Jonathan Ray heads to north Wales and braves both Welsh rain and Welsh wine in search of the fabled Welsh salt marsh lamb.
Portmeirion was as beguiling as ever and the Welsh summer weather as vile. My wife, Marina, and I and our two teenage boys are just back from spending a week in one of Portmeirion’s quirky cottages and we had a hoot.
We were last there five years ago – also in high summer – when it sheeted with rain all week. This time we did a little better and had five days of rain and two of blinding sunshine. But, having visited the Italianate fantasy folly that is Portmeirion many times over the last forty odd years, my memories of it are always bright and sunny.
I remember meeting its creator, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, on my first visit as a ten year-old and have been obsessed with the place ever since. It’s always just such a lark, Portmeirion, with something to tease the eye and delight the soul around every corner.
I’ve been with my parents, I’ve been with my mates, I’ve been with my girlfriends and I’ve been on my own. Indeed, I remember three very happy solo, get-away-from-it-all, Christmases there; just me, a box of London Library books, a case of Berrys’ wine and a whole Paxton’s ham. Bliss! Most splendid of all, though, Marina and I even spent part of our honeymoon there.
This time we were en famille, travelling with our mates Mike and Bibi and their three boys who took one of the village’s other cottages. We had a glorious day on the vast white sand beach at the end of Portmeirion’s peninsula (recently named one of the ten best beaches in the UK) playing cricket, hunting for crabs and barbecuing fabulous sausages bought en route from Ludlow Food Centre; we wandered around Bedgelert in driving rain and paid our respects at poor Gelert’s grave; we hiked high above the Mawddach estuary in lung-filling, body-buffeting wind and had a dire, pretentious, microwave-reliant lunch in the George III Hotel in Penmaenpool; we spent a morning in Caernarfon Castle and had an unexpectedly fine lunch at the Castell Hotel in the town’s square (it looks a dump and the menu is deeply uninspiring, full of burgers and nachos, but everything right down to the barbecue and tartar sauces is homemade and utterly delicious and my gammon steak was a thick and juicy, straight-from-the-butcher delight and the boys’ burgers sublime) and we even went paint-balling and cycling.
Best of all though, we ate and drank like kings back in our cottages, taking it in turns to shop, cook and host. Bibi hit the jackpot with her dinner of local dressed crab and whole lobster which we washed down with some excellent Harvey Nichols Brut Rosé NV Champagne. Pinot Noir-heavy, the fizz is full of rich, weighty fruit with plenty of raspberry and wild strawberry notes and a firm, toasty finish, the dryness of which suited the sweetness of the crab meat and lobster perfectly.
With the cheese we stuck to the Pinot theme with a bottle of 2009 Delta Vineyard ‘Hatter’s Hill’ Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand and one of 2014 White Castle Pinot Noir ‘Précoce’ from – who’d have thunk it – Monmouthshire, Wales.
I bought both bottles from my old chum Dylan Rowlands of Dan y Dylanwad Wines in Dolgellau and, unsurprisingly, he’s a huge fan of Welsh wine. The Delta was rich, smoky, savoury and full of sour cherry flavours and silky tannins. We all loved it. The White Castle divided the room. Marina hated it, Mike and Bibi were intrigued and tactfully wouldn’t commit to a comment whilst I really rather enjoyed its dark berry fruit, its juiciness and its heady, almost rose-like scent. I happily drained the bottle with some crumbly nuggets of fine Caerphilly cheese.
Having run a great little restaurant in Dolgellau for years, Dylan and his wife Llinos have expanded to bigger premises and now oversee not only a wine shop but also wine bar and café. They import many of their wines direct from the growers and in many instances are the only UK stockists. They specialise in France, Spain, Italy and Austria and the wines are incredibly well priced. Best of all, for an added £8 per bottle you can drink the stuff there and then alongside a plate of Serrano ham, say, or Welsh goat’s cheese salad. It’s a top spot.
But back to our dinners in Portmeirion. If Bibi hit the high notes with her crab and lobster I like to think I more than matched her with my roast leg of Welsh salt marsh lamb. I’m mildly fixated with salt marsh lamb. I was brought up in Kent on the edge of Romney Marsh which was awash with said delicacy. We ate as much of it as we could at home and would despair of the fact that it was so hard to get hold of, the local farmers and butchers sending most of it to France where – known as l’agneau pré-sale – it is even more highly prized.
Here in north Wales, as in Romney Marsh, the sheep potter about the marshes and sea shore quite freely, scoffing the fertiliser-free salt grass, samphire, sea lavender, sea purslane, glasswort and marsh rosemary, growing fat, sweet and tasty in the hardy conditions. And for some reason, this diet causes the sheeps’ metabolism to keep extra moisture in their bodies meaning that the resultant flesh is extraordinarily soft, tender and juicy to eat. I gather, too, that such a diet means that the sheep are more disease-resistant than others and so are less treated with chemicals or antibiotics and have considerably less fat. Salt marsh lamb is a veritable health food.
Because it is so tasty and so tender there is little one needs to do when cooking salt marsh lamb. I simply studded the leg with several cloves of garlic, gave it but a dusting of salt and pepper and roasted it for 20 minutes a pound at 180 degrees but without the customary ‘plus 20 minutes’. The thing is, though, that it’s almost impossible to bugger up. If you do somehow overshoot on the cooking time it will still be marvellously juicy even if not pink.
I’m delighted to report that the above leg went down a storm, served with roast Charlotte potatoes and buttered leeks (I always add a touch of vinegar just before I bring them off the heat). And as for wine, Pinot Noir or Rioja Gran Reserva would have been my first choice but this time I opted for a pair of spiffing clarets from fromvineyardsdirect.com: the fabulous 2010 Ch. Marjosse (which featured in our most recent Spectator Wine Club offer) and the charming 2009 Enclos la Croix de Nau.
The Marjosse is made by Pierre Lurton (general manager of both Ch. Cheval Blanc and Ch. d’Yquem) in the Entre-Deux-Mers and it’s supremely soft, juicy and mellow. The Enclos la Croix is from Montagne-St-Emilion, is Merlot-dominant like the Marjosse and full-flavoured, jammy and elegant. Both wines benefit from a nice bit of bottle age and both matched the lamb a treat.
With cheese we had some Fonseca Terra Prima Finest Reserve Organic Port, wonderfully rich and powerful and no need to decant. And with pudding we managed some spankingly fine Canadian Icewine brought back from my recent travels.
I’m proud to report that during the week the four of us adults got through every single one of the 18 bottles of wine I brought with me or bought from Dylan, leaving me plenty of room in the car to bring back several legs of Welsh salt marsh lamb. A fair trade I reckon.