The Bull’s Head, Hereford, restaurant review

Date:07-05-2014 07:58:08 read:0

The Bull’s Head, Hereford, restaurant review

The Bull’s Head is a gloriously bizzare pub which makes up for its chilly environment with a warm welcome

The Bull's Head: 'Peculiar and peculiarly wonderful' Photo: Christopher Jones

Until I lunched at the Bull’s Head, my favourite animal-related statement came from the pen of Alan Bennett. In Kafka’s Dick, our greatest living theatrical treasure has one character tell another: “That fool of a tortoise is out again.”

In this foodie pub, or pubby restaurant, six miles south of Hay-on-Wye in the lovely Black Mountains, Bennett’s tortoise was trumped not by art but in life. But before we come to that, let me not so much recommend as insist that those of you planning to go to Hay Festival at the end of the month visit this gloriously bizarre place. The sole caveat is that the monastic bleakness of the bar in which we ate – seemingly unchanged since this farmhouse was built in the 17th century, other than the addition of a photo of a 1948 champion Hereford cow – will not suit all tastes or metabolisms. The flooring is stone slabs, the stone walls have been discoloured by time, and it took the wood-burner a while to reduce the risk of hypothermia. “I’ve been warmer,” understated my cousin Nick over his regulation Martini Rosso. “If I’d known, I would have brought the turkey foil.” The dining room next door, with its open fireplace, is homelier. Then again, so is the averagely appointed interrogation cell in Damascus.

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In dramatic contrast to the temperature, however, was the warmth of one of those welcomes they will keep for you in the hillsides, not to mention the vales. “Hellllloooooo,” cooed Kathryn Mackintosh, the wifely element in this deeply enchanting family enterprise (husband Charles does the cooking, and daughter Amy the waitressing). “How lovely to see you!” This came as a shock – the only person ever pleased to see me is my bookmaker – though her delight was soon explained by two factors. One is that she is a sweetheart of immense natural hospitality. The other is that the January floods had washed away the Hay road, and this had only reopened shortly before our visit, so the Bull’s Head had endured a few tough weeks.

Charles, though a gentleman amateur cook of serious talent, is a chartered surveyor by profession. He had only returned from France, where he had been doing a spot of surveying rather than cheffing, the night before our visit; so the menu was truncated for want of ingredients. Despite that, Nick and I were almost as captivated by the food as by the League of Gentlemen-ish flavour of oddness lurking beneath a tranquil, bucolic surface.

Nick, having thawed nicely, moved on to a gorgeous local cider as the starters arrived. “Excellent,” he said of an “Arbroath Smokie Pot” in which chunks of haddock were baked with a layer of spinach and a béchamel sauce, and topped with Parmesan. “Creamy, flavoursome, delicious.” My six lean slices of “Lady Llanover’s salted duck” did her ladyship’s venerable method credit, and came with delectable crab-apple jelly and sharp pickled crab apples to lend an ideal sweet and sour balance.


It was as this point that we were joined by another customer. Since the heart-rending departure of a noisy toddler and her folks, we had been alone. This changed with the arrival of a man whose magnificently long and ornate white beard put us in mind of Catweazle, though we overheard his name as Viv.

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Viv sat at the bar over his pint, discussing escaped cattle and electric fences with Kathy, while we attended to our main courses. My tagine of local lamb came with pomegranate seeds and couscous. The meat was meltingly rich, well seasoned and perfectly cooked. Nick’s brochette of grilled prawns, with rice and a lavish garlic butter sauce, was not something you would struggle to replicate at home, though that is not meant as a criticism: this is the very finest kind of unpretentious home cooking. “Can’t fault it, old boy,” said Nick. “A generous serving of good prawns, and the sauce is great.”

With the removal of our plates, we asked Kathy if Viv was a farmer. “Oh, no,” she said. “He lives in a Jacobean mansion. He was Bob Marley’s road manager.” The League of Gentlemen aura duly intensified (though it had yet to reach its climax), and we ate our puddings in something close to awed silence. If they took six months off our lives, it was worth it. Chocolate fudge cake, with raspberries and a raspberry coulis, was divine. “It’s one of my favourite recipes,” said Kathy. “It starts: 'Take 2lb of butter’.” Better yet was “Amaretto Spumoni”, a delectable, eggnog-ish collation of cream, egg and sugar, the recipe purloined from the nearby, ever-feted Walnut Tree Inn.


Over coffee, the nattering with the family resumed. “So you liked Viv?” asked Amy. We certainly did. We were besotted with Viv. “Yes, he’s lovely, isn’t he? I don’t know if he told you, but he went up to the Isle of Skye last week for a holiday,” she continued matter-of-factly. “He took his hawk. He kept it in the kitchen unit of his camper van.”

I will not attempt to top that. Alan Bennett himself could not top that. All I will say, once again, is that you are hereby mandated to visit this peculiar and peculiarly wonderful joint if you possibly can. If you wish to take your chosen bird of prey along, it, too, will be more than welcome.

*Craswall, Hereford HR2 0PN; 01981 510616; Three courses with cider: £35-£40 per head

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