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Snowdonia Visits Wales: A Travelogue, Part 3

Matthew Callahan

Day 7:  Angelsey, Rhyl

The plan from here on was to try to get up Snowdon on the best day of weather possible; today was not that day. It was heavily overcast and was supposed to rain off and on all day. So we reorganized and grabbed a great Welsh breakfast across the square from Y Castel and headed out to the island of Angelsey to visit the sea salt factory, Halen Môn. The sky stayed cloudy and as we got to the island the wind had really picked up. We trekked out to the coastline and found Halen Môn next to a Sea Zoo. It turned out that the Sea Zoo was the genesis of the salt company.  Because the zoo was seasonal for tourism, Alison Lea and her husband wanted to create a company that would generate revenue year round. The result was the production of some of the greatest and most mineral-heavy salt I’ve ever tasted. The company greeted us by giving a salt tutorial, which was surprisingly informative as to how our body needs salt and the purer the salt the better it is for our bodies. They then suited all of us up in surgeon’s gear and led us to a crystallizer where a pool of sea water is heated to separate the salt from the water. We shoveled out a whole vat of salt and then brought it to be sifted in a rinse. This was like gold panning and, sure enough, it removed the chalk from the salt. From there it was flavored with vanilla or chili (to name a few!), or smoked to give it a great woodsy flavor. We thanked Alison and her husband for taking so much time with us and we bought up as many samples as possible with the promise to contact the U.S. rep and get this great salt into our pub!

Before leaving Angelsey we drove around the island a bit, and then stopped at the little town with the huge name, Llanfairpwllgwngyllgogerychwyrndrobywllllantisiliogogogoch. There's not much there but a photo of the train sign and a huge gift shop, but it was worth the fifteen-minute stop. The weather was still looking bad so we put off touring any park stuff until tomorrow. We trekked across the top of Wales and stopped in Conwy for lunch. Conwy was another walled town like Tenby, and we had a few Purple Moose pints in a local pub. We finished up and kept on driving to Rhyl in the North-East to visit the Snowdonia Cheese Company. The address we had led us into an industrial park where clearly the distribution offices were housed. We found the warehouse and met with the PR man Patrick. We quickly exchanged info and talked about getting larger 2 kg. wheels of their cheese into Snowdonia (they already export their smaller 200g wheels, but our cheese plates are so popular we need bigger wheels!). Patrick understood and promised he’d be in touch.

We headed back to Caraerfon after a long day of driving all over the top of North Wales. Settling back in to Y Castel, we had a pint and then walked down to a tiny street buried in the castle wall called “Hole in the Wall Street” to find a great traditional Welsh-fusion place called Blas. Blas, which means “taste” in Welsh, was a great find and I would highly recommend it to anyone.  Carrie had a fillet that was topped with onion rings and I had the loin of lamb with a puff pastry lamb roll. The meats were cooked perfectly and the portions were great for the prices. We were then stuffed and wiped out from driving, so we walked back to Y Castel and passed out.

Day 8:  A Train Ride to Blaneau Ffestiniog

After so much driving, we decided to take it easy with the car. It was still cloudy so we put off climbing Snowdon until the afternoon. We drove back into Porthmadog to do some quick shopping. We decided to take a old-fashioned steam train through Snowdonia National Park to the slate town of Blanaeu Ffestiniog. The train picked us up late morning, and began to snake its way leisurely along the ridges of the Snowdonia hills. Great views of waterfalls and lakes were everywhere. We snapped pictures occasionally, but it was nice to just sit back and let the train go wherever it would take us. It stopped intermittently through villages and hiking points, but we were content just to ride it until the end. After two hours, we arrived in Blanaeu Ffestiniog, a town in the middle of the park. We browsed through the slate shops and gathered up ideas for table presentation with slate plates and mats. Slate and coal were the main mining trades in Wales for the past century. Slate was everywhere: Slate roofs, slate tables, slate statues. Strangely, one never got sick of it. It was just always part of the landscape.

Having strolled the whole town, we got back on the train for another leisurely ride back to Porthmadog. From there, we set out towards a small town called Llanrwyst. On the way, we took a quick detour into Bodnant Gardens (which turns out was only kind of on the way). It was late afternoon, but the sun had come out so we gave it a shot. The gardens were shut, but their farm shop was open and we picked up a bunch of Conwy ales and a great bunch of ales from the Great Orme Brewery. We had a quick cup of coffee, toured a tiny honey museum, and then kept on South to try and find a great restaurant called The Tannery in Llanrwyst. Adrian and I had been here eight years ago when we climbed Mount Snowdon, and we had discovered this great place tucked away in this great little town between Conwy and Betwsy-Coed. We indeed found it again, but it had closed down the week before. Bad luck!

