Five inventive ways to pair Welsh food and drink

Whether it’s a citrussy chardonnay paired with a gooey brie or a pint of rich stout with a plate of plump oysters, Welsh food is at its best combined with a top local tipple.

Published 27 Sept 2021, 23:00 BST, Updated 6 Oct 2021, 15:04 BST
Penderyn Distillery creates distinctly Welsh single malt whiskies and spirits in the foothills of the Brecon ...

Penderyn Distillery creates distinctly Welsh single malt whiskies and spirits in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons.

Photograph by Jonathan Cherry/Departures

1. Gower Salt Marsh Lamb (PDO) & Penderyn Peated Whisky

Weobley Castle Farm has stood on open farmland on the north coast of Gower, with a view towards West Wales, for more than a century. For the past 70 years, the farm and its sheep, which are born and raised on the salt marshes, have been in the care of the Pritchard family.

Today, that’s Rowland Pritchard and his two sons, Daniel and Will — the third generation. The Pritchards’ flock of around 1,000 sheep — plus another 1,000 or so lambs come spring — spend most of their lives on the salt marshes, returning to the farm only for a night or two every couple of weeks, when the tide is high. Their meat acquires distinctive characteristics from their unique environment, particularly from the vegetation on which they graze.

“The marsh has grass not found anywhere else, plus samphire and sorrel, all of which gets covered by salt water from the tide. All these things make a difference to the flavour,” Will explains. 

He describes their meat as being “darker and leaner” than pasture-raised lamb, adding that the animals’ unique diet means the “flavour is sweeter, more succulent, and doesn’t have a strong lamby, gamey taste”. The farm’s award-winning Gower Salt Marsh Lamb is only available in season (July until Christmas) and was recently awarded PDO (protected designation of origin) status, under Defra’s UK Geographical Indication (GI) scheme.

When it comes to preparing the lamb to eat, Will says, “it’s important with most cuts to try and have some pink in the middle to keep it juicy”. He advises “not to mess about with too many or too strong flavours, or you can drown out the flavour of the meat”. The same, of course, goes for the drinks pairing. For many, a glass of wine might seem the most obvious partner for a roast lamb lunch on a Sunday, but for a more interesting accompaniment, try a Welsh whisky instead. 

When the privately owned Penderyn Distillery, in the Brecon Beacons, began making its premium single malt whiskies in 2000, it was the first time the spirit had been distilled in Wales in more than 100 years. CEO Stephen Davies describes the range of whiskies as being “very different in style to Scottish whisky — light, delicate, fruity spirits”. He emphasises the importance of being careful when pairing whisky with lamb. “You don’t want one to overwhelm the other,” he explains. But Penderyn Peated Whisky, a multi-award-winning pale golden single malt, is light and subtle enough in flavour to work. 

Now one of its bestselling spirits, Penderyn Peated Whisky came about by what Stephen describes as a “happy accident”, when the team’s second-ever expression was aged for five years in a second-hand Scottish barrel that had previously contained a smoky Islay whisky. This produced a light spirit with an attractive smoky flavour and aroma that was an instant hit with his customers. Stephen explains that it isn’t a typical peated spirit. “It’s less oily, and fits into the Penderyn style of spirit, still light and fruity, but with hints of smoke about it.” As for how to drink it, Stephen opts for neat, but adds, “you could add a few drops of water to soften the alcohol”.

Where to start: Gower Salt Marsh Lamb is available in season from the online shop; visitors to Weobley Castle can buy products from the onsite fridge. Penderyn whiskies are available at the distillery, as are tours, or from supermarkets. Penderyn Peated Whisky can be bought online.  

2. PGI Welsh Beef & Montgomery Vineyards Rondo  

Cattle farming plays a central role in Welsh heritage and culture, so it seems only fitting that Welsh beef was the first product in Wales to achieve PGI status in recognition of its unique character and tradition. 

Primarily raised on the country’s natural resources (grass and rainwater), Welsh cattle form a key part of Wales’s agricultural landscape. Historically, traditional cattle breeds here were chiefly Welsh Black and Hereford; today’s Welsh beef is derived from these as well as other recognised non-native breeds. The cattle are all born, reared and slaughtered in Wales, all the while protected by high welfare standards, and the Welsh beef supply chain is completely transparent, meaning Welsh beef can be traced from the supermarket shelf or butcher’s shop all the way back to the field it came from. 

