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.

The Steepest Street in the World

Here’s an interesting fact. I suffer under the impression that Wales gets overlooked, that we punch below our weight on the world stage. It would be interesting to see how often Wales is mentioned in world media as opposed to, say, Israel or Slovenia, which are about the same size. I guess it’s less.
If I’m driving down from town to the Morfa I prefer to use Llech, because I’m less likely to meet oncoming traffic (because it’s one way). Yes, it’s steep, but I have four wheel drive and anti-lock brakes. But I wondered — just how steep is it?
So I looked up Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records. The steepest street in the world is … Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand! Yay! Another record for the Kiwis!
At its maximum, the slope of Baldwin Street is about 1:2.86 (19° or 35%). That is, for every 2.86 metres travelled horizontally, the elevation changes by 1 metre.
Hang about.
I looked up Llech, or Ffordd Pen Llech as I discovered it’s also called, on Wikipedia. It says; “Its descent of the rock spur to the north of the castle gives it a tangentially measured gradient at its steepest section of 1:2.73. Whilst this translates to the vertical rise being 36.63% of the horizontal going, it is normal practice for UK highway authorities to round gradients to a nominal figure to avoid confusing road users with excessive precision; hence the warning sign gives a slope of 40%.”
And Llech carries on up through Twtil to Pen Dref, also quite steep.
1:2.73 is steeper than 1:2.86.
36.63% is steeper than 35%.
Clearly, Ffordd Pen Llech in Harlech is steeper than Baldwin Street in Dunedin. So can we have the world record now please?

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.

Foodie North Wales

I was reading The Guardian on Saturday (and in case you get any ideas I read a different paper every day for balance) and came across this wonderful article about food and drink in North Wales by the excellent travel writer Liz Boulter: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2018/jul/14/north-wales-gastro-tour-wine-food-whisky-restaurants
In case the link doesn’t work for you I’ve copied the text below, without the images.

She mentions Dylan’s restaurant at Menai Bridge, but there’s a Dylan’s much nearer to us, in Criccieth, where I’ve had the best oysters I’ve tasted in my life. And Liz Boulter agrees with me: “cool and silky fresh, with a lingering sweetness”.

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.

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!

 

Baby Dragons Nest In Harlech Castle

Inside Harlech Castle is a new nest of baby dragons. The castle will welcome Dwynwen and her baby dragons, Dylan and Cariad, from Tuesday, 1 August. It’s hoped they’ll stay until August 13th.

It must be true — it’s in the Cambrian News!

Bluebells

Walking In Lower Snowdonia:

Inspiration For A General Election

Prime Minister Theresa May took a holiday in Meirionydd a couple of weeks ago. No doubt she chose it because it was one of the five regions of Wales to vote Remain in the Brexit referendum in June last year, and as someone who campaigned to remain in the EU she felt happier among like-minded pobl.

She stayed at the Penmaenuchaf Hall Hotel in Penmaenpool, 17 miles and half an hour away from us. I’m sorry to say I’ve never been there, but it looks lovely.

On her contemplative walks in the area she had a great idea — ‘never mind what I said earlier, and never mind that there’s a law passed in 2010 which mandates fixed term elections, let’s have one NOW! We’ll just repeal the inconvenient law. ‘

She’s leading the polls by a zillion percent because poor Jeremy Corbyn really isn’t much of an opposition. I think even I might be cleverer than him. And who else is there? Plaid Cymru will undoubtedly win in this area, but curiously they won’t win enough seats to form the main opposition to the Tories in Westminster.

I see the SNP holding on to their seats, the Labour party haemorrhaging theirs, and the Lib Dems doing surprisingly well as they’re the only party to stand up for the 48% of us who voted to remain with the EU. If they get 48% of the vote we will be living in even more interesting times.

Meanwhile we can experience our own walking epiphanies. Here (courtesy of The Guardian) are the routes Theresa took. They’re not yet listed in the Walks section on the harlech.org website because we haven’t done them, but I still think if you’re in that area it would be hard to beat the Precipice Walk.

Let us know what you think, if you do these walks?

Helicopter crash

The mountains behind the house are called the Rhinogs, and the biggest is the dome-shaped one called Moelfre, 549 metres high. Stand outside the kitchen window, look over the garage and you can’t miss it.

Sadly neither did a helicopter this week. Five people were killed when one crashed in the Rhinogs.

A major air and land search was launched yesterday after the aircraft vanished en route from Luton to Dublin.

Superintendent Gareth Evans of North Wales Police said the crash site was located today and the bodies of all five people on board had been found.

A mountain rescue team found the wreckage in the Rhinog mountains, between Trawsfynydd and Harlech.

Police have not revealed the exact location of the crash as the bodies have not been recovered from the “remote and hazardous” terrain.

It is very rough walking, and there are few safe paths through the mountains. The Roman Steps which start at Cwm Bychan is one. The steps will probably be closed today.

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.