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Words by Bronwen Batey

As you travel from England into Wales, you can feel the pulse of history, the stirring sound of song and mythical legends of dragons echoing through the valleys.
Wales feels familiar and different – the double language signs, hills dotted with
sheep and horses, many with a turret or two. Norman forts
and castles criss-cross the horizon of Wales – the castle capital of the world.

 

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South Wales is a region rich in architectural wonders, from the ethereal ruins of Tintern Abbey to the only remaining medieval river bridge in Britain of Monnow Gate and Bridge, there’s also the Roman Town of Caerwent, and the previously buried, and now flourishing Dewstow Gardens to explore.

Overlooked by Sugar Loaf Mountain, Abergavenny is a hub for Brecon Beacon walkers. The town unsurprisingly has its own 13th century castle, and street names such Traitors’ Lane reveal its rebellious past, yet today its brightly painted houses and proliferation of coffee shops, market hall, art galleries, and friendly locals create a charming present.

We are here for Abergavenny’s reputation as a foodie capital; celebrated by way of its eclectic array of restaurants, cafés, delicatessens and acclaimed food festival, held each year in September.

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The Angel Hotel

Stay at The Angel in Abergavenny and you are a guest of the food-centric House of Caradog, a family-owned collection of hotels, cottages, art gallery, bakery and a selection of restaurants in or around the historic town of Abergavenny.

Four of the seven cottages and all 31 guestrooms at The Angel are in town, with the other cottages at the Walnut Tree Inn a few miles outside. A grand 19th century coaching inn, today The Angel is an award-winning boutique hotel, ideally located to explore the area, with the station only a few minutes’ walk away and the castle even less.

Our home for two nights was the cosy 17th century Sugarloaf Cottage, a two bedroom house opposite the hotel. Arriving to find a fridge full of local produce – yoghurt and berries, smoked salmon and fresh milk, with the softest sourdough to drizzle honey over as we relaxed in front of the fire, it was the Aromatherapy Associates bath amenities that beckoned for some serious lolling in the huge bath.

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Walking the two minutes to The Angel Hotel, you’re soon charmed into a time and place where kindness comes naturally and friends are made easily. This warmth continues into the hotel, and across its two bars and restaurants, whilst the tea room is where I hear the traditional bara brith and custard slice are the talk of the town, and the secret wine cellar is just calling for a private dinner party. With artwork by local and Welsh artists illuminating your way and flowers popping with colour, it’s all very cosy and beautifully decorated.

 

Wining & Dining

Abergavenny has a leading role in the unfolding food revolution of Wales, with The Angel Hotel and Walnut Tree as its supporting co-stars.

Putting the town firmly on the gastro-map is the now famous Abergavenny Food Festival held each year in September. This weekend long celebration brings local and international chefs, journalists, authors and artisanal producers together offering market stalls, masterclasses, talks, book launches, music and great food.

The summit for walkers may be to the nearby Brecon Beacons, but the pinnacle of dining here is The Walnut Tree, two miles out of town with legendary chef Shaun Hill at the pass since 2008. What appears as an unassuming country pub is a Michelin-starred restaurant, and after settling by the fire in the bar, it’s the welcome from the staff that makes you realise you’re somewhere special.

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Walnut Tree’s eclectic wine list is a showcase of affordable and fine bottles focussing on small producers, ranging from local drops to big guns from Burgundy and Bordeaux, alongside southern hemisphere favourites and a few lesser known wines from Slovenia, Hungary and Georgia.

There is an à la carte menu, however leaving it in the chef’s hands, we chose the five course tasting menu with wine pairing.  By the first course, we soon realised the Welsh do everything bigger and bolder.  The twice baked cheese souffle and Welsh black truffle was an explosion of Lancashire cheese, softened by a young white Burgundy.  Next, a delicate sea bream in dashi broth warmed with lemongrass and miso was matched with a Sauvignon Blanc from Spain; naturally earthy, its aromatics heightened the broth’s umami.   The Otter Valley duck with pommes purée and morel gravy melded effortlessly with a Pinot Noir from California, its dark berries, chocolate and oaky vanilla palate adding a sweet contrast to the gamey meat.  We took a break with a cheese course, (slightly bemused it was all French), yet just as delicious paired with a Tawny Port from the Douro.

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The final flurry of two desserts opened with a chocolate and praline choux bun, embodying childhood memories of chocolate covered hazelnuts; followed by more reminiscing over the crunchy-crystalised topping of the Muscat crème caramel infused with prunes and raisins, measured with a sweet late harvest Riesling from New Zealand.

