Welsh rare bites

Abergavenny's food festival is nearly upon us. Caroline Stacey anticipates a gourmet's heaven
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The Independent Travel

If - and I admit it's a fairly big if - the journey goes smoothly, travelling by train to Abergavenny for a weekend beats crawling there by car. From southern England you change at Newport and chug up the valley to the point where industrial South Wales gives way to the more prosperous and pastoral part. Abergavenny is blessed with everything a self-possessed market town should have; antique and second-hand bookshops, a Georgian coaching inn, a Norman castle and Victorian market hall, all strategically and picturesquely corralled by the River Usk and the Sugar Loaf and Skirrid mountains.

If - and I admit it's a fairly big if - the journey goes smoothly, travelling by train to Abergavenny for a weekend beats crawling there by car. From southern England you change at Newport and chug up the valley to the point where industrial South Wales gives way to the more prosperous and pastoral part. Abergavenny is blessed with everything a self-possessed market town should have; antique and second-hand bookshops, a Georgian coaching inn, a Norman castle and Victorian market hall, all strategically and picturesquely corralled by the River Usk and the Sugar Loaf and Skirrid mountains.

But at the annual food festival (which takes place next weekend), the temptation to buy up local bounty is so overwhelming that it's impossible not to end up with more groceries and goodies than you can cram in the luggage rack. This year I'm taking the car with a cold bag ready in the boot.

The festival, the edible equivalent of nearby Hay-on-Wye's yearly literary jamboree, last year won the Greatest Event in Wales award from the Wales Tourist Board. The host town has become the epicentre of the seismic changes to eating, drinking and sleeping that have taken place over the past few years at surrounding gastro-pubs and hotels.

Gliffaes Hotel, an Italianate Victorian country house on the Usk, is just a cab ride away, as is Alt-yr-Ynys - a 16th-century manor house in lovely grounds by the River Monnow, with bedrooms in converted stables. The Walnut Tree Inn, owned for more than 30 years by Ann and Franco Taruschio, although it now has new owners, first established Abergavenny as a magnet for gourmets.

What was Elizabeth David's favourite restaurant has been joined by several others with as good a reputation, including The Newbridge further down the Usk at Tredunnock, The Foxhunter at Nant-y-Derry and The Bell at Skenfrith. All are good enough reasons to visit the area - never mind the walks and castles.

Over the weekend the festival draws together the chefs, authors, farmers and food producers who have made this part of the Welsh borders such an appetising destination. Then it stirs in artists, writers and celebrity chefs for a weekend dedicated to feasting, tasting, debating and creating food. The streets are thronged with people sniffing, tasting, buying and discussing it, with a sprinkling of celebrities mingling with the crowds. Last year Rick Stein was at the festival with film crew in tow, and was having no difficulty finding local food heroes to feature in his television series. The author Jonathan Meades braved the cloud cover and a curious public in his trademark sunglasses.

This year's festival has lured Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elisabeth Luard and John Burton Race. The Independent Magazine's cookery columnist and chef, director of The Ivy group of restaurants, Mark Hix, is conducting a wild mushroom masterclass. The Independent's wine writer Anthony Rose will also be holding a charity tasting of old- and new- world wines. By popular demand from range cooker owners, Amy Willcock is back for a second year offering her brand of Aga can-do advice and expertise. Honey, chocolate, coffee, bread-baking, ice cream-making, mushroom gathering, butchery, food photography and ecology are all on the agenda - make that menu.

The Market Hall is the vibrant, aromatic, tactile and lip-licking heart of the festival. Under its glass roof, festooned with banners and bunting, stalls are heaped with good things to eat right there and then. In a pan so vast it could moonlight as a satellite dish, saffron-yellow and prawn-pink paella is cooking. Not exactly local produce perhaps, but delicious proof that fast food needn't be junk, and that there's nothing exclusive about eating well. There are queues for the paella, but it has hot competition from organic beef burgers and South East Asian stir fries. Behind all this activity, the outdoor farmers' market is where the dedicated small producers sell their vegetables, Welsh black beef, apple juices and cider, honey, cheeses and fresh trout - the raw ingredients that underpin the food revolution.

When the Market Hall becomes too crowded to wield a pair of chopsticks or swing a bag of locally grown apples, there's breathing and eating space over in the castle grounds. Children can run around and roll down the grassy ramparts when they've tried their hand at cooking, plate painting, ice carving or eating apples peeled with an ingenious device by a craftsman with an engaging patter and a sideline in intricately carved wooden whistles.

