When London food critic A.A. Gill slagged all of Wales, deeming it a "culinary desert," he probably didn't get past the currant-studded Welsh cakes and a meaty mutton cawl.
Both the cakes and the broth are ubiquitous here, but the most memorable dish at the new ffresh restaurant, in Cardiff's iconic Wales Millennium Centre, has serious Welsh provenance, with nary a lamb or leek in sight.
Chef Kurt Fleming's take on the organic, woodland-raised Gloucester Old Spot pork from nearby Red Pig Farm is wickedly addictive - the belly slow-braised and scented with bay and star anise, then seared to crispy perfection and balanced on a cloud of creamy cauliflower purée, with sweetly spiced red cabbage to cut the richness of it all.
"The majority of Welsh families still do survive on basic meat and potatoes, but our goal is to be a unique restaurant, celebrating what's seasonal and local," sous-chef Dean Way says. "A few years ago, you wouldn't have found Michelin-starred restaurants in Wales. A.A. Gill was right."
In part by stirring up that legendary stubborn Welsh pride, Gill - the powerful arbiter of British taste - may well have been the catalyst for the country's current culinary renaissance: Wales now has four Michelin-starred restaurants, three making the grade for the first time in the new 2010 guide.
Wales on a Plate
THE POLITICOS AND THE PLATE
Traditional bounty in Wales is gaining new cachet, whether it's the Welsh Black Beef and famed salt-marsh lamb, laverbread (seaweed purée) smeared on toast for breakfast, plump cockles and mussels, local farmhouse cheeses, heirloom pork, venison, or organic and foraged wild vegetables. Traditional Welsh cider, perry (made with pears) and even fresh white Welsh wines are also finding favour.
And that's thanks, in no small part, to the Welsh Assembly Government's push to make local, sustainable food available to all. From its annual True Taste food and drink awards - the foodie Oscars of Welsh food producers and purveyors - to the Food Tourism Action Plan, Wales's politicos want to see more local products on Welsh plates, and it seems to be working.
"Local sourcing of food and drink is one of the priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government," writes Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones in the stylish True Taste magazine.
"The Welsh Assembly Government's scheme, One Wales: One Planet, sets an enormous challenge, which includes the need to produce more food at prices consumers can afford, and to ensure that Welsh food and drink is widely available."
It's a lofty ideal for a small region, but there's no doubt the initiative is bolstering Wales's award-winning menus.
Still, it takes a trip outside the capital of Cardiff to find most of this newly minted, Welsh haute cuisine. All of this year's Michelin stars went to restaurants in the Welsh countryside, and I find two on a day trip to the food-obsessed town of Abergavenny.
This compact corner - roughly triangulated by the towns of Monmouth, Abergavenny and Skenfrith - is rich in top food producers and purveyors.
"This region of Wales is our first food tourism destination," says Nerys Howell, co-author of the new book Wales on a Plate, as we tuck into plates of tender Welsh venison haunch and salted duck breast, prepared according to a historic recipe and served with aromatic pickled plums at Abergavenny's Angel Hotel.
Set on the edge of Brecon Becons National Park, Abergavenny has become the culinary capital of southeastern Wales, thanks to restaurants such as The Walnut Tree, a long-time locovore haunt that has earned Michelin's favour under the direction of chef Shaun Hill. It's also home to the annual Abergavenny Food Festival, a two-day village party that attracts throngs every September for chef-led master classes, tutored tastings, impromptu food rants, scholarly debates, and the chance to meander the streets and covered Victorian market to visit 200 food stalls offering the best artisan tastes of the nation.
"Forty-thousand people come to town for this festival, but 15 years ago this didn't exist," says Kim Waters, the new chief executive of what has become one of Britain's most popular gastronomic events. "The food industry has changed massively here."
En route to Abergavenny, along the River Wye, we find The Crown at Whitebrook, a luxurious little country inn where chef James Sommerin's seasonal cuisine - stylish dishes such as poached and roast squab with duck liver, butterscotch and gingerbread - have won him a Michelin star for the past four years running. It's a perfect base for exploring the spectacular ruins of Tintern Abby or hiking the Wye valley's forested trails.Report Typo/Error
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