Wales: Britain’s Best Kept Secret
First published October 2016
Wales is a country smaller than the American state of New Jersey, but it has always been a nation and culture quite distinct from other parts of the British Isles. Since the English exit from the EU, it stands more apart than ever. Its border castles remind us that foreign visitors were not always welcome.
But they are now. And if you are interested in food, Wales in one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. For such a small country it boasts an amazing diversity of landscapes: dramatic snow-capped mountains in Snowdonia, miles of wide sandy beaches in South Wales and Anglesey, and countless acres of sheep farms in the interior and the peaceful border countries where a patchwork of farms grace the gentle hills. It was on one such farm that I got a true taste of Wales, even before the Michelin stars began to shine.
At the moment, Wales boasts five Michelin-starred gems. These have largely earned their accolades for the locally sourced ingredients, with an emphasis on creativity and foraged accompaniments. There are also a number of food festivals that celebrate Welsh cuisine (those last two words would have made food writers guffaw a few decades ago).
The Michelin-starred Welsh restaurants seem to have a few things in common. Their menus rely on locally raised and/or foraged ingredients, with a nod to European culinary traditions, though the cuisine in each case is as individual as the chefs. Each establishment has an impressive wine list, as well as some excellent local brews. At each location you are served an ample slice of history along with incredible food and surroundings. All offer exceptional guest accommodations.
Housed in an old coaching inn in Montgomery in county Powys, the renovated inn and restaurant are part of a buzzing food scene. As a writer for the Guardian said, “For a teeny-tiny town, Montgomery is a food powerhouse. Breakfast, elevenses and lunch are taken care of, thanks to the town’s stash of smokehouses, flour mills, vineyards, brew houses, cider houses and all manner of sheep and pig and beef farms.” The Checkers is one of the first among these foodie destinations.
The Walnut Tree
The Walnut Tree, located at the foot of the Skirrid Mountain in the Brecon Beacons National Park, has been home to fine dining for more than 40 years. The establishment has a somewhat controversial recent history. An unfortunate episode with Chef Gordon Ramsey led to some unwanted publicity, but The Walnut Tree remains an exceptional dining and lodging destination.
Set in the beautiful Wye river valley, the chef at The Whitebrook uses locally sourced ingredients along with signature flavors from their wooded valley, including herbs such as pennywort, three-cornered garlic, bitter cress, wild onion, hogweed, and lesser celandine to create the special style of their cuisine.
This restaurant and inn is housed in the Georgian-style former shooting lodge of the Duke of Westminster. It’s surrounded by lovely lawns and gardens among the Eastern end of the mountainous Snowdonia National Park.
Tucked into a breathtaking mountain setting, parts of this country house hotel date back to the 15th century and it is surrounded by nature preserve. Queen Victoria, who owned it for a time, was largely responsible for the Hall’s exquisite gardens, which for much of the year boast spectacularly colorful flowers.
This is farm-to-table at its finest — a way of life that seemed to skip my generation, or at least it did in my suburban American upbringing. While farm to table often meant great stuff straight from the garden, a visit to my Welsh grandparents when I was a teenager meant a few challenges to my adolescent palate: pig’s trotters, “faggots” a kind of sausage made from pork offal and cooked in caul fat, and fresh eel. Nonetheless, I count these memories as some of the fondest of my life.
A Look Back
It is a beautiful Sunday in June in the Welsh border country where my mother was born and raised. We are at my grandparents’ country cottage, which dates to the 16th century. It is stone, with ivy nearly covering some of the lead-paned casement windows. On the first floor there is a sort of parlor that serves as sitting room and dining room, and a large stone fireplace with a bread oven on one side. A worn stone step leads into the small kitchen with its deep soapstone sink.
Outside, there is the vegetable garden, as well as gooseberry, elderberry and raspberry bushes covered with netting to keep hungry birds at bay. Depending on the time of year, the garden will yield tiny new potatoes, runner beans, peas, and lettuce, along with herbs. Across a small spring-fed stream and up a gentle hill is a small orchard. In the sheep pasture that you must cross to get to the cottage are wild mushrooms, ready to be gathered in the early morning.
This cottage is an outbuilding belonging to the large farm just a few miles away. Between here and the farm is a stream, shaded by alders, where my grandfather fishes. At the farm are sheep—lots of sheep—geese, chickens, pigs, cows, ponies and border collies. So there is lamb to be had, as well as milk, cream, vegetables, poultry, bacon and fresh eggs. I admit that my brother and I stole broad beans from the garden to feed to the cows on the walk back to the cottage.
My grandmother is washing new potatoes in the sink, which will be steamed and slathered with farmhouse butter. There is a tender variety of something I would now call Boston lettuce, served with “salad cream.” There is cold beef tongue being sliced (I was uneasy when I learned what it was, but I loved the taste) and fresh peas steamed with mint. To this day, the smell of minted peas transports me to the Welsh countryside, and to those meals, eaten on blankets on the grass in fine weather or on rainy days, not uncommon in Wales at any time of year, eaten around the trestle table with a fire burning in the grate.
It all seems like some sort of Slow Food reverie, but this was in the mid-1960s before anyone had felt the need to react against the industrialization of our food culture. And my grandparents had been doing this for decades, war rationing notwithstanding. Supplies for the larder may have been sparse, but with backyard gardens and chickens and rabbits there was enough to be counted lucky.
To this day, I look back on those summer days at the cottage, and feel compelled to prepare a tribute: leek and potato soup, lamb, freshly picked peas. And Welsh cakes and raspberries with cream for dessert.