Food, Wales, Delicious!

Sure, I knew about Welsh Rarebit, and sure, I knew about cockles. Kinda sure, anyway, so let’s begin there.

My choice of good local ales at the Mochyn Du, I chose CWRW.

The term “rarebit” is not a corruption of rabbit, but is, instead, a kind of open faced grilled cheese sandwich. Its ingredients include toasted bread (rye, or any other substantial loaf), melted cheddar (preferably thick strands, not slices, with good ale, salt, fresh pepper, a bit of mustard, Worcestershire, and more bits of good Welsh bacon (more like a cross between American grilled ham and Canadian bacon). Cockles may be associated with mussels (but then, that would be in Dublin’s fair city, not in Wales). Here, as there, cockles are small clams, found throughout the world in saltwater. In Wales, they may be served in combination with well-buttered toast, and bits of Welsh ham, and they may be quite tiny. Both Welsh Rarebit and cockles are best enjoyed with a good pub ale; I did just that in Cardiff, just before the 9PM kitchen closing time, at Y Mochyn Du (The Black Pig), and then enjoyed some fresh sea bass, while my compadre, Paul Harris (local guide and expert on Wales; owns See Wales) enjoyed Honey Roasted Ham with a pair of free-range (we would call then sunny side up) eggs.

The laver cake anchors a good Welsh breakfast consisting of wonderful smoked salmon and my gigantic fluffy omelette.

I will now recall Cardiff as the site of the fluffiest omelette I’ve ever eaten–and I could eat only about half of it. The place: Lincoln House Hotel, just a few blocks from the center of town, on a beautiful old (and probably, once, quite wealthy) Cathedral Avenue. The next morning, I opted for the perfect smoked salmon as my main dish. Both mornings, my favorite tastings were small, round, and local to Wales. The Welsh Tea Cake, about 3 inches round, a cakey cookie similar to a fruit scone (raisins or currants inside) dusted with granulated sugar, but only about half an inch thick (like a cookie). Laver is a seaweed and oatmeal cake, meaty enough for a meal, slightly salty and sea-tasty, I loved it from my very first taste.

My big breakfast turned out to be a problem because I had intended to visit the Pettigrew Tea Rooms located in Cardiff Castle’s old gatehouse. Fortunately, the Castle tour was long enough for me to work up a bit of an appetite, so I enjoyed a perfect peppermint tea (with full leaves, not flakes) and another Welsh speciality, a cake called Bara Brith, loaded with tea-soaked raisins.

Bara Brith cake at the Pettigrew Tea Rooms, just beside Cardiff Castle

With a consistency similar to carrot cake, the taste is pleasantly spicy and fruity, and, apparently, this is quite traditional. Time limitations kept me away from St. Fagan’s, another Cardiff location where the baked goods are made fresh, and with love, so I missed out on the revival of Shearing Cake. That’ll wait until next time.

On the other side of southern Wales, the far western side, I spent a day walking around Skomer Island, and saw the (fabulous!) puffins. And I spent about two days in the seaside towns Saundersfoot and Tenby. Before a day of coastal hiking, a hearty breakfast can be just the thing; it’s part of the package at Saundersfoot’s Claremont House (and Sue is terrific at home cooking!). I tried my first serious version of fish and chips at a charming old restaurant, down some medieval stairs (not far from an equally charming bookstore). Among the many very good fish restaurants in seaside Tenby, I’m confident that you will enjoy Plantagenet as much as I did (be sure to ask your server to see the very tall Flemish chimney, large enough, at its base, to fit two large dining tables).

Fish, chips and mashed peas at Plantagenet in Tenby, Wales.and chips at a Tenby restaurant well-known for its fresh fish: Plantagenet. And I’ve learned that fish and chips comes with fresh and yummy mashed green English peas. Lunch at Mulberry’s, with its Dutch chef, provided my introduction to whitebait, a two-inch fish that’s served in bunches, battered and fried, and also, a snapping fresh shrimp dish involving butter, garlic, parsley, a scampi of sorts.

My high-class respite on the inevitable rainy afternoon was St. Bride’s, a spa hotel with a wonderful restaurant located just across a windy street from the Claremont in Saundersfoot. I sat for hours, watching day become night, harbor lights below, big sea and sky view with tiny sailboats in the mid-ground and larger, industrial vessels further out at sea. I started with tea–after a rainy afternoon outdoors, British tea tastes so right–then warmed my still-chilled innards with a nice squash soup (ingredients from a nearby farm). Then, the perfect Welsh lamb, crispy and properly spiced on the outside, red enough to be slightly lukewarm at the center, again from a source just down the road. St. Bride’s turned out to be a special part of my Saundersfoot experience. I so enjoyed the view, the table, and the relaxed ambience, I returned for a second night, hoping to enjoy Gressingham Duck, or Dover Sole, or free-range chicken from not-far-away Fishguard, perhaps topping off with a Sticky Toffee Pudding or a Warm Treacle Tart with Clotted Cream, but I had to admit the truth.  I was still quite full from my fish and chips lunch, so I went for smoked salmon and a cooling Iced Apple Parfait with Bramble Sauce (a red and purple berry sauce).

