Foodie road trip in south-west Wales
The crab sandwiches are as good as they ever were in this corner of the country but coal miners’ coffee, mountain-roaming mutton, samphire-infused gin and cockle chowder are joining them on the local food map
Looking for restaurants in Wales? Want to know where to eat in St David’s? Food and travel writer Suzy Bennett takes us on a foodie road trip through south-west Wales, stopping off at 17th-century hotels, artisan coffee roasters and craft gin distilleries.
For a moment, I could be in Williamsburg. Behind a marble-topped espresso bar, a barista nods to a bassy house track as his customer savours a single-origin Chemex-brewed coffee. Amid reclaimed furniture, copper lighting and exposed piping there’s a wood-fired pizza oven, communal dining table and hessian bags bulging with coffee beans hailing from exotic lands. It’s only the barista’s accent that reminds me I’m not in New York but in a shed on an industrial estate in south-west Wales.
By owner Scott James’s own admission, Ammanford, in Carmarthenshire, is perhaps the least likely place in the UK to find an artisanal coffee roastery and canteen. A former mining community where the final pit closed in 2003, Ammanford has an unemployment problem, and a high street where only pound shops, charity stores and betting shops remain. If I hadn’t been tipped off, I’d have driven straight through it, pushing on to the tourist honey pots of Pembrokeshire in the west. But Scott’s business, Coaltown Coffee Roasters, is a vibrant enterprise where the customer is as likely to be an 80-year-old former coal miner as a hipster.
Born into a local mining family, Scott was just 19 when he started roasting coffee in his father’s garage. Buoyed by the popularity of his coffee subscription boxes, he opened a small café on Ammanford’s high street, then upsized in November, aged 25, to launch an open-plan roastery, espresso bar and canteen in a warehouse backing on to the coal-train railway on the edge of town. It might have been safer to launch his venture in an area with a well-established café culture but Scott wants to breathe life back into his community.
“I’m a home boy. I love my town and didn’t want to move away,” he tells me. “When the mines closed, the town lost its purpose. I want to bring industry back to Ammanford, to show that there’s no need to move to the city, that you can do something special in your own town.”
Scott employs 28 people from local mining families and plans to create more jobs by opening cafés in other ex-mining communities. His fairtrade coffee is sold in Selfridges and the Houses of Parliament.
His roastery has become a must-visit destination on Wales’s foodie map, attracting coffee lovers who come to sample the brews, watch the roasting process and join home barista courses. “Coffee is Ammanford’s new black gold,” Scott says, playing on the monikers for coal and coffee. His team is currently restoring a 1958 cast-iron Probat roaster the size of a car. When it’s complete, Coaltown will process four tonnes of coffee every day.
Further west, in Pembrokeshire, I visit another fledging business. When Sherill Evans gave up her job as an academic researcher to become a Thai reflexology practitioner, she decided to save money on foot scrubs by making her own salt: boiling seawater from her local beach. Soon after, in a serendipitous twist, she met boyfriend Josh Wright, who happened to be a mineral expert, and the Pembrokeshire Sea Salt Company was born.
Operating from a small unit in their garden near Dinas Cross, the couple collect seawater in buckets, filter it, then heat it to crystallise it into salt. The USP of their salt is that it forms in perfect pyramids, a result of letting the crystals develop individually, rather than en masse. “Chefs love using them as a garnish,” Sherill tells me, snapping a sharp-edged pyramid between her fingers. “And they have the perfect crunch.” I leave with a pot of salted caramel sauce so buttery that it doesn’t survive the day, and a pack of flavoured salts: black truffle salt for mashed potatoes, saffron for fish and wild garlic for Welsh lamb.
My next stop is St David’s Kitchen, near St David’s Cathedral, run by the Walshes, an eighth-generation farming family. Headed by Neil Walsh, the kitchen serves meat from the family’s pedigree Welsh cattle, which graze on 60 acres of heathland all summer, and from Welsh mountain sheep provided exclusively to the restaurant from Ramsey Island RSPB reserve. Meat dishes include mutton with roast onion purée, cider carrots and buttered savoy cabbage, and a duo of St David’s Welsh beef fillet served with beetroot purée, mushroom, Little Gem and truffle mash. On sunny days, Neil can be found foraging on Ramsey Island for water mint and bell heather for his latest venture: a range of Welsh dry gins, created in craft distillery In the Welsh Wind, in nearby Aberteifi.
