Celtic comforts

Fear not the back of beyond
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The Independent Culture
Wales has never been the place for super de luxe eating. George "Lavengro" Borrow noted its goats, but beyond the odd dish of laver bread (which isn't bread, but seaweed), who gets further into Welsh food than Glamorgan sausages - which aren't sausages either, but cheese and breadcrumbs?

Maybe it's Chapel and the hard life that provoke bacon, tea and homely soups in preference to a la mode fripperies. But as Wales has shifted its economy from heavy industry to electronics and Laura Ashley, so the horizons of its diners have extended to the world beyond the mountains.

In part, it's the English. Wales is cheap for searchers after the simple life. As prices soared in Devon and Norfolk, so Pembroke and Powys beckoned. Soon, streets resounded to the tramp of sandals, and hills to the bleat of English sheep. Welsh hotels were cheaper and finer than a b&b on the South coast, so along with the teepees, potters and poets came cooks and caterers. It is not they alone who have made Wales the surprise, but they have had a hand in its transformation.

What anyone would see in Llanwrtyd Wells - given the chance of Salcombe or Aldeburgh - is difficult to pin down. Victorians flocked to its healing springs, and Bartholomew's Gazetteer then thought it "a pleasant little watering-place, surrounded by fine scenery". Signs of past elegance are not plentiful, though golf balls have been ploughed up where once there were fairways for gouty Edwardians. One of the more substantial, if not graceful, houses is the Carlton House Hotel, run by Alan and Mary Ann Gilchrist. Apart from the scenery (if the mist lifts long enough to scan it), and the excitement of red kites in their natural habitat (trips arranged by the Red Kite Centre), this is the biggest reason for visiting. The Gilchrists are exiles, but content - "no one could be more welcoming," they say.

They came by way of a pub in Northants and a hotel in south Devon. Then, Mary Ann's style was thought "solid, homely and genuine". After eight years, those epithets fit no longer, but might rather be: ingenious, inventive and capable.

Ingenuity is sometimes boosted by preserving and freezing. The nearest decent supermarket is in Hereford. Fish comes from Birmingham (market, not trawlers). Summer is a late arrival, and the primeurs beloved of Anglo- French chefs are hard won. Inventive means keeping abreast of trends in the far southeast. This may induce a yawn of deja-vu from tired Londoners, but better a lively Thai dressing than ethnic Celtic cuisine, if the latter choice runs risks of disaster.

Life at Carlton House follows the valetudinarian routine of British country catering: late rising, walks or lazy drives in daylight hours, stuffing yourself on return to base. Lunch is not recognised. Chef slaves all day for her moment at 7pm. Host is Alan Gilchrist, who buttles with gentle serenity, his girth testimony to his spouse's abilities. Wind-blown you may be, but every sinew strains to warm and settle you down in a house that seems designed for indoor living: more plants in pots than an aspidistra factory, dark furniture, darker walls, high heat and a firm sense of nursery enclosure.

The daily tables d'hote are that British blend of clever ideas with root crops (Mrs Gilchrist must hold a prize for 50 ways with parsnips), prime cuts of meat, slavering puddings, plus cheese and savouries for the traditionally minded, cut with happy imports of Thai, Asian and Italian flavours. It may be an intellectual mishmash, but the prawn salad with mixed leaves and dill is more refined and accurate than any in Scandinavia, and asparagus with shaved Parmesan and balsamic has edge and balance, too.

The time-honoured, despairing cycle of beef, lamb, chicken and duck has been helped by farming strategies delivering venison, partridge (and soon ostrich?) all year round. They may lack intensity, but variety counts after your 33rd steak of a holiday. Mary Ann gives farmed venison a kick with a bramble sauce that shows spot-on taste buds for working out sweet acidity; the mashed parsnip may be upstaged by an East-West dish of duck with honey, soy, ginger, rice noodles and stir-fried greens.

Puddings are the keystone of country meals: sticky toffee, pavlovas, flummeries and their own ice-creams. It's amazing how much we can put away when forced. No wonder lunch is off limits.

In 1964, I was marooned in west Wales on a Sunday. I drove to England for a meal. This year, I would not need to be so extreme

Tom Jaine is an ex-editor of the 'Good Food Guide'

Carlton House, Dolycoed Road, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys LD5 4SN (01591-610248). Open Mon-Sat 7-8.30pm, booking essential. pounds 25- pounds 30. Access, Visa