. The bulk of the menu is dedicated to dishes that reassure rather than challenge: perhaps local St George’s mushrooms on toast, followed by rib-eye of beef with dauphinoise potatoes. With such simplicity, the delight comes from the quality of the materials, the exactness of the cooking and the clarity of the flavours. A starter of seared monkfish, for example, was lifted by the breezy freshness of a simple tomato, ginger and garlic salsa. From an excellent-value lunch menu came a warm artichoke heart with mushrooms and a perfect hollandaise, followed by a generous panache of fish (scallop, red mullet, halibut and sea bass) with tomato and butter sauce. A dessert of pear Belle Hélène was an orgy of glossy chocolate, tender pear flesh and silky ice cream, while a lemon cheesecake lacked citrusy zeal, but was likeable in a mild-mannered sort of way. Charming little extras included a memorable canapé of spinach and ricotta in won-ton batter (all crunch and curdy comfort) and (among the excellent and plentiful petits fours) a shamelessly dense and rich fudge. The wine list includes a few of Hill’s favourites from his Merchant House days, plus some good-value new finds and a sprinkling of classics, priced from £16.

The Good Food Guide 2010

Shaun Hill has now settled in as chef and joint owner of this resurgent restaurant, which had closed down before he stepped into the breach. ‘The makeover of the Walnut Tree has been entirely successful’, pronounces one reader, clearly noting that love and attention have been lavished on every aspect of this sturdy, whitewashed building beneath Skirrid mountain. Hill is very much hands-on at the stove, but while he cooked solo in his previous venture (the Merchant House in Ludlow), he now shares the task with a brigade of chefs. The straight-talking cooking references Hill’s Merchant House days, pulling together top-notch ingredients and classic techniques with deceptive insouciance. From calves’ brains with brown butter to cassoulet of goose, lamb and sausage, there are plenty of fortifying choices. However, for a lighter touch, look to griddled squid with chilli, mint and borlotti beans followed by Roquefort tart with roasted chicory and walnut salad. Desserts range from sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream to blood orange and raspberry mousse. The wine list fulfils its promise to prioritise quality, interest and artisan growers – and the result is an engaging and surprisingly reasonably priced list of 80-plus bins, with bottles starting at £16.

The Good Food Guide 2011

Shaun Hill has made a 'spectacular' impact since arriving at Wales’ most famous eatery, and the Walnut Tree is now well and truly back on form – ‘almost like the old days', mused a visitor who has watched its fortunes ebb and flow. Hill is generally hands-on, dividing his time between overseeing the stoves and playing courteous host at the bar – although he has also brought back one of the redoubtable waitresses from the Franco Taruschio years to run things 'in her own determined way'. The menu is 'wonderfully seasonal' and ingredients are impeccably sourced; expect some Italian influences and a few nods to Hill's back catalogue (scallops with lentil and coriander sauce, say), but no twee flourishes or effete gestures. What you see is what you get – perhaps deep-fried courgette flowers, crab empanadillas with saffron mayo, bowls of bourride, gooseberry fool. Nothing detracts from the emphatically simple approach, even when global influences are at work – witness a limpid starter of organic sea trout tataki with citron salad. Set lunch is astonishing value, and the admirable 70-bin wine list follows the unshowy ethos of the place, with the focus on quality, interest and value from artisan growers, plus plenty by the glass. Prices (from £16) are eminently reasonable.

The Good Food Guide 2012

‘This is what every restaurant should strive for,’ exhorts one fan, 'brilliant food, warmth, excellence and value’. Shaun Hill and his team are clearly getting it right at the re-energised Walnut Tree, and have created a genuinely unaffected eatery that has city folk jumping in their cars at the first sniff of a getaway (book one of the cottages if you fancy staying over). All of Hill's trademarks are here – matchless seasonal ingredients, generous European input colouring the bare-bones Britishness of the food, and a refreshingly direct approach to flavour. No poncey flourishes, foams or gels disturb the peace, and every plate speaks for itself – goats’ cheese gnocchi with chicory and walnuts, monkfish with cucumber and mustard sauce (‘beyond reproach’), a glorious dish of hare comprising seared fillet and richly jugged leg, perfectly timed veal sweetbreads with sauerkraut, not forgetting old friends such as hot pheasant pudding with bacon and sage or scallops with lentils and coriander... the hit list goes on and on. Then there are the desserts – a ‘stunning’ baked apple confection, rhubarb and pistachio meringue, or Portuguese egg tart with Armagnac prunes. Set lunches bring the house down, and the 100-bin wine list offers everything you could wish for, from cannily chosen ‘essential’ varietals by the glass to ‘shining stars’ and top-end ‘classics’ from across the winemaking world. Prices (from £16) are irresistible.