Big disappointment: I was hoping to visit the well-regarded ffresh, located in the spectacular Cardiff Millennium Center (a performing arts center), but I was there on a Monday, and it was closed. Sigh.

Stinking Bishop, or Why British Food Rules

The cheese is named for the Stinking Bishop pear, which is used to make the perry used to rinse the cheese at it ages. The cheese is soft, produced in limited quantities from the milk of once-nearly-extinct Gloucestershire cows. The great care associated with this special cheese is not unusual. In fact, special attention to local foods was a hallmark of my recent journey through the Cotswolds, the English countryside just east of Oxford. Never have I taken a trip where fresh food was so abundant, so front-and-center. If you’re still caught up in the mythology about lousy British food, reality has passed you by.

While we’re on the subject of cheese, I should note two very special cheese shops, one in the Cotswolds railroad village of Moreton-on-the-marsh (beautiful old main street, endless shops and old inns, railroad just a few blocks away). The Moreton shop is called Cotswolds Cheese Company; the one on swanky Jermyn Street in London is Paxton & Whitfield. In  Moreton, I tasted my first Single Gloucester (mild, classy and grassy, but nothing to get me excited about), and my first Double Gloucester (lots of fresh character, earthy, stronger and richer flavor), and also, a Burford (a simple, smooth cheddar). I bought a small hunk of each, a baguette and a blackcurrant-apple juice, and ate lunch on the short train trip to Oxford. In the second, I tasted Stinking Bishop and then benefitted from a very friendly cheesemonger who introduced me to several British cheeses, including an ale-washed Caerphilly that I happily munched whilst window shopping along Jermyn Street (where their London store is located). Great cheeses, all local to Britain, most produced within a two hour drive.

When I visited the Cotswolds, it was asparagus season, and, seemingly everywhere I went, delicate smoked salmon was available. I combined the two, as an appetizer, at Bourton-on-the-water’s Rose Tree Restaurant, and learned something about the taste of fresh English asparagus. It’s sweet. The taste resembles American asparagus–even my local variety here at home–but only somewhat. The flavor is delicate, and welcoming. And, apparently, May is its favorite time of year. I followed by Beef Wellington with local mushrooms and local beef. This was in keeping with another modern, organic restaurant in the same village, The Croft, where I enjoyed one of the beefiest, freshest tasting hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, and also, a tasty Steak and Ale Pie, the latter being a house speciality also available with chicken or fish. Of course, the ale was local.

If there was any lingering doubt about the quality of British country food, a visit to Daylesford Organic presented an extraordinary argument in favor of the flavor and beauty of fresh food. (To learn more, here’s a whole page filled with videos.) I wanted to try every gorgeous fruit and vegetable, then sit down for a proper dinner to enjoy the local, organic fresh meats, and then, dessert. But it was just 10 in the morning, and all I could fit into my post-breakfast appetite was a delicious little scone. Next time, I will build at least one day’s meals around a visit to Daylesford.

Back to Bourton. Here’s dinner at the Dial House, known for its local cuisine and extremely creative dishes (a completely delicious meal, worth the drive to Bourton the very next time you visit Britain):

  • Canapes – Ballantine Ham hock with cornichon (French gherkin) gel on top, smoked butter foam with poached mussels
  • Cauliflower with white truffle oil
  • Homemade – carmelized shallots with garlic and cumin
  • Salmon with lemon air with fromage blanc, keta (caviar), crispy salmon skin, panacotta and cucumber
  • Cornish Brill with cep purée (mushroom), sea aster (flower resembling a daisy)
  • Yuzu (Japanese lime/lemon) with coconut sorbet and chocolate strands
In fact, you should stay over (I did, at the Halford House, a B&B owned by the Dial and just blocks away), if for no other reason than to head for nearby Bibury and the fresh smoked trout (from the trout farm just down the road), and the excellent smoked salmon, both served at a fancy local establishment called The Swan.
Bourton-on-the-water and other Cotswolds villages are not very far from London, just about a 90 minute train ride to another world, a place largely untouched by the industrial revolution, a place whose focus is now shifting toward serious local food. One chef behind this trend is Rob Rees, a visionary I met over tea at Sudeley Castle in Wynchcombe; his unabashed promotion of the region and its stunning food is something you ought to know more about. Rob speaks eloquently about the importance of farm foods, and a local food economy, and more broadly, about the importance of proper food for growing children. He brings industry, government, and family kitchens together in ways that are altogether unique, as explained on his web site.
Oh, I nearly forgot about the side trip to Canterbury, which is on the eastern side of London (Cotswolds are on the west). Take the train to Canterbury West (there are two train stations), and when you walk out of the station, look immediately to the left. You will see an old train shed turned (six days a week) into a local farmer’s market called The Goods Shed. Sample the smoked haddock, made just outside of town, and note the smooth, non-fishy, salty-sweet flavor. Try the fruit-enhanced Florentine cookies. Taste the apple cider, also from nearby. Then, do the cathedral and your shopping, and return for dinner (here’s the spring 2012 menu). Mine included perfect scallops. The restaurant menu is built from produce available at the market.
Me, I’m just back, ready to write some more about British food (a topic I never thought I would ever write about), this time from Cardiff and Pembrokeshire. More later. Meantime, enjoy Bourton-on-the-water in the photo below.
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