Wales has a reputation in England as a lush land full of rolling hills, country bumpkins and peasant farmers. In return the Welsh harbour a strong disregard for the uppity uptight English. A fascinating dynamic, but pretty much the extent of my knowledge about Wales before we visited. No one mentioned anything about food.
Little did I know but we were about to visit one of the best restaurants we’ve dined at in the last 3 years. We’ve eaten at close to 1000 restaurants across 50+ countries in recent years and this one ranks in my favourite 5. So when I heap praise on this fine establishment, please understand it’s no small feat and certainly not something I do every day.
We were at the start of our epic road trip around Wales and had already experienced the eye-opening beauty of Pembrokeshire over the previous few days. I had been floored by the bewildering beauty and serene sceneries. But when we mentioned to the manager at Asheston Eco Barns that we were heading to Wolf’s Castle next, she commented, “Oh, you’re going to enjoy eating there”. Sure, that sounded promising but nothing particularly unusual that I hadn’t heard before. I found out later that the Welsh are notoriously modest, and in fact we were in for an incredibly surprising treat.
Finding the hotel was relatively easy. The town of Wolf’s Castle is fairly small and this was the only hotel in town. The hotel sported a cute country cottage feel with the facilities you’d expect from a standard hotel (check prices...). As we walked past the restaurant to our hotel room I noticed a few awards on the wall in recognition of the dining experience. But again, nothing unlike I’ve seen hundreds of times before.
The unassuming Welsh culture is sneaky. They don’t toot their flute as much as they should, and as such receive a lot less recognition than they deserve.
After a short rest in our room, we made our way to the hotel’s Allt yr Afon Restaurant for dinner.
As soon as I picked up the menu I knew we were in for a real treat. You can tell a lot about a head chef by the menu – the local produce they select, their inspirations, their creativity, and their sense of adventure. Culinary art at its very heart is an art form – designing flavours, taming textures, conjuring aromas and presenting visual art on a plate. A dish fashioned by someone who absolutely loves food speaks volumes to me, regardless if they’re a home cook or Michelin star chef.
We chose from the early bird menu which was simpler, but didn’t fail to impress. I’ll let the photos do the talking, but be warned… you may want to place a towel over your keyboard in case of extreme (and very appropriate) drooling:
Our kids enjoyed:
Battered fish bites (made with real, fresh fish), chips; and
Preseli gold sausages, mash, gravy.
Wow! We were in heaven. I asked the wait staff to pass my utmost thanks to the head chef. The kids were tired after a big day so the dessert was delivered to our room 30 minutes later to give us time to put the kids to bed.
When we returned to our room the phone rang. The chef was very upset. What? It turned out he knew we were coming and wanted to prepare a special tasting menu just for us. But the staff didn’t let him know we were there until after we left. So that meant the next night we’d have to come back for more. Ok, twist my arm a bit more!
Head Chef, Tom Simmons, reached the quarterfinals of the 2011 season of hit TV show Masterchef: The Professionals. And his recipes have been featured in the tantalising cookbook “Relish Wales - Second Helping: Original Recipes from the Regions Finest Chefs and Restaurants”. This cookbook is the next best thing to eating at the Wolfscastle Country Hotel. In fact I got my mother-in-law a copy, hears hoping for our next dinner visit ;)
The following day after a deliciously inspiring breakfast, we met Tom and I gushed about the previous night’s dining experience, and he was entirely modest. With full tummies we spent the day exploring Pembrokeshire and walked around Pembroke Castle, “the Mother of all castles”.
I was really looking forward to getting back to the hotel that afternoon, and couldn’t get the kids bathed and dressed fast enough. This time when we walked into the restaurant we had high expectations. I knew something special was coming and I wasn’t wrong: an amazing 5-course tasting menu that highlighted both the local, fresh produce but also the head chef’s contagious passion for food.
If you didn’t get a towel by now you really should because your saliva glands are about to kick into overdrive:
We were floored by the end of the evening. I really had no idea this type of world-class cuisine could be found in a small country town in Wales. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. But I found afterwards that the same passion for quality food has been spreading around rural Wales in recent years. More and more envelope-pushing chefs are stepping into the limelight, putting Wales onto the culinary map.
Wrap Up This Deliciousness
We absolutely adored Wales, but regardless of everything else we experienced, I’d fly back to Wales just to eat at Wolfcastle’s restaurant, Allt yr Afon. It was really that good. Now I just have to practice the pronunciation of that name a few more times.