South Wales for Foodies
The culinary heritage of South Wales links the area’s industrial and mining past, aspects of its contemporary development, and the very landscape of the region. And it is an enormously rich heritage, claiming (with a twinkle in the eye) a Roman association as regards one delicacy, and another that can truthfully be dated at least that far back.
Landscape dictates to a great extent the food and drink produced in any area. Starting at the margins between sea and land, in the case of South Wales the muddy flats at Penclawdd on the north side of the Gower Peninsula offer the perfect habitat for the humble but delicious cockle, the beds there we know exploited by the Romans. The cockle is one element of a traditional South Wales breakfast that with luck – or maybe by negotiation – you will find at your hotel or B&B: cockles, bacon and Laverbread. By-the-by, there’s even a traditional vegetarian brekky option here, the meatless Glamorgan sausage . That Laverbread , the carefully rinsed, bi-carbed and boiled seaweed porphyra umbilicalis, is another local speciality, rich in iodine, vitamins and protein. It takes a bit of courage to try the frankly unappetising looking mush, but then you may have been dared to eat your first oyster. Try some look you.
Proceeding only a little inland takes us to the Llanrhidian salt-marshes, where some of the best lamb in Wales is reared, as sweet and rich as the perhaps better-known French pré-salé version. And a fourth South Wales speciality sits, or rather swims, between sea and land: the Sewin, Welsh for sea-trout, a meatier and somehow cleaner-tasting fish than its cousins who never take to the oceans.
A rather more modern addition to the South Wales foodie scene also benefits from the lie of the land: in its case, the south-facing slopes of its extensive hill-country. Two particularly renowned vineyards deserve to be mentioned, Llanerch (not far from junction 34 of the M4) and a little further south the Glyndwr Vineyard near Cowbridge , both in the Vale of Glamorgan , both offering accommodation.
The climate and landscape of South Wales is helpful to fruit growers too, which partly explains the proliferation of small producers of cider and perry in the region. Most cannot accept tours, but Blaengawney Cider near Caerphilly is accessible by arrangement.
Earlier we mentioned the significance of the area’s industrial and mining heritage to its food scene, though it would have been more accurate to say its food and drink scene. Labouring in a steelworks or long shifts down the mines left men dehydrated, so rather than how green was my valley consider how keen was my thirst. The most famous brewer in Wales, Brains of Cardiff , can be dated back about 300 years, a national as well as regional gem with some fine brews you’ll have no problem in tracking down in local pubs. There’s a flourishing micro-brewery scene too, for example the Bryncelyn Brewery at the Wern Fawr Inn near Neath .
A must for lovers of stronger beverages is a visit to the distillery of The Welsh Whisky Company at Penderyn in the Rhondda, which is a tourist attraction in itself as well as offering the hope of a quick nip of the good stuff.
At the end of the 19th century meeting the needs of industrial workers helped a Swansea institution establish itself: then it was selling strong coffee to perk up the early shifts that helped the Italian founder of the Joe’s chain of cafes prosper; now (as for several generations) it is their ice cream that wins plaudits. Joe’s have several outlets in Swansea and Mumbles , nowadays as loved by students of Swansea University as by those with less cerebral occupations. Verdi’s in Mumbles, another family affair albeit a very substantial one, offers a rival to the Joe’s there.
If you visit the area in the summer why not put together a picnic of some of the local foodie glories? For the bread we would recommend finding (not difficult) a Swansea Loaf or two. Rather more challenging to purchase, but worth the search, is the air-dried ham from Carmarthen (this is the foodstuff that rather tongue-in-cheek some claim the Welsh gave to the Romans), a relatively recent offshoot of the older tradition of top-quality bacon from the same town. And as for the cheese, scour local farmers’ markets , the wonderful array of food shops or make for a high-end emporium like Le Gallois Deli in Cardiff to buy something regional – you’ll be spoiled for choice: Pont Gar white or blue from Carmarthen, the intriguing Y Fenni from Abergavenny , or of course one of the greatest British cheeses Caerphilly will please the discerning, and there are many others, Pembrokeshire with a particularly rich selection, and the Blaenafon Cheddar Company making a wide range that includes goat’s cheeses. And maybe finish with a Gower Cottage Brownie, handmade and a recent award-winner.
Should the weather not be conducive to picnicking then there’s no shortage of good restaurants . Most famous in the area is doubtless Michelin-starred The Walnut Tree near Abergavenny (some fellow-foodies may have Leaves from the Walnut Tree on their shelves, written by its founder Franco Taruschio); not far away from that restaurant is The Hardwick , listed in the Michelin Bib Gourmand section; Slice in Sketty on the western edge of Swansea has a great reputation for using local produce. And as if the Gower hasn’t enough to offer, there’s the Fairyhill Restaurant in Reynoldston, where they can generally save you a lot of personal food-miles by serving you a variety of very local ingredients. And if you arrive via Gloucester or fancy a detour north from the M4, The Crown at Whitebrook , another Michelin-star holder, is suggested by some as the best eaterie in Wales – with accommodation to boot.
So broaden your horizons and combine a holiday on the Gower, or in one of the lovely seaside villages dotted around the coast, in Brecon’s hills or Monmouthshire’s green countryside, with a foodie exploration of the best South Wales has to offer the inner man and woman.
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