Wales – Gastropub in the South andVictorian Hall in the North
SouthernWales will forever be, for me, about the outstanding cooking of Stephen Terryat his humble roadside pub, The Hardwick, just outside Abergavenny (about 1hour north of Cardiff). Diners wait for a coveted table in the small warmwelcoming bar with scrubbed wooden tables and a great gin and whisky collection– the menuÕs a great read and helps fill the time. The main dining room nextdoor is filled with large, well-spaced tables, some booths, some old rounddining tables, a few for two, but most could hold more than they do which givesa sense of generosity that perfectly matches this chefÕs honest cooking.
Salads are afavourite starter, such as Colston Basset stilton with a tangle of dandelion,spinach and endive scattered with walnuts, or thin shreds of buffalomozzarella, punchy with anchovies and tangy with semi-soft sundried tomatoes withcrunchy strips of fried polenta. Local salmon, from Black Mountains just northof Abergavenny, both hot and cold smoked, is served simply with saltedcucumbers and cr¸me fraiche, while local Gloucester Old Spot pork is made intomeatballs served in a smoky tomato and paprika sauce with penne topped withmelting fontina cheese. A dish which Terry says typifies his cooking is anoutstanding spaghetti with artichokes, olives, treviso and brown butterbreadcrumbs – simply superb!
Desserts, orpuddings as the menu calls them, look a bit further afield with Amalfi lemonsturned into curd for ŌA Jar of Amalfi Lemon & MeringueÕ, a soft biscuitbase beneath the curd and a singed soft Italian meringue on top, all served ina small preserving jar. The wine list includes a good range of well-pricedFrench, as well as Aussie, Italian and South African wines and service isfriendly but professional. Many diners appear to be locals and the relaxeddining room lends itself to spontaneous conversations between tables of friendsas well as staff.
Terry andwife Joanna are currently adding 8 guest rooms, so this humble pub thatÕs wellworth a detour will soon be able to be a destination in itself – itÕs certainlyworth the journey!
NorthernWales is much harder to describe – moss grows on EVERYTHING – the ground, therocks, the wonderful long, meandering, uneven rocky fences, the trees (not justaround the roots but half way up the tree)ÉIÕm sure itÕd grow on me if I washere long enough (which sadly I wonÕt be). ItÕs all narrow valleys and green,green, green fields, babbling brooks, rushing waterfalls and tumbling rivulets– moisture everywhere and, perhaps most noticeable of all, friendly people.Even the tourists are friendly, as if the grumpy type go elsewhere and only thereally nice ones bother seeking out this beautiful, remote corner ofBritainÉspontaneous conversations in pubs or even queues are regularoccurrences.
Palˇ Hallnear the village of Bala is a great base for a few days exploring thisextraordinarily beautiful landscape. Built in 1871 as a home for railwayengineer Henry Robertson, this Victorian country manor has loads of old worldcharm with all the necessary modern conveniences. Open fires, wonderfully highornate ceilings, carved fireplaces, luxurious fabrics, charming staff andbeautifully manicured grounds combine seamlessly with wireless internet access,fluffy towels and central heating. Dinner in the formal dining room is as muchabout the experience as anything, Welsh lamb, black beef and Caerphilly cheeseare certainly worth trying, though the Welsh wines are perhaps best left to thelocals.
The localpub, the Bryntirion Inn, built in the late 1600Õs is virtually at the HallÕsgate; full of friendly, sometimes Welsh-speaking, locals and the above-mentionedfriendly tourists, itÕs a relaxed alternative to the formality of the Hall. Themenu features basic home cooking including deep-fried goatÕs cheese withcranberry jelly (an oldie but a goodie and popular on menus throughout the UK),Welsh black beef braised in ale and served in a dauntingly large cob loaf and house-madepotato, cheese and onion pie.
Within anhourÕs drive of the hall are a number of sites, including a steam train thatruns to the peak of Snowdon – a spectacular trip past waterfalls, ruined stonebuildings and spectacular peaksÉthe energetic can even take the train to thesummit and spend a leisurely couple of hours walking back down (the insane canwalk both ways!).
Mining was amajor part of the Welsh economy until the early 1900s and two abandoned minesin the neighbourhood are open to visitors; both offer self-guided tours, completewith hardhat and torch. Visitors can clamber over 4 levels of Sygun copper minewith well sign-posted audio commentary at points along the way to explain themineÕs workings and give a glimpse into the lives of the people who workedthem. The stalactites and stalagmites are dyed a deep rusty orange from themetals in the rocks and the water in flooded levels is bright green, making ita visually beautiful tour as well as an interesting one.
The smaller Llanfairslate caverns are a less strenuous option, but also very interesting. Here boardsexplain the operations in different caverns over 2 levels, giving a lastingimpression of just how hard life was for the men women and children (as youngas 12) who hacked and blasted the stone from these caverns by candlelight forvery little pay.