Quite a lot, actually. Roger Thomas takes a look at Wales’s booming food scene
Nowadays the talk is all about provenance, local ingredients, zero food miles and slow food. Which has all played very nicely into Wales’s hands, thank you very much. The country has always had that bedrock of superb farm- and sea-fresh local produce. Its seafood, Welsh Black beef and saltmarsh lamb are world class, while artisan cheesemakers match – and often exceed – the best in France.
What has changed in relatively recent times in Wales is the way in which that produce is brought to market and used in the kitchen. Farmers’ markets and farm shops proliferate. Glitzy Parisian restaurants insist on Cardigan Bay shellfish. Llanllyr Source, which springs from beneath organic fields in West Wales, is recognised as one of the world’s premium-quality bottled waters. Food, as much as music and literature, has become part of the culture; indeed, judging by the number of food festivals held here, it has risen to the very top.
Most importantly of all, chefs and cooks everywhere have raised their game. It all started with Franco Taruschio in the 1960s at the Walnut Tree restaurant near Abergavenny. He was the right man at the right time, as Britain was emerging from black-and-white post-war austerity into a more affluent, rainbow-coloured age. Arguably he wasn’t in the right place – his isolated pub-cum-restaurant was hidden away in border country. But even here he blazed another gastro-trail, proving that people are prepared to travel for food that is exceptionally good and cooked with passion, a message since reinforced by chefs like Bryan Webb at Tyddyn Llan near Bala, Stephane Boire at The Checkers, Montgomery and James Sommerin, at the newly opened Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth. All three are members of the Welsh Rarebits Collection, the hotel-based sister scheme of Rare Hideaways. But to get back to Franco. He not only championed local produce, but used it in modern, inventive ways, creating new tastes for a new audience with new appetites. He was also a forager long before the practice became de rigeur for all self-respecting chefs in thrall to Copenhagen’s current culinary Holy Grail, Noma, hunting the bountiful glades of the Black Mountains for mushrooms and wild garlic.
Franco opened a floodgate. Throughout Wales nowadays there are pubs and inns – let’s not call them gastropubs (a horrible label) – serving cutting-edge food based on traditional ingredients, so much so that you go to them to eat, not drink beer. Wales is equally well blessed with hotel restaurants and bistros that hold their own amongst the very best, though without the knack of emptying your wallet.
Wales has gone all foodie, not just in terms of fine dining but at a grass-roots level at shops, cafés and delis. It’s good for business. A recent survey by the journal Rural Geographies stated that two-thirds of us are influenced by food when choosing where we go on holiday, the West Country, Wales and Scotland emerging as the top three ‘gastro-destinations’ in the UK.
So despite what some London-centric critics think, we must be doing something right. Good food is a part of the fabric of Wales, along with the green, green, grass of home, the ‘croeso’ (welcome), rugby and the occasional rain shower.
To point you in the right direction, here are some of the items you’ll find on the menu.
The Bodnant Welsh Food Centre has just opened near Llanrwst in the Vale of Conwy. This multi-million-pound centre of excellence for Welsh food, based at beautifully converted 18th-century farm buildings, has a shop, dairy, bakery, butchery, tea-room, restaurant and cooking school. The National Beekeeping Centre for Wales is also located here. www.bodnant-welshfood.co.uk
Buy direct from farm shops throughout Wales. You won’t find fresher. Here are a few.