Take a walk in the Brecon Beacons
Foodies are taking to the Welsh hills to follow a tasty trail of home-grown produce and gently reared meat. Kieran Falconer burns off the calories in the Brecon Beacons
Sunday 20 July 2008
My dinner at Peterstone Court Hotel finishes with clotted-cream ice cream and a summer pudding of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. I'm in the heart of the Brecon Beacons. The milk chocolate brown humps I can see from my window are interleaved with valleys of lush pasture. I hear that the fruit in my dessert is all local.
The next day I find the origin of my berries, Primrose Farm near Felindre, where Dr Paul Benham immediately invites me to pick from a bush dripping in raspberries. Benham arrived here 22 years ago having fled conventional farming to work in ecology. Eventually, he bought 1.5 acres, which now boast £20,000 of organic produce a year.
For such a tiny plot it's incredibly biodiverse. One half-acre alone contains 95 varieties of fruit and nut trees. Benham makes a very strong economic argument for organic farming and tells me he regularly undercuts supermarkets with comparable non-organic produce. The only flicker to disturb his pacific nature concerns factory farming, their huge subsidies and high carbon emissions.
But the overall feeling when walking around is of immense fruitfulness. "The land is so generous if we treat it with respect," says Benham. "I think we've been good to the earth, so I like to think that the earth is good to us." Trees are laden with plums; green waves of salads grow in abundance; polytunnels are stuffed with peppers, aubergines and tomatoes. And as to the most urgent gardening question of the day? "Well, our chatty ducks and mistlethrush get rid of the slugs."
This little foray into the wild has been organised by Oyster Active, a young company run by Mike Clay, which specialises in mountain biking and all things outdoorsy. He has now added foodie rambles to the list and has put together a route of a few days in the Beacons visiting some interesting producers interspersed with short walks to burn off the tastings.
After the fruit and veg of Primrose Farm, I take a stunning walk among the heather on what is known as the Iron Mountain Trail. Blaenavon is a world heritage site due to its important role in the Industrial Revolution. The iron and coal mines here were the world's biggest producer in the 19th century, but now the buildings are rubble overgrown with brambles; the slag heaps are hills slowly greening and the air is pure. The walk on the slopes of the fantastically named Blorenge (neither blue nor orange) overlooks the Black Mountains, including their own Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain.
To help to replace lost fuel I head off for a nibble at the Blaenavon Cheddar Company. Run from a small shop among Blaenavon's quiet streets, it belies intense industry. There are at least eight cheeses on offer, ranging from goat's cheese with lavender (yuck), to fruitcake cheese (lovely), to good old-fashioned cheddar that has been matured 300ft below in the shaft of the Big Pit coal-mining museum. All are hand made and hand waxed by "cheese designer" Susan Fiander-Woodhouse.
The next day, bright and early, I walk the Vale of Ewyas, a perfectly U-shaped glacial valley where the bare, ruined choirs of Llanthony Priory are stark against the sky. I could have walked the ridge of Hatterall Hill, which is on the border of England and Wales. "On one side it's completely flat," says Clay, "and on the other it's mountains and Wales." But I elect to go the lazy, short route and pass through pasture, over stiles and after an hour or so drop to Maes-y-Beran Farm.
This is where I meet a pixie called Birgit Reheusser. She is tiny. Originally from a village in Bavaria, she is passionate about her 60-acre organic farm which she runs with her partner Mark Morgan. They have a herd of 200 Welsh mountain sheep that are kept out through the winter and are a tough breed with the meat flavoured by the herbs they eat. Their Red Devon (Ruby Reds) cattle are a breed that was known to the Celts before the Romans arrived. They have a very high heat tolerance (not needed) and a thick waterproof coat (needed very much). They are tough and docile and it's not often you can pat a bull (Boris) with impunity.
Reheusser, with the help of a buoyant collie, Bron, shows me part of the two miles of hedgerow that they've planted. Several ponds and meadows are given over to wild flowers; the result has been an increase in owls, otters, bats and red kites.
It is my final meal in the valleys and Reheusser serves up some of their own beef with home-grown veg. It might be just the setting, but it tastes like home-cooked food used to taste before we discovered lemongrass. For a touch of Bavaria there's an apple and cinnamon cake and then it's back on the M4 and reviving those ideas of starting my own organic patch.
How to get there
Oyster Active (07775 904451; oysteractive.com) offers the gourmet Brecon Weekend from £385 per person, including two nights at Peterstone Court Hotel, fully guided walks, visits to local producers and all food.
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