A foodie tour of the Vale of Glamorgan in southeast Wales 

There’s an admirable sense of culinary ambition in this up-and-coming region

Llanerch Vineyard in Pontyclun, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales
Llanerch Vineyard in Pontyclun
(Image credit: llanerch.co.uk)

There are many regions of the UK that are famous for their culinary scene – Cornwall, for example, with that whole “Stein effect”, or Lancashire, where the likes of Northcote and recently voted gastropub of the year The Parkers Arms are spearheading a powerful and delicious movement. And then there are other regions that are building their culinary scene, but aren’t quite there yet. The Vale of Glamorgan is in that latter category.

And, I must stress, that isn’t a complaint or a criticism. Everyone has to start somewhere and, frankly, it’s only a year or two away from being something rather special. There are some very, very good things dotted around the Vale of Glamorgan and, even when things aren’t quite clicking, there’s an admirable sense of ambition here and, most importantly, a sense of growing local support for such things.

A genuinely impressive vineyard

The Vale of Glamorgan – or “The Vale” as it’s known to its friends – is a county borough in southeast Wales. On the map it’s just to the left of Cardiff, just to the right of Bridgend, just below Rhonnda Cynon Taff and just above the Bristol Channel. In short it’s prime farmland, great for seafood and packed with beautiful views. And that meant my starting point for a few days of highly enjoyable exploring, the Llanerch Vineyard in Pontyclun, was pretty much slap bang in the centre.

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Yes, you read that correctly. Vineyard. This genuinely impressive venue produces a range of whites and rosés (under the Cariad label) and, apparently, can claim to be the UK’s first vineyard hotel. Since its early days, the building and operation as a whole has expanded, with huge event spaces – it’s very popular for local weddings as you can imagine – and new extensions that house very pleasing, comfortable rooms. The restaurant is also rather splendid, although curious at the time of my visit that the wine pairings offered didn’t include the vineyard’s own wines. There’s a nice modesty to that, sure, but it feels like a missed opportunity. Lunch on the appealing terrace, looking across some of the vines, was good though, with nods to the seasonal and local and cooking that more than justified its AA rosette status.

Drink what the locals drink

For dinner, we ventured a few miles to The Three Horseshoes Country Inn in Moulton, a big but cosy local pub that, frankly, is doing everything you want from a big, cosy, local pub – and then some. Approaching the bar, I noticed two pump clips I’d not seen before, for Dragon Ale and Dragon Breath. One of the things I’d encourage anyone to do while travelling is “drink local” so I asked the barman if they were local beers. He grinned, nodded and said “more than that, they’re both brewed exclusively for us”.

That was, of course, the correct answer and I tried both with that simplest of suppers, the thing I find hardest to decline in a pub – ham, egg and chips. And it was good. It's not a complex or challenging menu at The Three Horseshoes. They just give the people what they want – Welsh rarebit, garlic mushrooms, the aforementioned HEC and burger in our case – use the best ingredients they can get and just keep it simple. Someone’s clearly got the foodie memo as the Welsh rarebit comes under a (slightly heavy) drizzle of balsamic glaze, but small steps, people. Small steps.

Forage Farm Shop and Kitchen at Penllyn Estate

Forage Farm Shop and Kitchen at Penllyn Estate

Time for Welsh tea and gin

After a decent breakfast and a comfortable night’s sleep at the vineyard, the morning was spent on a tea estate. Yeah, I know, if the Welsh vineyard was a surprise… We’re met at the gate by Lucy George, the MD of Peterston Tea Estate and her three scary-sounding but actually very friendly hounds. As well as MD, Lucy’s business card should probably say gardener, tea maker (in both senses) and all points in-between as this is a relatively small operation (as you’d imagine), but a fascinating one.

After touring the plants – hounds cheerily at our heels – we’re shown the production “line” which, while basic, clearly does the job. Lucy talks us through her range of Welsh Black, Toasted Green and Steamed Green teas and they’re quite remarkable. If my word isn’t endorsement enough, the teas are available at Fortnum & Mason, which should give an indication that this is no novelty act, it’s a serious business producing very high-quality results.

From there, it’s a small detour to Forage Farm Shop and Kitchen at Penllyn Estate which does for The Vale (and a little further afield) what the likes of Tebay Services is doing for Cumbria. There’s a great café, a wide range of local produce, an excellent butcher’s counter, and much friendly, local knowledge available should you choose to converse with the team. There’s also an ice cream cart from the wonderfully named Fablas. Based on a couple of scoops, this local company, who make ice cream using locally sourced milk and cream from grass-fed cows, are also aptly named.

Take a gin tour at Hensol Castle Distillery

Take a gin tour at Hensol Castle Distillery

We doubled back on ourselves for a gin tour at Hensol Castle Distillery. Yes, it’s Great Britain in the 21st century, it’s rather inevitable there’ll be a gin distillery but: a) this is a very good gin; and b) it’s not often you find a distillery inside and underneath a 17th century castle. That sense of history spreads to the tour too, which goes a little deeper than many.

A beautiful, peaceful retreat

Home for the next couple of nights is Hide at St Donats and it’s quite the experience. That may sound like a euphemism, the travel equivalent of “he has a nice personality…” but it’s not meant to. The Hide is a collection of quite remarkable accommodation, from the most compact of houses tucked away in the woods, to three handbuilt wooden “cabans”, one of which is going to be our home for the next couple of nights.

