The Food of Wales

Wales is the best-kept secret in food, although rumours of foodie delights in the far reaches of Ceredigion and Snowdonia have been trickling through. Word is getting out of passionate producers, chefs and farmers. I've heard whispers of food, which has to be tasted to be believed, hand-made by artisans on such a small scale that you have to seek it out because it is never going to turn up on a supermarket shelf.

After some painful narrowing down, a three night road trip is fixed, a great loop round the delights of South and West Wales, from Carmarthenshire to the far reaches of Pembrokeshire, up the coast round Cardigan Bay to Aberystwyth, and then into the heart of Mid Wales.

First night

We head down the M4 to spend our first night at Llwyn Helyg Country House in Llanarthne, a newly built palace of a guest house that is to regular B&Bs what Downton Abbey is to Emmerdale. As if acres of marble flooring and a sweeping staircase aren't enough, Llwyn Helyg’s USP is its ‘room of sound’, a massive hall designed to have the perfect acoustic for the awe-inspiring sound system - music lovers will be entranced. The bedrooms too would put many five star hotels to shame, and they could never compete with the warmth of welcome from owners Caron and Fiona, which even extends to a lift to the local restaurant, Y Polyn for dinner.

Now, Y Polyn might look like a modest pub/restaurant but don't be deceived – it’s one of those fantastic hidden away places that those in the know rather irritatingly like to keep to themselves. “Never turn down a dinner invitation to The Polyn!” a friend tells me, but only when I mention it. Thanks for that, I think.

You won't get white linen tablecloths or stiff service at Y Polyn – this is about great food on wooden tables and a well kept pint as well as a solid wine list. We eat heritage tomatoes from Blaencamel Farm on the Ceredigion- Pembrokeshire border and local salmon caught in the Towy Valley by a fisherman in a coracle “the shape of half a walnut shell”, owner Mark tells me. And to finish, a towering chocolate and cherry ice cream sundae, as rich and fruity as Dame Edna Everage and just as good fun.

Wright's in the morning

Cheese at Wright's food emporium

Wright’s Independent Food Emporium, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire 

In the morning, we stroll up the lane from Llwyn Helyg to Wright’s Food Emporium, a gem of a food shop and café in a Victorian farmhouse-cum-inn, it turns out that even in the 19th century farmers had to diversify.

Under the bare beams in the low ceilinged, slate floored shop, Simon Wright, together with his wife, chef Maryann, sells local cheeses and charcuterie, as well as eggs, vegetables, homemade jams and chutneys. Their son Joel oversees the wine room, complete with old school record player and an intriguing selection of wine and local beer.

The table in the panelled dining room has plates loaded with clouds of meringues, cheesecake and a deep treacle tart, crusted on the top and melting toffee within. But it’s breakfast time so we sit by the shelves of cookbooks where Fergus Henderson is cheek-to-cheek with Fanny Cradock, and eat a ‘Fried Welsh Rarebit’, like a mustardy toasted cheese sandwich, packed with leeks and with a generous smear of n’duja, a Calabrian spiced sausage spread. Then comes some delicate, thin-sliced spiced salt beef, served warm with Wright’s homemade soda bread, a nostril clearingly hot horseradish mustard, pickles and a delectable caraway seed spiked coleslaw.

Piggy perfection

At Wright’s we spot some very fine cured pork, beautifully marbled bacon, sausages and fennel and red wine salami, from a company called Charcutier Ltd. I’d come across the owner Illtud Llyr Dunsford’s blog, a fascinating and honest look at curing meat from a man who has travelled the world in search of piggy perfection. It seems like the least we can do to take a short detour to Pontyates to meet Illtud and his partner Liesel.

Illtud meets us at the modest farmhouse in a T-shirt that reads ‘Tasty Salted Pig Parts’. This is a man obsessed with pork, and with that enthusiasm for his product that seems to be a trait among Welsh producers. A farmer’s grandson, Illtud would spend weekends on the farm eating the home-grown pork, “tenderloin fried in lard by my grandmother in a pan that was never washed out”, and learning how to cure meat in the old slate trays that still stand in the farmhouse kitchen, now transformed into a meat curing space.

