Good food begins with good ingredients. And producing great food and drink is something we know rather a lot about. We’ve been doing this for centuries, generation after generation, in a landscape that’s perfect for growing, raising and catching first-rate produce: a land of pastures, mountains and forest, fringed by an 870-mile (1,400km) coastline.
Amelia Eiríksson is the co-owner of Ynyshir, the most highly-decorated restaurant in Wales. “It’s very much a culture of farming and fishing: you get all you need from where you are,” she observes. “For years Wales has had the best produce in the world.”
More than a dozen of the things we do best now have PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) or PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Our lamb and beef, salt and cider, and coracle-caught salmon have joined exalted global names like Parmesan cheese and Champagne.
Even a humble ingredient like salt becomes gourmet delicacy when it’s Halen Môn Anglesey sea salt, says company founder Alison Lea-Wilson: “It’s made by hand in Wales, so it’s part of the Welsh seascape that you’re eating. We believe that our salt is the best in the world.”
They use water drawn from the Menai Strait, the pristine stretch of water that separates Anglesey from the mainland. “The local produce is great,” says Alison. “We love the local lamb and beef, and the sea gives us beautiful mussels, oysters, fantastic wild sea bass, lobsters and crabs.”
Artisan producers are doing extraordinary things with these raw materials. Dutch-born cheesemaker John Savage-Onstwedder’s Teifi Cheese range includes Britain’s most highly-awarded cheese, Celtic Promise. “Because we’re raw milk cheese makers, the quality of the milk really has to be top-notch or you couldn’t do it,” says John.
Local provenance is a big deal in Wales. Hywel Griffith is head chef at the Beach House on the Gower Peninsula, Wales’ AA Restaurant of the Year in 2017. Ask Hywel where he gets his fish, and he’ll point towards a cluster of boats bobbing out in Oxwich Bay, a few hundred metres from his terrace. He uses native-breed Welsh pork, Gower Salt Marsh Lamb, and seasonal fruit and vegetables from farms a few miles away. He gathers his own samphire, sea purslane and wild garlic.
Foraging is highly fashionable these days, but as Dyfi Distillery’s Danny Cameron points out, it’s always been part of rural life in his home patch near Machynlleth. “Meadowsweet was being used to flavour ale 3,000 years ago, and it’s been a widely foraged botanical in Dyfi for generations,” says Danny.
Admittedly, Danny has taken it a little further: his Pollination gin contains no fewer than 20 locally-foraged herbs. “We’ve got this amazing botanical diversity here, and very low pollution levels. It’s a forager’s paradise,” he says.
As well as being a very clean country, we’re a compact one – which means that the best food and drink producers all know each other. This leads to some unusual collaborations. Anglesey’s Halen Môn salt finds its way into Llanboidy’s NomNom chocolate. Ammanford-based Coaltown Coffee is a key ingredient in the Espresso Martini Marmalade made by Rhondda’s Rogue Preserves.
Then there’s the award-winning Monty’s Brewery in Montgomery, where head brewer Pam Honeyman has found a nifty solution to disposing of waste beer: “Whenever we brew we get one or two spare casks, so those go to a farm a few miles away where Ifor Humphreys raises Welsh Wagyu cattle, and they have two or three pints a day,” she says.
This is the only beef that Gareth Ward, the 2019 Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year, uses at Ynyshir. “I said I’d never put beef on the menu, because you can get that everywhere. But then Ifor brought me a sample of his Welsh Wagyu and I was absolutely blown away.”
Similar principles apply throughout Wales. A new generation of chefs, brewers, bakers, distillers (not to mention cheesemakers, jam-makers and chocolatiers) are looking for brilliant ingredients to do brilliant things with – and finding them right on the doorstep. Where they’ve always been.