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Hay fever

Published 11 October 1998
Style Magazine
274th article

Wye worry: Michael Winner with Nino Williamson in Hay-on-Wye (Vanessa Perry)

The business card from Nino's restaurant gave their address as Hay-on-Wye in Hereford, an English county. The AA Road Atlas said it was in Powys, Wales. No good asking Nino - it was Monday and their answerphone told would-be customers they were open Wednesday through Sunday. I called the local police and got through to Cynthia, with a lovely Welsh voice.

"Hay-on-Wye is in Wales," she told me. "I've got a card saying it's in Hereford," I said. "The postal address is Hereford," replied Cynthia. "Why do you think that is, Cynthia?" I asked. "I really don't know, just doesn't make sense, does it?" said Cynthia. This was a lot of fuss about a restaurant that doesn't deserve such attention. So let's deal first with the pornographic pictures.

They were in a sweet little antique shop in a cobbled street a few yards away. A dear, white-haired Welsh lady sat behind a desk surrounded by bric-a-brac. My eye caught a piece of white paper hiding a picture in a wooden frame. "Do not lift this up if you are easily shocked," was written on it. I lifted it at once. I was shocked. There were two people, in an old print, caught in flagrante, and in considerable detail. A few inches away another such picture, then another. Nobody else took any notice of them. It was all too much for me. I bought a china ornament of three old ladies with tall black hats, shawls, long skirts and striped aprons sitting round a table, inscribed A Welsh Tea Party - and fled.

Vanessa, obviously deeply traumatised, suggested a cup of tea to calm us down. Opposite was Oscars Bistro, with wooden tables and a large display of cakes, flapjacks, vegetable tart, beef in beer, chicken and leek pie, sausages in red wine gravy, and so on. I took some chocolate cake, carrot cake, and date and walnut cake. The second two were very good, the chocolate cake lacked something. "Is this from a cake mix?" I asked a lady behind the counter. She disappeared down to the kitchen. A few seconds later, a very tall, extremely tough-looking woman with short black hair emerged. She towered over me. She was not pleased. She assured me cake mix was something she never used.

"The others are so good," I murmured, wondering, if she got stroppy, could I make it to the door. Instead I went to the counter and grabbed a flapjack, the old-fashioned kind, moist, delicious. "Marvellous," I said, my mouth full.

A lady customer appeared. "I came here three years ago and had the best parsnip soup I've ever had in my life," she told me; people having a habit of coming to me and making announcements like this. "Did you have it again today?" I asked. "They haven't got it on," said the lady, and walked out.

A couple of evenings later I returned to Hay-on-Wye to visit Nino's, a recommendation of Ben Davies, chef at Llangoed Hall, which you may remember fell far short of my hopes and cost me £1,108 for three nights, one dinner and one tea. That's £370 a night for a room with a small sitting area. For that I'm entitled to complain, and indeed I have. On the final morning the poached eggs looked like foetuses. Vanessa thought hers tasted strange and so did mine.

Nino's is opposite a Victorian clock tower next to a shop called Cotswold Collection. It has minuscule tables and my chair was on a massive slope. It's very much a bistro. Glenn Miller Muzak played.

Nino Williamson is the manager, Charles Letts is the owner. On the wall hung a large oil painting of a lady in a yellow casual suit. "Is that Mrs Letts?" I asked. "It's a picture of Diane, I've forgotten her other name. She owns a bookshop," said Nino.

Then he served me some "cawl, a traditional Welsh lamb broth". Rather like Irish stew, only weaker. Not bad. Vanessa described her salad as "very mediocre". My "whole grilled lemon sole with coriander, chilli and garlic" was a tasteless mush. The chilli, coriander and garlic was a horrid marinade smeared on top. Nino's is the place to come if you're on a heavy diet. If you don't eat, you aren't missing much.

Curiosity, with a touch of pigginess, had me try the baked American vanilla cheesecake. It came surrounded by little dots of red sauce. The chef obviously took a correspondence course in plate decoration. The cheesecake was marginally in the range of pleasant. If you're in Hay-on-Wye, my advice is eat at Oscars. Just don't mention the words "cake mix".


I was delighted to read that Michael Winner has discovered the delights of Women's Institute cooking (Style, September 20). Something is sadly lacking in a life without home baking.
Brenda Mottram, Doncaster, S Yorks

Having stopped many times in Betws-y-coed over the years, en route to Holyhead for the ferry to Ireland, I was thrilled to read your glowing article concerning the village, the people and the food. Your previous articles have given me much pleasure, but none more so than this.
Jillian Telfer, Pinner, Middx

So C White (Style, September 20) finds most food in France filthy. I expect it's because my fellow Mancunian brings his own baked beans with him and eats them in his mobile home.
Helen Ferrieux, Perpignan, France

Michael Winner was very lucky to find a table at the Nantyffin Cider Mill Inn (Style, September 13). My wife and I have a relative who lives near the restaurant, so we decided to treat her to lunch there. I telephoned to ask if the restaurant was open for lunch and was told it was. On this assurance, I booked a table for three and gave my name and telephone number as I was asked. On arrival, having driven more than 100 miles, we entered the small bar which was already full. I asked about my reservation, but nobody knew anything about it. What was more, I was told the restaurant was never open at lunch time. I was told we could sit at a small table on wobbly wooden chairs. No apology was forthcoming, so we walked out. Quite obviously your name has to be Michael Winner to receive anything like service at the Nantyffin Cider Mill Inn.
Edward Griffin, Steeple Claydon, Bucks