The London food scene may get all the attention, but the UK culinary revolution is so happening in Wales. Lanee Lee goes feasting.
WALES – I love undiscovered culinary destinations. And when I got invited on a food tour of Wales, I pounced, hoping to defy my skepticism about finding British gastronomic greatness outside of London. I wasn't optimistic, but I do love surprises and desperately hoped I would be proven wrong.
Throughout my weeklong trip of farms, foraging, and feasting, I learned two main things:
1. I expected to eat fried, bland food and gray-green vegetables and drink nothing but basic pub beer. I was ridiculously mistaken.
2. While the Welsh have always practiced natural farming, it's recently been elevated to an absolute art form.
UK food critic Simon Wright said it best: "At the heart of Wales' new vibrancy as a food nation is the produce. The riches of the land are not new, but the relish to refine them, treasure them, and bring them blinking into the sunlight is more recent."
Wales — or "Cymru," to use the Welsh name — is ravenously hungry for culinary craftsmanship.
Exhibit A: The True Taste Awards for excellence in Welsh food.
Exhibit B: Food festivals held nearly every weekend.
Exhibit C: A plethora of award-winning restaurants and celebrity chefs throughout the country.
The Technicolor landscapes are as vibrant as the dedication to quality eats. Here are the places to feast, the farms to visit, and the foragers to follow.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Be Local, Buy Local
After visiting Conwy Castle (just one of the 641 castles in Wales), Dawsons Restaurant showed me just how fiercely dedicated to homegrown the Welsh can be. Incredibly, the restaurant only serves items raised or farmed within a seven-mile radius. Conwy Brewery's Welsh Pride ale paired well with bubble and squeak mashed potatoes and Welsh roasted lamb.
Guts Is Glory
In the seaside village of Aberdovey, I learned to respect tomalley, the greenish lobster goop I usually sneer at, when I saw fishmonger Gill Reacord tenderly place it back in the lobster shell as part of a proper dressing demo. She stopped wielding her knife long enough to notice my disgusted expression. "Isn't that, like, lobster poo?" I ask. "Goodness, no," she laughs. "It's the best part." For a freshly caught dressed crab and a new take on the beauty of crustacean innards, stop at Gill's Plaice.
The Thirst Is On
Farmers are feverishly pressing pears and apples to keep up with the UK craze for hand-crafted perries and ciders. While there are plenty of hard ciders to sample, Rosie's Black Bart Cider, made with apples from Wales' highest cider orchard in Llandegla, has a snappy flavor profile due to the aging process in both stainless steel and rum barrels. For a practically-perfect-in-every-way perry, try Gwynt y Ddraig Perry Vale.
FARMS TO VISIT
Worth Its Salt
As in ancient Roman times, salt has become a hot commodity with the onset of artisan salt producers and selmeliers (salt experts). Halen Môn, the Tiffany & Co. of salts, is a fascinating stop in North Wales. Derived from the pristine Anglesey Sea, the gem-shaped salt is used by many of the world's greatest chefs (Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, and Mark Flanagan, Queen Elizabeth's head chef). Owner David Lea-Childs expounds on the Welsh Food revolution: "Wales can't compete on quantity, but it can in quality."
Meeting the Lord
If you've ever had a fancy to meet a royal farmer, here's your chance. At Rhug Farm Estate, Lord Newborough operates the only full-circle organic beef, lamb, and bison farm in Wales. Everything from breeding to butchering is done in-house to ensure quality and sustainability. The highlight of the farm tour was when the refined but affable Lord offered me (a lowly commoner) a local cider and a few slices of freshly grilled lamb at the Rhug Farm Shop. All I could think of to offer in return was a clumsy curtsey.
WHERE TO STAY
Welsh cottages are enchanting, but a Welsh country cottage with a Michelin-starred chef is a foodie paradise. At chef Bryan Webb's Tyddyn Llan B&B, the elegant dining experience starts with 1950s-style cocktails and hors d'oeuvres like mini laverbread (Welsh seaweed quiche) in the sitting room and continues in the intimate candlelit restaurant when Webb's wife, Susan, escorts you to the six-course meal with Champagne, canapés, and petit fours. Then simply roll to your room and sleep off the food coma. The Gourmet Night package runs $440 per couple.
Best High Tea in Wales
The exquisite high tea at Angel Hotel in Abergavenny (awarded 2011 Best Afternoon Tea in Wales by the UK Tea Guild) is just one of the reasons to stay at the luxurious but quaint hotel where sophisticated visitors and locals, like the co-ed Knitting Out club, love to convene.
WHAT TO FORAGE
Pick up your wicker basket and your special mushroom knife and let Daniel Butler (photo at right), the maniac mushroom man, escort you into Elan Valley forests in search of cèpes, girolles and chanterelles. Then follow him to his funky 17th century farmhouse where he'll cook a three-course fungi-centric meal. A day with Butler is one of surprises, from watching him gasp in ecstasy when he finds a flawless specimen to listening to him talk about how cèpes are sexy and how Laplanders drink reindeer urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high without the hangover.
Lovin' the Bivalves
All kinds of gourmet delicacies are being lovingly cultivated in the Angelsey Sea in the Menai Straits. Spend an afternoon with Shaun Krijnen of Menai Oysters, a snarky character who could have his own reality TV show about his labor of love: harvesting oysters and mussels by hand. His passion for bivalves is infectious.
WHAT TO BRING
Whether gorging from north to south (like I did) or east to west, the only thing to pack to take full advantage of the food revolution in Wales are pants with an elastic waist.
Iechyd da! That's Welsh for "cheers." If you want to learn it before you go (aren't you thoughtful?) here's a handy pronunciation guide. It's not the the most intuitive language.
BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE
Farmers Markets in Wales – A useful guide.
Welsh Food Festivals - Eat your heart out from March-October at near weekly food festivals.
True Taste Awards – Find out who won the culinary Oscars of Wales.
Wales Top 29 Fine Dining Restaurants – This website has done the heavy calculus for you and tallied the scores from Michelin, The Good Food Guide, and the Rosette.
Traditional Welsh Recipes – These five dishes are as plentiful as the sheep that graze the picturesque countryside.