The Swan at Hay hotel review: Food for thought

Portfolio visits a hotel developing its own unique flavour in the literary capital of Britain


It was always going to be about the dinner.

We were due to stay at The Swan at Hay, a newly refurbished boutique hotel in the literary capital of Hay-on-Wye, just over the Welsh border near Hereford.

As an avowed bookworm, I was looking forward to visiting a town that hosts an eponymous annual festival described by Bill Clinton as the "Woodstock of the mind" and exploring the town's 40-something bookshops.

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Furthermore, as newish parents, my wife and I were also looking forward to two days away from the hullaballoo of London with our ten-month old son, who has recently started sleeping through the night and so we felt was up to the task of residing in a room with us without keeping us awake for most of the duration.

But as a food lover first and foremost, I was primarily excited about the five-course dinner we had been promised, prepared by first-time head chef Jerry Adam, who has an impressive CV featuring no fewer than three Michelin-starred restaurants, including The Bath Priory.

He certainly did not disappoint.

Over two-and-a-half hours, we were served an exciting, intriguing and, yes, at times challenging menu that my wife summed up rather neatly as a "tasting menu with choice".

Diners are given four options for each of the three traditional courses, preceded by two introductory taster dishes. It's all unwaveringly seasonal and constructed in such a way as to feel like a coherent progression, whichever dish you opt for.

The first thing that strikes is that there are remarkably few carbs on show. In fact, the holy trinity of meat, potato and veg is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a variety of citrus or fermented fruits and vegetables are deployed to give each dish a vibrancy that echoes throughout the entire meal.

After tasters of an oxtail, oyster and smoked eel dashi and a succulent pork belly piccalilli, I enjoyed a starter of surprisingly delicate lamb sweetmeats with cauliflower and black garlic. But it was my wife's smoked salmon with fermented pineapple and broccoli that stole the show: a beautiful example of light and shade in flavour.

Next came my favourite element of the whole evening: the garlic froth served with flavoured breads that evaporated ethereally in the mouth. Jerry, who serves the dinner menu courses to the table, said the concept was based on a Spanish aioli, but it displayed the lightness of touch that provided the signature tone of the whole affair.

For main – after a surprise additional course of salt-baked celeriac with fermented rye and sweet brown shrimp, which stayed just the right side of saccharine – we both had the venison with crown prince squash and mineola, which, in addition to being a village in New York, is a variety of orange.

That combination might sound like it is ripe for conflict – and of course, it is. But when the deep and intense jus served clashed with the tart orange reduction, it was pure alchemy. A welcome counter to the typical dark-fruit flavours you might expect to accompany venison.

I concluded with salted caramel served with a syrupy grape juice concoction that flowed on nicely from the venison, while my wife's passion-fruit curd served with coconut meringue was super-sharp and provided a welcome final twist to this culinary journey.

I've eaten in a number of well-regarded restaurants before and can honestly say this is food I'd travel to experience – and I say that as someone who had to brave the M25 to get there.

Having made the trip, you will find a hotel transformed from the one the owners of the award-winning Llangoed Hall acquired early last year and which had suffered from very poor online feedback over a prolonged period.

The Grade-II listed 1812 building has been fully and sympathetically restored, with beautiful detailing around the doors and ceilings and even wood from the old stable-block salvaged and restored to provide ornate seating in the bar area.

The decor of our room was similarly in keeping, with a grand twin-double bed adorned with patterned drapes dominating. But it also felt, as did the entire hotel, decidedly modern: tonal greys and minimalist furnishings that are primarily comfortable and functional and perfect for the four-star target rating.

Our complaints, if they can be so called, were the slightly rickety condition of some of the chairs in the restaurant and the electric power shower, which was perfectly serviceable but lacked punch.

But a nice touch is the local feel of the whole presentation, which is very apt for the quaint town in which it lives.

In addition to the seasonal, regional and locally sourced food, almost everything you will find in the hotel has been bought from the town: from the beautifully rustic crockery designed by local ceramicist Pauline Paterson, to the second-hand books bought from Hay's famous bookshops.

Even the artwork comes from a local gallery, with one of the featured artists including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge among her fans, we were told.

All in all, it makes for a very pleasant place to visit and explore a fantastic little town. But I guarantee if you go back, you'll do so for the food.

The Swan at Hay, Church Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5DQ; tel: 01497 821 188. Bed and breakfast is priced between £115 and £175 per room per night. The dinner menu is a fixed price £40 per head. A full bar menu is available in the hotel's two bars, which also offer the formal dinner option.

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