As great as a gastronomic weekend in Abergavenny, the gateway to the Brecon Beacons, sounds, I won’t lie – ours does not get off to the best start. In fact, by the time my companion and I reach The Angel Hotel, our base for the following two nights, I feel like screaming, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”, a la Richard E Grant in Withnail and I.
Thank goodness the hotel staff are ready and willing to pick up the slack for Great Western Railway. After a two-hour train trip from London with seat reservations, which turns into a four-hour, sweaty, standing-squashed-up-against-the-toilet-door one, we arrive at our accommodation to the calming sounds of choir and harp. A couple of much-needed G&Ts and a look round the hotel’s adorable courtyard out of the way, we’re whisked off to The Angel’s delightful Castle Cottage, where warm mulled wine and mince pies (with some of the most buttery-rich pastry I’ve tasted) further take the edge off.
Behind schedule yet refreshed, we skip lunch and step out to explore the market town instead, with a rainbow arcing across the sky – hopefully signalling the end of our bad luck.
Over many years now, provenance has been gaining the respect it deserves, and it figures that places like Abergavenny, nestled in the Brecons, are establishing themselves as food destinations. Where once the fine, local produce might have been spirited away to tables in Cardiff, London or beyond, it now informs the seasonal choices of local chefs.
The national park’s pure air and lush soil give way to world-class mountain lamb, beef and venison; great cheeses (my favourite being the mustard-loaded Y Fenni); delicious beer, cider and juices and top-notch fruit and veg. Vineyards in overlapping Monmouthshire provide the grapes, and for a dram to wash it all down, drinkers need look no further than the Brecons’ own Penderyn whisky. Stick Wales’s biggest food festival into the mix and it’s easy to see the appeal. Then of course there’s the fact that the area is stunningly beautiful; Abergavenny is surrounded by green hills including Sugarloaf, which presides over the town.
We don’t have far to go for our first shopping stop, as we’re lucky enough to pass by the hotel’s own bakery, open to the public on Tuesday to Saturday. Housed in a separate building, it’s a fairly new addition to the hotel, and boy is it a struggle not to take one of everything. I almost do – so rustic and appetising are the artisan breads, patisserie and pies on display – before swiftly remembering we’re trying to fit in a lot of eating over the weekend. I fully understand why that pastry earlier had been so good.
Up the gently sloping main road, we stop off at Abergavenny market, open on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday – the traditional focus of trade in the town. The quaint community hub is split between antiques, food and bric-a-brac. June, on the fruit and veg stall, tells us about extra events which run there, and the best times to go shopping. She sells juice, Monmouthshire honey and homemade jam on the adjacent stall; you can even bring your spare jars for her to recycle, and it doesn’t get much more local and sustainable than that.
Meandering on up the high street there’s plenty of food inspiration to go around. Hereford butchers, established 42 years ago, sells local beef, free-range pork (with all bacon produced in-house) and texel lamb. We also pop into Black Mountain Gold chocolaterie, where master chocolatier Jules James’s confectionery combines Ecuadorian cocoa with local milk and butter. Angharad tells us about the business’s history as we try some melt-in-the-mouth samples. We don’t envy the chocolatier in the kitchen, who appears to all that pass the shop window via a live video feed, but it’s good entertainment: most of the time there’s a little crowd of two or three watching him go.
With a couple of hours to kill before dinner we try a few pubs about town, and while my companion gets the football result he was hoping for, I’m a little disappointed on the beer front, especially knowing that many tasty brews from close by might be pouring in the trendy ale hubs of Cardiff or Bristol. It seems the love for craft beer hasn’t quite spilled to these reaches, but in fairness, we’re all on foot; hotels and country pubs may have better offerings.
After our jaunt round the town, with its little alleyways concealing quirky craft and food shops, it’s back to The Angel for dinner at The Oak Room restaurant, headed up by chef Wesley Hammond. The focus here is on quality ingredients, simplicity and freshness. Local forager Liz Knight picks fruit and vegetables for the hotel in the nearby Nant y Bedd open garden, in the high forest of Black Mountain, and this definitely shines through; dishes are delicious and refined, yet satisfying, without being fiddly.
