The Welsh culinary scene is almost unrecognisable from even just a decade ago, and it’s no longer the UK’s poor relation. Both the quality of the produce, much of which is now grown organically, and the types of places where you can sit down and tuck into great gastronomic fare have improved considerably.
With its rich valley pastures providing fine grazing, Welsh dairy products are superb. Welsh cheese is a serous rival to anything the French can muster, and while Caerphilly’s crumbly white cheese is the most well known, there are others, like Perl Wen (White Pearl) from Caws Cenarth, a soft creamy cheese not dissimilar to Brie, and Y Fenni, a spiky mustard-and-ale-infused cheddar from Abergavenny.
Similarly, this fertile land facilitates the cultivation of abundant fruit and vegetables. With its mild climate, Pembrokeshire’s early potatoes are rated the best in the land, closely followed by those from Gower – and where would we be without the venerable leek?
In a land packed with sheep, it’s little wonder that lamb is king, in particular saltmarsh lamb from Gower, which gains its unique flavour from the animal’s diet of sorrel, sea lavender and samphire. In a similar vein, Welsh Black beef also has superior flavour, as a result of the cattle – Wales’s only native breed – grazing at higher altitude.
With so much coastline, seafood – including bass, crab, mussels, lobster, sole and mackerel, among other wet treats – comes as standard on menus throughout the region, but of course particularly in Pembrokeshire. The Wye may not be the great salmon river of yore, but it’s still fished, as are the Tywi and Usk, both for salmon and sewin (trout), while cockles trawled from Penclawdd on North Gower also make their way on to many a menu.
There are a handful of wonderful Welsh delicacies which it’d be remiss not to try, among them cawl, which usually refers to any soup or broth but typically includes a meat of some kind, perhaps lamb or mutton. Described by the actor Richard Burton as ‘Welshman’s caviar’, laverbread, which is essentially seaweed, is something of an acquired taste; it’s a regular staple on most breakfast menus and must be tried at least once – who knows, you might even like it. In fact seaweed is increasingly being used in many recipes, from butter to brownies, not only because of its taste but also because of its extraordinary health-giving properties.
A great brunch option is Welsh rarebit, a bit like cheese on toast but here the cheese is mixed with beer, mustard and Worcester Sauce, while the legendary Glamorgan sausage, made from local cheese and spices, is so good that it is likely to appeal to carnivores too.
In recent years, the big breweries like Cardiff-based Brains have been usurped somewhat by the entrance of dozens of craft beer breweries into the market, which has certainly livened things up. From hoppy ales to fruity IPAs, imperial stouts to dark sours, it seems like there’s no end to the creativity.
Leading the way is the cool Tiny Rebel brewery based in Newport, who have also got three bars, but others to seek out include Llanelli-based Felinfoel – Wales’s oldest brewery (1878) and the first craft brewery in the world to supply beer in a can (1935), though that’s no surprise since Llanelli is home to a tinplate works – Tomos Watkin in Swansea, Evan Evans in Llandeilo, Pipes in Pontcanna, Cardiff, and Tenby Brewing.
Although there is evidence of there being whisky stills in Wales as far back as the 4th century, when the Penderyn distillery started doing so in 2000, it was the first to do so in Wales for more than 100 years. The only other whisky producer in South Wales is the Coles distillery in Llanddarog, Carmarthenshire.
Penderyn also distils vodka and gin, and as seems to be the vogue, specialised gin distillers are springing up all over the place. A couple of interesting ones are the Silver Circle distillery in Catbrook, the Wye Valley, and Hensol Castle distillery just outside Cardiff. To many people’s surprise, South Wales is a fertile wine producing area, with both the soil and climate here offering ideal growing conditions. Two excellent outfits are Llanerch in the Vale of Glamorgan and White Castle in Monmouthshire.
The artisan coffee boom has well and truly hit South Wales and shows no sign of abating. Inevitably Cardiff has the most interesting scene and coffee is brewed with obsessive care, but even in the smaller towns, there should be at least one independent coffee shop doing something interesting. The dominant roaster on the market right now is Coaltown Coffee Roasters in Ammanford.