Nothing is fussy here, it’s pure comfort and joy on a plate.
This is a unique Michelin star restaurant with food at its heart and service its soul, where
an international, classical approach showcases honest dishes without the frills or
frou-frou you might expect with a Michelin star.

Back in Abergavenny, lunch the next day was at the Kitchen at the Chapel. A sister business to the nearby Art Shop, this is a community hub where local artists and designers’ work is the backdrop to the main show of the open kitchen. Curating a small and sumptuous menu of soups, salads and sandwiches, with ingredients foraged or grown from their gardens, the homemade fruit cordials are zippy and fresh and the cakes much too enticing.

That evening it was a delight to dine at The Angel’s Oak Room Restaurant. Specialising in fuss-free British cooking, with big pours and large plates, expect smoked haddock fishcakes, filet of cod and locally-reared beef on the menu whilst the mighty seafood platter was a colourful display of smoked salmon mussels, garlic prawns ,crab, tempura oysters, chilli garlic scallops and more, designed for sharing, obviously. The dessert menu was so tempting however it was the hokey pokey vanilla and honeycomb ice cream layered with hot chocolate that somehow made its way to our table.

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Wine here is curated in three styles, from sparkling wines by the glass to well-priced Angel-selected bottles, and a Reserve selection including gems such as Chateau St Michelle Chardonnay from Washington State, Domaine Chanson Meursault and a vertical collection of Wynn’s John Riddoch from Australia. We stayed local and enjoyed an Ancre Hill Chardonnay, its sharp citrus softened by a biscuity finish.

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Home amongst the vines

Before heading out to explore the vineyards in the area, we chanced upon Chester’s Wine Merchants in town, a buzzing wine shop and bar with a steady schedule of wine events and tastings – a must visit for wine buffs.

With vineyards popping up all over the UK, it may surprise some to hear that the first commercial vineyard was planted in 1875 at Castell Coch near Cardiff. Today Wales is home to around 40 vineyards and wines from Monmouthshire are consistent award winners, with nearby White Castle Vineyard at the receiving end of many of these trophies, and was the first Welsh vineyard to win Gold at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards and with a still red wine. Just a short drive from Abergavenny, White Castle Vineyard is uniquely located in a rain shadow, keeping the vines healthy and just a little thirsty, which is a good thing when it comes to creating concentrated, ripe berries.

Here, 11 acres produce a range of quality still and sparkling wine. Under the helm of Robb and Nicola, it was their dream to become farmers back in the early 1990s that led them to find that the sloping hills, well-draining soils and lower rainfall around White Castle were ideal for grape growing.

Chardonnay has recently been planted, but black grapes and red wines dominate here, in fact White Castle is the first commercial vineyard in the UK to grow Cabernet Franc, experimental and exciting.

Robb and Nicola are passionate torchbearers for the future of Welsh wines, visit their beautiful vineyard, medieval barn and tasting room, book a group tour and tasting, or enjoy wines by the glass as you soak up their enthusiasm for Welsh wines. If you’re a walker that likes wine, take the 20 mile circular route of the Three Castles Walk to link the medieval castles, White, Skenfrith and Grosmont.

Still wines take centre stage here. From whites made from the aromatic Phoenix and Siegerrebe to my personal favourites, the reds. The Regent is fruity and punchy with dark cherries, wonderful served slightly chilled, and there’s a robust Rondo, aged in oak for body and texture. Then there’s the showstopping Pinot Noir Précoce Reserve, with ripe layers of red berries and a subtle complexity that comes from ageing in barrels, if this is Wales’ answer to Pinot Noir, I’m in. My notes for the Pinot Noir Précoce 2022 just say ‘wow’. The balance, the tannin structure, the dark berries and clove spice that lingers on the finish is something I won’t forget for some time.

 

Pips ‘n pieces

Found just over two hours from London by train, Abergavenny is around 45 minutes’ drive from the capital of Cardiff.

The Angel has special accommodation packages including wine tours at White Castle Vineyard, an foraging experiences with an expert, whilst courses at local gardens are available at certain times of the year.

Guestrooms at The Angel start from £195 per room per night including breakfast for two

Sugarloaf Cottage starts from £343 per night

The Walnut Tree is open Wednesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.

The Abergavenny Food Festival takes place on 21st – 22nd September 2024. Full events programme available from 1st July.

The Angel Hotel

The Walnut Tree

Abergavenny Food Festival

Prices, opening times and information were correct at the time of our visit. Advanced bookings for hotel, dining and wine experiences are strongly recommended. Please check websites for exact details.