We went back to Caraerfon and changed up our dinner habits by trying an Italian osteria. The restaurant did some great bruschettas and tapas-style dishes, and we finished off the meal with some filling pasta smothered in duck ragu. We hit a few more pubs, and then went home to Y Castel with our fingers crossed that we would hit some less rainy weather on our last day.


Day 9:  Snowdon

We all woke up early to an extremely rare occurrence in Wales: A perfectly, clear, cloudless sky.  This couldn’t be better luck on our last day before we had to drive home. We ate fast and jumped into the car to drive to Llanberis, the town at the foot of Snowdon, to try and catch a train up the mountain. The trains were almost completely booked up, but we managed to get three tickets on the diesel behemoth. Adrian had climbed the mountain several times (he even did the harried cliff walk Crib Goch with his mum!), and the last time was with me. Back in 2007, the walk was arduous, and when we got to the top we were surrounded by clouds with just a view of your hand in front of you. This time we had a chance to get up the mountain with no clouds at all — which happened maybe seven days out of the year — so we chose to take the train. The ride was peaceful, taking about an hour. The train slowly climbed the mountain, cresting the smaller peaks and revealing more and more valleys. By the time we reached the top, clouds were beginning to appear far in the distance. We ascended the final 100 feet to the peak and the clear skies prevailed. We could see all the way to the coast and the island of Angelsey! This was the best timing of the trip yet! We stayed for almost half an hour and ran back down to catch our return train. When we loaded onto the train, the clouds were at the neighboring peak; in ten minutes, Snowdon disappeared into the clouds behind us. Had we ascended on the next train, we would have seen absolutely nothing.

When we got back down, we had a quick lunch and decided to leave Wales via the scenic route.  We drove through the local green coach roads through the quaint little town of Betws-Y-Coed and across upper mid-Wales through the town of Llangolen. As we coasted closer and closer to the border of England, I laid back in my seat and soaked up the last of the sheep-filled valleys. I thought to myself that this trip would be hard to beat when we returned next year, but with all of these new-found friends, no doubt more unique places and adventures are in store for us when we come back to our namesake.

Snowdonia Visits Wales: A Travelogue, Part 2

Matthew Callahan

Day Four:  Carmarthenshire, Tenby, Porthgain, St. David’s

We were up early and, leaving from outside Birmingham in Adrian’s roomier station wagon, we cut through mid-Wales toward the southwest. We had some fun twists and turns as the more direct route was closed off with no notice in the middle of the route, and since no one knew how to go around it we saw a great deal of the tiny towns north of Brecon Beacons trying to get through to our destination. In addition to all the detours, we would have to stop for “Welsh traffic jams” — herds of sheep being shuttled across the roads.

Your standard Welsh traffic jam.

Your standard Welsh traffic jam.

Regardless, we made it through to our first stop at Aberglasney Gardens in beautiful Carmarthenshire. This was a nice beginning to the more rural part of the trip. The gardens sprawled out behind a country estate and made for a nice stretch of the legs after a four-hour drive. After snapping up some photos and touring the gift shop, we were back in the car and headed out further west.

We carried on to Tenby, which was a cool, walled town that hugged a really beautiful beach. The views from the walls were spectacular, especially since we were blessed with our fourth day of sunshine in a row. We made our way down to the beach from the castle ruins and strolled along the coast, alternating views of the sea and the elevated walled town painted in typically bright Welsh colors. After a good walk, we climbed back up to the car and continued on the tiny one-lane farm roads to a tiny town called Porthgain. It was more a hidden away cul-de-sac than an actual town. There was a restaurant at the edge of the old shipping docks called The Shed, and it had some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. I was happy that Snowdonia’s fish and chips compared to theirs because the freshness of the fish was incredible and the batter was light and savory. We stopped across the street at the (only?) pub, The Sloop, for a quick pint and then got back in the car to head to our final stop of the day, St. David.