Out in the yard are Illtud’s pride and joy, half a dozen Mangalitza pigs, a curly haired Hungarian breed snuffling around, looking more like poodles than porkers. Their meat is special too, explains Illtud: sublime, dark, richly flavoured and well marbled, like the Spanish pata negra. We finish our mugs of tea and wave goodbye to Illtud. It’s time to make for the sea, so we head for the coast road.

To the coast

Llwynhelyg Farm Shop, Ceredigion

Llwynhelyg Farm Shop, Ceredigion

Chef Will Holland, who held a Michelin star at restaurant La Bécasse in Ludlow has opened up the appropriately named Coast, while at Freshwater West there’s Café Môr, the permanent base of the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, which won the BBC Food and Farming Awards this year for best takeaway.

Time is racing on, so we head up the Ceredigion coast to visit my friend the celebrated food writer Elisabeth Luard. We wave as we pass the award-winning Llwynhelyg Farm Shop  where the farmer’s wife will nip out and freshly pick salad leaves for you. With single-minded determination we drive on past the Georgian fishing village of Aberaeron. No time today for home made honey ice cream at The Hive, snuggled next to a fine fishmongers on the harbourside where you can watch the fishing boats delivering their catch to the door.

We reach Elisabeth in the early evening, driving up the long bumpy lane to her pink painted Georgian farmhouse perched in the hills above Aberystwyth with views across the valley to the Cambrian hills. Elisabeth comes bounding out of the moss green front door, and we are soon ensconced in the kitchen. Granddaughter Jess and her friend Juliet are cooking padrones peppers from local Spanish food shop Ultracomida , and we sip wine from Wrights while we discuss the joy of Welsh food.

“I love its honesty,” Elisabeth tells me. “It’s very simple, very direct, and it depends on good ingredients – and people here are very switched on to good ingredients.” That night we eat tender, richly flavoured lamb, with peas and a vividly coloured salad of flowers, rocket and lettuce from Elisabeth’s garden, then cheeses and strawberries left to macerate in a scattering of sugar. Elisabeth was clearly delighted by the Welsh produce. “That lamb is from the Ystwyth Valley, which we drive through on the ten minute journey to Aberystwyth. You don’t get much more local than that.”

Off to Aber

Boxes of produce from Blaencamel Farm, Ceredigion

Produce from Blaencamel Farm, Ceredigion

 by Blaencamel Farm

Next morning, we make the journey to Aberystwyth, arriving at the farmers’ market just as the sun comes out glinting off the rain glossed pavements. Liesel was there, smiling broadly, with the Charcutier Ltd stall, doing a busy trade and already nearly out of the chorizo.

There’s a stall selling free-range duck – something supermarket shoppers struggle to lay hands on – but Elisabeth is already a couple of stands further on, at the Blaencamel Farm stall, chatting to farmer Peter Segger. As well as those fragrant tomatoes I ate at Y Polyn, there are taut skinned aubergines, bags bursting with squeaky leafed spinach and kale, purple sputniks of kohlrabi, satiny globes of beetroot, perky leaves attached – all for prices that make the supermarkets look dear.

It’s time for a quick lunch of Ultracomida’s fine Spanish fare – the Welsh might have great produce of their own but they aren’t parochial – before a tour of the food shops including Rob Rattray’s butcher, purveyor of last night’s lamb as well as whole flitches of old fashioned bacon. I’m in food heaven, but after a quick drink in the slick harbourside restaurant-bar Baravin (yes, Aber - as the locals call it - does urban cool as well) we are on the road again.

Go east

We drive east through the hills and along the River Severn to our last stop, The Old Vicarage at Dolfor. This is another Welsh secret. Tim and Helen Withers worked with the legendary Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel at Dartmouth, before running their own seafood restaurant in Wiltshire. They moved to the Victorian former rectory in the heart of the sheep farming country to be close to family, and now run it as an elegant guest house with first-rate food. You won’t find any smears of sauces here, no foams or teetering towers of vegetables. This is old school done properly: Tim’s twice baked soufflé was described by food writer Simon Hopkinson as the finest outside London’s two Michelin star Gavroche restaurant.

As we tuck in to the soufflé, two trembling cloud-light domes with gilded tops, I can’t imagine anything better. And as Elisabeth tells me, “It’s wonderful to love food. A lot of your life can be made so happy, if only for a short time, if you love food.”