Thanks to this combination of Wales’s distinct landscape and climate, its traditional cattle breeds and its high standards in farming practices, PGI Welsh beef is known around the world for its excellent quality and depth of flavour. This means, of course, that you’ll want to pair it with a decent-quality wine. The family-run Montgomery Vineyard is located in Powys and, at 900ft, its south-facing vineyard is one of the highest in the UK. Since the first vines were planted back in 2012, Montgomery Vineyard has picked up numerous accolades at the Welsh Wine Awards, including for its 2018 rondo. A hybrid grape widely cultivated throughout the UK, rondo produces complex, full-bodied red wines that make an excellent match for hearty beef dishes. Montgomery’s 2018 vintage is rich and juicy, slightly smoky and spicy and packed with cherries and blackberries. A glass of it would naturally work well with a good steak, but if you’re pairing Welsh wine with Welsh beef, you might as well go the whole hog (or rather, cow) and enjoy it with a traditional Welsh cawl instead.

Where to start: PGI Welsh Black and Hereford beef can be widely ordered online, including from the award-winning Prendergast Butchers in Pembrokeshire. Meanwhile, Montgomery Vineyard’s Rondo 2018 is available in online shops such as Noble Grape.

3. Monty’s Brewery’s Dark Secret Stout & Menai Oysters

In 2008, Pam Honeyman, now director and head brewer of Monty’s Brewery, joined a three-week beer-making course, having come up with the idea of opening a brewery with her husband Russ over Sunday lunch. Her first brew knocked the socks off a retired beer critic who tried it in a local pub, and by her third brew, Pam was winning awards. Today, Monty’s Brewery, located in the ancient castle town of Montgomery, Powys, is Mid Wales’ premier brewery. It produces a range of cask-conditioned, bottled and keg beers, all made with high-quality malts and hops and, of course, Welsh water.

One of the brewery’s range of award-winning ales, Dark Secret, is a rich, full-bodied oatmeal stout that, among other accolades, won three stars at the Great Taste Awards two years on the trot. It’s certified gluten-free and has the classic roasted aroma and coffee and chocolate notes often associated with stouts. Made with malted oats and a mixture of different barleys, it also has what Pam describes as “a caramelly, nutty taste and a good balance of bitterness and sweetness”, the oats contributing “a full mouthfeel and a creamy texture on finish”. She adds, “in wintertime, it’s like a hug in a glass.” 

Pam explains that “food and drinks pairings must either complement or contrast with each other in order to bring out the best in both”. Following this rule of thumb, Dark Secret works well as an accompaniment to both sweet and salty foods, its chocolatey-coffee sweetness making it both a wonderful accompaniment to chocolate cake and an excellent partner for oysters.

Shaun Krijnen, who founded Wales’ only commercial oyster farm, Menai Oysters, in 1994, describes how, when the bivalves used to be cheap and plentiful, a pint of stout was popularly served with a plate of oysters. The stout’s toasty chocolate notes contrast beautifully with the salty brine, which in turn brings out the roasted malt and coffee flavours. The crisp citrus sweetness of the oyster, meanwhile, offsets any bitterness in the finish of the beer.

Shaun also points out that salt “initially acts as a flavour enhancer”. His Pacific oysters grow in full-strength seawater (as opposed to estuary waters) in the Menai Strait, which gives them a sea salt aroma that’s balanced out by the sweetness imparted to them by the algae that bloom there. Between their first salty hit and their sweet finish, Shaun’s oysters also have what one of his customers enthusiastically described as “a whole load of other flavours”. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain characterises these as a combination of “grapefruit, lemon, apples and herbs”, with a finish of “copper and an earthy base reminiscent of a forest floor”. 

These flavours develop as the oysters mature. Shaun harvests them by hand — during peak season, some 7,000-8,000 of them a week — once they’ve reached a weight of 80g, at the age of two or three years old, by which time their flavour is substantial. He reveals they’re at their “heaviest and creamiest” in August and September. This year, he says, “they’re exceptionally plump”. Perfect, no doubt, for pairing with one of Pam’s pints.

Where to start: Monty’s Brewery beers are stocked in local delis and restaurants; the full range, including Dark Secret, can be ordered from the online shop. You can also arrange tastings at its visitor centre. To buy Pacific oysters by the dozen, visit Menai Oysters’ online shop. 

