Exploring the food of a destination is one of the great pleasures of travel.
But how, exactly, do you go about discovering the food when you visit a new country?
On my recent trip, I had only 3 days to see a bit of Wales. On each of those days, I incorporated at least one form of culinary research. That sounds like a pretty dry word to describe such a venture, so let me assure you, this was fascinating, fun, and delicious work!
I took a three-pronged approach to exploring the food of Wales: I went on an organized food walk with an expert guide in Cardiff, dined at a Michelin Star restaurant in Penarth, and took a cooking class in the Abergavenny home-cum-cooking school of a local chef.
Food of Wales on Foot
If you want a tasting tour of local food and drink in Cardiff, look no further than Loving Welsh Food. Sian Roberts led me around Cardiff for over four hours tasting all sorts of Welsh goodies. We started at the Pettigrew Tea Rooms with a pot of tea with Welsh Cakes (sort of a lightly sweetened unleavened bread the size of a cookie, with currants and spices) and Bara Brith (a traditional loaf made with dried fruit and tea). Not being a lover of very sweet desserts, these were ideal for me. And a nice hot cuppa was the perfect way to prepare for the tour!
On to savory options, a tour of the Cardiff Market revealed something brand new to me: cockles. Though familiar with the phrase, “It warms the cockles of my heart,” I had never paused to wonder what a cockle actually was. Turns out, it's a small clam. A very tasty small clam, made even more delicious when served with a smear of laverbread, on top of a heart-shaped oatcake. Laverbread is seaweed that has been cooked down into a black paste. I know, it doesn't sound great. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds!
Wally's Delicatessen is the place to go for a little bit – no, make that a lot – of everything. This is the kind of place that I would frequent if I lived in Wales, and the place I would start when planning a party. It is absolutely chock full of cheeses, meats, olives, oils, crackers, jams, and just about every gourmet item you can think of, including the best from Wales and around the world. If not for the fact that I had to be able to lug my suitcase onto a plane, I would have held up the tour while I loaded up on local delicacies.
At some point, you just have to sit for a few minutes and enjoy a cold beverage. I really liked this award-winning Welsh cider, made in the traditional way, from hand-picked and freshly-pressed apples. Not only was it flavorful and refreshing, but I like to tell myself that I am getting a serving of fruit each time I drink it.
Food of Wales by a Star
I didn't know this at the time, but the chef-owner of Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth is well-known for his appearance on a television show called Great British Menu. Naturally, I had to try a dish that he has named after the show. Now, “Pea GBM” may not sound like the fanciest dish, and my photo does not do it justice, but let me tell you, this was a piece of art: a single ravioli, pea puree, serrano ham, and sage, all topped with a parmesan foam.
This was one of those meals where, after each course you wanted to say, “That was the best thing I've ever tasted.” So not only was the ravioli the best, so was the Welsh lamb (I ate lamb everywhere I went in Wales, but nowhere quite like this) and the assortment of artisan cheeses.
About three weeks after my visit, James Sommerin's restaurant was awarded a well-deserved Michelin Star, giving me the opportunity to congratulate myself on my excellent taste.
Food of Wales in a Cottage
I always recommend taking a cooking class when you travel, but I don't often end up being taught by someone who has cooked for the Queen. Penny Lewis is the owner of The Culinary Cottage Cookery School in Abergavenny. She offers a wide range of classes right out of her own home kitchen, then invites you to sit and enjoy the fruits of your labors at her dining room table. You can even spend the night, as she also offers accommodation, as some of her courses run for several days.
It was a very hands-on class, which I think makes for a better learning opportunity than demonstration classes. One of the things I loved about Penny was that she was so calm. I was terrified to work with the meringue for our dessert, but she coached me to work quickly and confidently, and it all worked out. We cooked with many local ingredients, making meatballs for a stroganoff with lamb from a farm down the road, and topping sauteed leeks (a national symbol of Wales) with delicately smoked salmon. Naturally, it was all washed down with a local wine.
By approaching the food of Wales from different angles, I was able to get a broad sense of the cuisine, from traditional treats in a tea house, to the catch of the day at the market, to the artistic contemporary creations of a world-class chef, to dishes that would be prepared in a local home. Each element was wonderful in its own way, and added up to a delicious culinary journey.
This trip was supported by Visit Wales. As always, the opinions and experiences are my own.