Wales is renowned for its beauty but its culinary delights are attracting more attention, thanks to a growing number of producers focusing on locally sourced, organic fare, ranging from cheese to breads and meat. William David Wilson whets his appetite on a foodie tour of southern Wales.
The mellow taste of cheddar is quickly overwhelmed by a powerful kick from the red chillies and chilli mustard; it’s not named ‘Dragon’s Breath’ for nothing, you know.
Less overbearing is the delicious, award-winning Pwll Mawr cheddar, matured surprisingly at the bottom of the Big Pit mine shaft in the town of Blaenavon, South Wales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site close to the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park.
I’m visiting Blaenafon Cheddar Company, a humble, family-run business of just five people specialising in the production of hand-made Welsh cheddar and soft goat’s cheeses. I take in the company’s short but distinguished history narrated by co-owner Gerry Woodhouse, as I dip a piece of Blaenafon cheddar, flavoured with Welsh whisky and ginger, in a deep blue wax representing the early 19th century pottery made in the town, ready to take away and enjoy later.
My visit is part of a two day culinary odyssey organised by ‘Wales, The True Taste’, dedicated to promoting and celebrating the best Welsh food and drinks. A brief stop at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts proves how much passion surrounds the subject, as I watch a healthy debate between distinguished chefs and restaurateurs living and working in Wales, covering everything from the burden of carrying Michelin star recognition to vicious online food blogs and the merits of utilising local produce.
And of course, what’s a festival without some foodie pleasures; I enjoy a lean, tasty venison burger farmed at the Welsh Venison Centre, which leaves me feeling content but not bloated as is so often the case with beef; sip several glasses of Monmouth-based Ancre Hill Vineyards’s finest red wine and tuck into moreish Welsh delicacies such as Tan y Castell’s Welsh cakes and Romy Cuisine pate served with local Cradoc’s crackers.
It’s certainly got my tastebuds tingling in anticipation for my gastro tour of Wales.
SMOKINGLY GOOD FOOD
Pity then that the continuous driving rain and thick fog I encounter prevents me from genuinely being able to appreciate the astounding natural beauty of the Brecon Beacons that I’d read so much about. Much less disappointing though is my traipse around the Black Mountains Smokery; a small business in Crickhowell run by Jonathan and Jo Carthew, established in 1996 after the couple fell in love with the area.
As well as winning a host of True Taste awards for their smoked salmon, duck and beef products, the smokery has earned the praise and custom of a number of restaurateurs in the area, including the distinguished chef Stephen Terry of The Hardwick hotel and restaurant in Abergavenny. I saw the smoking process first hand, and what struck me was just how seriously – and meticulously – it was done. From selecting only the finest salmon from a sustainable local farm to curing and then painstakingly dispersing the natural oak smoke evenly across the fish in the kilns; every stage is managed with great care and attention.
I am eager to sample some produce and tuck into the tender smoked chicken breast first; it would confidently enliven a boring salad or sandwich. The Suffolk Gressingham smoked duck breast is my favourite though; succulent and heavenly. It is little wonder it snapped up a Great Taste gold award in 2010.
After indulging in smoked foods, I am off to the small market town of Talgarth, in southern Powys, to visit its recently restored grain mill. After an extensive history lesson and demonstration, it’s time for a spot of lunch in the adjacent Baker’s Table café, which boasts an enviable riverside setting, and which utilises the flour made in the mill to make its fine bread.
My ham sandwich with a zesty beetroot salad (£6.50) is just what is required for my rumbling stomach, and the selection of cakes on sale are too marvellous to resist. I opt for a melt-in-the-mouth rhubarb crumble cake first, followed by a delicious carrot cake.
Hunger sated, my next stop is the Primrose Earth Centre, headed up by the impressive and earnestly passionate holistic farmer Dr Paul Benham. The centre has achieved much credence for its exemplary model of sustainable organic farming; producing an estimated £25,000 worth of organic produce each year from just 0.5 hectares (1.5 acres) of land. The variety of produce grown and cultivated here is mindboggling; from over five types of potato, seven types of mustard, 100 varieties of apples, pears, plums and nuts plus plentiful herbs, onions, garlic, spinach, cabbages and carrots. Benham and his team are deeply committed to a low-carbon, multi-cropping style of farming which imitates natural ecosystems and minimises negative effects on the environment. Their hard work is fully rewarded in the taste of their produce, as I discover by picking up and eating a leaf of raw garlic whilst on the farm; full of flavour and nutrients.
My trip to Wales has been a real journey of discovery. It’s uplifting to see how all the True Taste approved producers serve and help each other provide the very best food for your plate; whether that’s enjoying a meal in a cafe, restaurant or the comfort of your own home.
William’s trip to Wales was organised by www.walesthetruetaste.co.uk