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Noshing In Splendor Through Wales
by David Yeadon

If I'd been a Welsh chorister I'd have leapt up from my table (despite the decorous decor and well-dressed diners) and poured my soul into a few verses of that beloved Welsh ballad, Myfanwy, in celebration of my dinner at Maes-y-Neuadd Country House hotel. A gorgeous Welsh sunset golden orange, soft and succulent as ripe fruit treacled through a filigree of dainty lace curtains and eased across my table by the window overlooking Tremadog Bay in the northwestern corner of this little country. Beyond the craggy remnants of Criccieth Castle across the bay, the hazy hills of the Llyn Peninsula merged into a Turner-like flare of liquid light. The chardonnay in my glass glowed like fresh-squeezed nectar. My upstairs room in this intimate, family-run hotel would be bathed in the same soft colors and my four-poster bed would invite me to rest after a five course repast that has already seduced the most discerning of British restaurant reviewers at this 14th century "Mansion in the Meadow".

It all began with a silky, chicken terrine scented with tarragon and crushed pink peppercorns followed by tiny, crisp Welsh salmon cakes in a velvety saffron-sorrel sauce served with a basket of home baked Welsh breads and currant buns.

"Wales is a generous place," said Peter Jackson, the 35-year-old chef, as he emerged from the kitchen to check on my progress through a main course of sweet, pink noisettes of Welsh-meadow lamb in a rich, deep-brown bordelaise sauce with an artistic array of briefly steamed baby vegetables and two exotic potato creations. "You've got all the ingredients you need right here to make some of the best dishes in the world." Peter's "Grand Finale" array of desserts was certainly world-class and I could have topped the whole feast off with a crusty-brown cheese Welsh rarebit "savory" (a delightful custom in many Welsh restaurants), but chose instead to take my cognac and petits fours onto the outdoor terrace and enjoy the last crimson flares of sunset.

"This is really Wales?" I asked myself in disbelief. A couple of decades ago, when Britain was generally regarded as something of a gastronomic Gobi, notorious for stodgy, fat-laden, overcoooked, chips-with-everything platters featuring such oddities as bubble 'n' squeak, tripe 'n' onions, bangers 'n' mash, toad-in-the-hole, fish 'n' chips, treacle pudding and spotted dick, Wales was thought of (when it was thought of at all) as even more of a culinary netherworld. With the exception of excellent lamb (invariably overcooked to a stringy gray lump and smothered in a fudgey-sludge "gravy") one came fork to palate with such peculiarities as laverbread (fried seaweed and oatmeal), cawl (a weak meat and vegetable soup), Bara Brith (currant bread), faggots (a sort of poor man's pate over-seasoned with thyme and sage), flummery (a thin porridge), shot (oatcakes), and cacen-gri (pastry-like flatcakes).

A combination of nationalistic Welsh pride and stubbornness, a suspicion of anything foreign (England was considered by many Walians in those days to be as foreign as France and the feeling was apparently mutual as "welsh" in Old English means "foreigner"!), the depressive repression of tight "rationing" during the two World wars, and dour Methodist rejection of sensory indulgences (with the exception of Wales' world-famous choral singing), pretty well sealed the sensibilities and discouraged overt enjoyment in the magic and mysteries of creative cuisine. A headstone I came across in a cemetery outside Cardiff seemed to sum up the old Welsh attitude toward life and, indirectly, toward food: "He Came. He Performed his Duties Soberly and Without Excess. He Departed."!

I was lucky. I first came to Wales five years ago in more hedonistic times and found this little sub-nation in the throes of a gallivanting gastronomic romp. Young energetic chefs were setting up shop everywhere and exuding deep love and respect for the splendid raw materials of Welsh cuisine the finest lamb in the world, superb salmon and sewin (sea trout) and seafood oddities like cockles and whelks, farm-produced cheeses over 50 different varieties at last count game, homecured hams, superb butcher-made sausages and pates, and a range of breads and cakes that would turn even the most pompous of Parisian bakers purple with pique. Travelers and restaurant reviewers alike had begun to discover the genius that had long lain dormant in the Welsh spirit—even the Michelin Guide (which long regarded Britain as undeserving of its own restaurant guide) had begun to celebrate the bold efforts of these culinary neophytes, even awarding a couple of coveted stars to Welsh restaurants.

Alas though, that first visit was also a rather pecuniary one and I was obliged to make pub snacks (thin sandwiches, "ploughman's lunches", pork pies, sausage roles et al) and inexpensive dinners (more often than not, fish n'chips n' mushy peas or the ubiquitous "Takeaway Tandoori") my main forms of sustenance. I had vowed to return one day however with a more generous purse and was now in the process of realizing that promise by undertaking this current journey through some of the finest stretches of Welsh mountain and coastal scenery in search of the finest gastronomic excellence and creativity.

