The sophisticated flavours of rural Wales

The remote Brecon Beacons National Park is capitalising on its abundance of local produce, from award-winning venison to wholemeal bread made in a 19th-century water mill.

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.

Prized products
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.

To really return to the roots of traditional Welsh food though, you need to go foraging. To get a taste of what SAS trainees endure during their weeks of wilderness survival, sign up with Mountain and River Activities, an adventure company that was running foraging trips long before the likes of Noma chef René Redzepi made the pastime fashionable. Under the company’s guidance, a valley-side stroll can become a feast of wild food – think baked river trout tasting of lemon from wood sorrel and of garlic from wild ramsons. Dessert? Try whortleberries, washed down by acorn tea. Once refuelled, you will be ready to try their more-adventurous activities of hawk walking, caving and nighttime navigation using the stars.  

Welsh spirit
But beyond the cuisine, it is the drink that is stealing the culinary show in Brecon Beacons – in the shape of Wales’ only distillery, Penderyn, 27km southwest of Brecon. The whisky still (just one, as opposed to the two- or three-pot system Scottish and Irish distilleries use) was designed to create a standout product: not an easy task with the world’s most famed single malt whisky distilleries not far away in Scotland. Made exclusively for the distillery, the Penderyn single malt produces an exceptionally strong and flavoursome spirit (initially 92%) that needs less maturation time in casks than other whiskies. In contrast to the 10 years an award-winning Scottish whisky would normally need, Penderyn’s Swansea City cask-strength port-wood finish, which garnered 2013 Whisky of the Year, was aged just seven years.  

Gourmands will discover other reasons aplenty to linger in the national park. The internationally renowned Hay Literary Festival, which ex-US president Bill Clinton described as the “Woodstock of the mind”, takes place every May or June. And August (9 to 11 this year) sees the 30th anniversary of the Brecon Jazz Festival – the extravaganza that late jazz great Humphrey Littleton described as “one of Europe’s most important jazz festivals”, and where, back in the day, British music sensation Amy Winehouse honed her talents.

But to evade the crowds, the best solution is perhaps to simply recline in one of self-catering cottages in the heart of this mesmerisingly beautiful farming country. It is a sure-fire way to enjoy Brecon Beacons the best way possible: going wild, without relinquishing those creature comforts.