We’ve got an affectionate nickname for our biggest island, Anglesey: Mam Cymru, the mother of Wales. The island was the last stronghold of the druids during the Roman invasion, was briefly part of Norway under the King Magnus Barefoot, and its fertile fields were the medieval breadbasket of Wales.
Anglesey – and the Menai Strait that separates the island from the mainland - is still feeding Wales, and the wider world, with a terrific array of goodies, says Alison Lea-Wilson: “The local produce is great: we love the local lamb and beef, and the sea gives us beautiful mussels, oysters, fantastic wild sea bass, lobsters and crabs.”
And, of course, salt: Alison and her husband David make Halen Môn, the gourmet sea salt that is now exported all over the world. Made from the pristine waters of the Menai Strait, it has earned ‘protected designation of origin’ (PDO) status.
“It’s a mark of quality and authenticity,” says Alison. “It shows that there’s no other salt like ours. It’s made by hand in Wales, so it’s part of the Welsh seascape that you’re eating. We believe that it’s the best in the world.”
The Menai Strait is an extraordinary place. It’s a geological fault line, scrubbed out by ice sheets more than 20,000 years ago, and filled by whirlpools and weird tides: the sea rushes in from the bottom and then, as the tide swells around Anglesey, it begins to fill the Strait from the top end, reversing the tidal flow.
It’s an incredibly rich source of seafood, which didn’t go unnoticed by our ancestors. Fish weirs and traps were built here at least a thousand years ago. Even today, the Strait produces 10,000 tonnes of mussels a year – that’s around half the entire UK output.
“It’s a fantastic place for mussels,” says James Wilson of Menai Mussels. “They’re really effective filter-feeding animals, and in the Menai Strait there’s an inexhaustible amount of food for them.”
Shaun Krijnen, Menai Oysters
The key to the Menai Strait is the flavours it gives to the shellfish"
There’s certainly plenty to share with the oysters that Shaun Krijnen farms nearby. “The key to the Menai Strait is the flavours it gives to the shellfish,” says Shaun. “We have some algae that bloom here which impart this lovely sweet flavour into the shellfish. This is unique to the Menai Strait - it’s just the way the whole system works.”
There’s another system at play here – a kind of virtuous circle: producers are using the perfect environment, whether it’s pasture or seabed, to produce first-class ingredients, and a new generation of chefs are using them to make first-class food. Everyone has upped their game.
Menai has its own Michelin-starred restaurant, Sosban & The Old Butchers, it's popularity means you'll need to plan ahead to book a table. There’s a new wave of gastropubs and brasseries along the Strait and all over Anglesey, all proudly proclaiming their use of hyper-local produce.
Then there’s The Marram Grass, run by three brothers who took over what was essentially a greasy spoon on their parents’ caravan site. Over the past nine years, they’ve slowly transformed it into a critically-acclaimed fine-dining restaurant.
According to chef Ellis Barrie, it’s all been inspired by what’s on their doorstep: “The produce has definitely made the place the success it is,” he says. “Even when we were just a breakfast and burger place, it was about using what we could get hold of locally. Changing the menu doesn’t become rocket science. It’s almost like it’s written for you. Using local produce, supporting local suppliers, it just makes sense. I love using it, and I love supporting those guys, and I love this restaurant being a bastion of local produce. That’s what really gets me going.”
The Marram Grass has its own kitchen garden across the road, where they grow veg and keep pigs. They even run something called the Crop Exchange – local people bring in their surplus fruit and veg from their gardens and allotments, and swap them for vouchers to eat at the restaurant.
“I’m really lucky,” says Ellis. “I’m a stone’s throw away from the Menai Strait, we’ve got the sea salt, the oysters, the mussels, great lobster and crab. People say that it’s the freshest of waters. To be honest I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that when I cook the produce, it’s the best.”
There’s another thing that Menai’s producers and chefs agree on: it’s a cracking place to live. “We’ve got a fantastic natural environment, says Shaun Krijnen. “There’s no heavy industry, we’re still all about open green spaces and fantastic views. You could be sailing in the Menai Strait in the morning and hiking up to the top of Snowdon in the afternoon.”
Ellis Barrie agrees: “It’s a beautiful place, it’s inspirational. If you’re feeling a little bit down you only need to look up, take a deep breath, and crack on with your day. Why would you not want to be here? It’s perfect.”