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.
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.
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.
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.