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Eat: North Wales

Fat, tender mussels, prize-winning vegetables, world-famous sea salt — just some of the local produce drawing talented chefs to the town of Conwy and neighbouring Anglesey

Eat: North Wales
Conwy Castle and Harbour. Image: Alamy

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The flesh is bright orange and plump, the shell an inky blue-black, with an iridescent sheen. Known locally as ‘black diamonds’, Conwy mussels may be the best example of this bivalve I’ve ever tasted — and I’ve tried a lot. This is no doubt because they’re raked by hand. To do so, the fisherman heads down the River Conwy, out into the estuary, in a small boat known as a dory, armed with a 20ft pitch-pine rake.

I’m sitting on a wall at the edge of the river with Tom Jones, who, together with father Trevor, has run family business Conwy Mussels for more than 20 years. It’s stormy, so we haven’t been able to head out in the dory. Instead, Tom nurses a cup of tea and explains: “Mussel raking has been done on the Conwy for hundreds of years and at one time there were 90 mussel fishermen. We’re the only place in the UK to hand rake for mussels and this makes them sustainable and a better product.”

He explains how the mussels are hand raked from the bottom of the estuary. “Historically that’s how they were always fished. Most places, they’re rope-grown or dredged — this is the only place that’s maintained that tradition. It’s a process that suits us — the mussel beds here are a rocky terrain, and hand raking gets into the cracks and crevices.”

The mussels are only fished in months with an ‘R’ in them, thus from September to April — leaving them to freely breed in the summer. I wander along the 700-year-old walls of this town in North Wales, taking in the majestic castle before heading to the quirky Castle Hotel, on the High Street — with its glorious Victorian facade of Ruabon brick and flint chips — to see how the mussels fare when matched with local beers. The black diamonds are fat, tender, and taste of the sea, working well with little 1/3 pint glasses of Clogwyn Gold, Welsh Pride and Dawson’s Dark — that latter being specially made for the hotel and named after the artist who traded his paintings for lodgings.

A few miles from town, I discover Bodnant Welsh Food. A converted derelict farm, it opened in 2012 to showcase Welsh food, with half of what’s sold in the farm shop made on the premises. There’s a dairy, a bakery, a butchery and upstairs is the Hayloft Restaurant, headed up by chef Andrew Sheridan, whose gourmet creations draw heavily on the finest local produce. Andrew speaks enthusiastically of one of his favourite suppliers, Medwyn’s of Anglesey. “All of the veg that you see on my plates is picked by Medwyn and his son Alwyn and delivered to us every day,” he explains.

And so I head to the Isle of Anglesey — once known as the Mother of Wales because the soil is so fertile — to meet Alwyn (Medwyn is suffering from a terrible cold) on the seven acres that the family call ‘the land’. He challenges me to pull a parsnip. I tug hard and what emerges is almost half my height. Not only does Medwyn’s supply local restaurants, it’s also an 11-time gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show.

I skirt the coast before reaching the headquarters of Halen Môn, a producer of award-winning salt made from Anglesey seawater. Alison and David Lea-Wilson fell in love with the island while students at Bangor University, but it wasn’t until they took a saucepan filled with water from the Menai Strait and boiled it away on their stove that they realised what amazing salt it produced. Now their quite stunning crystals have Protected Designation of Origin status and chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal adore them. “We’ve gone from our own kitchen to production on a global scale,” says Alison.

Just a few miles away, on the edge of a caravan park, sits The Marram Grass Cafe, where brothers Liam and Ellis Barrie have turned what was once a place selling all-day breakfasts into a buzzing restaurant where they’re brilliantly creative with the best ingredients Anglesey has to offer. “We really struggled at first to find local produce because people saw us as two young Scouse toerags — we were teenagers and struggled to be taken seriously. But then people saw what we wanted to do with our food, and they came to us,” says Liam. “We’re two brothers playing in a little shed. It shouldn’t really work, because we’re in the middle of nowhere, but it does.”

As you cross the Menai Suspension Bridge onto the island, you come to the town of Menai Bridge. Here you’ll find the Sosban and the Old Butchers Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment run in a former butcher’s shop by husband and wife Stephen and Bethan Stevens. With room for just 16 diners inside Sosban (Welsh for ‘saucepan’), I’m lucky to get a table. I take delight in their ‘no choices’ tasting menu, which embraces all that Mam Cymru (Mother of Wales) has to offer — served on a plate with elan and grace. And here I can once again enjoy the fruits of Medwyn’s green fingers. As the rather lovely Bethan says, “Medwyn’s vegetables are amazing. We’re lucky to have him.”

Oysters at Bryn Williams

Oysters at Bryn Williams

Four places for a taste of Conwy and Anglesey

Sosban and the Old Butchers Restaurant
A tiny, family-run, fine-dining restaurant that opens only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and serves a set menu. On our visit, there was a foamy wild mushroom purée, topped with seeds and golden raisins and a celeriac risotto with pearls of said root vegetable masquerading as rice, topped with apple and coffee. Mains included partly salted cod with potato puffs and onion rings, and a dish of venison sourced from nearby Coed y Brenin Forest Park, in Snowdonia National Park.
How much: Four-course set menu without wine, £49 per person.

Hayloft Restaurant
Chef Andrew Sheridan has turned a restaurant serving ham, egg and chips into a fine dining affair, with a seasonally changing menu using much of the produce found downstairs in the Bodnant Welsh Food centre. There’s a tasting menu and a la carte option, and on our winter-visit, dishes included starters of Welsh lamb ravioli with onion stock and leeks, and goat’s cheese with heritage beetroot. Mains were miso-braised pork belly and seared turbot with celeriac, brown shrimp and shellfish velouté. A cheese plate included local varieties (some made in the centre’s dairy): Bodnant Caerphilly, Perl Las, Golden Cenarth and Perl Wen.
How much: Dinner from £27 per person.

The Marram Grass Cafe
Not far from stunning Llanddwyn Beach this shed on a caravan park turns out playful plates using the best local produce (the Barrie brothers who run it cherish a locavore ethos, so aim to source as much as they can from Anglesey and the surrounding area). Oysters are from Dwyran, a stone’s-throw away, and are baked with leek, pancetta and a cheese-cream sauce. The specials board on our visit boasted Newborough ryeland lamb variations with tatus Anna (potatoes) and sautéed mushrooms, plus oven-roasted wood pigeon with beetroot variations.
How much: Three-course dinner, £26 per person.

Bryn Williams at Porth Eirias
Welsh-born chef Bryn Williams is the patron of London’s Odette’s but here in Colwyn Bay his name is over the door of a more casual beachfront bistro, offering the best of the coast’s seafood and more. There are oysters from the Menai Strait, Conwy mussels, lobster rolls and fish pie, as well as a number of dishes featuring Welsh lamb. Locally made ice creams and cheeses feature on the dessert menu.
How much: Three-course dinner from £17 per person.

David Lea-Wilson in the Menai Strait. Image: Alamy

David Lea-Wilson in the Menai Strait. Image: Alamy

Five food finds

Gelato
Homemade gelato from both Parisalla’s of Conwy and the Red Boat Ice Cream Parlour, in Beaumaris, Anglesey.

Black Diamonds
Conwy mussels, hand-raked — fat, juicy bivalves.

Aberffraw biscuits
Shell-shaped shortbread biscuits, named after the village where they originated.

Menai oysters
Grown in the Menai Strait, where tidal currents ebb and flow around sandbanks, bringing in a steady supply of food, helping to give them a unique taste.

Halen Môn Sea Salt
Anglesey’s own — available in plain, smoked, vanilla or spiced varieties.

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Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)