In front of me are six mounds of salt types and a bottle of water. First, basic table salt: an eye-wateringly unpleasant taste. Next, rock salt: a subtler flavour. The European sea salt looks and tastes as though it could do with a good wash. And then, sparkling like freshly fallen snow in the sun, the brilliant white crystals of Halen Môn, or Anglesey sea salt.
Granted PDO (protected designation of origin) status, putting it in the same league as champagne and parma ham, Halen Môn is intensely salty. A smooth, long-lasting salty. I’m trying it as part of a guided tour and tasting at the new Saltcote and Visitor Centre (halenmon.com), a £1.25m stunner of a building on the banks of the Menai Strait, Anglesey.
The last two mounds are of vanilla salt (good for baking and with white fish, I learn) and smoked salt – some of which was sprinkled on chocolates presented to President Obama. ‘Our story started with a pan of seawater on an Aga, so we like to joke it’s travelled from farmhouse to White House,’ Alison Lea-Wilson says with a smile.
Alison and her husband David started a business growing oysters and mussels on Anglesey and then opened a sea zoo before turning their attention to salt. It was the zoo’s fussy seahorses happily breeding in these waters that made them realize how pure the seawater was.
They’ve now gone full circle and have started farming mussels once more, on the shore. But it’s salt that has put them, and Anglesey, on the culinary map. Alongside products like smoked water (famously used by Heston Blumenthal and good in a risotto, apparently), Halen Môn salt is now exported to 22 countries and sold by Waitrose, M&S and Harvey Nichols among other stockists, including sixth-generation butcher John Swain-Williams in Menai Bridge.
This pretty, pastel-painted village, linked to the mainland by Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge and the sturdy Britannia Bridge, was for years bypassed by holidaymakers heading for the pier at Beaumaris or the Irish ferries at Holyhead. Today, Beaumaris, a sailing haunt, has a faded elegance – an ice-cream parlour, Red Boat Gelato, with over 200 flavours (Penderyn whisky knocks spots off rum and raisin), but on the foodie front otherwise feels flat.
The high street in Menai Bridge, however, bustles with independent retailers including high-class chocolatier and patissier Benjamin Lee and artisan bakery Pumpkin Seed, where I bagged a loaf of bara brith and a giant Welsh egg (think Scotch egg but wrapped in pork and leek sausage and the bakery’s own breadcrumbs). Then there’s the Menai Seafood Festival, which takes place here each August, and down on the waterfront, contemporary restaurant Dylan’s dishes up local seafood straight from the creel beside picture windows onto the strait.
Another exciting new addition to the village is Stephen and Bethan Stevans’ rustic restaurant Sosban & the Old Butcher’s, the original slate from the butcher’s shop still cladding one wall.
Stephen worked for Marcus Wareing in London before heading back to his native Anglesey. Open from Wednesday to Saturday evenings, this is touted as a dining experience rather than as a traditional restaurant. There’s no menu – the eight to 12 courses are a ‘grouping of ingredients’ – and while dishes sound simple, the result is pure theatre: ‘celeriac, coffee, apple’ is a sort-of risotto, the chopped celeriac resembling rice, served under a cloche filled with smoke. ‘Bitter chocolate, passion fruit, olive oil, peanut’ is a chocolate sphere of passion fruit and peanut dissolved at the table by liquid caramel.
In the summer they’re planning to launch four suites here, turning it into a restaurant with rooms. In the meantime I’m staying in another restaurant with rooms, in Anglesey’s southwest corner. The four bedrooms and one very pink shepherd’s hut at The Outbuildings are surrounded by farmland. Anglesey was once dubbed the breadbasket of Wales, so fertile was this 276 square-mile island – there are views across to Snowdonia’s mountains and a five-mile beach at Llanddwyn is only minutes away, too.
Tucking into scallops seared in Penderyn whisky with owner ‘Bun’ (Judith) Matthews, she told me about her recently-launched gourmet supper hampers (crab lasagna, chicken and lobster pie) and plans to open a crab shack this summer in an old barn in rural Rhoscolyn on the west coast. The aim is to keep it perfectly simple: lobster pots, candlelight, fresh Anglesey crab and sundowners with a sea view.
Winding round the coast to Rhoscolyn the next day, I was also heading down memory lane. As a child I summered in a schoolfriend’s holiday cottage here, and looking at the unspoilt beach, a peppering of whitewashed cottages and dinghies sailing out in the bay, not much seemed to have changed. Though The White Eagle gastropub here was a popular haunt of Prince William and Kate when he was stationed at RAF Valley.
On my way back, I swing down a pheasant-scuttled lane to Bodior farmshop on the estate owned by the Bulmer (cider) family in Rhoscolyn. The 700-acre farm, home to native cattle and sheep and, along with a successful meat-box business, now runs a farm shop.
Later, I find Bodior lamb on the menu at The Marram Grass. A couple of likely lads from Liverpool, brothers Liam and Ellis Barrie’s cosily ramshackle café on the edge of their parents’ caravan park in Newborough vies with Sosban & the Old Butcher’s for the hottest table on the island. The atmosphere is buzzing. And while the Blues are playing in the background, the food hits a resoundingly positive note. My mackerel escabeche is a vibrant gathering of delicately oily fish with a creamily pungent garlic purée and warm beetroot. The potted turkey is a work of art: a large bowl of loose meat under a lid of butter, topped with a roasted balsamic onion, pickled heritage carrots, upended, two corners of onion ‘toast’ with cranberry gel and a dollop of tangy shallot marmalade.
For dessert: bara brith Barrie-style. Tea-poached fruit topped with creamy rice pudding, dehydrated bara brith and brown sugar jelly served with a scoop of bara brith ice cream. Deconstructed, inventive – a real surprise. The kind that makes you smile. Rather like stumbling across one of the most exciting restaurants in North Wales in a shed on the edge of a campsite.
How to do it: Double rooms at The Outbuildings cost from £75, B&B, with dinner an extra £30-35pp (theoutbuildings.co.uk). For more info on Anglesey, see visitanglesey.co.uk.
Words Lucy Gillmore
Photgraphs Alamy, Getty, Kieran Ridley
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