Pushing aside the incomprehensible Welsh language, Amy Rosen finds flat warm beer isn't so bad and food foraged from right down the road leads to tasty meals.
Wales is an enigma: a riddle cloaked in mystery and soaked in non–carbonated warm ale.
For example, here's how some friendly elders tried to teach me their ancient (and largely incomprehensible) language while I enjoyed a few licks of organic Welsh ice cream on the picturesque bridge overlooking the River Dee in Llangollen:
"F is pronounced as a V, as in English 'of,' like Felindre [veh–lin–dray]," starts the gent.
"What the?" (That's me.)
"Y has two different pronunciations," he continues. (Oh, an easy one, encourages his grey–haired mate.) "In all but the last syllable of a word it's pronounced as a 'U,' as in English 'fun.' When it is the last syllable of a word it is pronounced as an 'I,' as in English 'is.' For example, our word for mountain is mynydd [mun–ith]."
I've never wanted to slap someone so badly in all my life.
After this little encounter I also wanted to hold my Welsh guide's hand (whose name, Idwal, I never did manage to pronounce) for the remainder of the trip, for fear I would get lost and have to find my way back to Allt yr Ynys in Abergavenny. (Or as I took to calling it, Blah–Blah–Blah in Blah–Blah–gavenny.)
And now for a few words on that warm ale.
You'll find the best ale selections, while enjoying your most authentic Welsh drinking experiences, by stopping by one of the so–called Free Houses. Located mostly in rural areas, these are pubs that are independently owned, whereas breweries own most of the city pubs.
And so it was, one fine Saturday eve that we found ourselves at a Free House called the Hand Inn, kitty corner to the West Arms Hotel (since 1570), the only other place to eat or drink in the microscopic village of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, amid the rolling foothills of the Berwyn Mountains.
The Hand Inn welcomes all with its red carpet, timber ceiling, wooden tables, and chalkboards boasting daily specials. The boisterous locals are three–deep as they belly up around the bar.
"Uh oh," I tell Idwal, as I plop down at our table while taking my first sip of his recommended Weetwood Ales Best Cask Bitter. "It's warm. And flat."
"Ah, yes," he smiles. "T'isn't it wonderful?"
"It's warm," I repeat. "And flat."
"A good ale must always be warm," explains Idwal. "Room temperature, like a fine red wine."
It may be tepid and bubble–free but damn, it goes down smooth.
So, if you're following along…Quirky language: check. Warm, non–carbonated ale: check.
And then there's the food.
Welsh food is not what you think, if indeed you were thinking that Wales is a backwater culinary punchline. I dined high and low, eating everything from pink, tender roast leg of Welsh lamb (nicely salted by nature, thanks to the wet hillsides and salt marshes where they're raised) and Welsh black beef (again, thank you, organic pastures). And I inhaled a full Welsh breakfast at the West Arms Hotel, where they were "eating local" about 500 years before it became hip to do so.
My kicked–back breakfast included bacon (from down the road), David Keegan's homemade pork sausages (Keegan is the town butcher), sauteed, "just foraged" mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, Welsh black pudding, eggs with yolks the colour of the sun and fried bread, which I realize now is how all bread should be prepared.
Even tourist hotspots like Powis Castle, a National Historic site lousy with rose gardens and noble turrets, has an organic cafeteria that lists the provenance of the ingredients used to make its flaky leek tarts and pork faggot (a type of meatloaf that serves the dual purpose of being both rib–sticking and rib–tickling.)
Those foraged mushrooms, the lamb, the eggs, and yes, even the faggot, got me thinking: This local food is so tasty, I want to see where it comes from.
And so I slip on some woolen socks and hiking shoes, grab onto Idwal's hand (honestly, who wants to get lost in the Welsh countryside?), and off we go to meet with Roger and Steven, certified members of the Wildlife Trust.
Eat the High Berries
Inside of two hours we motor from rolling plains into hills and mountainsides, all the while avoiding the wild pheasants and sheep darting across the winding roads.
