Think “Wales”. What comes to mind? I’m guessing, sheep, unpronounceable place names, and a disproportionate population of great singers.
Well, sure, but from henceforth, my first thought will be, “amazing cuisine.” Because in the past decade or two, Wales has developed an astonishing food-and-drink culture that will satisfy the appetite of the most critical foodie. Or “drinkie”, although I don’t think that is, as yet, an official categorization.
A tasting trek through Wales will destroy any stereotypes the visitor may hold about bland British food. It simply ain’t so. But while the cuisine and the developing beverage culture are very appealing, they manage to be so without a hint of snobbishness — so some of the most interesting noshes are perfect versions of old favorites.
There are several options for visitors wanting to discover the hidden gems of Welsh cuisine. In Cardiff, a company called “Loving Welsh Food” offers a variety of walking tours. The countryside is replete with opportunities to stop for interesting fare or unique beverage-tastings (or even, beverage-making). And one of the most famous culinary gatherings in Europe — the Abergavenny Food Festival — will celebrate its 26th anniversary in September 2024.
My culinary adventure started in Cardiff, on a walking tour led by knowledgeable guide Ieuan Rhys, a professional actor who leads the group outings on days when he is not on stage or in front of the camera. I asked him if he knew the movie, “The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down The Mountain,” an early Hugh Grant film made in Wales — and one of my favorites. Not only did he know it — he played the Police Sergeant! That has nothing to do with food, but it was a great added detail to a wonderful tour.
It included a stop at Cardiff Castle, the notable Cardiff arcades, the historic market, and — surprise — a pub. At Cardiff Castle, the tour began with coffee and Bara brith, a delicious “speckled bread” flavoured with tea, dried fruits, and spices. It’s perhaps the second-most popular sweet bread in Wales, after the traditional Welsh Cakes.
Then it was off to the arcades. Cardiff is home to nine unique arcades, narrow pedestrian alleys lined with shops, each with its own personality, and most boasting wonderful culinary offerings. The first visit was to the Royal Arcade, where I dropped in at Wally’s Delicatessen and Kaffeehaus. We did not encounter Wally, but an affable chap named Tom Preece presented us with cheeseboards and charcuterie trays laden with amazing Welsh cheeses and special imported meats. I was especially fond of the Anglesey Blue cheese, but would enjoy a repeat tasting of any of the tastes presented by Preece.
Next stop was the Cardiff market, which has been serving customers since 1891. Like many such markets, you can buy anything from fabric to vinyl records, but more to my purpose, there is some pretty wonderful food available. I stopped in at a pizza place whose owners have become TV stars through their show, “The Pizza Boys.” They provide lessons in creative pizza making, and in understanding the Welsh language. Well, if not understanding, at least getting one step closer.
The hole-in-the-wall pizza shop is called “Ffwrnes Pizza.” And it was here that Rhys explained that the Welsh alphabet has a couple of extra letters — and that “w” is always a vowel. The letters “ff” are pronounced like our “f” — a single “f” is prounced like “v”.
So the name of the shop suddenly made sense — “Ffwrnes” sounds remarkably like “Furnace”.
The pizza, by the way, was extraordinary. Especially the variety that was drizzled with Welsh honey. That was a revelation — I am certain I have never ordered “honey” as an option on a pizza back home in Ontario.
On the lower floor of the market was a delicatessen where I sampled the traditional dish, “faggots and peas.” Faggots are pork and offal meatballs; the peas came in the mushy form. Sounds iffy, tastes terrific. And Rhys noted that although there is occasional linguistic push-back about the politically incorrect name, “We had it first.” So there.
Honestly, a foodie trip to Wales would be satisfying if it only included a Cardiff walking tour. But of course, the country offers so much more.
I hit the road for a couple of days. First stop was Hensol Castle, today a distillery and event space. The tour of the building offered a deep dive into the history of gin making — including the tough times of the 18th–century “Gin Craze”. The experience finished on a positive note, as each member of the tour measured out botanicals to a unique, individual recipe of his or her own devising, added alcohol, watched as our own mini-still produced gin, and bottled it up to take home. Mine, I must say, was clearly the best recipe. The unique Hensol Castle Gin School experience is offered at a cost of £99 each (about $125 USD) — and worth it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The distillery industry has been newly revived in Wales. The Hensol Castle distillery opened in 2021; Penderyn Distillery was founded in 2004. Hensol specializes in gin, although the goal is to also produce whisky. However, whisky can’t be called whisky until it has been in barrels for at least three years; Hensol’s whisky is still in the womb.
At Penderyn, that’s not the case. Host Carla Polledri led an enthusiastic tasting of the property’s whisky options. And, yes, whisky fans, Wales is breaking the spelling rule — although the country has an “e” in its name, its whisky products don’t. (Compare Scotland’s “whisky” and Ireland’s “whiskey”.)
Spirits are not the only alcoholic beverages experiencing a renaissance in Wales. There is beer — a lot of great beer — and wineries are opening around the country. Llanech Vineyard in Hensol includes a hotel, which is a good choice if you intend to indulge in their vineyard products. Dinner started with a tasting of their palatable wines.
It seemed only right, this being Wales, that several of my dinner orders included lamb, including at Llanerch. I love lamb, and as Rhys had explained, tongue in cheek, “There are three million people in Wales, and 10 million sheep — we have to eat them or they’ll take over.”
I mentioned that the foodie scene in Wales manages to be creative but unpretentious, and a good example of that is Hills, a family roadside restaurant that has won top honors at the National Burger Awards.
One bite and you know why — these are exceptional burgers; all the ingredients are locally sourced. You can order as many of the succulent patties as you want — the cooks told us that one clearly insane diner ordered a burger with 22 patties and all the extras, and ate the whole thing. We did not learn about any dramatic aftermath concerning this gluttonous gourmet.
All this food, and the Abergavenny Food Festival still awaited. To get there, you have to drive through the Brecon Beacons, one of the most beautiful road trips anywhere. I arrived in the town of Abergavenny, population 13,423, which welcomes up to 40,000 hungry guests to the two-day festival.
The town center becomes one giant event space. There are booths everywhere — on the streets, in the city market, on the grounds of the ruined castle. There are seminars and demonstrations throughout the town, from panels discussing cookbooks to outdoor cooking classes to food and beverage tastings.
And, of course, there is food, on offer, everywhere. The festival was founded in 1999 by two local farmers, looking for a way to recover from the mad-cow crisis. It has grown exponentially ever since (except for a hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic).
The festival is a kaleidoscope of activities. My favorites included a conversation and tasting with baker Alison Stribling of “Lily & Pips”; a Welsh whisky-and-cheese tasting led by the ebullient Rachel McCormack; an outdoor cooking demonstration with celebrity chef Jeremy Pang; and a lovely wine tasting led by Rodd Merchant of White Castle Vineyard.
Every tasting of food or drink served to strengthen my understanding that Wales is the new, undiscovered country of food and beverage.