Cooked up in Cymru

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.

What a location!

OK, I’m the proud owner of Murmur-y-Don so I’m allowed to exhibit a little bit of bias, but honestly how many other houses anywhere can claim the following:

  • UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • National Park
  • National Nature Reserve
  • SSSI — Site of Special Scientific Interest
  • National Coast Path

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of Harlech Castle, one mile to the north. It’s in the Snowdonia National Park, the first and most beautiful of Wales’s National Parks. The sand dunes behind the beach, Morfa Harlech, are a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the Wales Coast Path runs past the bottom of our drive. The Wales Coast Path is the world’s first public footpath to run round the entire coast of a country.

And of course it’s blessed with what many say is the finest view in the country, above Good God Corner, acclaimed by people of such excellent taste as Philip Pullman and Humphrey Lyttleton.

That’s a heck of a pedigree for one house to carry. But it bears it with dignity.

2018 Prices

Well, this is one of the more riveting blog posts I’ll be making this year. I’ve just posted the price list for Murmur-y-Don rentals for 2018 on the harlech.org website. As I know you won’t be able to curb your enthusiasm, I’m providing a direct link http://www.harlech.org/?page_id=96 right here.

The prices are the same as last year, apart from a £5 week rise in August. They will be going up in 2019, when my Brexiteering friends will suddenly realise they can never, ever, ever afford to go abroad again.

Duty done. Have fun!

 

Bluebells

Batty!

54 year old Alistair Aitchison is probably not the most popular person to pass through Harlech. He may be the owner of an opaque Gibraltar company which owns two of the most noticeable buildings in the town after the castle —  the old St David’s Hotel and the residential tower block for Coleg Harlech, the only skyscraper to be built in a National Park.

Both big buildings, next door to each other on the main A496, are derelict and very shabby.

A large luxury hotel built for visitors to the fashionable resort of Harlech and for golfers at the famed Royal St. David’s Golf links, allowed to slip into decay and degradation under the stewardship of a property company registered in Gibraltar.

Eight years after permission was granted to demolish the hotel, work still hasn’t started.

Parts of the roof have collapsed, windows are rotting and the site blights the town.

In 2009 the Snowdonia National Park Authority granted conditional planning permission for it to be torn down and replaced with a 130-bedroom hotel with 76 holiday apartments — but the developer did not proceed with the project.

Then in 2014 a further application was approved and despite SNPA receiving assurances from the developer work would commence on the new development, nothing of any significance has happened, except for the partial construction of a bat tower.

Local councillor Caerwyn Roberts said the bat building had to be built before demolition can start, although even that has stalled.

He continued: “It is fast becoming a source of major concern for the people in Harlech.

The former Hall of Residence at Coleg Harlech

“The same owners also own the former Hall of Residence site, the tower block, and that is also empty.

“Between them they are holding Harlech back, we’re not happy and we find ourselves very limited in what we can do.”

Aitchison Associates may be registered in Gibraltar, but Alistair Aitchison’s address is Buckingham House, Myrtle Lane, Billingshurst, West Sussex, RH14 9SG.

Best in Travel 2017

Here are the Top 10 Regions in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2017:
Choquequirao, Peru
Taranaki, New Zealand
The Azores, Portugal
North Wales, UK
South Australia
Aysén, Chile
The Tuamotus, French Polynesia
Coastal Georgia, USA
Perak, Malaysia
The Skellig Ring, Ireland

See that? North Wales is fourth! There’s lovely, yes?

Lonely Planet’s editorial director Tom Hall said: “We included North Wales in this year’s list of top ten regions because it deserves to be recognised on the global stage. It’s a stunning area with a vast array of activities on offer to keep travellers entertained. North Wales has also become a haunt of in-the-know foodies, so however visitors get their kicks, once they’ve worked up an appetite, they’ll also be well catered for. North Wales is a gem and should be on every traveller’s radar.”

Well, well.

Barkloughly Castle

As it’s old Will Shakespeare’s 400th deathday this year I have been enjoying more of the Bard than usual on radio, TV etc. but I have yet to see or hear my favourite Shakespearean speech — Richard II sitting on the ground and musing about the transience of power.

So I had to look it up. I’ll give it to you in full in a moment, but firstly let’s look at the stage directions for Act 3 Scene II.

SCENE II. The coast of Wales. A castle in view.