I began my journey in the most unexpected of places the tiny Walnut Tree Inn, right on the southeastern border of Wales near Abergavenny. Except for the plethora of posh cars that swamped the parking area off a narrow country road, one might have dismissed this wondrous delight as merely another cozy, whitewashed pub offering standard pub-grub fare. But I had done my homework and knew this modest-looking establishment to be one of Britain's finest restaurants (for over two decades, starred, accolated and superlatived to enthusiastic excess). It was lunchtime on a bright warm day and, foolishly, I'd failed to make a reservation.

"Sorry love, we're all full up", said a matronly waitress with red cheeks and a cheeky smile as she whisked by bearing vast platters of sauced delicacies. I turned sadly to go. "Wait," a voice bellowed from the kitchen behind the tiny bar. A small robust man emerged glowing with stove- heat, "You look hungry," he said and grinned a very un-Welsh grin. "Franco Taruschio". " He introduced himself and shook my hand. "I'm starving," I said. "Aha! I love starving people! Wait a moment, we can give you a table outside if you wish."

Outside was perfect. A line of small customer-crowded tables shaded by lemon-striped cafe umbrellas occupied the terrace of the inn and a young couple was just leaving. "Sit. Be comfortable. I'll send you a glass of wine a New Zealand white—we're sampling it right now," said the grinning Franco as he vanished back into his small kitchen which billowed with steam and exuded the most exquisite aromas.

Lunch was a dream—an adjective I rarely use but somehow fitting in this unique little place overlooking the soft, sheep-sprinkled meadows on the lower slopes of the Black Mountains. Richly garnished dishes appeared as if by magic from the whirling kitchen where Franco's wife Ann, and a bevy of sous-chefs, were working their spells . . .an amazingly rich and creamy asparagus and tarragon soup, a platter of Lady Llanover's Salt Duck (a sort of Welsh confit) served in thin pink slices with gooseberry pickle, rowanberry jelly and preserved damsons, a complimentary "chef's tidbit" dish of deep fried artichoke leaves with radiccio and fresh parmesan, endless baskets of crisp pizza-like focaccia bread smothered in a mix of olives, onions and rosemary. And then the climax a unique 18th century pasta dish—Vincisgrassi from the Marche region of Italy, of homemade fettucine laden with parma ham, shaved white truffles, extra-virgin olive oil and almost-translucent slices of palate-popping aged romano cheese. I didn't plan on dessert but a medley-platter of samples arrived anyway surmounted by a perfect miniature creme brulee.

After settling my bill I asked to say my farewells to Franco, who emerged with yet one more plate "It's a new dish I'm trying out . . .here, taste a little just a little . . ." It's so hard to refuse an Italian-Welshman.

After a lunch of such elegant magnitude I suppose I should have walked but of course I drove, over the Black Mountains on lanes barely the width of a Welshcake, and headed north toward Builth Wells, past the Griffin Inn at Llyswen (renowned for its authentic Welsh cuisine) and on to my dinner-destination at Sir Bernard Ashley's (of Laura Ashley fame) Llangoed Hall.

The ambience of this magnificent hotel, portions of which date from 1632 (with even earlier links to Wale's legendary White Palace, said to have been built here in the 4th century as the first Welsh parliament), justified the extravagant prices here. Guests enjoy all the salubrious comforts of an Edwardian country house where one becomes a member of a cosseted house party and dines following languorous cocktails and chef's "tasting plates" in the Great Hall overlooking the croquet lawn and the Wye valley on such delicacies as galatine of Welsh quail, a succulent terrine of baby leeks, confit duck and foie gras, Cannon of Welsh lamb with sweetbreads and tarragon (the moorland grouse casserole had, alas, been devoured by earlier diners) all rounded off with a Welsh whiskey souffle and a splendid selection of Welsh farmhouse cheeses. An evening stroll around the estate of walled gardens and manicured lawns and then down to the winding riverbanks edged in ancient alders and willows put the finishing touches to a perfectly decadent evening of Welsh hospitality.

The following day I did nothing and ate nothing. Period.

Then, on yet another brilliant blue-sky morning, I moved westward across magnificent mountains over the "Roof of Wales" to the Maes-y-Neuadd hotel, a few miles north of sturdy Harlech castle and just a little south of the Snowdonia ranges. (This is the hotel where I was tempted to serenade the diners following an outstanding dinner). My one regret here was that, due to some confusion over dates, I missed dinner the next day at one of Wales' most celebrated restaurants, Plas Bodegroes, a nearby whitewashed Georgian mansion ("with rooms") set in woodsy gardens on the wild Llyn Peninsula west of Pwllheli. I might have dined on roulade of seabass and smoked salmon with dill and sour cream, roast pigeon breast with wild mushroom tagliatelle, saddle of Welsh lamb in puff pastry with ratatouille and red wine sauce, and a gratin of gooseberries and grapes for dessert but didn't. Ah well all the more reason to return to Wales again one day . . . .

A riproaring rollercoaster drive over the Snowdonia ranges brought me to the Dee valley near Llangollen, home of the July International Musical Eisteddfod, one of Wales' most popular annual festivals. I'd heard about yet another country house hotel here, Tyddyn Llan, and found the place nestled behind a stand of mature trees in the delightful Vale of Edeyrnion, near the lovely village of Llandrillo.