St. David is the smallest city in the U.K located more or less as far west as possible out on the “pig’s nose” peninsula. It’s a city by default because it has a cathedral, but it was a more of a tiny town filled with campers and tourists from all over. We were pretty worn out from tearing across the entire south coast of Wales in a day so we had a quick nap at our B&B and then ventured out in search of the restaurant, Cwtch. Cwtch (pronounced “kootch”) had come highly recommended from all of our sources when we were planning the trip, and the place did not disappoint. It was a modest two-story restaurant with the kitchen on the second floor. The kitchen would serve the first floor by dumbwaiter and I only wish that we could do the same thing at Snowdonia in the opposite direction (if only there was a place to put one!). We each had a three-course meal; standouts were the fish cakes served with homemade tartar sauce, and the salmon served on a bed of courgette and string beans.

We left Cwtch and strolled through the cool night air and stumbled upon a small local where we found a quiet table in the back for a late night pint. The pub was charming, but halfway through the pub it became filled with “travelers" that changed the pub's atmosphere to what Carrie called a mix of Straw Dogs and American Werewolf. So we finished up and left the pub to its new guests, walked up the street to our B&B, and after one more pint at the hotel’s bar, went upstairs to bed.

Day Five:  Up the Cardigan Coast to Aberystwyth

Caws Cenarth

Caws Cenarth

Up early again — this full breakfast thing is really starting to appeal to me! We packed up and were on the road by 8:30am. I was looking forward to this day because it was almost completely unplanned. We had a whole bunch of cheese farms, local shops, and a brewery on the itinerary, but we hadn't nailed down anything solid so we’d have to find them blindly and cold call them.  We passed through the cool little town of Fishguard and moved east away from the coast to search out Caws Cenarth — an award winning cheese maker that had yet to export outside Wales. We snaked through farm roads, where the sat-nav dropped us at the wrong end of a deserted farm. Luckily, Adrian was a strong navigator and brought us around the farm valley to the proper entrance. It was still early so we rolled into what seemed an empty farm space. There were signs that pointed visitors where to go so we toured through the barns ourselves, and ended up at the shop where Carwyn, the second generation owner of Caws Cenarth was having his coffee.  Surprised to have New York visitors, he made us some coffee and we tasted his cheese, which was phenomenal. We chatted about possibly exporting some of his product to the states and he was enthusiastic. He then told us of Da Mhile Distillery up the road that shared space with the raw milk Teifi Cheese Company.

A short 20 minute drive got us over to the distillery. The distiller was as surprised to see us as Caws Cenarth, but he happily showed us around. Trained in the more rigorous Scottish traditions, his whiskeys were very small batch and looked fantastic. Surely, after more barrels mature, they will become renowned. They are proudly the only true organic distiller in the UK at the moment.  We walked away with a highly-unique gin distilled with seaweed, and a great orange liqueur. We then walked across the driveway to the Teifi showroom and had some great conversation with a super-friendly Dutch transplant, who was happy to share some phenomenal cheese made with nettle and another with seaweed (again with seaweed! Fab!). When we went up to the office to pay, I was shocked to meet a Columbian-American working there who was originally from Astoria! Small world, indeed! We swapped emails and I insisted we work together to at least get the seaweed gin on our shelves. We then hopped in the car to find the tiny brewery called Penlon.

Finding Penlon was quite challenging as it was easily the most remote place we had yet to venture to. We trekked down a single farm path for miles, and ended up at a small farm consisting of two stone barns and a farm house at the edge of a cliff looking out over Cardigan Bay. It was spectacular, and it seemed deserted — no signs, no barrels, nothing that would indicate a brewery. Only a family of pigs greeted us as we pulled up; we were certain we had made a wrong turn somewhere. Suddenly, a lady popped her head out the door, and asked if she could help us.  We were both stunned, and I threw out the “lost and from New York” card. “New York? Oh, you should have called first . . . John [her husband and brewer we would later find out] is down the coast with the kids. Want some tea?” This is the immediate friendliness of the country. She turned out to be hilarious and aloof, telling us that her husband and she had moved out to West Wales from London to raise the kids after a mutual mid-life crisis. Soon after moving there, her husband went out for a drink — and came back with a brewery. Penlon had been started by a brilliant Welsh eccentric with knowledge of physics and little time for social niceties. After creating brilliant beer recipes, he grew tired of running the brewery and taught John the secret recipes for his beer. Now, the ex-London couple makes these phenomenal beers! She showed us around the tiny, understated brewery and then we drank. Adrian and I bought a dozen, apologized for surprising her and missing John, Carrie then said goodbye to the pigs and we all soldiered on to Aberaeron.