We'll be covering different habitats, which mean different animals and plants, adding up to more foraging opportunities. And we won't just be learning; we'll also be gathering things for a late afternoon lunch at the Foxhunter in the village of Nantyderry, a high–end spot for Welsh cuisine. In fact, the restaurant was voted AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales in 2004, soon after young Chef Matt Tebbutt and his wife, Lisa, refurbished the old stationmaster's house just up the hill from the River Usk.
Upon arriving at the highlands we pour out of the minivan and stretch our legs while Steven makes broad strokes with his pointer finger to describe all that we see and will see. There are lowland farms for dairy herds, while "fridd" are the unenclosed upper areas for grazing sheep. In between the two is the "blorenge", which we'll come by later in the national park.
I also learn that foraging isn't all about lush flora and furry fauna. Man has been here, too. The land is scarred because this was one of the sites where the Industrial Revolution began. "Coal, iron ore, limestone and the water needed to drive the process, all naturally occur in this one spot," explains Roger. In the near distance we spy a group of dilapidated buildings: "This town went boom and bust inside of 100 years," he says.
The heather moorland is coming into bloom––we wander about as we meet sheep and forage for wimberries, which taste like blueberries but are a little different because they're from Wales. Then we drive down to the coastal planes, just over a forested ridge, where the buzzards are making a lively comeback, as are the meadow pippets, skylarks, and blackwings. The narrow roads are lined with either thick hedgerows or centuries–old stacked stones. Former mills dot fast–flowing streams. "This was once a Royal hunting ground with a penalty of death for poaching," intones Roger, in case I had any funny ideas.
At the tail end of Wentwood Ridge we rise and fall amidst the undulating lowlands until we finally arrive at the Severn Estuary. We hop out of the minivan again, and I start picking and popping juicy blackberries from the bushes lining our walk towards the muddy shoals.
"Here's, a tip," Steven tells me as I stuff my face with the low–lying blackberries. "Eat the ones from one metre up or higher."
"Why?" I ask. "Are they riper? Juicier?!" With a purple–stained mouth I stand there waiting to receive more expert foraging advice from an area insider.
"To avoid the dog pee."
Sloe is an ancestor to plums––"so sour it strips your mouth clean," warns Roger. I try some. It's so sour it strips my mouth clean. It's used to make jams and as a flavoring in sloe gin (I can't be the only one who thought it was "slow gin", right?).
Next, we pick some bitter sea beet. It's bitter. Then elderberries, used to make a popular Welsh wine and preserves. It tastes more like a flower than a berry, but even more like perfume than a flower.
We walk the saturated land, which is doused with saltwater when the tide comes in, fresh water when it goes out, and brackish in between. Through wind, wave and salt, the inter–tidal plants of the area include varieties of grass upon which sheep and cows graze, "for a meat so naturally salty you needn't add seasoning when cooking," enthuses Roger. (Told you so.)
We've been asked to pick some sanfire for our swelegant lunch back at the Foxhunter, and here we find loads of it at our feet. It looks like seaweed but is actually a flowering plant that tastes like a cross between asparagus and seaweed. The tide is out when we happen upon our emerald patch, making for easy plucking. A newly trendy form of vegetation, apparently you'll pay Â£15 a kilo for sanfire at a posh London farmers' market, but here, it's free. We bag some.
After that it's into the nearby national park full of gushing waterfalls, yummy hazelnut trees and various wild mushrooms boasting Latin names, some of which we collect, some of which we don't because today doesn't feel like a good day to die.
And then at last, it's on to the Foxhunter restaurant for a delicious just–foraged South Wales feast of wild mushrooms on garlic toast, roast pigeon sauced with samphire and elderberry jus, and a dessert of ice cream with hazelnut shortbread.
Sure, I could have done without the buckshot in the pigeon meat––but at least I knew it was fresh.
Amy Rosen is a Toronto–based food and travel writer who has authored two cookbooks and a spa book. She pens and illustrates the weekly "Dish" column in the National Post, and is a contributing editor for enRoute magazine, for which she ate her away across Canada twice. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to Maclean's, Chatelaine, Food & Wine and Conde Nast Traveler, among others, she recently updated the "Where to Eat" section in Fodor's Toronto 2008. Visit her at www.amyrosen.com.
Books from the Author: