I wrote this story several years back, after a press trip to Wales, but I've been inspired to post it again, after a discussion about Welsh Rarebit on local CBC radio, just one of the dishes I tried while exploring the local food scene. Sadly, some of the restaurants I visited (like Ffresh) have closed, but their inspirations live on. If you want to try rarebit, scroll down to my recipe!
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
(Cardiff, Wales) – When London food critic AA Gill slagged all of Wales as a “culinary desert” he probably didn’t get past the currant-studded Welsh cakes and a meaty mutton cawl.
Both are ubiquitous here — and delicious, too — but the most memorable dishes I tried at Ffresh restaurant, in Cardiff’s iconic Wales Millennium Centre, had serious Welsh provenance, with nary a lamb or leek in sight.
Chef Kurt Fleming’s take on the organic, woodland-raised Gloucester Old Spot pork from nearby Red Pig Farm is wickedly addictive –— the belly slow-braised and scented with bay and star anise, then seared to crispy perfection and balanced on a cloud of creamy cauliflower puree, with sweetly-spiced red cabbage to cut the richness of it all.
“The majority of Welsh families still do survive on basic meat and potatoes, but our goal is to be a unique restaurant, celebrating what’s seasonal and local,” sous chef Dean Way told me, delivering an heirloom beetroot salad topped with a creamy dab of artisan goat cheese and describing his thoroughly modern take on the traditional Welsh faggot, a meaty combination of shredded duck confit and offal, seasoned with aromatic five-spice and bundled in a crisp caul fat crust.
“A few years ago, you wouldn’t have found Michelin star restaurants in Wales,” he adds. “AA Gill was right.”
Gill, the powerful arbiter of British taste, may well have been the catalyst for the country’s current culinary renaissance, in part by stirring up that legendary stubborn Welsh pride. Restaurateurs, chefs and local foodies seem fond of quoting Gill’s slur while pointing out that by 2010 Wales had four Michelin-starred restaurants, three making the grade for the first time in the new guide. (UPDATE: In 2022 there were six restaurants in Wales with a Michelin star, with Chef-owner Gareth Ward's destination restaurant Ynyshir, on the edge Snowdonia National Park earning a second star).
“Since the last war, the quality of food in Wales was not the best — we did earn the tag of ‘culinary desert’ — but in recent years there’s been a quiet revolution,” says Nerys Howell, author of Wales on a Plate, a book celebrating Welsh artisan food producers. “We’ve always had this fantastic tradition of cooking what’s local and available, but until now, we’ve taken it for granted.”
CELEBRATING TASTY TRADITIONS
Wales’ traditional local bounty seems to be gaining new cachet, whether it’s their Welsh Black Beef and famed salt marsh lamb, the laverbread (seaweed puree) smeared on toast for breakfast, plump cockles and mussels, local farmhouse cheeses, heirloom pork, venison, or organic and foraged wild vegetables. Traditional Welsh cider, perry and even fresh white Welsh wines are also finding favour.
And that’s thanks, in no small part, to the Welsh Assembly Government’s push to make local, sustainable food available to all. From their annual True Taste food and drink awards – the foodie Oscars of Welsh food producers and purveyors — to the Food Tourism Action Plan, Wales’ politicos want to see more local products on Welsh plates, and it seems to be working.
“Local sourcing of food and drink is one of the priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government,” writes Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones in the stylish True Taste magazine that celebrates the chefs, farmers, fishers, cheese makers and food retailers that “have achieved True Taste status” in the latest round of Welsh foodie awards.
“The Welsh Assembly Government’s scheme, One Wales: One Planet, sets an enormous challenge, which includes the need to produce more food at prices consumers can afford, and to ensure that Welsh food and drink is widely available.”
It’s a lofty ideal for a small region, but there’s no doubt that the dozens of annual True Taste award winners – like this year’s Oaklands Organics pastured poultry and Henfron Farm’s traditional mountain sheep mutton – are bolstering Wales’ award-winning menus.
Still, it takes a trip outside the capital of Cardiff to find most of this newly-minted, Welsh haute cuisine. All of this year’s Michelin stars went to restaurants in the Welsh countryside, and I find two — The Whitebrook and The Walnut Tree — on a day trip to the food-obsessed town of Abergavenny.