We had been out in deep country for most of the day so when we reached Aberaeron we were reminded that we were still in peak tourist season. We parked a mile out, because the town was still crammed with daytrippers. As was becoming our style, we stopped into the Harbourmaster at 15:00 and had missed lunch by a half hour. So we had a pint of Purple Moose’s Glaslyn Ale and reorganized. We trolled around looking for the Welsh Mustard Co., but it had either moved or closed. I picked up a cone of honey ice cream at The Hive before we walked back that mile to the car.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

We decided to drive straight on to Aberystwyth since we now had a car filled with about three pounds of various cheeses and thirty bottles of beer, collected from Swansea to Penlon. We were proud to have met so many great people and products in one short day. We arrived at the Queensbridge Hotel located right on the water around 18:00. We got a great big room on the fourth floor, and the only downside was that the lift was broken. Carrie and Adrian stayed in the room to get organized and I went out to scout the city before the sun went down. Aberystwyth is a mid-sized city with a university population — sort of a fusion between a college town and a Welsh village. I navigated around the wharf and into the city to find a cool little pub called Yr Hen Lew Du. The pub, like the town, was quiet since it was Monday. I had another Glaslyn Ale and then walked back to the wharf to meet Carrie and Adrian at Gwesty Cymru for dinner.

Crab topped with Welsh rarebit

Crab topped with Welsh rarebit

Gwesty Cymru was so far the most traditionally-Welsh-based of the fine dining establishments. The food was very fresh, and most unique was my crabmeat salad served in a crab shell and topped with Welsh rarebit. The two distinct flavors were almost at odds with each other, but I found it very flavorful and original. The staff was very friendly and now, being further north, all of our dining neighbors were speaking Welsh. I was glad that Sian (back in Cardiff) had tweaked my pronunciation skills so I wouldn’t continue embarrassing myself. It is a very bizarre but beautiful-sounding language, and the Welsh brogue really finished off the restaurant’s ambiance. We left Gwesty Cymru to stroll around the city. Being Monday night, it was quiet and the pubs were sleepy and devoid of customers. After a good long walk, we returned to the Queensbridge to get some sleep in between the crashing of the waves outside the windows.

Day 6:  Porthmadog, Portmerion, Pwllheli, Canaerfon

We woke up to a light rain that matched the grey seaside feel of Aberystwyth. We lugged the bags down the four flights of stairs and packed up the car. I lingered on the seaside for a bit. The weather and the crashing waves reminded me of growing up in New England. We jumped into the car (still pretty full with cheese and beer from the past few days), stopped off at Starbucks to grab a familiar U.S. jolt of iced Americano, and snapped pictures of the familiar chain menu translated into the native Welsh language (sometimes it is the stupid little things like “royal with cheese” that entertain us). We then pulled out of Aberystwyth to meet up with Alison McLean at the Purple Moose Brewery (Bragdy Mws Piws) in Porthmadog (pronounced port-ma-dock).

We ended up being extremely early, having once again overestimated the distance between Aberystwyth and Snowdonia National Park. So we drove out onto the Llyn peninsula to the town of Pwllheli (which means “salt water pool”) to search out the home of Jones Crisps. This turned out to be a challenge, because its address was on a street that didn’t believe in house numbers.  We gave up for a bit and strolled the small town and grabbed a quick lunch at a pub off the town centre. After lunch we broke down and called Jones Crisps, who told us that they were in a store called the “boat tree.” Of course, we still couldn’t find it until I realized that “boat tree” was actually bwyty which is Welsh for for “food place” or a deli. Having finally found the address, we discovered that we had completely surprised the sales rep, and she was at a loss as to how to help us. We told her that we were simply interested in getting some decent Welsh crisps into Snowdonia and she felt a bit relieved since they are trying to export to the U.S. We grabbed one of each crisp, traded cards and browsed the bwyty for other Welsh products. We discovered a company called Calon Lan that made chutneys and spreads. They were all fantastic but the weirdest (and best to me) was the Red Mustard and the Scotch Bonnet Jam. We must find a way to get these crisps and jams into our pub back home!