The Good Food Guide 2013

For years the Walnut Tree has had pilgrimage status, and with cottage accommodation now available, 'get a room' takes on a whole new urgency when thinking about this low-ceilinged, farmhouse-chic eatery deep in the Monmouthshire foothills. On the food front, Shaun Hill is a master of plain-speaking dishes, the kind of stuff that respects ingredients and their natural flavours: ‘bang-on’ red mullet invigorated with tomato, chilli and ginger; woodpigeon with a boudin of sweetbreads; a plate of skirt steak, cooked rare with ceps, Parmentier potatoes and a punchy, anchovy-toned salsa verde. When it comes to desserts, the artless touch shines through yet again – readers have cheered his miraculous mirabelle fool (‘plums and cream, nothing more needed’), and a dramatic monochrome assemblage of nectarines and whimberries with a glossy, almost black sauce. The kitchen never soft-pedals, even when it comes to amazing-value set lunches, judging by glowing tales of skate with shrimps and dill, rabbit liver parfait with damson chutney, and pollack accompanied by a serving of petits pois in a cast-iron pot. Everything is handled with 'efficiency and cheer', from the moreish bread (walnut, of course) right down to the unmissable petits fours. The wine list is a 100-bin beauty offering everything from pitch-perfect 'classic' varietals and a host of shining stars to top-end vintages without top-end price tags. Bottles start at £18.

The Good Food Guide 2016

It is hard to believe that one could find such a hidden gem in the foothills of the Black Mountains, but the much-acclaimed Walnut Tree certainly ticks all the right epicurean boxes. There’s no disputing there’s acute talent in the kitchen and Shaun Hill has certainly given this former pub – long regarded as a British culinary institution – restored status since taking over in 2007. The food is deceptively simple, with no unnecessary fuss or trimmings, just high-quality ingredients lightly and confidently handled. Expansive, yet very appealing menus blend the traditional, say veal kidneys with bacon and mustard sauce or saddle of venison with its own hash, with modern touches in such dishes as pollack with salt cod brandade, broccoli and olives. Typically, start with ‘mind-blowing’ veal sweetbreads with sauerkraut and warm dressing, and finish with pear and raspberry streusel tart. The set-lunch menu gets the thumbs-up – ‘the most delicious food’ – and the wine list is no less delightful: well chosen and keenly priced, divided into ‘essential’, ‘core’ and ‘classic’ choices. Bottles from £20.

The Good Food Guide 2018

‘Have been eating in this restaurant for over twenty years: Franco Taruschio's heyday, and now Shaun Hill. In a way the two regimes are similar – classic cuisine, seasonal ingredients and a very good reasonably priced wine list.’ It’s good to know that, a decade down the line, Shaun Hill continues to take a genuinely unaffected approach to things – it’s as if the ghost of Elizabeth David is hovering near the stove. The strength of this rustic country restaurant has always been the superb quality of the ingredients, the simplicity of the cooking and the outstanding sauces. Indeed, one reporter was so blown away by a dish of cèpes (with artichoke, potato, garlic and parsley), he spent the next two days searching the Forest of Dean for the funghi. Enjoyable, too, has been Brillat-Savarin and black truffle omelette, veal kidneys with streaky bacon and Cassis sauce, and Seville orange meringue pie. As for wine, the emphasis is on personal favourites rather than carefully planning out the list, so expect plenty of smaller and artisan producers (mainly European), with some top-end classics thrown in for good measure. Bottles from £26.

The Good Food Guide 2020

‘It couldn't have been better,’ notes one happy diner of a ‘lovely evening’ at this famed inn. The setting is delightful, all country-chic with a rustic edge, and chimes well with cooking that manages to be unpretentious yet deeply skilled. The commitment of Shaun Hill is hugely appreciated, and the chef is very much in evidence in the kitchen, his classical sensibilities dictating a menu that takes in the likes of lobster omelette Victoria, squab pigeon with petits pois à la française, black truffle and Parmesan risotto, and globe artichoke with quail’s egg, morels and hollandaise. This is cooking rooted in culinary tradition, yet it feels totally of the moment. Main courses might include rabbit fricassée, fillet of beef with shin bourguignon, or cod with cauliflower and hazelnut dressing. Game makes a good showing and fig tart with honey and ricotta ice cream, or baked cheesecake with blood orange and popcorn, are a fine finale. The wine list favours small and artisan makers, with house Champagnes from Billecart-Salmon.

Shaun Hill. Credit: The Walnut Tree