A culinary trip from Caernarfon to Conwy offers wine, whisky and fine produce a world away from rarebit and laverbread*
An article by Liz Boulter in The Guardian, Saturday 14 July 2018
Sitting at a sunny table a stone’s throw from the vines, savouring the citrus and berry notes in fine white and rosé wines, we could be in the Loire or Veneto. But we’re actually a few miles from Caernarfon, and the south-facing slopes these grapes grow on are the foothills of Snowdon.
Richard Wyn Huws established Pant Du vineyard in 2007 and, while he loves to show off his wares, he knew his countrymen were unlikely to take to the swooshing, spitting ways of your average wine buff. So he devised a less-ostentatious tasting protocol.
“Take a mouthful,” he says, pouring from a bottle of his aromatic white. “Flick your tongue three times against the roof of your mouth then ‘chew’ three times before swallowing.”
It’s a revelation: my mouth floods with a fresh taste between lemon and grapefruit. His rosé, with the same treatment, delivers a hit of just-ripe strawberries.
We’re on a gastro tour that’s offering daily revelations of this kind, though what first drew us to north Wales was not wine but whisky. Aber Falls opened on the northern edge of Snowdonia late last year. It is the first new distillery in north Wales for more than 100 years, and uses local barley and water from the eponymous 37-metre waterfall up the valley.
Greeting us at a pop-up visitor centre which opened in May – a more permanent one is taking shape – owner James Wright bounces us excitedly round his project, telling us how distillers use nose and palate, plus time, heat and a variety of wooden casks – and still never quite know what they’ll get. The mix of wort (barley liquid) and yeast in the distillery’s huge fermenter smells like strong pilsner to me – but then beer and whisky at this stage are similar. It’s what happens next, in the 500-litre copper wash stills, hand-beaten in Scotland, that makes the difference; plus a second distillation, the making of the right “cut”, judicious dilution and three years of barrel fermentation.
This last stage explains why there is no whisky to try: early tastings of unaged spirit are promising but the first casks won’t be ready until 2020. Visitors needn’t go thirsty, though: Aber Falls also does gin, which can be made in 24 hours. That doesn’t mean it’s not a quality product: its Welsh Dry tastes smoothly of liquorice and coriander, as well as juniper, and is quite drinkable neat, though it’s also great with tonic. Launched this spring, it immediately won a gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Aber Falls is happy to shout about its spirits, even if showy self-promotion is no more part of the reserved Welsh nature than wine snobbery. This, according to some, is one reason why this area is not as well-known for food as it is for beaches and mountains. Now a few passionate foodies are changing that, including David Evans of Dylan’s restaurant. “We’re not trying to change the world,” he says, as we look over the straits from a table in the Menai Bridge branch (there are others in Llandudno and Criccieth), “just show locals and visitors that we have world-class foods, which should be celebrated.”
So at Dylan’s, fresh fish lunches can be paired with a Welsh sparkling wine made at Gwinllan, near Conwy, from 100% solaris grapes – by Colin and Charlotte Bennett, who also run tours with tastings and boards of local cheese and meats (from £15pp) in a lovely, south-facing vineyard setting.
With fizz you think of seafood, and Dylan’s buys from Shaun Krijnen of Menai Oysters & Mussels, who uses his marine-biologist training to produce top-quality shellfish. His mussels (wild, not rope-grown) have just spawned, so they’re not up to much right now. But in a shed, 8,000 oysters are purifying in running water and UV light, ready for shipping to (mostly) London restaurants and fishmongers. My husband and I have had the odd holiday huître in France, but what Shaun gives us is another revelation: cool and silky fresh, with a lingering sweetness. “That’s the algae they feed on at this time of year – phaeocystis,” he says. “Oysters are at their best in summer.” On Wednesdays and Sundays he opens his sheds and sells direct to canny customers.
A seashell’s throw from Shaun’s shellfish beds is another Anglesey food stalwart, Halen Môn, a sea salt producer set up by the Lea-Wilson family, who in 1999 boiled some Anglesey sea water on their Aga and realised they had a business opportunity. On a factory tour, we learn how the sparkling clean Menai Straits are washed daily by tides from east and west, and we do another tasting, this time comparing other salts with delicate Halen Môn crystals, which also come in smoked, spiced and roasted garlic varieties. The biggest surprise is a mad-sounding product developed for Heston Blumenthal: smoked water is a pungent brownish liquid that adds intriguing depth to soup, risotto, mayonnaise …
The culinary gifts keep coming. At Llaeth y Llan, the Roberts family makes yoghurt with rich grass-fed milk from cows in lush fields nearby, and we have a splendid fish dinner on the beach in Colwyn Bay, where celebrity chef Bryn Williams of Odette’s in Primrose Hill, London opened his seafront bistro, Bryn@Porth Eirias, in 2015. The Bull pub in Beaumaris, Anglesey, is celebrating Wales’s Year of the Sea with regular seven-course seafood evenings at its fine-dining Loft restaurant.
The historic town of Conwy is the area’s gastro capital: here Mark and Emma Baravelli make exquisite chocolates; Parisella’s emulates the finest Italian gelateria; and butcher’s shop Edwards of Conwy does pies, hot sandwiches and a signature “bistro” cut of Welsh black beef, “tender as fillet, tasty as rump”.
The heartwarming thing about this foodie revival (apart from the fact that no one uses the word “artisanal”) is its collaborative spirit: every producer seems to stock, use or promote stuff from other makers, and all are passionate about creating jobs, and recruiting and training locally.
David Evans at Dylan’s may say he’s not trying to change the world, but he and his fellow foodies are making this corner of it a whole lot better – one meal at a time.
* Gwyn writes: And what is wrong with Laverbread? Or Rarebit, for that matter? Laverbread is Wales’ great culinary secret. Hardly anyone outside Wales has tried it, and luckily those who have tend not to care for it. But once you’ve got the taste — umami, bland, comforting, tasting like nothing else you can describe — it is addictive. You can’t get it in North Wales, though. Best places to find it are Swansea and Cardiff markets. I buy 2 kilos at a time by mail order and it freezes beautifully.