It is a land so wild and tough that the British Special Air Service (SAS) use it for their training, and it has been attracting hardcore outdoorsy types for decades. But Brecon Beacons National Park is starting to show a softer, more sophisticated side, exemplified by the award-winning cuisine newly found in this protected tract of mid-Wales mountains.
Spanning 1,350sqkm across the remote, verdant massif of mid-Wales, the park can seem enormous due to the absence of major settlements and the dominance of sheep over humans. Yet less than 50km to the south lie the large Welsh cities of Cardiff and Swansea; and London is drivable in three hours. The Brecon Beacons’ primary function has in fact, for centuries, been as an agricultural area serving some of Britain’s biggest cities. It has just never truly capitalised on its abundance of local produce until now.
Recent accolades speak volumes. In 2011, the Angel Hotel in the town of Abergavenny received the Tea Guild’s UK Afternoon Tea of the Year award for its freshly prepared sandwiches, savouries, cakes and scones. In 2013, the National Parks’ very own distillery, Penderyn, had one of its whiskies named Single Malt Whisky of the Year by leading whisky critic Jim Murray.
The Brecons’ enormously varied products, from award-winning venison to bread that is ground and made in a 19th-century water mill, are no longer just being packaged up and consumed in far-off locations. They are being served smack-bang on the land that is generating its unique flavours – providing incentives for visitors to stop and savour the local area, too.
Dine with a view
For Felin Fach Griffin, a countryside restaurant with rooms near the town of Brecon, it is less about food miles than food pace. Grown in their garden are many of the menu ingredients: the onion for the piccalilli that graces the ham terrine, the ruby chard for the oak-roasted salmon fishcakes, and the chervil root, a vegetable grown nowhere else in Wales, which is used in the salads. Diners eat in the stylishly rustic restaurant, supping alongside the Aga stove bubbling with the soup of the day, and digest the local ale or wine list (learning how it complements that home-grown salad, locally-caught trout or Welsh rabbit) while reclining on a sofa.
A journey through the menu is a crash-course in local producers. The venison hails from the Welsh Venison Centre a few kilometres down the road, and many of the wines come from the nearby Ancre Hill winery. Perhaps most crucially, these businesses are not just names, but places to visit. The venison centre, in the village of Blwch, has a farm shop proudly displaying the locally reared meat; the haunch joints won gold at Wales’ 2011/2012 True Taste awards. You can stay at the winery and tour it, tasting the various vintages at the winery’s Cellar Door shop.
Keeping it simple
Welsh food has traditionally been simple and hearty, providing sustenance to a poor, hard-working populace – and the new haunts follow in these footsteps.
It is hard to imagine a more “back to basics” approach than at Talgarth Mill, a restored 19th-century water mill 15km northeast of Brecon that mills flour with a stream-powered wheel. Using Victorian machinery means the flour produced has to be wholemeal (to make brown or white, for example, would involve sifting out the bran, a process beyond traditional watermill technology), which goes into such products as the home-baked bara brith, a Welsh fruitcake made with dried fruit soaked in tea. Take a tour to learn about the different parts of the milling process, then sample the baked delights in the onsite cafe.
In Crickhowell, 10km northwest of Abergavenny, the Black Mountains Smokery also adheres to the traditional, but with a shake of the audacious. It smokes everything from local trout to South Wales’ Blaenafon cheese, using oak wood leftovers, usually from local landowners, in the manner typical of centuries ago. The light smoke flavour – far subtler than today’s large-scale smoking conventions – can be best tasted in the excellent smoked salmon.