Having killed more time than expected, we sped back off the peninsula to Porthmadog and the Purple Moose Brewery. Alison at Mws Piws was a really cool Scottish transplant that was clearly prouder-than-proud of her brewery. She toured us through all of the malts and the hops, and then introduced us to the brewmaster, who was busy mixing the next batch of ale.  She walked us through the brewing vats and into the casking rooms where they even casked a few ales in whiskey barrels. We then (naturally) tasted all of the ales. We all agreed that their “Snowdonia Ale” was a perfect match for Snowdonia by name alone. The other winners were “Elderflower Ale” and the multiple-award-winning “The Dark Side of the Moose,” which was an awesome stout. Again, we looked forward to another conversation as to how we could get these ales across the Atlantic. We thanked Alison for her time and energy, and she left us with a stuffed purple moose to bring home to Tom Jones, the actual moose head mounted on our wall. On the way out, we walked into town and hit their shop where we picked up a few knick-knacks and t-shirts, and then jumped back in the car to get to Portmeirion.

We were only about ten minutes from one of the coolest towns in the world. This was my third time here. The town was bought and transformed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 into a surreal mix of Welsh seaside colored houses and Italian sculptures and amphitheater. The result is neither Welsh or Italian, but a wholly original fairy town that rolls down a hill into an estuary that twice a day empties out to a rolling, sandy plain. Visitors can stay in the town’s cottages, or at the Portmeirion Hotel at the base of the town. I discovered the town as a huge fan of The Prisoner, a '60s film starring Patrick McGoohan set in Portmeirion as an island where resigned spies were held as numbered individuals and were expected to adjust to forced retirement. The town was one of the central characters in the show, and it still retains such an otherworldly character that I have to visit the town any time I am within 200 miles of it. The first two times I was here it was either raining or the sky was completely grey, but, as was our luck with the trip, the sun was out in full force and the pink and purple buildings popped against the blue waters of the central pool. Anyone visiting Wales must never miss this town!

We had managed to meet up with everyone in the area and hit one of the coolest towns in Wales so we traveled up the coast to Canaerfon (pronounced ka-NARV-on -- it only took me three days to say it correctly!), where we would set up camp at Y Castel Inn. The inn was right next to Canaerfon Castle, and within walking distance of pretty much everything. The rooms were super clean and spacious, and the pub downstairs had a great selection of beers and good food. It was clearly popular with the locals because all you could hear in the pub was Welsh. We rested and cleaned up and walked out into Canaerfon in search of The Black Boy that had been recommended to us by Alison. On the walk I received a call from Bangor, where the owner of Jones Crisps had mentioned to a choir friend that he had been visited by New Yorkers earlier that day. The choir director, Dafydd, told me that he would be in D.C., Ohio and Vermont later this year so we should meet up. He offered to do a mini-concert at Snowdonia with his fifty-person choir. I said that would be great, but there would be no room for any listeners. We agreed to chat more when I got back to the states. Just meeting people left and right here, and that, as they say, is the point!

We supped at The Black Boy, which was a huge pub and inn. The food portions were massive and very tasty. This is a great restaurant for anyone that has been out hiking or mountain-climbing all day, or anyone who has an overactive appetite like mine. We completely over-ate and then stumbled around the town to get our directions. Near Y Castel, there was a pub called Bar Bach (literally “tiny bar”) that claimed to be the smallest bar in Wales. While there was a secret large room in the back that may belie that claim, the front bar was quaint and perfect for a nightcap pint. We each downed a pint while listening to some local Welshies singing in the back room. We left and went back to Y Castel, and I thought that we couldn’t have capped off a purely Welsh day like this one any better.

To be continued...

-Tom

Snowdonia Visits Wales: A Travelogue, Part 1

Matthew Callahan

Day One:  Cardiff

After a day to recover from jet lag, we left Birmingham early Thursday morning and made our way down the M-5 to Cardiff. We had a low battery on the ‘Sat-Nav’ (U.K. for GPS) so we stuck close to the motorways instead of our original plan to cut through the South-East Welsh countryside via Abergavenny and my family’s town of Bryn Mawr. This turned out to be a good call since we tried to jump off the M4 after crossing the Severn bridge into South Wales to find Bryn Mawr blindly, and proceeded to get turned around and incredibly lost in the heavily-wooded valleys, forcing us to turn back and scramble to motorway safety. After that hour long schooling of left-side, roundabout-laden misdirection, we finally got back to the M4 and into Cardiff with little traffic, and navigated our way through the city centre, around Cardiff Castle, and into the Pontcanna District where we checked into the Beauford Guest House on Cathedral Road.  