I received a warmhearted welcome from the owners, Peter and Bridget Kindred, at their gray-stoned Georgian home set on billiard-table-smooth lawns below the rolling hills of Mynydd Mynyllod. This is the kind of family hotel where you wish you could spend a fortnight fishing with gillies in the adjoining river Dee, making sorties to the Roman city of Chester (a mere 35 miles to the East), pony trekking on old drover's roads in woody hills and across Berwyn ranges nearby, or sailing on magnificent Bala Lake, a ten minute drive to the west. Unfortunately my schedule was too tight for such indulgences so I compensated with a splendid dinner of two appetizers—tartlet of crab with watercress sauce and roast breast of pheasant with Smitain sauce, followed by a main course of honey-roasted Hereford duckling with apples and calvados and the most succulent dessert of poached pears with rosewater ice cream set in a basket of sweet brittle brandysnap. "You obviously enjoyed that dessert," Peter said as he strolled by with a proud maitre d' smile, "Try our latest creation." And-lo-there came the most succulent of lemon and almond tarts with raspberry coulis which made me wonder if I should cancel my last reservation of the journey on the following day and return home early for a diet of water and no-fat, no-salt, no-calorie, crackers.

Of course I didn't. In fact I was tempted to do a double-indulge in one day when I discovered, just down the road from Tyddyn Llan, the magnificent menu at Palé Hall, a vast Victorian extravaganza built for a wealthy Scottish engineer (and actually graced by Her Highness in 1889) set in acres of parkland and landscaped gardens and now refurbished as a sybaritic country house hotel.

The menu sang of the lordly indulgences of the landed gentry smoked salmon, local trout, venison, grouse, partridge, pheasant, boar and on and on. All this plus a superb wine list and a selection of ancient crusted ports and cognacs for after-dinner reveries by the fire in the lounge. But alas (once again) my reservations for the evening were elsewhere, in one of Wales' finest regal hostelleries a short way down the Vale of Conwy from the pristine seaside charms of Llandudno on the north coast.

And this time I splurged on the whole experience dinner, bed and breakfast at the glorious 17th century Bodysgallen Hall, one of Britains top country house hotels, set in terraced grounds and gardens on a 200 acre estate with views (from my room at least) directly down the valley to the fairytale turrets and battlements of Conwy Castle and the great bold outlines of the Snowdonia range.

From the moment my luggage was whisked away as I entered the panelled reception hall and I settled myself close to the fire in a fat soft sofa, I knew I'd found the perfect resting place. After a dinner that evening of duck confit timbale with leeks and ginger, a phyllo tartlet filled to gluttony with smoked salmon, poached fillet of beef with summer cabbage and braised lentils and a glorious warm fruit soup dessert glazed with honey and walnut sabayon served with a champagne sorbet I knew that my love affair with Wales had barely begun.

This may be the last night of this trip I mused in my room as the moon moved in a silver haze over Conwy Castle but I'll be back. As Dylan Thomas once mumbled over his tenth whiskey too many in New York's White Horse Tavern "It's very fine here boyo but it's not my Welsh Wales!" Poor Dylan never returned to his beloved homeland from that ill-fated trip. I trust I might be more fortunate.

WAYS AND MEANS
The Restaurants (from south to north)

THE WALNUT TREE INN
Llandewi Skirrid, Nr. Abergavenny. 0873 852797
http://www.thewalnuttreeinn.com/
3 Course dinner for two from $80 (excluding drinks and tips). No credit cards

THE GRIFFIN INN
Llyswen, Nr. Brecon. 0874 754241
http://www.griffininn-llyswen.co.uk/
3 Course dinner for two from $60 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $70 double

LLANGOED HALL
Llyswen, Nr. Brecon. 0874 754545
http://www.llangoedhall.com/home.php
5 Course dinner for two from $110 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $220 double. (Dinner, bed and breakfast: $320)

HOTEL MAES-Y-NEUADD
Talsarnau, Nr. Harlech 0766 780200
http://www.neuadd.com/
5 Course dinner for two from $90 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $170 double (including breakfast)

PLAS BODEGROES
Pwllheli. 0758 612363
http://www.bodegroes.co.uk/
5 Course dinner for two from $100 (excluding drinks and tips)
Dinner, bed and breakfast from $225

TYDDYN LLAN COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL
Llandrillo, Nr. Corwen. 049084 264
http://www.tyddynllan.co.uk/
4 Course dinner for two from $80 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $160 double (including breakfast)
Dinner, bed and breakfast: $225.

PALÉ HALL
Llandderfel, Nr. Bala. 06783 285
http://www.palehall.co.uk/
4 Course dinner for two from $90 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $200 double. Dinner, bed and breakfast: $340

BODYSGALLEN HALL
Llandudno. 0492 584466
http://www.bodysgallen.com/
4 Course dinner for two from $100 (excluding drinks and tips)
Accommodation from $190 double

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