4. Cenarth Brie & Ancre Hill Estates Chardonnay

Richard and Joy Morris began planting vines on the grounds of their home in the village of Rockfield, Monmouthshire, in 2006. Today, their wines are sold not just locally, but served in Michelin-starred restaurants including Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Ancre Hill Estates is one of only a handful of wineries in the UK that’s Demeter-certified organic and biodynamic, operating with a policy of minimal intervention and an exceptional focus on sustainability and respect for the environment. One of Wales’s most highly acclaimed winemakers, its 30 acres of vineyards are situated on south-facing, limestone soil slopes close to the Wye Valley. Just over half of Ancre Hill Estates’ grapes are chardonnay, used to make both still and sparkling wines. The 2018 vintage of the former variety is fermented in stainless steel and oak barrels and aged on gross lees (natural sediment) for a minimum of 10 months. The resulting wine is a citrussy, acidity-driven chardonnay with notes of apple and a hint of vanilla — perfect for the high fat content of a soft, rich cheese such as brie.

Welsh artisan cheesemakers Caws Cenarth Cheese was first established as a family business in 1987. However, it has a history of cheesemaking that dates back to 1903, when two of current owner Carwyn Adams’ great-great-grandmothers made cheese for their families and to sell at the local market. From a farm in a rural hamlet in Carmarthenshire, around 100 miles west of Ancre Hill Estate, Carwyn and his family produce a range of award-winning cheeses, all handmade in small batches, using milk sourced from within 30 miles of their dairy. Their traditional French-style organic Cenarth brie has a mellow, fresh mushroomy flavour that intensifies with age, a hint of nuttiness and a gloriously gooey, creamy centre. 

Where to start: Ancre Hill Estates wines are widely available both online and in shops around the UK; visit the website for a list of stockists. Cenarth brie can be purchased from Caws Cenarth’s online shop as well via as online stockists including Abel & Cole.   

5. Traditional Welsh Cider (PGI) & Traditionally Reared Pedigree Welsh Pork (TSG)

From roasted hogs with apples in their mouths to chops served with sweet, apple sauce, pork and apples have been happy table companions for centuries. It’s not surprising, then, that cider — be it sweet, dry or sparkling — works well with pork dishes, and not just in them, but alongside them, too.

Traditional Welsh cider has PGI status, meaning every batch is made entirely in Wales from first-pressed juice of homegrown cider apples. The country’s current cider-making revival is being led by producers such as Old Monty Cider, which has been producing a small selection of award-winning single variety and blended ciders in Montgomery, Powys, since 2006. The ciders, which are available in varying levels of sweetness, are made from cider apples including michelin, dabinett and harry masters jersey, all of which are grown at the Old Monty Orchard and handpicked, pressed and matured using traditional methods.

Old Monty is just one of several lauded cider producers operating in Wales today. At Hallets Cider, ex-engineer Andy Hallett, who began making cider as a hobby, produces some 100,000 litres each year at his hill farm in South Wales. Though not made using the PGI-certified method, his award-winning ciders are created from 100% pure Welsh apple juice that’s fermented, carefully blended and then aged in a variety of casks.

Traditionally reared pedigree Welsh pork, which was awarded Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) status in 2017, comes from Welsh pigs that have been reared according to a traditional rearing method that allows for a more natural growth rate than other more conventional commercial systems of pork production. 

Since the pigs are allowed time to mature, their meat develops a distinctive flavour that intensifies during the minimum of two days the carcasses are required to be hung before being sold. Traditionally reared pedigree Welsh pork has a light pink or rose colour and a high fat content that produces tender, succulent meat.

Cider works beautifully with a variety of different pork cuts and dishes, as well as pork products such as terrines or pork pies. Choose a sweet apple cider to complement a homely pork and apple casserole or contrast with a salty ham hock or gammon roast. Meanwhile, a dry or medium dry cider would make a wonderful accompaniment to slow-cooked pork belly by helping to cut through the fat.

Where to start: Old Monty Cider can be purchased at The Castle Kitchen coffeeshop in Montgomery and at the Gower Heritage Centre. Hallets sells bottles, cases and bag-in-boxes on its website.

Published in the Wales guide 2021, distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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