Tom making pretty faces outside the Beaufort House

Tom making pretty faces outside the Beaufort House

The B&B was in a perfect location with immediate access up the road to the cricket fields and park (formerly the Cardiff Castle grounds), and equidistant to the city centre. Having driven all morning, we were pretty hungry so we lunched at the The New Conway Gastropub - also up the street from the B&B. We turned out to be fairly early for the pub, which had just opened its kitchen for the day so the place was still empty. But the food was tasty regardless. Carrie had a light salmon salad, and I had some Welsh sausages glazed in mustard and a burger. All the meals were served on wood boards (like we do at Snowdonia), and the food was fresh and satisfying.

We then strolled all the way back down Cathedral Road towards city centre. The great thing about Cardiff is that almost everything is a stone’s throw from each other. The castle entrance marks the top of the centre of town and from there you can drop down into the main square and surrounding markets. I was immediately surprised how many more malls and markets had popped up since I had been here with my brother in 1998 (Carrie and I had tried to visit Cardiff in 2010, but couldn’t find a room due to the Ryder Cup tournament so we turned around and went back to England). The city looked much fresher and cleaner than I had remembered in '98. Back then Cardiff was occupied mainly by chains and fast food joints, with Brain’s Beer having a monopoly on the pubs. Now there is much greater variety and even Brain’s itself is competing with the growing craft beer market by producing a line of Brain’s craft beer.

We spent the rest of the afternoon orienting ourselves to the city, browsing the shops and open markets and, most importantly, we purchased a working Sat-Nav for the car. At 15:00, we stopped into The Potted Pig restaurant to meet the manager, Georgina and the chef, Gwyn. The restaurant was between lunch and dinner service so we had a nice relaxed chat over a cup of coffee about the hardships of getting small, private restaurants to work in neighborhoods that were considered “unfriendly” to quality food and drink. Like Snowdonia in Astoria, Gwyn and Georgina jumped on a good rental deal in the very centre of Cardiff where, as I mentioned earlier, there was nothing but chain restaurants and Brain’s-owned, run-down pubs. The Potted Pig is less than 100 yards from the castle gate in a building that was formerly a Lloyds bank. They took over the basement that used to be the bank’s vault, and they’ve left some of the barred gates to keep that underground vault ambience–kind of a cool, safety bunker ambience. Georgina and Gwyn clearly put lots of love (and money!) into turning the vaults into a functional kitchen, the result looked fantastic.

We were so impressed by the owners’ passion and hospitality that we returned that evening to eat. Carrie ordered a cider and I tried to order a locally-brewed beer from a garage-brewer called Pipes Brewery, but they were out of Pipes. Instead, I ordered a Cardiff-made craft beer called “House Lager” which was super hoppy for a lager and very crisp. Carrie ordered a pigeon starter on a bed of blood pudding. This began Carrie’s new-found passionate search for blood pudding wherever we would go next. The meat of the pigeon was rare and had a wonderful red meat flavor that married perfectly with the savory pudding. I ordered the namesake, the potted pig, which was a type of pork rillettes -- a shredded but incredibly moist pork spread that came with pickled vegetables and house-made sourdough bread. It was simple and awesome. For the mains, Carrie ordered the lamb and I ordered a roasted ham hock that I had spotted at a table next to me. Her lamb was perfectly cooked and awesome, but the sheer size of my ham hock stole the show. It challenged the size of our portions at Snowdonia -- something we pride ourselves on. Gwyn had told me that The Potted Pig shied away from the more expensive cuts such as fillets to give a heartier and more affordable fare, but in no way did this lower the quality of the meal. It was phenomenal. Each served with a bowl of steamed potatoes and cauliflower, the meal was difficult to polish off even for a 6’ 2” Welsh transplant such as myself! We couldn’t be happier with our first dinner, and the meals to come would have to work hard to beat such a great first impression of Cardiff cuisine.

After such an experience, we were in no rush to get home so one of the waitstaff suggested a cool craft beer house around the corner from the restaurant called the Urban Tap House.  The place had a young, late-night vibe, but was quite welcoming. We had a few drafts of Rebel IPAs (another Cardiff-made brew), and hung out chatting with an Australian guy and Dutch girl who were bouncing around the UK. I went outside for a smoke and struck up a conversation with the bouncer and manager, where I found out a little more about nightlife in Cardiff. Cardiff is a university town so it has a lot of late-night offerings. They told me the Tap House was open until 2am while others could stay open even later. It was refreshing to discover that other New Yorkers would be able to find some late night hangouts here in Cardiff. Unlike New York, however, we finished our last draft and bought two more bottles of Rebel to bring back to the Guest House where we drank them and immediately passed out after a twenty-hour day of touring.

Rebel's IPAs

Rebel's IPAs

Day Two:  Cardiff (cont.)