Set in a converted barn amid wildflower meadows, In the Welsh Wind is run by Alex Jungmayr and Ellen Wakelam as a ‘white label’ distillery, producing small batches of bespoke gins for companies and events. Its most recent commission is a Maltese gin made with prickly pear and pomegranate. The distillery is a glamorous yet cosy space, with exposed stone walls, shiny copper stills, a log burner and oak wine barrels brimful of juniper and dried orange peel.
I am treated to a gin-making lesson with tutor Will Suiter, selecting samphire, laver, grapefruit peel and dandelion root from a dizzying array of exotic and locally foraged botanicals to produce a bottle of Welsh-style gin to take away with me. As the spirit drips gently out of the still, we dip our fingertips under the tap to sample the flavours: first come lighter notes of grapefruit, lemon and dandelion, then spicy, earthy flavours of coriander, orris root and aniseed.
I’m staying at The Grove, a 17th-century hotel near two of Pembrokeshire’s prettiest and most prosperous towns: Narberth and Tenby. Headed by Allister Barsby (previously of Gidleigh Park in Devon) the restaurant serves some of the most accomplished and imaginative dishes in the region. A loyal supporter of local producers, Allister uses heather-scented Coedcanlas honey in his pastries, Welsh goat’s cheeses, foraged foods, hand-dived Tenby scallops, and herbs and vegetables from the hotel’s kitchen garden. Highlights on the eight-course tasting menu include diced cured salmon, punctuated by hillocks of home-smoked mussel emulsion and tiny orbs of caviar; a rose-pink fillet of Welsh beef with frilly, pan-fried king oyster mushrooms and kale from the kitchen garden; and a rich chocolate delice with a creamy peanut ice cream and crunchy caramelised banana popcorn.
For those seeking a more secluded base, Nantwen is an airy, wood-beamed holiday cottage for two near Newport. Run by foodies Daniel and Jemma Slade-Davies, it comes with a generous welcome hamper that serves as a gourmet armchair tour of south Wales: a packet of Coaltown coffee, a jar of fruit-packed Coedcanlas Welsh raspberry preserve, Welsh cakes and a pot of Pembrokeshire Sea Salt for cooking while at the cottage.
The next morning, I’m coastward bound. Charlie Langrick and his partner Claire Pepperell took over the tenancy of National Trust-owned farm and YHA hostel Runwayskiln in 2018 and converted the former piggery into a lively café, with 100 outdoor seats that give way to extraordinary views of Marloes Sands and Skokholm Island. On the menu is a hearty cockle, bacon and brown-ale chowder; plump Gower mussels; grilled mackerel with beetroot butter; classic Pembrokeshire crab sandwiches; chunky seafood stews; and – the star of the show – spiced cauliflower and onion pakoras. Charlie and Claire source bread from Farm Cottage Bakery in Haverfordwest, lobster and crab from Solva, sausages from Trehale Farm (a rare-breed pig farm that runs regular community events and food festivals) and Gethin’s Pembrokeshire Cyder.
Across the Milford Haven waterway, in Freshwater West, Café Môr is a converted fishing boat that serves coastal-inspired street food (fresh fish, and burgers flavoured with beach-foraged laver) plus a range of products including seaweed butter (delicious drizzled over lobster), laver caviar for scattering over chowders, kelp ketchup, samphire mayonnaise and a warming laver-infused spiced rum.
My final visit is to Cwlbox, a converted vintage horsebox café that sits directly on Saundersfoot beach. I arrive hoping to try the fabled cockle popcorn – the cockles pop when they are deep-fried – but the cockle collector is off today. So instead I opt for a box of crispy squid served with chips and salad.
Sitting on the sand, I wrap myself in a blanket, raise my face to the sun and dip the succulent beer-battered hoops into a dollop of silky homemade mayonnaise. It is a deliciously British experience.
Words and photographs by Suzy Bennett, April 2019
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