A hub of artisan producers, exciting restaurants and stunning boutique hotels, Wales is the perfect location for a foodie getaway.
There are few destinations that take the ‘eat local’ mantra more seriously than Wales. With stunning scenery, delicious food and a thriving restaurant scene, it’s fast becoming the location of choice for food lovers in the know.
The region has long since peeled off the ‘gastronomic desert’ label slapped onto it unfairly by critics who rarely ventured west of the Hammersmith flyover. In the sixties, it could even be argued that the esteemed Franco Taruschio – he of the famed Walnut Tree Inn at Abergavenny – was one of the first to popularise the concept of informal fine dining allied to the championing of fresh local produce.
So where’s the good food in Wales nowadays? And what are the trends that have seen Abergavenny become host to the best food and drink festival in the UK, and in the process acting as a barometer of the movement in Wales generally? One tried-and-tested introduction into Wales’s food scene is Welsh Rarebits, an exclusive collection of 36 hotels, membership of which is by invitation only.
When we say ‘hotels’ we don’t mean big, impersonal establishments and international brands. The vast majority of Rarebits are privately owned and run, and range from seaside hotels to country houses, historic inns to cool boutique boltholes, townhouses to restaurants with rooms. Since one of the criteria for membership is to be found in the kitchen, you can confidently expect to your chosen Rarebit to serve more than cheese on toast.
Here’s a whistle-stop tour of just a handful of Rarebits – a good cross-section to give you a flavour of what to expect.
At the gateway to Wales near Abergavenny stands Llansantffraed Court. Its owner, Mike Morgan, is well known in Wales for his passion for food – and it shows in his menus. Provenance and food miles are high on the agenda. “Luckily for us,” says Mike, “Monmouthshire is blessed with amazingly dedicated small producers.” Specialities include Welsh Black beef, organic pedigree Welsh mountain lamb and succulent Brecon venison.
It’s the same story at Felin Fach Griffin near Brecon, named Dining Pub of the Year – a country pub redefined and reinvented. Laid back and properly comfy, with nicely worn sofas, log fires and a cosy winter warmth the Scandinavians call hygge, it’s serious only when it comes to its food, which is on a different planet from typical pub grub. Great ingredients are sourced right on the doorstep (including their own kitchen garden), so expect daily and seasonal menus to feature Welsh beef and lamb, plus game from local estates.
Restaurant James Sommerin at Penarth is the creation of one of Wales’s Michelin-starred chefs. Ask anyone who knows anything about food in Wales and the name James Sommerin soon crops up. His track record as an inspired and uniquely talented chef speaks for itself.
Seafood is another Welsh top-notch speciality – so much so that much of it ends up on plates in France and Spain as well as locally. Shellfish include crab, lobster, mussels, scallops and even oysters (not forgetting Penclawdd cockles sold fresh in Swansea Market, with – of course – dash of vinegar and pepper). There’s plenty of fish too – sea bass, hake, mackerel, turbot and sole to name but a few.
And since Pembrokeshire is defined by the sea it’s no surprise that Rarebits hotels here make the most of the local catch of the day – taste the freshness while soaking up the clifftop views from St Brides Spa Hotel at Saunderfoot on the south coast, or Newport’s Llys Meddyg in the north.
Glyn Roberts has been cooking up a storm at Castle Cottage, Harlech, for longer than he cares to remember. Not that he’s lacking any of his original passion for the profession. He’s a typical top-end chef – get him talking about his favourite subject (yes, you’ve guessed it) and you might be there until dawn peeks over the battlements of Glyn’s historic neighbour, Harlech Castle. His dishes are inventive but full of honest-to-goodness flavour, a testament to the integrity of the local produce.
On the Isle of Anglesey, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is the colourful town of Beaumaris. The Bull has a destination restaurant renowned for its modern cuisine and boasts 3 AA Rosettes. It’s a 400 year old Inn complete with original beams as well as having a trendy boutique hotel next door, The Townhouse.
And any foodie tour around Wales has to take in Tyddyn Llan near Bala, where Michelin-starred Bryan Webb attracts accolade after accolade with the regularity of a metronome for the skill and quality of his cooking – not to mention the overall dining experience presided over by his wife Susan.
You don’t even have to travel to Wales to sample its bountiful larder; we haven’t mentioned its artisan farmhouse cheeses yet, which even the French have been known to praise. Rarebits’ ethos of quality has been applied to Gourmet Wales, a mail-order scheme that brings the best of Welsh food and drink to your doorstep. A variety of hampers for all occasions are available. Treats include top-quality meats, fine pies, terrines, coracle-caught smoked sea trout, marmalades, jams, pickles and chutneys, Anglesey sea salt, honey, waffles, shortbread, oatcakes, chocolates and an eclectic choice of wines – not forgetting those artisan cheeses.