Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ysbeidiau Heulog

Ysbeidiau Heulog; not only one of my favourite tracks by Welsh songsters the Super Furry Animals, but also the title of this Welsh round up. It translates as 'sunny spells', rather apt as they were something we become rather used to during our lovely week in South Wales.

Brief spells of torrential rain, followed by glorious blue skies and rainbows (I must have seen half a dozen or so in just three days), it was the perfect autumnal weather for sightseeing and exploring, and far preferable to the horrible grey drizzle that soaks you to the bone and thoroughly dampens your spirits. (Although spirits of a different kind often revive and refresh should you find yourself in these situations.)

Reminiscences about the weather aside we were here for some good eats and what better place to start than Swansea Indoor Market. I still vividly remember being taken here while visiting a friend in Swansea a decade ago. Although we had plenty of fun trying on bad polyester wigs and over-sized housecoats, the thing that really stands out in my mind were the stalls selling warm Welsh cakes.

Luckily the sugar-crusted, raisin-studded little drop scones are still sold across the market and, of course, we couldn't leave without trying a few for ourselves. On this visit we bought two paper bags full of the hot puffy cakes, sprinkled with crunchy caster sugar; one to eat while we stood there, and another to take home. Delightful, and just as good when enjoyed with a cup of Welsh Brew later, too.

Two more legendary Swansea delicacies are the humble cockles and laverbread that can be found all through the town, including at the famous Carol Watts, who's stall is situated at the rotunda in the centre of the market. The tiny, sweet shellfish have been harvested at Penclawdd on the Gower since Roman times. While the sinister-looking, black-green seaweed is an integral part of a Welsh breakfast when fried into cakes with oatmeal and bacon.

I used to relish trips to Watford (not quite as glam), with my aunt Celine when I was a small child as it meant small, sweet pink prawns and gritty little cockles from the fish stall in the market. A pot of these little grey and orange bivalves took me straight back to my youth. Doused in malt vinegar and white pepper I was in my element chomping through the little nuggets of fishy goodness.

The laverbread was a somewhat different matter; The Ewing gamely bought a bag to try, but it sadly remained in the fridge of our lodge until it was, rather unceremoniously, dumped on the morning of our departure. Never mind, there's always next time.

Faggots, chips and peas at the King's Arms in Abergavenny.  Faggots (caul-wrapped meatballs made from pig's heart, liver and pork belly or bacon, minced together with herbs and breadcrumbs) may not be as commonly available as they once were, but they're certainly still very popular in Mid-Wales. We saw homemade trays of them everywhere; from market stalls to butcher's shops, to here on a pub lunch menu.

They were glorious; forget about the unfortunate name and the unmentionable contents (probably no more scary than an average sausage) this is exactly the sort of thing we should be eating more of. Simple grub that uses everything but the oink and tastes bloody good. The faggots were piping hot,  juicy and nicely flavoured with sage, gravy was proper, spoon-standing up in stuff, the chips gloriously crisp on the outside, sticky and fluffy within; and all this for a fiver. Although they sadly don't seem to brew their own beer any more, a pint of Iron Brew washed things down nicely.

Another day, another dinner. This time my quest for deliciousness was incorporated into a morning visit to Carreg Cennen, once of the only privately-owned castles remaining in Wales. Although the castle up keep is undertaken by Cadw, Wales' equivalent to English Heritage, the farm is still run by the Morris family and includes a tea shop selling their homemade meals and cakes. The real raison d'être for my visit.  Here they take longhorn beef, reared in the fields around the castle, and use it in salads, sandwiches and a fabulous sounding cottage pie that I was determined to make my lunch.

Unfortunately The Ewing had the same idea, and as there was only one portion prepared there was an excruciating twenty minute wait, with wonderful beefy smells floating up to the upstairs seating area where we were enjoying a cuppa, before the second portion was ready to eat. It was all worth it in the end though. This was a 'proper' pie, deeply savoury, full flavoured meat and gravy, sweet carrots and onion, and all topped with a burnished lid of creamy potato. The whole thing went rather nicely with a bottle of Tomos Watkins Cwrw Haf summer ale. The perfect food to fuel a walk up the hill to the castle.

Of course, it wouldn't be a holiday with out some judicious sampling of the local ales. Tomos Watkins beers, as seen above, are brewed in Swansea and seemed to pop up every where we went. We enjoyed, amongst others, a few bottles of their sweet and hoppy Magic Lagyr with a curry on our first night there. A lovely match with spicy lamb biryani and dhal.
Brains beers, from Cardiff, were also pretty ubiquitous. Their flagship 'Skull Attack' is a nice, malty bitter when supped moderation (it didn't get its nickname for nothing), while the Reverend James (previously brewed by Buckley's) made a fine drop to accompany a roast dinner of local beef and 'Welsh' pudding.
Finally, making the most of some fine weather during our trip to Hay on Wye, we enjoyed a few pints of Wye Bitter and Butty Bach in the pub garden. Based just over the border, in Hereford, their beers were the perfect refreshmnt for a sunny afternoon, slightly peppery with a balanced and slightly floral finish. 
Moving on to the hard stuff; we spent an very enjoyable morning Whisky tasting at the Pendryn Distillery, the only whisky distillers in Wales. Our guide, Alan, gave us a great tour (its location, in the Fforset Fawr National Park, means Penderyn has its own spring to draw water from as well as a unique single copper still that is all one level, as so not to spoil the landscape), before letting us sample some of the goods.
Having had some bad whisky-related moments in the past, I was a little dubious, but I really enjoyed it (and not just because it involved getting pissed before lunchtime). The peated version tasted a little too much like iodine and smoke for my tastes, but I loved the toffee and raisin notes in the portwood and sherrywood versions.

They also make a (very good) Brecon gin and a five times distilled vodka, which they also use for their Merlyn cream liqueur and chocolate truffles. Of course it would have been rude not to bring home a couple of bottles to sample.
Birthday buns. These came courtesy of Hay on Wye baker Alex Gooch. We had bought them the day before, as well as a nicely charred ciabatta and a dense, nutty spelt loaf, from his charming father who runs a stall at the Hay farmer's market. As good as the bread was, they paled in comparison to these plump and sticky beauties. Heavy with fruit and spice, and with the welcoming bitter note of black treacle and the crunch of sugar on top, these celebratory morsels made a very fine start to my day and end to our fabulous Welsh adventures. Mwynhewch eich bwyd!

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