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.
It's also here that we encounter another True Taste winner, wild food forager Raoul van den Broucke, a supplier to several notable area restaurants.
"The chefs are most interested in the wild mushrooms and ramsons, wild garlic, and onions," says van den Broucke, who collects sweet pennywort, feathery wood ear fungi and chanterelles, samphire and sea spinach for chefs as far away as London.
But even rural pubs provide simple but stellar meals. At The Bell, a 17th-century coach house in near Skenfrith, owner William Hutchings augments the menu with vegetables from the kitchen garden and wild game he shoots himself on the nearby Blackwater Estate. The Hardwick, a country pub near Abergavenny, received the Good Food Guide top award for local food, which owner and Michelin-star chef Stephen Terry, a Walnut Tree alumnus, says is easy, working so close to his favourite farms.
And at Nantyderry, just south of Abergavenny, celebrity chef Matt Tebbutt has made The Foxhunter a destination gastro-pub too, augmenting his seasonal menu with wild garlic, rocket and sea spinach. You can order his set wild foods menu, or arrange a walk in the woods with forager van den Broucke, then cook your finds in back at the restaurant kitchen.
CAPITAL FLAVOUR IN CARDIFF
Back in Cardiff, perhaps the best way to taste fresh Welsh food is to hit the markets. At the weekly Riverside Community Market, set up next to the Millennium Stadium every Sunday, small-scale producers sell everything from artisan breads and free-range eggs to preserves, organic vegetables and farmhouse cheese.
Exploring the glass-roofed historic shopping streets of Cardiff also turns up some gems for food lovers. In the Royal Arcade - the city's oldest covered Victorian street - Wally's Delicatessen has all manner of international and gourmet food products, and we leave with a waxed Black Bomber Welsh cheddar and boxes of flakey Welsh Halen Môn sea salt from the Anglesey Sea Salt Co. In the Castle Arcade, we find a killer three-cheese Welsh Rarebit at Madame Fromage, a lovely cheese shop and slow-food café with 150 different cheeses on offer. It's a brilliant stop for a hearty lunch of broccoli and Stilton soup or Welsh lamb cawl.
Locals also swear by the vegetarian lunches at Crumbs and its Cardiff curries - from the upscale Indian cuisine at Mint and Mustard to the cheap £5 feast of chicken curry on chips (the Welsh answer to poutine) at Dorothy's along Chippy Alley, a late-night nosh after several pints of local Brains beer.
We duck into the historic Cardiff Market - set in an impressive Victorian building in the heart of the city's pedestrian shopping area - to talk to long-time stall holders, like the fishmongers at E. Ashton who have been selling fish here since 1891. Manager Jonathan Adams offers a taste of traditional laverbread - a kind of mushy local seaweed, reminiscent of nori, that's cooked in bacon fat and spread on toast - and the chewy cooked welks and cockles that locals buy for snacks. At A.W. Griffiths, the chatty butchers are already sold out of their popular Welsh Dragon sausage - a spicy mixture of pork, leeks and chilies - and at G. Anthony Butchers, Gavin Burgess offers a recipe for faggots, the Welsh version of haggis.
The classic stalls are jammed with bakers selling fresh baguettes, piles of cabbage and parsnips, and yes, leeks. But the true champion of all things Welsh is butcher Brian Morgan who, for 25 years, has been selling what, for him, will always be Wales's premiere product.
"Welsh lamb - it's a small breed, raised in the mountains and the salt marshes - and it's the best lamb in the world."
Ffresh is Cardiff's locovore restaurant, set in the Wales Millennium Centre. www.ffresh.org.uk
Cardiff Market opens at 8 a.m., Monday through Saturday. www.cardiff-market.co.uk
Madame Fromage is Cardiff's premiere cheese monger. www.madamefromage.co.uk
Wally's Delicatessen is a gourmet food store set in the historic Royal Arcade in Cardiff. www.wallysdeli.co.uk
The Riverside Market in Cardiff is open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Fizhamon Embankment along the River Taff. www.riversidemarket.org.uk
The Crown at Whitebrook (Monmouth) has had a Michelin star for four years running. www.crownatwhitebrook.co.uk The Walnut Tree is the Michelin-star restaurant and inn just east of Abergavenn www.thewalnuttreeinn.com
The Bell at Skenfrith is famed for sourcing local produce. www.skenfrith.co.uk
The Foxhunter (Nantyderry) offers a wild food menu. www.thefoxhunter.com