Can I ask you a cheeky question? Have you ever been to Wales - and if not, I wonder, why not? You may have heard that we have mountains, sand and sea, a bit of rain and plenty of sheep. A bilingual nation of countless myths and legends, with the steepest street and the longest place-name in the world. You may also have heard that we’re the land of song, where you’ll find a welcome as warm as a ‘cwtsh’. And you’d be absolutely right on all accounts. We’re lovely. And beautiful to boot. But would it surprise you to know, that in gastronomic terms, Wales is one of the coolest dining destinations in the world?
I’ve just returned from a gourmet road trip around Wales, and I couldn’t have picked a better time of year for a foodie jaunt. After the excitement of spring and summer, autumn and winter provide a welcome breather. The season of abundance kicks off in spectacular colours, before ripening, maturing, pickling, fermenting, and enchanting with off-the-radar flavours. It’s a quieter time, an opportunity for reflection and investing in more meaningful endeavours. Indeed, the luxury of Wales in winter is a combination of time and stillness - plus, you really feel you have the place to yourself.
Now, that’s perfect if you’re a collector of Michelin stars, because what a bumper year it’s been for Wales. For the first time ever, nine restaurants were rewarded with stars – including two awarded ‘green’ stars. And while four retained their previous awards, and two launched during the Covid pandemic, one – Ynyshir – was promoted to two stars, the first time that’s ever happened here in Wales.
So what’s going on? It’s a mixture of things. Contemporary Welsh cuisine is seasonal in the extreme, and our climate is the gift that keeps on giving. We punch above our weight when it comes to world-class food and drink, including meat, cheese and microbreweries. And while our nation cannot claim a ‘grand’ food tradition, as witnessed in France or Russia, our style of cooking is authentic and unpretentious and embraces ‘foreign’ ideas and flavours.
A land of ‘mountain sand and sea’ equate to great produce from land and sea, and that has always included a dialogue with international diplomacy. Our national dish, cawl, is a prime example of this; you’ll sometimes see it referenced, or deconstructed, on contemporary tasting menus. It’s a hearty winter broth, of meat and root veg; most Welsh families have their own recipe, either written down, or handed down in the oral tradition, much like our folk music and poetry. A regional version of cawl, lobscows, is related to the Norwegian dish lapskaus, reflecting an exchange of ideas and inspiration that’s been happening for generations – long before the global influence of ‘New Nordic’ cuisine.
But enough about the Scandis! I kicked off a seasonal tour of Cymru, in the south-eastern county of Monmouthshire. In foodie terms, it’s the gateway to Wales, as it’s home to the annual Abergavenny food festival. It’s also the spiritual home of the Welsh gastro pub, and claims two wonderful Michelin-starred restaurants.
I began at a family favourite, The Walnut Tree of Llandewi Skirrid, where Chef Shaun Hill describes it modestly as ‘the rough end of Michelin’. It’s a classy country bistro with the warmest of welcomes, and a market-based menu that’s filled to the brim with comforting seasonal flavours.
The ceps and girolles on sourdough toast had a generous sprinkling of Welsh black truffle. While the truffles come from Monkswood, not far from Usk, my sumptuous fillet of beef served with salt beef hash came from the Welsh Venison Centre, in Bwlch near Brecon. I do hope you’re keeping notes, as you’ll pass these place-names on your own road-trip. To finish? A warm apple and Calvados tart. Talk about season’s greetings! As the chef himself described his comforting seasonal puddings; ‘you need something that sticks to your ribs over winter’. Yes chef! It’s worth bearing in mind that The Walnut Tree lunch menu (two courses £40, three courses £45) is the best Michelin star bargain to be found in Wales this winter.
Onwards, towards Monmouth, and along the Wye Valley you’ll find the secluded woodland haven that is The Whitebrook. I must insist that you pack your walking shoes for this trip, as a pre-prandial amble is an absolute must, before being enchanted by Chef Chris Chown’s visions. And you may as well familiarise yourself with the legendary tales of the Mabinogi, as to experience one of The Whitebrook’s tasting menu (£68) is like meeting Myrddin the magician.
