Staring at a door at the Llanerch Vineyard, restaurant, I found myself confused. ‘What’s behind that door? Why do they sell tobacco in a restaurant?’ Finally, after a moment’s deliberation I had the opportunity to ask one of their waiters and discovered that ‘Ty Bach’ was the toilet.
This was my first taste of Wales, being confused and trying to make sense of the intriguing language which is spoken by the friendly locals. Luckily, my Welsh leek and cheese rarebit spoke to me in a way I immediately understood – and I began to see that Wales is a country of great food and incredibly fruity wine.
The charming Llanerch Vineyard in the Vale of Glamorgan [above], is just half an hour’s drive from the capital city of Cardiff. Originally a farmhouse dating back to the 18th century, the first vineyards were planted in 1986 and they now produce the award-winning Cariad Wine.
But why Wales? Surely the climate is not suitable for growing vines? I soon discovered that the Llanerch Vineyard use a mixture of German and French varieties which are ideal for this often chilly climate.
Cold indeed, but still full of passion: that’s the reason why the wine is called ‘Cariad’, which translates as ‘love’ or ‘sweetheart’ in Welsh. This fine wine has been deservedly appreciated by Harrods, meaning you can purchase it the luxurious London department store.
Now Llanerch Vineyard is owned by the Davies family, who decided to refurbish the gorgeous Cariad Restaurant and Bistro, and install large windows overlooking the vineyards. It is fantastically picturesque.
Here, at the bistro, I enjoyed my aforementioned rarebit served with sticky leeks, which I found incredibly creamy, the cheese perfectly melted. Beforehand I have to admit I was not particularly fond of leek; however, the expertise of the chef changed my opinion. When cooked properly, they are delicious!
For my main course I jumped to the conclusion I’d be served lamb, which Wales is famous for; instead I discovered its equally known for its freshly caught fish, and my tender, buttery seabass fillet was perfectly cooked.
The next day I met up with my special Welsh guide, Sian Bassett Roberts. Journalist, food lover, food expert and food writer, Sian has travelled the world but some years ago decided to return to Cardiff to promote Welsh gastronomy. She now manages her own company, Loving Welsh Food, which is dedicated to welshcakes, wine tours, food safaris, workshops and cookery courses. ”¨”¨
Thanks to Sian I discovered all about the Welsh food tourism revival and the country’s many outdoorsy opportunities; that large numbers of people come here to combine gastronomic tours with seaside walks, mountain hiking with wine tasting and so on.
A pleasant surprise was noticing that Wales reminds me of my homeland in winter: the Italian island of Sardinia. Green hills, gentle slopes, lots of sheep, stunning cliffs and unspoiled mountains. With the help of a kind ranger I took a coastal walk in Southerndown, to the west of Cardiff, and the Vale of Glamorgan Heritage Coast [above]; 14 miles of coastline and breathtaking scenery. ”¨”¨
Unfortunately I happened to visit Wales while the UK was being battered by gales and rain – however, we made the most of our walk and it was definitely worth braving the elements to see the jagged terrain and tall cliffs. I instantly thought of dinosaurs, ancient times, prehistoric people hiding in the caves and I even began to reconcile with the natural phenomenon of the tides, which are quite strange to a Mediterranean man like me.
If possible you should also walk along the wave-cut platforms and the many rock pools: it’ll give you a sense of the majesty of this coastline. ”¨
During my second day in Wales Sian brought me to Pen y Fan [above], the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons National Park, or Parc Cenedlaethol Bannau Brycheiniog in the Welsh language. It reaches 886 metres or 2907 feet.
The National Park, in 1957, was one of the first ones to be established in the UK. Helped by professional guides from the ‘Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre’, we crossed gentle streams of water, jumped on the rocks, admired the hardy plants and stared at the sky admiring the tumultuous clouds.
I unfortunately did not have the chance to see the small but brilliant mountain ponies, but I finally had the opportunity to taste the gorgeous Welsh lamb in the Felin Fach Griffin country pub and B&B in Brecon. The service was slow, but as the waitress told us, ‘why do you have to rush? We are in Wales, everything’s slow here!’ I was rewarded for waiting with a juicy hunk of meat, which was succulent and tender.
The pace at Felin Fach is further slowed by the weak phone reception and lack of wi-fi; this is truly a restaurant to leave your troubles behind you, and allow yourself to enjoy your meal all the more.
The final stop on my mini food and drink odyssey was the Penderyn Distillery, ‘home of Welsh Whisky’. This modern and striking building is located in the old village of Penderyn, nestled in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. Here an old Welsh recipe is mixed with Scottish knowledge to produce a memorable flavour. These fine spirits have already won some prestigious international awards, so do give them a try – but remember to drink responsibly!
Photos: Daniele Guido Gessa; Wikimedia