Unlike most ruined castles round here - and there are more of these than you can shake a walking stick at - this one has a keep intact enough to house the museum of local history. Among the usual banal, funny and fascinating jumble of exhibits - no interactive or audio visual jiggery-pokery here - there's the inside of Basil Jones's 1950s grocer's shop that has been moved lock, stock and tea caddies. The foodies milling around outside may lament the loss of orchards and the grotesque practices of factory food production that characterise modern agriculture, but round these parts organic farmers like Colin and Daphne Gardiner, (who champion rare apple varieties and turn them into juice) and the makers of buffalo milk ice cream are redressing the balance with artisan alternatives.

Despite the nostalgic charm of the old grocery packaging, just step outside the castle keep again to contrast how much good fresh produce is available now.

You can pick up smoked salmon, cheeses, garlic, anything that can be smoked, in fact, at the Minola Smokery shop on the edge of town. Back in the the Market Hall where the schoolchildren's banners still flutter between festivals, you can find crafts and produce. In Frogmore Street, Vin Sullivan is a peerless deli, fishmonger and game shop. All those olives, oils and salamis wouldn't look out of place in a fancy London food hall. Eating a punnet of their cockles as you saunter up the hill shows that Abergavenny can still lick most small towns in a street-food contest.

We spent so long mooching that (unlike the people at the next table at The Bell at Skenfrith who'd done the Three Castles Walk) we had no justification for an indulgent dinner. This inn has been done up with luxurious simplicity. Beside a bed billowing with white linen is a jar of home-made cookies. The local sharing a sofa in the bar might look like a young farmer, but he's picked up a copy of World of Interiors from the coffee table to flick through while he finishes his pint of Freeminer, an ale brewed in the Forest of Dean. It's this gastro-pub that has put the 19-mile hike between Skenfrith, Grosmont and White Castle (cyclists can extend the triangular trip by including Abergavenny Castle) on the sybarite's radar. Right on the River Monnow, Skenfrith is so small and unmarked by anything modern, that the short walk round the castle, the WI-like bric-a-brac and cake shop and churchyard doesn't qualify as appetite-sharpening. Not that anyone would have guessed from the way we demolished a sirloin steak of Welsh black beef, hand-cut chips as thick as a butcher's finger and as golden as straw, and bearnaise sauce and the plate of local cheeses including Hereford Hop.

I'm ashamed to say that the next day we drove to the hillside village of Grosmont - bigger but just as unspoilt as Skenfrith - and only managed to pant up one higher hill behind an extended family group, including uncomplaining teenagers, to admire a glorious view to the castle (ruined, Norman, naturally). By the time we'd descended through a wood, a lake of cow-related sludge and past an abandoned looking farmhouse with a stream splashing through the garden (please let no one turn it into a holiday home) we must have covered almost five miles. I think we deserved lunch at The Walnut Tree after that, don't you?

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

The Abergavenny Food Festival takes place this year on 18 and 19 September (10am-5pm). Day tickets cost £3 per adult and £7.50 for a family of four. Weekend tickets cost £5 per adult and £12 for families.

For bookings, call 01873 850805. For more information about the festival call 01873 851643; or visit www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com

GETTING THERE

Abergavenny is on the Cardiff to Manchester railway line. For connections from London Paddington, Bristol and elsewhere in southern and south-west England change at Newport. For more information contact National Rail Enquiries (08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

The popularity of the Food Festival means great demand for accommodation. At the time of going to press, the establishments listed had only limited availability.

* Alt-yr-Ynys Country House Hotel, Walterstone, near Abergavenny (01873 890 307; www.allthotel.co.uk), has rooms from £125 per night including breakfast.

* Gliffaes Hotel, Crickhowell (01874 730 371; www.gliffaeshotel.com) has rooms from £65 per night including breakfast.

EATING THERE

The Walnut Tree Inn, near Abergavenny (01873 852797);

The Newbridge, Tredunnock (01633 451000);

The Foxhunter, Nantyderry (01873 881101);

The Bell Inn, Skenfrith (01600 750 235).

MORE INFORMATION

Abergavenny Tourist Information Centre, Swan Meadow, Cross Street, Abergavenny (01873 857588; www.abergavenny.co.uk) and Monmouthshire Tourism (01600 713899; www.visitwyevalley.com)

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