On the waterfront: a culinary tour of Cardigan Bay, Wales
From takeaway crab rolls and seaweed-infused gin to spotting Europe’s largest pod of bottle-nose dolphins, a culinary tour along the coast of Cardigan Bay delivers spectacular views and the flavours of the sea.
“You after fish?” hollers a passing neighbour. “Go down the side alley and shout!”
I do as instructed, finding a backyard overgrown with ropes, buoys, buckets, coolboxes and scallop shells. Mandy Walters emerges from the paraphernalia, tying her apron — I’ve not arrived at the best time. “We didn’t get back from holiday until 10pm, and Len went fishing at six this morning,” she says. “The tide waits for no man.”
Indeed, Len and Mandy, owners of Cardigan Bay Fish, live according to the water’s ebb and flow. From their home in St Dogmaels, on the Teifi Estuary at the southern extreme of Cardigan Bay, they sell what they catch from their own boats — which is more revolutionary than it sounds.
Though the nutrient-rich waters off west Wales produce an abundance of fish, most is exported. Len and Mandy — and a growing number of others I’m planning to meet and eat with along the Ceredigion coast — are trying to promote it to us Brits. To that end, Mandy runs a stall at St Dogmaels’ award-winning market, held every Tuesday by the village’s working 12th-century water mill. Bread made from the mill’s stoneground flour is sold here, alongside Welsh meat, cheese, organic vegetables and, of course, fish.
“I won’t know until Monday what I’ll have to sell,” she tells me as she deftly cracks through a pile of lobsters, “Hopefully crab, potted crab, lobster, my mackerel pate. I like to offer something different, too — maybe spider crab sandwiches, mackerel frittata, lobster mac ’n’ cheese.”
In the months of May and June, Mandy might have another fish for sale. Sewin (sea trout) is still caught on the River Teifi in the traditional way: by coracle. And Len is one of only a handful of fishermen allowed to do it.
“Everyone living on the river used to have a coracle,” Len tells me later. He’s brought me to his designated run of the Teifi, just along from the Welsh Wildlife Centre. Here, where the calm water is overhung by trees, his coracles are stored — light, pear-shaped Teifi coracles, made of willow laths covered in calico. Len hefts one above his head with ease — he’s messed about in these things since childhood and has had a licence for more than 30 years. “Want a go?”
I am, unsurprisingly, hopeless, unable to master the figure-of-eight paddling motion even with two hands, in daylight. The coracle men go out at night — “not until you can see seven stars, when it’s dark enough so the fish can’t see the nets” — and work in pairs, a double-meshed net suspended between them. Each man holds the net in one hand and paddles with the other; when one feels a sewin tap, he quickly closes the net. It is, says Len, a beautiful way to fish: Mother Nature-quiet, pitch black, highly skilled, instinctive.
It’s also something of a dying art. Over the years, the sewin season has been cut down, the number of licences reduced and the length of fishable river shortened. “When coracle fishing has gone, you’ll never get it back,” says Len. “The making of the nets will be gone, the making of the coracles will be gone. The method will be gone.”
It’s been an uneven start to the season, so I don’t get to taste the sewin — a reputedly firm, light, buttery fish that seems to render many a local misty-eyed when I mention it. So, to drown my sorrows, I leave Len and head north.
At the organic, family-run and lushly rolling Glynhynod Farm (Welsh for ‘remarkable valley’), I’m faced with an array of rum, whisky and gin, made at the onsite Dà Mhìle Distillery. Though a little inland, sitting above a tributary of the Teifi, the fishy tale continues here. “A few years back, a restaurant asked us to create a gin that would go with seafood,” explains manager Jenny McClelland. “We played around with various herbs and citrussy flavours, and then infused it with organic seaweed.” I take a sip of the resultant Seaweed Gin: there’s a slight salinity and a pleasing savoury finish. “It makes lovely dirty martinis,” Jenny adds.
Having shown me around the distillery, she then takes me to the Caws Teifi cheesery, where the Savage-Onstwedder family has been making cheese since 1982. Their signature Teifi cheese is made using a 500-year-old gouda recipe and raw milk from an organic, pasture-fed Carmarthenshire herd. In addition to the creamy Natural variety, they make several others, including one flecked with Welsh laver seaweed. In the dairy, cheesemaker Naomi is lovingly flipping row upon row of the golden wheels, which are smooth and stout as curling stones. I try the Seaweed Teifi, which I’m told makes excellent cheese on toast. It’s firm, lightly salty and incredibly moreish — the perfect combination of land and sea.
Aberaeron to Aberystwyth
A little later, further north along the coast at Aberaeron, it’s time to eat some fish — and Harbourmaster Hotel, on the quay, is just the spot. Built around 1812, this tall, lapis-blue house once enabled the harbourmaster to keep a lookout for smugglers. Since 2002, when Glyn and Menna Heulyn relaunched it as a relaxed, smart hotel, it’s enabled wanderers to stay and eat in previously unprecedented style.
“Nowhere in the county was in The Good Food Guide when we opened,” Glyn tells me as we sip a Dà Mhìle Seaweed Gin and tonic. “Ceredigion was a culinary desert.” Not so now. Harbourmaster Hotel has helped kickstart a foodie revolution in these parts. Many of its former staff have gone on to launch their own ventures, while other venues have opened in town, including The Hive, with its onsite fishmongers; Angelato, serving gelato made with Gwarffynnon milk; and Watson & Pratt’s food shop.
