From the kitchen garden on the small hill behind the hotel to the honey used, which is – I believe – only used by the hotel and Fortnum & Mason, the produce in the kitchen is as local as possible
For a partly Welsh girl, I’m not very good at visiting Wales. Despite rumours to the contrary I wasn’t raised there either, rather in the equally rural hills of West Somerset, so it was rather lovely to head to the edge of the Snowdonia National Park a few weeks back to explore the local countryside and enjoy Ynyshir Hall.
Ynyshir Hall is the only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Wales. Set in charming, rambling grounds on the edge of a bird sanctuary, it is peaceful and a welcome change of pace from the city. Work is underway to build a spa and once that is complete there will be little missing from this little corner of Wales. The rooms are well kept and newly decorated, the staff friendly and the array of famous past guests impressive. I, however, went to Wales to eat.
Ynyshir Hall has recently taken on an exciting and friendly new head chef, Paul Croasdale, who is certainly on track to win a Michelin star very soon if the food we ate is anything to go on.
From the kitchen garden on the small hill behind the hotel to the honey used, which is – I believe – only used by the hotel and Fortnum & Mason, the produce in the kitchen is as local as possible. So local in fact that you can arrange foraging trips in the local hills to go and fetch some of it yourself.
We scrambled up in to the woods on the Saturday morning with our guide. We were on the look out for wood sorrel, wild garlic and somewhat surprisingly, gauze flowers, not widely known as edible.
Wood sorrel with its powerful citrus taste and beautiful clover-like leaves lit up the forest floor with bursts of vibrant green; shoots of wild garlic carpeted the ground near the beautifully clear stream.
Wild garlic is one of those ingredients enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment – much like the ubiquitous beetroot – and it seems to be on the menu of nearly every trendy establishment going. I can see why, with its powerful flavour and a fantastic hue. The flavour of the delicate white flowers is almost eye-wateringly punchy, though they look wonderful in a salad.
Pictured above: Ynyshir Hall in the verdant Welsh landscape
We’ve been collecting the stuff in carrier bags for years at home but with the current interest in foraged and wild herbs it seems to be taking over the city too. But why not? It is readily available, spreads like nothing on earth and makes a blindingly good pesto.
Gauze flowers, on the other hand, I think will be slower to take off. Similar in taste to a pea pod, they look fantastic but probably won’t form the basis of a dish any time soon. It is also a dangerous game to harvest the flowers, as anyone who has taken a stroll on the moor will tell you.
Time for dinner
With our Tupperware boxes full of wild and wonderful goodies we took a moment to sit on the hillside and look over the estuary. The scenery around the hall really is spectacular – from the dark peaks looming on the edge of Snowdonia to the marshy wetlands, every view was worth having a little sit for.
Pictured above: One of Paul Croasdale's dishes as Ynyshir Hall
It is a very good thing that there is so much excellent walking nearby, as it gives you a chance to walk off your breakfast, which if you choose comes with hand cut bacon. You can also make room for, in our case, the nine course tasting menu that waits for you back in the dining room. My advice is slip on something elasticated – unlike many tasting menus the portions here are gloriously generous and the menu even featured the herbs we foraged earlier in the day.
We started, after the obligatory pre-starter-starter starters, with an aerated wild garlic soup served in a Kilner jar (used in a previous life for jam at breakfast) with duck ham, beautifully spongy morels and a silky smooth slow cooked duck egg. Packed full of flavour, texture and interest it was quite phenomenal. It also filled me with that wonderfully smug feeling you get knowing that you are in some very small way responsible for the delight in front of you.
A delicate foie gras mousse with toasted hazelnuts and pear followed and it worked beautifully: rich, unctuous and perfectly balanced. Scallops and lamb both featured in well thought through dishes but the truly standout course came in the form of rabbit.
In addition to the succulent meat with its wild, mildly farmy taste, the plate was strewn with all the things a rabbit eats – from little carrots to cabbage and peas. It was a lovely combination not only of flavours but also thoughts and concepts.
I should also congratulate Paul on his desserts, which thankfully avoided the tendency to be too sweet. They had a wonderful tartness that cut through all of the sugar. I’m a difficult customer when it comes to puddings, but these passed with flying colours (especially as the predominant flavour of the main dessert was raspberry, which happens to be one of my favourites).
It was a genuinely fantastic meal, accompanied by very cleverly matched wines. I went to talk to Paul the following morning to compliment him on the food and poke about in the kitchen and larder.
A man down in the kitchen on that day, they were working around the clock. That said, they prepare breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner seven days a week so they work around the clock every day. The kitchen staff show great dedication to their work and strive constantly to better themselves and the food they send out. Hats off to them: they do a marvelous job and I’m sure they are set for big accolades in the near future.
I was reluctant to leave that quiet corner of Wales festooned with daffodils, and not only because I’d eaten so much that moving was uncomfortable. It is a lovely escape from the busy world we occupy. When the rooms are comfortable, the company entertaining and the food of such a high standard there is little inclination to ever leave. To me, this says that the owners of Ynyshir Hall are doing their jobs perfectly.