This compact corner — roughly triangulated by the towns of Monmouth, Abergavenny and Skenfirth — is rich in top food producers and purveyors. There’s artisan cured meats from Trealy Farm, air-dried and smoked sausages made with their own free-range Welsh pork. Caw Mynydd Du (Black Mountains Cheese) makes the award-winning Dragon’s Back sheep milk cheese, and at Blaenafon Cheddar Co., the cheeses are aged deep in an abandoned coal mine, and flavoured with Welsh whisky from the nearby Penderyn distillery. At Ty Gwyn Cider, heirloom Brown Snout apples are fermented to make lightly sparkling farm ciders, and the mountainous pastures are dotted with the traditional breeds of small Welsh lamb.
“This region of Wales is our first food tourism destination,” Howell explains, as we tuck into plates of tender Welsh venison haunch and salted duck breast, prepared according to an historic recipe and served with aromatic pickled plums at Abergavenny’s Angel Hotel.
Set on the edge of Brecon Becons National Park, Abergavenny has become the culinary capital of southeastern Wales, thanks to restaurants like The Walnut Tree, a longtime locovore haunt that has earned Michelin’s favour under the direction of chef Shaun Hill. It’s also home to the annual Abergavenny Food Festival, a two-day village party that attracts throngs every September for chef-led Master Classes, tutored tastings, impromptu food rants, scholarly debates, and the chance to meander the streets and covered Victorian market to visit 200 food stalls offering the best artisan tastes of the nation.
“Forty thousand people come to town for this festival but 15 years ago this didn’t exist,” Says Kim Waters, the new chief executive what’s become one of Britain’s most popular gastronomic events.
“The food industry has changed massively here.”
Enroute to Abergavenny, along the River Wye, we find The Whitebrook restaurant and rooms, a luxurious little country inn where (then) chef James Sommerin’s seasonal cuisine – stylish dishes like poached and roast squab with duck liver, butterscotch and gingerbread - have won him a Michelin star for the last four years running. The restaurant is under new ownership today — chef and owner Chris Harrod, — re-earning its Michelin star, and remains a perfect base for exploring the spectacular ruins of Tintern Abby or hiking the Wye valley’s forested trails.
It’s also here that we encounter another True Taste winner, wild food forager Raoul Vanden Broucke, a supplier to several notable area restaurants.
“The chefs are most interested in the wild mushrooms and ramsons, wild garlic, and onions,” says Vanden Broucke who collects sweet pennywort, feathery wood ear fungi and chanterelles, samphire and sea spinach for chefs as far away as London.
But even rural pubs provide simple but stellar meals. At The Bell, a 17th century coach house in near Skenfirth, the owner augments the menu with vegetables from the kitchen garden and wild game he shoots himself on the nearby Blackwater Estate. The Hardwick, a country pub near Abergavenny, received the Good Food Guide top award for local food, which owner and Michelin-star chef Stephen Terry, a Walnut Tree alumnus, says is easy, working so close to his favourite farms.
And at Nantyderry, just south of Abergavenny, celebrity chef Matt Tebbutt has made The Foxhunter a destination gastro-pub, too, augmenting his seasonal menu with wild garlic, rocket, and sea spinach. You can order his set wild foods menu, or arrange a walk in the woods with forager Vanden Broucke, then cook your finds in back at the restaurant kitchen.
WELSH FLAVOUR IN CARDIFF
Back in Cardiff, perhaps the best way to taste fresh Welsh food is to hit the markets. At the weekly Riverside Community Market, set up next to the Millenium Stadium every Sunday, small-scale producers sell everything from artisan breads and free-range eggs to preserves, organic vegetables and farmhouse cheese.
Exploring the glass-roofed historic shopping streets of Cardiff also turns up some gems for food lovers. In the Royal Arcade – the city’s oldest covered Victorian street — Wally’s Delicatessen has all manner of international and gourmet food products, and we leave with a waxed Black Bomber Welsh cheddar and boxes of flakey Welsh Halen Môn sea salt from the Anglesey Sea Salt Co.
In the Castle Arcade, we find a killer three-cheese Welsh Rarebit at Madame Fromage, a lovely cheese shop and Slow Food café with 150 different cheeses on offer, local selections from Teifi and Gorwydd Caerphilly to creamy Caws Cenarth Perl Wen, Black Bummer and Green Thunder. It’s a brilliant stop for a hearty lunch of broccoli and Stilton soup, or Welsh lamb cawl (stew), and a chat with cheese monger Steve Charles, who can describe the nuances of every wheel in the case.
“Everyone associates Wales with sheep but we only have one sheep milk cheese,” says Charles, pointing out a pungent Celtic Promise, washed in local cider, and a mature cheddar flavoured with mustard and ale.