Drums; flourish and colours. Enter KING RICHARD II, the BISHOP OF CARLISLE, DUKE OF AUMERLE, and Soldiers

KING RICHARD II

Barkloughly castle call they this at hand?

Richard has just sailed over from Ireland. Shakespeare’s geography could be a little hazy at times — he gave Bohemia a coast and he notoriously took a boat from Verona to Milan — but Barkloughly simply doesn’t exist. Richard names it directly, so Shakespeare wants to place the scene, but he gets it wrong. It’s clearly not Berkeley Castle, because that’s not in Wales, let alone on the coast, so let’s look for candidates — OK, let’s just investigate one candidate, because there’s no need to look for more.

The Welsh terminus of the royal route from Ireland to Wales, as related in the Mabinogion, was Harlech. There was a Welsh castle here of which no trace now remains. The English fortification must have been built on top of it.

Shakespeare could have heard the name Harlech spoken and transliterated it as Barkloughly. Apart from the -ly at the end, the assonance is the same: Harlech — Barklough.

Just south of the castle was a promontory with the best view on the coast of Wales, a rocky outcrop with a castle in view where courting couples used to come in the nineteenth century to watch the sunset.

Much to the annoyance of those courting couples an Englishman came along in 1907 and built a house on the outcrop. That house — you’re way ahead of me — was Murmur-y-Don.

So my contention, my firm belief, is that WS sat Richard II down on the spot where I’m sitting right now, typing this, and gave him one of the finest speeches of all time. It goes like this:

 

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and — farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

I’m sitting on History!

 

Aga ffarwel

Goodbye old Aga (1968 – 2016) and diolch yn fawr.

Aga OB

The Royal Commission …

Garth Stables

Garth Stables

… on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales can be found online at http://map.coflein.gov.uk.

I cannot believe I’ve only just found this site. It’s FABULOUS — if, like me, you love poring over truly excellent Ordnance Survey maps — proper maps — dotted with locations of the most fascinating buildings and monuments in the country.

I came across the site when I was looking for images of Garth Hall, the fantastickal Moorish folly built by Richard Mytton in 1809. Even though the house was only slightly run-down it was demolished by an enlightened and far-seeing council when I was one year old.

To get a flavour of the place, the picture above is just the stable block:

and here’s one angle of the house with the porte-cochère:

Garth Hall

Garth Hall

and for those of you who are fed up with me going on about plastic windows and flat modern glass, here’s yet more proof of how right I am:

Garth Window

Garth Window

Just look at the life in that window! Every pane reflects a different scene; each uneven pane of glass glitters and gleams with life in a way no modern flat, soulless window of plain panes could begin to match. We live in a more efficient but less beautiful age.

Yet the Revd. Mytton would gaze with wonder at the RCAHMW site (all these images are screen shots taken from the website). The maps are astonishingly detailed and you can zoom in to 500 feet, and every building or monument of interest is marked with a red dot. Highlight the red dot (rather clunkily, sadly, by using a marquee tool from the toolbar) and you can read the full listing description of the site and often see photographs of it, ancient and modern.

Here’s the area around us in Harlech. Look at the number of sites! I can see what I’m going to be doing this Easter weekend.

Historic buildings and monuments around Harlech

Historic buildings and monuments around Harlech

You may question what historic buildings and monuments might be found in the sea. That occurred to me too. They are the wrecks of the good ships Castilian, Turkestan and Charlotte, as well as a Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE435.

I had no idea.

 

Weathervanes

Our poor old 1907 weathervane rusted into place over 40 years ago, the wind always coming from the East South East.

weathervane03

I found some wonderful weathervanes online, made to order. I scrolled through and found a Welsh Dragon — perfect for Murmur-y-Don. It wasn’t cheap at all, but I bit my lip and ordered it.

When it came, I was delighted. It was galvanised to protect it against the salt air and breezes we get on this coast, and it was white, all ready to be painted scarlet. Which I did; coat after coat after coat.

We took it up to Harlech and got a guy to take the old weathervane down. He went up, came down, and went away to get his mate. After half a day the two of them struggled down with the monster.

We compared the old and new weathervanes.

Old WV: 5 foot 5 inches tall, weight three-quarters of a hundredweight.

New WV: 2 foot tall, weight nine pounds.

Much shaking of heads.

So here’s the old weathervane sandblasted, painted with white Hammerite and reinstalled.

Weathervane02

At least we know where the wind is coming from now.

The little Red Dragon WV will be installed on the garage all in good time.