Where to eat, drink and stay in Wales.
Two years ago, a fine foods distributor introduced me to Halen Môn, hand harvested sea salt from the country of Wales in the United Kingdom. I started experimenting with it, featured it in a dinner at the James Beard Foundation house, and gradually learned that Wales not only makes a great sea salt, it’s also home to a growing food scene. So this spring, I found myself crossing the pond to check it out. I spent a week exploring the best restaurants, farms and food producers in a country where locally sourced is taken to the next level.
After a few days of going from tasting menu to tasting menu, I was starting to feel like a milk-fed veal calf. Yet, shockingly I also felt healthier than I had been when I left New York. The food was fresh, and the portions were small and exact. The quality of the air, water, and the calming spirit of the people had a soothing effect on my New York-wired brain. My newly formed relationship with Wales has inspired me to be a better chef, to source ingredients more thoughtfully, and to appreciate the simplicity of a glorious countryside view.
Where to Stay
Formerly a secret getaway for celebrities, nobility and royalty, Pale Hall has recently been renovated into a five-star hotel. Queen Victoria stayed here many times, and her namesake room features the same luxurious bathtub she once used. The jaw-dropping Churchill Suite is as big as a small house with massive bay windows and a wood-clad vaulted ceiling. In the morning, the hotel’s “Full Welsh Breakfast” delivers two slices of bacon, cured and cut from the loin rather than from the belly, two sausages, a pile of mushrooms, a roasted tomato, a ramekin of baked beans, a round of black pudding (blood sausage) and a dollop of Welsh mulled seaweed, called laverbread. The chef at Pale Hall, Gareth Stevenson, is a disciple of the legendary British innovator Michael Caines. In the U.S., we like to think we popularized farm-to-table, but these guys, live and breathe it. Chef Stevenson’s dinner menu had scallops and crabs caught an hour away, lamb from the nearby Rhug Farm Estate, and vegetables grown on site or brought from neighboring farms. Palé Estate, Llandderfel, Bala, Gwynedd, LL23 7PS, Wales, UK
Where to Eat
Michelin-starred Magic: Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Just north of Cardiff, in the small village of Penarth, the two Michelin starred Restaurant James Sommerin sits barely a stone's throw away from the Atlantic, with views that will jump start the soul. Chef Sommerin, is a chef’s chef. Having started his career at 11 as a porter, he worked with some of the best chefs in London before returning to his homeland to launch his namesake. Chef Sommerin’s kitchen, much like the man himself, is focused, but playful. Green pea and lobster ravioli, a signature dish, was vibrant and balanced; the sweetness of the lobster enhanced by the light musk of the just picked spring peas. Crispy lamb breast was served along a tender slice of loin, topped with a counter-side drizzle of jus made of lamb bones, hearty red wine, fresh peas, turnip, and a glorious amount of butter. While every meal I had in Wales was amazing, my favorite restaurant experience was sitting in James’ kitchen, receiving course after course of his seductive food. The Esplanade, Penarth CF64 3AU, UK
World's Best Lobster Roll: Café Môr, Pembrokeshire
Café Môr serves what could be the world's very best lobster roll. I’m talking a shining light of righteousness hitting your palette in rays of glorious flavour. That lobster roll was life changing. Local lobster, lightly sauteed with garlic and handmade Welsh black seaweed butter is generously piled on a freshly baked roll. The interior of the roll was perforated, catching the copious amounts of melted butter and lobster juices in its grooves, so that each bite burst with unbelievably fresh lobster chunks and umami rich salty butter. Café Môr is helmed by Jonathan Williams who also owns Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, which sells a variety of signature salts, seasonings and snacks made from the different seaweeds he finds along jagged Welsh coastline. Jonathan uses ancient methods of curing the seaweed, air drying the long strands of algae in a thatch hut right on the beach. In addition to his award winning products, for six months of the year he sets up his Café Môr food truck on the cliffs at Freshwater West Beach and takes it on the road to food festivals and major events across Wales. Freshwater West Beach, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Castlemartin, Pembroke SA71 5AH, Wales, UK
Foragers' Field Day: The Grove of Narberth, Pembrokeshire
Chef Allister Barsby leads the kitchen at The Grove of Narberth with a balance of flash and substance. Courses ranged from wild garlic espuma with parmesan, to scallops with smoked eel and pomegranate. His flavors embrace a wider global pantry than some of his contemporaries, but his cuisine is still firmly rooted in the seasonality of his local region. Thanks to The Grove’s full-time gardener, Chef Barsby’s menu changes depending on what the daily haul might be. At The Grove, I rendezvoused with the go to guy for all things foraged, Yun Hilder, who supplies Chef Barsby with freshly picked wild edibles. Chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Michael Pierre White have relied on Yun for years to bring his best finds to their restaurants. Maybe the world's only celebrity forager, Yun’s passion for discovery is contagious. Our wander around The Grove’s grounds revealed all sorts of wild edibles, including wood sorrel, garlic, gorse, fennel, watercress, and mint. Molleston, Narberth, Pembrokeshire SA67 8BX, Wales UK
Home Cooking in the Countryside: The Thomas Shop, Penybont
The Thomas Shop, off-the-beaten-path in the village of Penybont, is a quaint café, general store, and museum. They serve lunch and tea pastries alongside a collection of antiques ranging from old meat grinders, to furs, cleavers, cash registers, and all sorts of knick knacks. The family-run shop makes the most delectable leek and potato soup. Leeks are the national vegetable of Wales and a staple of the Welsh cuisine. After three straight days of tasting menus, I was in need of a little home cooking, and that soup hit the spot, with a basket of hot cheddar scones, baked on site from a family recipe. Penybont, Powys, LD1 5UA, Wales, UK
Killer Pub Grub: The Felin Fach Griffin
When I stopped in a traditional Welsh Pub called The Felin Fach Griffin for a light lunch, I wound up downing a rich, delicious meal of deep fried cockles (a bivalve shellfish that is similar to a small clam) with tartar sauce and torchons of lamb belly with sweetbreads, served over braised white beans topped with salsa verde. If you’re getting the sense that lamb is always on the menu in Wales, that’s because the country is home to over 11 million sheep, and Welsh lamb is prized for its quality and distinctive terroir. I chased it with Penderyn, a local whisky produced a few minutes down the road. Aged in Madeira casks, the spirit imparts a distinct back palate sweetness and a remarkably smooth finish. Felinfach, Brecon LD3 0UB, UK
What to Do
My tour of Wales ended at the place where my interest in the country began: on the banks of the Menai Strait, which joins mainland Wales to the coastal island of Anglesey. That’s where Halen Môn sea salt is harvested. Widely recognized by international chefs as one of the purest on the planet, Halen Môn is the preferred finishing salt of many of the world’s 50 best restaurants. The family-owned factory offers daily public tours, and their shop sells culinary gifts, hard to find sea salt flavors, and a very intriguing product called “smoked water;” think liquid smoke that is actually good. It's distilled water, vacuum smoked with oak chips. Opening a bottle of it is like sitting next to the sweetest smelling camp fire. The Anglesey Sea Salt Company Ltd, Brynsiencyn, Isle of Anglesey LL61 6TQ, Wales, UK