Locals also swear by the vegetarian lunches at Crumbs Kitchen and their Cardiff curries – from the upscale Indian cuisine at Mint & Mustard to the cheap £5 feast of chicken curry on chips (the Welsh answer to poutine), at Tony's or Dorothy’s along Chippy Alley (Caroline Street), a late night nosh after several pints of local Brains beer.
We duck into the historic Cardiff Central Market — set in an impressive Victorian building in the heart of the city’s pedestrian shopping area — to talk to longtime stall holders, like the fishmongers at E. Ashton who have been selling fish here since 1891. Manager Jonathan Adams offers a taste of traditional laverbread — a kind of mushy local seaweed, reminiscent of nori, that’s cooked in bacon fat and spread on toast — and the chewy cooked welks and cockles that locals buy for snacks.
At A.W. Griffiths, the chatty butchers are already sold out of their popular Welsh Dragon sausage — a spicy mixture of pork, leeks and chilies — and at G. Anthony Butchers, Gavin Burgess offers a recipe for faggots, the Welsh version of haggis.
The classic stalls are jammed with bakers selling fresh baguettes, piles of cabbage and parsnips, and yes, leeks.
But the true champion of all things Welsh is butcher Brian Morgan who, for 35+ years, has been selling what, for him, will always be Wales’ premiere product.
“Welsh lamb — it’s a small breed, raised in the mountains and the salt marshes — and it’s the best lamb in the world.”
IF YOU GO:
Cardiff Market opens at 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday. In the city centre, next to St. John’s Church, it’s a historic landmark, dating from the 1850s, and a great spot to chat with local butchers, bakers and fishmongers about classic Welsh cuisine. www.cardiff-market.co.uk
Madame Fromage is Cardiff’s premiere cheese monger, with a small café and deli featuring Welsh products and local farmhouse cheeses. www.madamefromage.co.uk
Wally’s Delicatessen is set in the historic Royal Arcade in Cardiff, a gourmet food store offering international and local ingredients including tinned laverbread and Welsh sea salt. www.wallysdeli.co.uk
The Riverside Market in Cardiff is an outdoor farmers market featuring local Welsh food product, open every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Fizhamon Embankment along the River Taff. www.riversidemarket.org.uk
Abergavenny Food Festival, Wales’ premiere local food event, runs Sept. 21 and 22, 2024, in Abergavenny, north of Cardiff. Abergavenny also hosts the Welsh Perry and Cider Society festival in May, celebrating authentic craft cider and perry.
The Whitebrook (Mounmouth) in the Wye Valley has had a Michelin star for several years running, thanks to chef Chris Harrod's creative cuisine. https://www.thewhitebrook.co.uk/
The Walnut Tree is the Michelin-star restaurant and inn in Llanddewi Skirrid, just east of Abergavenny, where celebrated chef Shaun Hill offer simple but stunning Welsh cuisine. www.thewalnuttreeinn.com
The Bell at Skenfrith (Monmouthshire) is famed for sourcing local produce, much from its own kitchen garden.
RAREBIT: A CHEESY WELSH TRADITION
Rarebit, that gooey combination of cheese and toast is classic comfort food in Wales. When they started talking about it this week on my local CBC radio station, I had to dig out my recipe and try it again.
GRILLED WELSH RAREBIT
Use any kind of cheddar, Gruyere, or other sharp, melting cheese in your rarebit. Chop or shred the cheese, and flavour the creamy sauce with a bit of dry mustard and Worcestershire, then pour it over a thick piece of toasted wholegrain bread and toast under the broiler. Serve with tomato chutney or sweet pickles, for a quick lunch or breakfast.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/3 cup pale ale, hard apple cider or milk
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard (like Keen’s)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ pound or about 2 cups, grated sharp cheese (cheddar or a combo of cheddar, Gruyere, Lancashire, Friulano, etc.)
2-4 thick slices whole grain bread, toasted
Smoky paprika or cayenne
1 green onion, chopped
Preheat the broiler.
In a saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Cook together, stirring, for 1 minute. Whisk in the ale, cider or milk to make a thick sauce and cook until bubbly. Stir in the mustard and Worcestershire, then the cheese, mixing to melt.
Place the toast on a baking sheet. Top each piece of toast with a thick layer of cheese sauce and sprinkle lightly with paprika or cayenne. Slide it under the preheated broiler, and broil for a minute, just until cheese begins to brown on top. Watch carefully. Sprinkle with chopped green onion and serve. Serves 2-4.