Holding the fort for the veggies, I have a beautiful salad of jerusalem artichokes and brie to begin with, followed by a squash and aubergine Penang curry with carrot sambal. The spicy, colourful ensemble is perfectly tempered by coconut rice, and giant, juicy chunks of veg provide lovely texture. Unbound by dietary requirements, my fellow diner munches on smoked salmon, harmoniously complemented with capers and shallots to start, then a spot of surf’n’turf: Welsh beef served with two fat grilled prawns in a warming, Asian-style marinade, with pak choi – a well-received combo. All of this is accompanied by a 2013 Monmouthshire pinot noir from Ancre Hill estate, which has pleasant acidity, strawberry and black cherry on the palate, muted tannins and a dry-herb finish. We just about make it back to the cosy, comfy cottage without needing a wheelbarrow.
I’m equally impressed by The Angel’s eclectic breakfast menu, which has something for everyone, from old-school kippers to continental to eggs benedict. For myself I’m perfectly content with the vegan option of grilled portobello mushroom and roasted tomatoes, spinach and sourdough toast.
With the weather still a little moody looking, we don’t stray too far. A wander down the road for pool and darts at the divey-yet-charming Bailey pub (I suffer a crushing defeat in the former but clinch a flukey win in the latter); a very light lunch at The Little Treat cafe, which stands out among many with its extensive selection of homemade cakes and local Monmouthshire gelato; an expedition round the ruins of Abergavenny Castle and its visitor centre, next to the hotel.
The last meal on the cards at The Angel itself is afternoon tea. Sales and marketing manager Jo Nugent guides us through the experience, explaining that this is what they do best at the hotel, and it’s easy to see how this offering cemented its place as Welsh Hotel of the Year 2016-17, as well as bringing home awards from the UK Tea Guild. The delectable sandwiches and savouries, cakes and then scones are paired with three beautifully delicate teas, served by the resident tea sommelier. (Yes, it’s a thing!)
It’s difficult to imagine squeezing in dinner after all that, but we’re on a mission, and we’re determined. Someone has to do it, right? Armed for the last stretch of the weekend as we are with the hotel’s Renault Twizy 2-seater electric car – free to borrow for guests – we decide to hit the road and try one of the surrounding country gastropubs.
Our first choice is The Crown at Pantygelli, sadly closed on a Sunday night, so we zip out to The Hardwick, which absolutely didn’t disappoint. The restaurant offers a fantastic dining experience just a few miles outside of Abergavenny, where an extensive, daily menu is rooted in local fare, with fine meat and seafood and a vast array of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Spoilt for choice, we go for small plates. I’m completely sold on the beautiful, generous salads: beetroot, goat’s cheese, pine nuts and heritage carrots; ham hock, parmesan and crispy artichokes, which goes down well with my companion, and broccoli with cavolo nero, cashews and cashew-cream sauce – fantastic for vegans. This time it’s the rosé from Ancre Hill we try. With strawberry and melon on the nose, it’s dry, restrained and delicate, and about as acidic as I like to go.
It’s a good job there aren’t any windows on the funny little car – I think the icy breeze whipping through the vehicle is the only thing keeping us awake on the drive back to the hotel, where we linger just a little in the “après ski” lodge before slipping into our food comas for the night. I can’t wait to revisit Abergavenny – especially when its bustling food festival is on in September.
We count up the wonderful local eating experiences we’ve had over the weekend. With all the provenance buzz, I believe we often forget: this is how it always was and should be – it’s only in the last half-century or so that convenience became king.
“It is easy to take for granted in London, and most major cities, that you can pick up the phone and order pretty much anything you want to be delivered the following morning,” says The Hardwick’s chef-patron, Stephen Terry, on the restaurant’s website. “But imagine how wonderful it is to go to some of my producers directly, chose my own produce alongside them… It’s about building relationships with incredibly passionate people because ultimately a restaurant is only as good as the produce it uses.”
I couldn’t agree more.
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