Eating and drinking in Wales
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Wales is now home to some truly world-class food festivals, restaurants, farmers’ markets and producers – part of the general renaissance of British cuisine combined with an increasing focus on fresh local produce. The country’s natural larder includes freshly caught fish, tender local lamb and a smorgasbord of cheeses. These staple ingredients are used in everything from traditional dishes to fusion creations in some of the cities’ most cosmopolitan restaurants.
Wales still has thousands of cafés, restaurants and pubs where you get chips with everything and a salad means a bit of wilted lettuce and a few segments of fridge-cold tomato, but it is increasingly rare to find a town where you can’t find good food. Native Welsh cuisine is frequently rooted in economical ingredients, but an increasing number of menus make superb use of traditional fare, such as salt-marsh lamb (best served minted or with thyme or rosemary), wonderful Welsh black beef, fresh salmon and sewin (sea trout), frequently combined with the national vegetable, the leek. Specialities include laver bread (bara lawr), edible seaweed often mixed with oats then fried with a traditional breakfast of pork sausages, egg and bacon. Other dishes well worth investigating include Glamorgan sausages (a spiced vegetarian combination of Caerphilly cheese, breadcrumbs and leeks), cawl (a chunky mutton broth), and cockles, trawled from the estuary north of the Gower.
The best-known of Wales’ famed cheeses is Caerphilly, a soft, crumbly, white cheese that forms the basis of a true Welsh rarebit when mixed with beer and toasted on bread. Creamy goat’s cheeses can be found all over the country, such as the superb Cothi Valley goat’s cheese, as well as delicacies like organic Per Las blue cheese, and Collier’s mature cheddar.
Other dairy products include ice cream, which, despite the climate, is exceptionally popular, with numerous companies creating home-made ices such as the Swansea area’s Joe’s Ice Cream or north Wales’ Cadwaladr’s.
Two traditional cakes are almost universal. Welsh cakes are flat, crumbling pancakes of sugared dough (a little like a flattened scone), while bara brith, a popular accompaniment to afternoon tea, literally translates as “speckled (with dried fruit) bread”.
Menus featuring Welsh dishes can be found in numerous restaurants, hotels and pubs, many of which are part of Wales the True Taste (Cymru y Gwir Flas;
wwalesthetruetaste.com), a government scheme to encourage local cuisine. Such establishments generally display a sticker in their windows.
Where to eat
If you’re staying in a hotel, guesthouse or B&B, a hearty cooked breakfast (generally served 8–9am) will usually be offered as part of the deal, and may see you through the day. Evening meals are served from 6 to 10pm, though in rural areas, especially early in the week, you may find it difficult to get served after 8.30pm.
Cafés and tearooms (the terms are used pretty much interchangeably) can be found absolutely everywhere, and are generally the cheapest places to eat, providing hearty, cholesterol-laden breakfasts, a solid range of snacks and full meals for lunch (and occasionally, evening meals). Wales’ steady influx of New Agers has seen the cheap and usually vegetarian wholefood café become a standard feature of many mid- and west Welsh towns. Throughout the land, cafés and restaurants are also increasingly equipped with espresso machines, though barista competence levels are low.
Food in pubs varies as much as the establishments themselves. Competition has seen mediocre places sharpen up their act, and many pubs now offer more imaginative dishes than microwaved lasagne and chips. Most serve food at lunchtime and in the evening (usually until 8.30 or 9pm), and in many towns, the local pub is the most economical place (and, in smaller towns, sometimes the only place) to grab a filling evening meal. Relatively few Welsh hostelries have done the full gastropub conversion, but the standards in some pubs can now be very high.
Such places, along with bistros and restaurants, sport menus which rely extensively on fresh local produce. They can often tell you which farm the beef came from, and in coastal areas the chef may even know the fisherman.
The Cardiff brewery Brains has recently been buying up pubs around the country and smartening them up (cheap food, good beer and comfortable surroundings), but often robbing them of much individuality in the process.