You literally drive past the menu’s foraged findings on your way there; as the chef explains, ‘I try to take everything out there and bring it on to the plate’. Most ingredients, from the alexander seeds, and mugwort beets to the meadowsweet cured mackerel, include what the chef refers to as ‘long forgotten flavours.’ Each fresh and vibrant platter reveals a further dimension of joy and wonder. Honestly, how often can you claim a radish-based dish as a winner? And as a confirmed carnivore, I have never gazed in such awe as I did this autumn with the plant-centred pleasures of my companion’s vegetarian menu. The Whitebrook is a total game-changer.
While you’re in the general area, head north-east along the river Wye towards the bookshop-filled town of Hay on Wye at the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. Right at the town’s centre, book a table for supper at Chapters, a restaurant that opened just prior to the pandemic that earned a Michelin green star this year. This fairly new award applauds a commitment to sustainable practices as well as social responsibility; both Chef Mark Mchugo and partner Charmaine Blatchford at front of house sing the praises of hyper-seasonal ingredients and local producers.
The evening menu on offer is a five course tasting experience (£52) that is truly a celebration of local flavours. I started the evening with a Penodau house gin and tonic, with notes of hogweed and meadowsweet – ingredients that I also discovered formed the basis of the Damson plum and russet sorbet, as well as the house blend tea that brought the meal to a memorable close. And although my absolute favourite dish was the Huntsham Farm Middle White pork dish, I really enjoyed the array of plant-based platters that attract Chapters’ mix of curious, mindful eaters.
A scenic hour and a half drive south brings you to the capital city of Cardiff. Stay at the centre, and enjoy all that ‘Caerdydd’ has to offer. Then take a ten minute train-ride to the Victorian seaside resort of Penarth at one of Wales’ brand new Michelin star attractions.
The mystery that surrounds Home creates an air of anticipation; indeed, only door-bell ringing guests get to see what awaits behind the luxe grey curtains! This is the third Sommerin operation to attain Michelin recognition, but this time it’s an equal partnership between father James and daughter Georgia – Wales’ answer to the Baque country’s Juan Mari and Elena Arzak.
At Home there is no menu – only an eight course dining experience for dinner (£110) or a four course surprise lunch (£60, Friday-Saturday), that caters for all dietary requirements. On a dark October evening, I savoured the rich umami flavours of mushroom, artichoke and truffle bread and butter pudding, as well as a vibrant and warming carrot and ginger seabass, before finishing with Georgia’s prune and hazelnut custard doughnut. Every five weeks the elements change, except for one perennial platter. James’s signature ‘pea ravioli’, the Sommerin signature dish - the closest thing to a ‘hug in a bowl’. Relax, unwind, and take your cue from the sign outside; right by the doorbell, it says, ‘You’re almost home.’
After a sound night of sleep, you’ll crave a breath of fresh air, so continue west along the south Wales coast to Oxwich. Beyond Swansea you’ll find Gower – an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s a journey to savour, as is your stellar destination, Chef Hywel Griffiths’ Michelin star restaurant, Beach House. On a bright, sunny day, Beach House is my idea of heaven, but even on a dark and stormy night you’ll find it’s the perfect dining haven. I always marvel at the attention to detail at this contemporary beachside restaurant, from Gower sourced ingredients and bilingual menus to the rich Welsh tapestry coloured furnishings and seasonal mocktail menu for drivers.
To fully embrace the Beach House experience, I heartily recommend the tasting menu (£80-110); the eight-course menu is always bookended by two classic, and nostalgic, Welsh dishes. You start with the luscious laverbread bread and finish with a brilliant bara brith soufflé. I warn you, however; in between those two anchors, prepare to be blown away! Over autumn and winter, expect a rich depth of flavour, such as Gelli Aur venison with pear and Perl Las cheese, Oxwich lobster or Paviland farm pumpkin soup. Definitely not to be missed is the Gower Salt marsh lamb – a national culinary treasure.
On the subject of culinary treasures, congratulations are in order for Wales’ latest big winner, SY23. The name is the post code for the area around Aberystwyth, so let google maps do the work for this part of your own odyssey. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself beguiled by the landscape of Wales’ wild west. It was the undisputed star of crime drama Hinterland (Y Gwyll), an international hit on Netflix, so it’s definitely worth the trip! And speaking of international hits, SY23 were not only awarded a Michelin star, but also the title of the best new restaurant opening for the UK and Ireland this year.