As a result of our jet-lag-produced morning schedule, we were up by 8:00 am.  We went downstairs to meet one of the charming Welsh owners of the B&B that immediately announced to the whole room that we were from New York. Luckily, the room was filled with itinerary-bound Germans so the embarrassment factor was minimal. We had a lovely full breakfast, and went out for a stroll through the Pontcanna to kill time until we met Sian Roberts from Loving Welsh Food at 11:00. We walked through the park a bit, discovering a prettier shortcut to the city centre that cut past the pub, Y Mochyn Du, over the River Taff via footbridge and into Bute Park. We then backtracked up through the cricket grounds and down Pontcanna, scouting possible shop visits.

Carrie & Sian

Carrie & Sian

We made it back to meet Sian, who swooped in to pick us up in her black mini. Our first stop was past City Hall and the National Museum of Wales, at a place called Park House, where Sian, Carrie and I would get clear as to our day’s itinerary over coffee. The Park was formerly a private club that had been taken over and become a fine dining establishment. We were met by the proprietor, who, at first, seemed to be put back by being visited by a New York Bar. He warmed up to us quickly, however, after we put on our business hats and talked about the difficulties of maintaining quality food in general in a city. His concern was that most Welsh produce was being shipped off immediately to London for first pick. We shared that the same is true for us in Astoria as we are always in the shadow of Manhattan, but that you can work directly with local farms and brewers if you put the effort in. He admitted that he had already made local connections, and soon we were on the same page. We shared an awesome cider from a local brewery called Coles (searched all over in stores and couldn’t find a bottle to take home!) and a great beer from the Gower Brewery in Swansea called “Gower Power.” Even at 11:30 in the morning I had to finish that beer! It was that good.

Sian then walked us down through the city centre. Much of this we had covered the day before, but what was great was that Sian actually knew where to stop! She led us through the Cardiff Market to a fishmonger called Ashtons that was over 100 years old. We ordered both laverbread (pureed seaweed) and cockles. I immediately mixed them together and bought a lemon from the stand across from Ashton’s and tarted the mixture up. While this is more on the intense side of Welsh standards, I find it to be a hearty taste of the sea, and extremely healthy as well. (Aside: I think it's funny that most people on both sides of the Atlantic are weirded out by seaweed, but they'll eat sushi which is wrapped up in or contains nori which is SEAWEED!  Whatever.)

Feel the power. Gower Power.

Feel the power. Gower Power.

We moved through the market and picked up some faggots in gravy, which in New York would be a completely different thing and probably take place much later at night. Faggots in Wales are breaded cakes that contain liver and hearts, but are extremely tasty (especially as I am not a fan of liver most times). These went down easy as comfort food should. The next stop was a Cardiff local pub called The Old Cottage where Sian taught me how to order a “pint of dark” like a real Welshman, and I drank it like one too. We then set out back through the castle grounds to have a cup of coffee.

Pipes Brewery

Pipes Brewery

Once caffeinated we got back in the mini, picked up Sian’s mom and drove back to Pontcanna where she dropped us off at a deli run by an Anglesey native. We tasted some cheeses and scanned her deli for North Wales products to seek out when we got there. We thanked Sian profusely, knowing we had met a new and very good friend. We walked around the Pontcanna, and discovered the location of Pipes Brewery in a dead-end close. Unfortunately it was closed (natch) so I still wasn’t able to try it. Instead, we walked a while towards a pub owned by Gwyn from The Potted Pig. This was a real straight-up Welsh pub -- and they had Pipes on tap! And it was worth it! It reminded me of Singlecut back home with a fresher-than-fresh hoppiness. So good I had two before we walked back to the B&B.

We had ourselves a quick nap and then set out to find Chapel 1899. We walked all the way through downtown and found it near the train station. The place seemed lovely and posh, but wasn’t our scene. It was like a hold over from The Long Good Friday filled with Bob Hoskins-like characters and drink offerings. So we left there and hopped a train to Cardiff Bay to get a look at the Millennium Centre. Being Torchwood fans, the big opera hall did not disappoint as it stands prominently as an awesome architectural accomplishment in the middle of the bricked pier. We took a couple of pics and then strolled down to find the old Norwegian church that was now a restaurant. (We found it, but it was closed.) We continued along the bay to find the Doctor Who Experience, being major Whovians ourselves, but that was closed as well. We doubled back, but the rest of the bay was dotted with chain and themed restaurants, none of which were very appealing. We were running out of steam and it was getting late so we hopped in a cab and went back to The Potted Pig before it closed up for another great meal.  We intended to hit The Urban Tap House again, but fatigue got the best of us, and with a busy driving day ahead, we went back to the room and collapsed.