People of all nationalities call Wales home and few towns of any size are without Indian or Chinese restaurants, though the likes of Japanese, French, Thai, American, Mexican and Belgian are limited to the more cosmopolitan centres.
Our restaurant listings include a mix of high-quality and good-value establishments, but if you’re intent on a culinary pilgrimage, you’d do well to arm yourself with a copy of the annual Good Food Guide (Which? Publications), which includes detailed recommendations. Throughout this guide, we’ve supplied the phone number for all restaurants where you may need to book a table. In pubs and cafés you can expect to pay £6–10 for a main course, closer to £15 in good restaurants and around £20 in the very best places.
As elsewhere in Britain, daytime cafés are not usually licensed to sell alcohol, and though restaurants invariably are, pubs remain the centre of social activity. The legal drinking age is 18, though an adult can order alcohol for someone aged 16 or 17 who is dining. Some places offer special family rooms for people with children, and beer gardens where younger kids can run free.
Welsh pubs vary as much as the landscape, from opulent Edwardian palaces of smoked glass, gleaming brass and polished mahogany in the larger towns and cities, to thick-set stone barns in wild, remote countryside. Where the church has faltered as a community focal point, the pub often still holds sway, with those in smaller towns and villages, in particular, functioning as community centres as much as places in which to drink alcohol. Live music – and, this being Wales, singing – frequently round off an evening. As a rule of thumb, if a pub has both a bar and a lounge, the bar will be more basic and frequently very male-dominated, while the lounge will tend to be plusher, more mixed and probably a better bet for a passing visitor.
Opening times vary but typically are Monday to Saturday 11am to 11pm, Sunday noon to 10.30pm (with many quieter places closed between 3 and 6pm, particularly throughout the week), with “last orders” called by the bar staff about fifteen minutes before closing time. Liberalization of licensing laws has allowed pubs to stay open later, but with the exception of city centres most places stick close to the standard hours.
What to drink
Beer, sold by the pint (generally £2.60–3.20) and half pint (half the price), is the staple drink in Wales, as it is throughout the British Isles. Traditionalists drink real ale, an uncarbonated beer, usually hand-pumped from the cellar but sometimes served straight from the cask; it comes in many varieties (some seasonal), including the almost ubiquitous deep-flavoured bitter, but sometimes mild, or dark as it is often known in Wales. Lager, which corresponds with European and American ideas of beer, is also stocked everywhere. Also quite common Is the sweeter and darker porter. Irish stout (Guinness, Murphy’s or Beamish) is widely available.
Among beers worth looking out for are the heady brews produced by Cardiff-based Brains, mainly found in the southeastern corner of Wales. Llanelli-based Felinfoel covers the whole southern half of Wales, with Double Dragon Premium bitter the aromatic ace in their pack. Crown Buckley, also based in Llanelli but owned by Brains, produces three excellent bitters and a distinctive mild.
Newer brews, such as Otley from Pontypridd, Evan Evans from Llandeilo and Purple Moose from Porthmadog, have won numerous awards.
Many pubs are owned by large, UK-wide breweries who sell only their own products, so if you are interested in seeking out distinctive brews, choose your pub carefully. The best resource for any serious hophead is the annual Good Beer Guide produced by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale; wcamra.org.uk): if you see a recent CAMRA sticker in a pub window, chances are the beer will be well worth sampling.
As in other Celtic regions, cider has a huge following; look out for Orchard Gold (a traditional farmhouse apple cider) and Perry Vale (pear cider), both made by the Welsh Cider and Perry Company (Gwynt y Ddraig).
Pubs and off-licences (liquor stores) increasingly stock a growing range of Welsh spirits, such as Merlyn (cream liquor, similar to Baileys), Taffoc (toffee spirit), Five (vodka) and Penderyn (single malt whisky). There are also a number of Welsh wines, though you rarely see these offered on restaurant wine lists. Wines sold in pubs have improved considerably in recent years, although the best world selections tend to be found in the places serving good food.
Few restaurants have a good selection of wines by the glass, generally offering little more than a house white and a house red.