That post code tells you everything you need to know about SY23’s mission, as a proud gastro ambassador for the Ceredigion region. As Chef Nathan Davies himself explains, ‘it’s about serving the best local produce cooked simply over a fire’. Who could resist such a feast of smoky flavours such as turbot, sea bream and Welsh mountain lamb? Certainly not I! I was thrilled to return to ‘Aber’, the home of my alma mater; it’s a centre of Welsh learning and it’s got a great cafe culture. It’s right by the sea, and now it’s the home of a Michelin star! And no wonder. It feels like a well-guarded secret has just been discovered – it’s a really exciting time for Ceredigion.
But there would be no SY23, without Ynyshir – Chef Nathan Davies’ own ‘alma mater’. That’s the culinary grand dame of Ceredigion, just north of ‘Aber’ in Eglwysfach. It’s an experience to savour; 30 courses (at £350 per person) of full-throttle flavours at Wales’ two Michelin star attraction. The five hour experience is much more than a fancy dinner; it’s an evening of shock and awe. This is a food pilgrimage to tick off your list, and among the guests you’ll find international chefs.
You journey to a hidden-away location to arrive at an über-cool destination, Honestly, our ‘likes’ will go mad on instagram! Be prepared for a lot of fun, but also mindful contemplation; this kind of cuisine demands your full attention! Think futuristic flavours that feel like they’re yet to be discovered, but also playful takes on familiar pleasures, with the intensity turned up to eleven. And speaking of volume, there’s also a disco-ball dimension. Let the mindbending flavours take you on an unforgettable trip to Wales’ culinary answer to Berghain or Studio 54.
For a ‘slightly’ more traditional ‘country hall’ experience, make a beeline for Palé Hall. This exquisite location is reminiscent of ‘Downton’, but far more down to earth. You’ll find opulence and grandeur and a wonderfully warm welcome at one of Wales’ most stunning hotels. Make the most of your stay by exploring the Berwyn mountains, as a ravishing treat will await you on your return.
Chef Gareth Stevenson’s menu (£80-£100) at the Henry Robertson restaurant is a sumptuous, romantic affair. And the flavours are entirely local – we’re talking next-door’s farm-to-table! That’s Cae Pant farm, Llandderfel (to name one of many), as well as Palé Hall’s own gardens and the local butchers in Bala – one of the loveliest towns in Wales. Indeed, the restaurant’s commitment to seasonal ingredients secured Palé a Michelin green star this year. The tasting menu is an experience to savour, from the home-made focaccia to the bara brith, cheese and crackers. And if you’re curious about Welsh wine, the Montgomery Rondo here really shines; it has the same fruity richness and surprising dimensions of a winter whirlwind trip to Wales!
Last, but not least, head for the island of Anglesey. Traditionally, ‘Ynys Môn’, was the home of the druids, while the Roman’s considered it the ‘bread basket’ of Wales. These days this bountiful isle is a major holiday draw, thanks to its beaches and home-grown food and drink. One of those leading the way over the past few years is Chef Steven Stevens at Sosban and the Old Butchers in Porthaethwy, or Menai Bridge.
It’s a lovely little town with indie boutiques to mooch around, including & Caws cheesemonger and Dylan’s deli and fab cocktail-bar-restaurant nearby. And right on the crossroads, you’ll find that the town’s old butchery has been transformed into a boundary-pushing ideas factory. The chef commands your attention at the centre of the room, producing creations you’ve never imagined before (£175). It’s a hypnotic experience, watching an artist at work, and what’s even better is that he’s experimenting with iconic flavours of Wales. Highlights of my recent visit include the lamb’s tail with mussel custard, as well as cod crackling, rock samphire with a twist of curried banana!
I raised my glass to Chef Stevens – delightfully, it was the award-winning Ancre Hill sparkling from Monmouthshire – as I do to each of our Welsh Michelin star chefs. They all raise the bar, and remind us of who we are, but also draw visitors from afar. If you’d care to ‘discover’ our contemporary cuisine, make your way over this winter to Wales.