It’s a bright September morning in Herefordshire, in the West Midlands of England, and breakfast is being served at The Riverside at Aymestrey, a charming 17th-century pub with rooms. My toast and house-made pumpkin seed granola were pre-ordered the previous evening — part of the pub’s efforts to reduce waste — but there’s something on the table I wasn’t expecting. “That’s golden marrow marmalade,” explains general manager George Parkes. “We had a lot of golden marrows, so we had to find something to do with them.”
In 2022, The Riverside at Aymestrey won the Best Sustainable Pub prize at the Great British Pub Awards, and it’s easy to see why. Everything on the table is ultra-local and highly seasonal, mostly originating from The Riverside’s two-acre smallholding on the hill above the pub. This enviable low-food-mile philosophy is everywhere you look in Herefordshire, a Midland area bordering Wales that chef proprietor Andy Link describes as “the forgotten county”. It still feels unspoilt and uncommercial. “We’re still very much a farming community at heart, and we have great produce,” he says.
I’m struck by how bucolic Herefordshire is when driving around later that day. Pausing at a T-junction, the hedgerow opposite is low enough to see for miles across fields and pockets of woodland, to the rolling hills beyond. The sun’s out and the sky runs in a virtually unbroken blue expanse from horizon to horizon. It’s a riot of greens — and the lack of traffic means I get a good 30 seconds to drink it all in. It’s breathtaking.
Herefordshire only became an independent county in 1998 when it was split from Worcestershire, and today it still seems little known outside its own borders. Perhaps a desire to cement its identity is why it’s so excellent at blowing its own trumpet locally. Nearly everything on sale at The Hop Pocket shopping centre is locally sourced, particularly in the food hall and cafe. The sheep adjacent to the car park are a nice touch, too.
I’m here to meet Peter Cook, a baker, who’s become quite famous around these parts. After working in his wife’s family’s baking business in Ludlow, divorce drove Peter to explore other options. “I was looking for a spot in Ledbury that would give me space for a shop and a bakery,” he says.
“Then we came to The Hop Pocket, decided to become a wholesale bakery and approached a few shops and restaurants we thought might take our bread.”
They did. And so did many others. The bakery expanded into the unit next door, and again into the unit next to that. “Then we took down the walls and extended into the buildings behind us.” This Heath Robinson approach was less than ideal, so, when a larger unit became available, Peter jumped at the chance to take it: “We got to set it up from scratch exactly how we wanted it.”
Production remains as authentic as ever — “whatever artisan means, I guess we’re it,” Peter says. Breads are proved over a number of days — resulting in great crumb, with a subtle hint of sourdough sharpness — and everything is made from scratch, and by hand. That includes the burger buns created for local legends The Beefy Boys, which can now number up to 20,000 a week.
The bakery’s success all comes down to remarkable local support but, as Peter explains, that’s Herefordshire in a nutshell. “Herefordshire is small enough to be off the radar of the big chains, but I think it’s a historical thing, where you’re connected to your local market town, to local producers, to agriculture and each other.”
At craft cidery Little Pomona, co-owner Susanna Forbes tells me that this community spirit is the main reason she’s here. “As a journalist, about 12 years ago I got a commission to write about beer and cider, and came to Herefordshire because of the apples — and I found a community where people get involved.”
Susanna and her husband, James, moved to the region and now produce ciders unlike anything I’ve tried. Some refresh, others dance in a more challenging fashion on the palate like natural wines. All, however, are complex and fascinating, making the humble mainstream pint seem pedestrian and monotone.
As we wander the orchards — accompanied by friendly spaniel Joey (“hashtag cider dog”), Susanna tells her version of the local support story, explaining how Peter Cook was one of her earliest visitors; how Will Kirby, the owner of the farm on which they’re based, happily planted quince for her to experiment with; and how Little Pomona makes an exclusive cider for Pensons, Herefordshire’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, with rare apples grown in the orchards of Netherwood Estate where the restaurant is based.
This collaboration with Little Pomona is also one of the first things Peta Darnley proudly highlights when I arrive at Pensons, which she founded in 2019. As we walk around her impressive kitchen gardens and surrounding farmland, it’s easy to see why she describes Pensons’ ethos as estate to plate. “We wanted to showcase as much local produce as we could, and grow everything we could grow,” says Peta. “Getting stuff nearby, in season, tastes better.”