Set in a field overlooking the Welsh Coast (and a vast number of rabbits), Hide is less glamping, more just a beautiful, peaceful retreat. The main caban contains the bed, and a wood burning stove, plus a little storage, and powerpoints (this being the 21st century after all), while a nearby converted shepherd’s hut provides the nearly-en-suite bathroom, with shower, toilet and basin, and the kitchenette houses a small fridge/freezer, mini oven, hob and kettle. The biggest problem at night is slipping out to use the bathroom and then spending 20 minutes staring at the skies, as light pollution is not really a thing in this part of the world.

The Hide is a collection of quite remarkable accommodation

The Hide is a collection of quite remarkable accommodation
(Image credit: Alun Callender)

Unexpected options thrown into the mix…

It's also a short drive to the town of Llantwit Major which, as you meander through, is much bigger than it first appears. Dinner is at The Old Swan Inn and… well, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Earlier, Paula, owner of Hide, had been telling a local food legend of how chef Tom Watts-Jones returned to the area from working in the likes of St John in London, and opened a pub, the Hare & Hounds in Aberthin, aiming to bring that level of cuisine to the area AND celebrate the excellent local larder/support local producers. And, on opening night, eight locals staged a walk out of the pub because they didn’t have chips on the menu.

I’m reminded of how The Vale is still on a bit of a journey at The Old Swan, which is an enjoyable but frustrating meal. The sense of “don’t scare the horses” is evident from the menu. That means a board proudly declares they do a “pie of the day”, that’s no bad thing. As the previous night’s ham, egg and chips clearly demonstrated, there’s nothing wrong with an “if it ain’t broke…” attitude. And there’s clearly talent in this kitchen. However, it’s just… OK.

Old Swan Inn at Llantwit Major

Old Swan Inn at Llantwit Major
(Image credit: Liquid Light/Alamy Stock Photo)

So starters throw a couple of rather unexpected options into the mix and it’s one of those we choose, a little courgette and sweetcorn fritter. Sadly, they’ve seen the inside of the fryer a little too long but the flavours – there’s some punchy spicing in the mix – and their form, which suggests they’ve been made that day from actual vegetables, makes that easier to forgive. That the “pie” turns out to be “casserole with a lid” frankly isn’t a problem. The pastry is great – and appears homemade – and the filling, slow cooked beef brisket, is absolutely superb. It’s a little under seasoned for my palate, but one spoonful of mustard and I’m a very happy man. It comes with chips which, ironically, haven’t seen the inside of the fryer for long enough, and I’ve chosen vegetables of the day.

These, somewhat bizarrely, turn out to be parsnips. Curried parsnips. The spicing is excellent and they are immaculately cooked; they just don’t belong on this plate of food. The other side of the table is chuckling about this, and their perfectly cooked battered cod, until they dip a similarly not-quite-crispy-enough chip into the curry sauce. And discover it’s a blended curried parsnip. It’s an odd experience, of really decent highs and hilarious lows. On the plus side, it shows that there’s talent and ambition here, and a willingness to nudge their clientele into some new directions. On the downside, they need some guidance. And considerably fewer parsnips.

Goodsheds in Barry

Goodsheds in Barry
(Image credit: 3 Eyed Raven Productions/Alamy Stock Photo)

Less is more, chaps…

The following day makes it easy to forget random veg, with a drive out to Barry and the Goodsheds, a brilliantly repurposed bit of railway land, that again shows the ambition of the area. Converted railway carriages on the original sidings house a number of small, artisan shops. Elsewhere, 54 repurposed shopping containers house some 20 independents, offering everything from a haircut to hearing aids and, particularly, some street food ideas given a step towards bricks and mortar and a permanent address. Service is via an app/QR code, which makes it easy to sit in the (surprising warmth of the) sun and graze without grazing. A couple of dishes are, as is often the case with street food, trying a little too hard to be “dirty” – less is more, chaps, less is so often more – but a grilled cheese from Mr Croquewich, and some grilled things from Meat & Greek are first rate. The beer shop and tap, Goodbar, also proves to be aptly named.

The best meal of the trip

After a detour to St Cadoc’s Church in Llancarfan, at Paula’s recommendation, to see the incredible medieval murals that cover the walls and were discovered quite by accident in 2005, we make our way to The Roost on Rock Road at St Athan, for what turns out to be the best meal of the trip and the sort of menu that’s very successfully straddling the old and the new, from a crowd-pleasing, stacked-to-the-point-of-jaw-threatening burger and Buffalo wings, to a superb crab risotto, with toasted seeds and shaved parmesan, and very well executed, clean and fresh crispy chicken stir-fry, with chervil pesto. Yes, for the record, there are also chips on the menu. Spicing is unapologetic, where it needs to be. Flavours are bold. And the ingredients, which are at the heart of this up-and-coming region, are impeccable.

Cornwall probably doesn’t need to look over its shoulder just yet, but there are good things to be found and eaten in the Vale of Glamorgan and the numbers are growing. I’d get in now if I were you…

Neil Davey was a guest of the Vale of Glamorgan tourism board; visitthevale.com

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