Features

Where to eat in Abergavenny

This Weekend, this picturesque Welsh town hosts its own annual gastronomic event, described as the Glastonbury of food festivals

Surrounded by three undulating and iconic mountains – the Skirrid, the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf – Monmouthshire’s Abergavenny is often referred to as the gateway to Wales. The medieval market town has a bustling community all year round and a growing reputation for its food and drink. Indeed, the annual Abergavenny Food Festival, from 21-22 September this year, attracts some of the biggest names from the culinary world to take part in tastings, discussions and demonstrations.

More than 30,000 visitors are expected to descend on Abergavenny for the festival, which each year generates an estimated £4 million for the local economy. The event was created in 1999 by two local farmers and now takes over the entire town. Shops and restaurants join in to showcase their wares, while more than 200 artisan producers’ stalls and street food vendors pack the narrow streets, the Market Hall, the theatre and even the castle ruins. Featuring special feasts, masterclasses, workshops and cookery classes from some of the best chefs and food writers in the business, the weekend has been described as the Glastonbury of food festivals. This year’s highlights include appearances from José Pizarro, Anissa Helou, Rachel Roddy, Elly Pear and Asma Khan. Also on hand will be Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, founders of the original and highly influential St John restaurant in London, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Much of the action revolves around The Angel Hotel in the town centre. Built in 1829 as a coaching inn, it has been refurbished to a high standard in recent years. The hotel’s main bar, The Foxhunter, is named after a champion showjumping horse that won Britain’s only gold medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Its sumptuous leather sofas, real log fire and courtyard garden make it the perfect place to enjoy a pint of Wye Valley beer, and it is very much a convivial hub for the festival. A recent addition to the hotel is The Angel Bakery next door. It sells its breads, cakes and pastries over the counter, and supplies a number of restaurants. Among the speciality sourdough loaves are hazelnut and currant, and sprouted rye and wheat grain. The lunchtime Westcombe Cheddar and onion toasties are worth a detour in their own right. The hotel also owns The Art Shop & Chapel in a converted church. Its shop sells ceramics and books, while a café serves seasonal and good-value dishes. The lunch menu changes all the time, but a typical choice might include Brunswick Blue cheese and onion tart with Wye Valley salad, or Middle White pork rillettes with cornichons and an Angel Bakery baguette.

Around the corner, and close to the town’s Waitrose & Partners store, is new café Bean & Bread, which specialises in coffee, cakes and ‘things on toast’. Its Italian-style baked beans with thyme, paprika and Welsh cheese on toast comes highly recommended. Abergavenny has a number of traditional pubs, but if it’s Welsh beer you’re in search of, look no further than the Hen & Chickens, owned by Cardiff’s Brains Brewery. A Grade II-listed building, it’s a timeless refuge in which to enjoy a wellkept pint of Brains’ The Rev. James.

The two most celebrated restaurants in the area are The Good Food Guide-rated The Walnut Tree and The Hardwick, but the hottest new place to eat in the town itself is The Gaff, which launched over the summer. The Gaff is the first venture for Danielle Phillips and Dan Saunders, a young couple who worked at The Walnut Tree for several years under chef Shaun Hill. Occupying what was previously three crumbling and derelict sheds close to Abergavenny market, it’s a light and airy space with a small alfresco dining area outside. The menu features around 20 ‘small plates’ such as monkfish, aubergine, ginger, lime and coriander, or pig’s head fritter, cheek, smoked eel and apple.

Abergavenny also has some good independent food and drink shops. Chesters Wine Merchants offers a carefully sourced range of wines, many from small producers, while The Marches Delicatessen showcases some of the very best in local charcuterie, preserves and cheeses from the Welsh Marches – everything from crumbly Wye Valley ewe’s cheese to the blue-veined cow’s milk Mouldy Mabel

YEAR-ROUND ATTRACTIONS

The Market Hall
Under its glass roof and Gothic clock tower, the Market Hall (above) is the main venue for the annual food festival, but it is also still one of the busiest markets in Wales with traders turning up most days of the week, all year round. The general market runs on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, but there are also regular farmers’ and flea markets, and craft and antique fairs. For a true taste of the region, visit the stall serving fresh, sugar-encrusted Welsh cakes, still hot from a sizzling griddle.

The Walnut Tree
A short drive from the town centre, The Walnut Tree at Llanddewi Skirrid has been one of the UK’s most famous restaurants since the 1960s when it was run by Franco Taruschio and regulars included the legendary food writer Elizabeth David. Now owned by The Angel Hotel, it is run by highly respected chef Shaun Hill, who is in his seventies and still cooking. Shaun’s dishes are seasonal and the menu changes every day, but signatures include calf ’s brains with brown butter, parsley and capers, and fillet of beef with beef shin bourguignon. thewalnuttreeinn.com]

White Castle Vineyard
This year is the 10th anniversary of Robb and Nicola Merchant planting the first of 4,000 vines at their property in the beautiful village of Llanvetherine, near Abergavenny. White Castle Vineyard is now recognised as one of the top Welsh wine producers, and has an award winning range that includes red, white, rosé, sparkling and fortified products. The couple also run vineyard tours at weekends and bank holidays with tasters in the restored 16th-century Croft Barn included in the ticket price. whitecastlevineyard.com