Again, local support has been at the heart of Pensons’ success. “People here look out for each other and work together,” says Peta. “They’re intensely proud of this area, whether newcomers like me — I married a Herefordian — or born and bred here. And, innately, a lot of what we do in Herefordshire is sustainable,” adds Peta, who’s clearly as proud of Pensons’ Michelin Green Star as she is its culinary one.
Dinner by chef Chris Simpson is a delightful celebration of local produce in a bright, airy room that feels like a far cry from the building’s old agricultural origins. Pensons’ produce — fresh and pickled — is expertly laced through the menu. I try pickled apple scattered over a soft piece of plaice, and eat a duck dish paired with a mix of earthy beetroot and sweet damson — the perfect foil to the duck’s fatty richness and a clever echo of the rare red meat. After a restful night in one of Pensons’ two elegant bedrooms, breakfast is another display of collaboration, with Peter’s croissants accompanying the house-baked bread.
The rest of the trip reinforces the theme, with incredible farm shops springing up every few miles. Even a tour of Westons Cider is utterly charming rather than corporate. The drinks producer remains family owned and run, with founder Henry Westons’ great-granddaughter Helen Thomas as the current CEO. Won over by its nigh-on perfect food culture and community spirit, Herefordshire really does feel like the greenest and most pleasant of lands.
It’s hard to pick favourites among such calibre, but the New Inn at St Owen’s Cross — another beautifully renovated coaching inn, where chef Michael Fowler has won two AA rosettes — is where I’d like to end up. Like Riverside at Aymestrey, it works as both a friendly local and destination restaurant. The pub menu is full of crowd-pleasers, such as burgers, Caesar salad and so on, made with great local ingredients, but it’s the set menus — “I didn’t want to call them tasting menus, I think that can put people off” — where Michael really showcases his talents and the produce.
My meal leaves me beaming – a Wye Valley venison loin and slow-braised shoulder with pumpkin and elderberry, followed by a dessert of quince and rum pie served with a quince doughnut. The food feels precisely of its time and place: perfectly seasonal, perfectly local. It is, essentially, Herefordshire on a plate.
Three places to eat in Herefordshire
After starting out as a street food venture in 2011, The Beefy Boys came second in The World Food Championships in 2015, in Las Vegas, and used the winnings to set up a Meat Boutique restaurant in Hereford. Expect freshly ground, 100% Herefordshire beef, cooked to order with myriad messy topping options and traditional (somewhat dirty) sides. The company also delivers DIY home-cooking kits nationally.
How much: burger and fries from around £15.
Combining a farm, stylish boutique hotel and pleasing restaurant (Green Cow Kitchens), Crumplebury is ludicrously idyllic. Executive chef James Mearing has access to the estate’s cows, sheep and pigs, pheasants and other game birds, as well as foraged ingredients such as wild garlic, damsons, pears and puffball fungi. The Sunday lunch sharing board — roast beef, braised shin, confit pork belly plus all the trimmings — is a stunner.
How much: three-course Sunday lunch for £37.50.
This recently revived drovers pub has a restaurant operating under the banner of Wild by Nature. A nearby regenerative farm owned by the pub provides most of the produce for the kitchen, including some truly excellent beef. Chef Jake Townley oversees the menu, the butchery and the first-class charcuterie, and dishes are a simple celebration of the county’s finest produce. Make sure you order the side of bone marrow mash.
How much: around £70 a head for three courses, sides and a drink.
Five foods to try in Herefordshire
From Westons to the artisan craft ciders of Little Pomona and its peers, the sheer variety of Herefordshire cider makes it feel like a revelation.
2. Hereford Hop Cheese
A cheddar-like cheese with a mild, buttery flavour and pleasingly bitter, beer-like tang that comes from a coating of toasted hops.
3. Peter Cooks Cruffins
A genuine Herefordshire cult, this croissant/muffin hybrid is produced in very limited daily numbers.
4. White Heron
British Cassis Several thousand litres of juice go into creating this excellent, fruit-forward drink that’s considerably less sugary than its French rival.
5. Two Farmers Crisps
These Great Taste Award-winning crisps have flavours inspired by Herefordshire. They’re made with local potatoes and produced on a farm using renewable energy.
How to do it
Trains, operated by GWR, run frequently to Hereford from London and Birmingham and take from around 90 minutes to three hours. There are local bus services, but most run on infrequent rural timetables; a car’s the best way to fully explore the area.
B&B doubles at The Riverside at Aymestrey from £100. Half-board doubles at Pensons from £535 per person.
Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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