Day Three:  Out of Cardiff, Penderyn, Brecon Beacons, Hay-on-Wye, Abergavenny, Bryn Mawr

Up at 7:00 am (unbelievable since we're normally getting out of work around then) and another great big Welsh breakfast. Jumped into the car and headed north towards Pontypridd. We unfortunately skipped past Castel Coch -- after our first miscalculation of time and space in the valleys, we didn’t want to be late for our appointment in Penderyn. We pulled off in Pontypridd to take a quick look at the market. It was similar to the Cardiff market but had a bit more of a local-vendor feel. There were mobile butcher vans and local clothing markets so after an hour, we felt we had soaked enough in. We headed straight up to Penderyn, which was on the south end of the Brecon Beacons National Park. When we pulled in, we were stunned to find a handsome wood-planked distillery with the familiar Penderyn logo stamped upon it. And of course, we were early so Sian Whitlock, Penderyn’s super-friendly and dedicated market head, had yet to arrive.  We took an earlier tour around the distillery, and discovered how Penderyn Distillery became the first Welsh Whiskey in over a hundred years. Ironically, they bought their barrels from Buffalo Trace in the states so we shared some familiar ground there being bourbon aficionados. The distillery aged the whiskey in pre-seasoned bourbon barrels for four years and then moved them to either sherry, oak or peated casks to finish off the color and flavour. This amazing process allows them to get the same product as most single-malt scotches without being restricted to the age process of the barrels. We finished off in the tasting room where Carrie was able to partake, but I had to hold off because I was the designated driver. It was there that we met up with Sian Whitlock.

Sian, Carrie, and I shared a great talk over coffee where we discovered we had similar interests in building up Penderyn’s presence in New York. New York City is filled with whiskey lovers and so it would make sense to build up awareness of Penderyn in Snowdonia! We agreed that while the Penderyn folks were in New York in September, we would have a private tasting session at Snowdonia for their crew and the locals!  AWESOME! And, of course, we left with five bottles of Penderyn –- one of each type -- and then hopped back in the car to head on to our next stop: the gastropub, Felin Fach Griffin.

The Ploughman's plate

The Ploughman's plate

The drive through Brecon Beacons was gorgeous. There were tons of sheep to keep Carrie snapping pictures, and the landscape was just magical. Buried deep inside this wooded paradise is a rural inn and eatery run by Julie Bell (and her many dogs!). Julie was a hyper-kinetic and super sweet Irish transplant that so clearly was proud of her little getaway. Designed from top to bottom to be a total escape from modern technology (nothing but books, no T.V.'s and no internet), Felin Fach Griffin was far from being a stop-over barn. We had arrived too late for the standard lunch menu, but the kitchen provided a ploughman’s plate that was to die for: Fresh mature cheese, fresh bread, cornichons, curried cauliflower assorted raw vegetables -– so filling, so good. We sucked down a pint of local bitter, and then Julie toured us around the yards and rooms. Much food came from their own garden, and Julie’s pride was completely justified having created such a classy place in the arguable middle-of-nowhere. “People ask me why I moved out here where there’s nothing to do,” said Julie, ”but there’s plenty going on out here, you just need to want to find it and it's right there!” We left Felin Fach Griffin with full bellies and a wide-eyed respect for the idea that such a great restaurant and inn could exist in such a quiet and removed area. Well done Julie!

We drove across the top of Brecon Beacons to a quaint little stop-over known as Hay-on-Wye.  This little town’s claim to fame is that it is filled with bookstores. Most of the local buildings like the chapel and town hall have been modified into rare book shops. The town is worth a little walk through, and if you’re into finding rare little out-of-print books this is where you'll find them.  From there we blasted back through Brecon Beacons south towards my grandfather’s village of Bryn Mawr, to take a quick snapshot of my great-grandmother’s house. From there, we went on to Abergavenny in hopes of grabbing a table at Steven Terry’s The Hardwick, a gastropub that is supposed to be the current gastropub of gastropubs. Popularity seemed to prove the truth of that claim, as we couldn’t get a table! We moved on to pick up our friend Adrian in Stourbridge, where we would leave once again and tear past Cardiff out towards West Wales.

To be continued...

-Tom