Harbourmaster Hotel’s own menu remains decidedly local, overflowing with Welsh cheeses and meats, Coaltown Coffee, organic vegetables from nearby Blaencamel Farm and, of course, the best of the day’s catch: crispy cockles for bar snacks; Welsh moules marinière; zesty Cardigan Bay crab linguine; and lobster. Aberaeron, and the surrounding coastal villages, have a long history of mackerel fishing and each August, the Aberaeron Mackerel Festival sees a 23ft-long fish carried through the town’s pastel-painted streets. In honour, I order Harbourmaster Hotel’s delicately pan-fried mackerel, sprinkled with juicy cockles and zingy salsa verde, and tuck in with a view of swaying masts, green hills and the waves beyond.
Those mackerel are one of the main reasons Cardigan Bay is home to Europe’s largest resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. After a comfy night and a pre-breakfast stroll among the many rabbits on the coast path, which is bright with sea thrift and gorse, I head south to New Quay, where the dolphins love to hang out. It’s here I find Winston Evans.
Everyone knows Winston; it seems every fishmonger and restauranteur I speak to used to buy their lobsters from him. “Well, I’ve been here longer than most,” the 81-year-old tells me as we stand by the harbour, enjoying the sea breeze among the barnacled pots. Winston has been fishing these waters since 1958. “They were easier times to make a living,” he tells me. “Prices were poor, mind, but there were plenty of fish around.”
And was it a hard life? “When it was nice, it was lovely,” he says. “When it was not so nice, it was horrid.”
These days, Winston runs Dolphin Spotting Boat Trips, a pleasant way to spend an hour or two along this wild and rolling coastline. I do some spotting on foot, walking up from New Quay’s sandy bay to the old coastguard lookout, above Bird Rock; my luck is in, and I sit awhile, watching dolphins frisk in the sun-glittered blue water.
On my way back, I pass Quay Fresh & Frozen Foods, one of the country’s last family-owned seafood processors, which deals solely in whelks. Its focus is firmly on the Asian market; according to owner Jordan Andrews, the whelks are used in “a South Korean dish called golbaengi-muchim, a spicy, sweet and crunchy salad that’s really good.” However, he and wife Caryl have developed a profitable sideline recycling unwanted whelk shells, which are white, with an iridescent sheen, for decorative use in gardens, pots and terrariums.
Soon I’m back at the quay, joining the queue snaking around the side of The Lime Crab. It’s not your average chippy. Sacks of Pembrokeshire spuds are being fried up alongside cod and scampi, but there’s also mackerel goujons, salt-and-pepper squid, vegan Goan curry and Cypriot halloumi.
I eat my sea bass — the batter so light and crisp — on the 19th-century stone pier, where hundreds of sloops and schooners were once built. There I spot an old notice of tolls, listing how much ships once paid to load and unload their cargo: 6d for a barrel of herring, 2d for a bushel of oysters, five shillings for a pianoforte.
The next day, further north along the coast in Aberystwyth, oysters, crab, plaice, bream, mackerel and even whelks are on offer at Jonah’s Fishmarket. Owner Craig Edwards lets me peek at the fine specimens in his lobster tanks. “A wagon turns up when the fisherman land their catch and takes it away,” he explains. “But we’ve gradually developed communication with the fishermen; now they’ll ask us if we want anything.”
The shop has a constant flow of customers. Some seek advice, which Craig is more than happy to give. Some order dishes from Jonah’s Kitchen — Craig’s wife, Rhiannon, a chef, has developed a range of cook-at-home chowders, fish pies and stews. Their plan is to open a Jonah’s Kitchen cafe later this year but, in the meantime, they’ve set up a food trailer on Aberystwyth’s mile-long Victorian promenade.
Back in the day, Rhiannon tells me, there would have been fish stalls all the way along here, and women pushing carts full to the brim with fresh herring. While things have no doubt changed, Rhiannon is doing her best to revive this culture, selling grab-n-go portions of sweet, pickled herring, cockles and crayfish, enormous oysters, rich fish soups and smoky grilled mackerel. She makes me a crab roll, the brown meat generously pasted in a creamy mix of garlic mayonnaise, brandy and paprika, the light white meat on top. It’s every bit as delicious as it sounds.
Eventually, I retrace my steps back down the Ceredigion coast, trying to keep my eyes on the road, not the sea or the red kites soaring above. I end up back by the Teifi in Cardigan. It’s a beautiful evening, and former fisherman Dai Evans, who now runs pleasure trips on his boat, Diana Ellen, is taking me from the Old Bridge to the mouth of the estuary, where the river spills past Poppit Sands to the sea — dangerous waters, if you don’t know what you’re doing, but fecund fishing grounds. “I’ve still got a few pots,” he tells me as we putter past the quiet banks. “After all the years of fishing, you never get tired of seeing a nice lobster.”
Dai would love to see the people of Wales embrace seafood even more, admitting that there are still some who don’t know what to do with it. “But crab is so easy,” he explains. “And lobster’s even easier.”
Does he cook? “I can cook. I cook a lot,” he says. “I love crab. And sewin — beautiful. That would be my favourite fish. But you won’t see a lot of those.”
Then, ironically, we do: a kerfuffle in the water — a sewin breaking the surface, jumping from the invisible pools below. I think of Len. Hopefully tonight will be a good night.
Five stops on the Coastal Way
The hairy drive down to this seaside village, which sits in a narrow river valley, is worth it for a fish platter at The Beach Hut. The nearby Ship Inn serves craft ales from Cardigan-based Mantle Brewery.
The foodie highlights here include SY23, where Nathan Davies, of 2021’s Great British Menu, cooks farmed, fished and foraged produce over fire; the Spanish produce at Ultracomida; and the brownies at Ridiculously Rich.
This coastal village is noteworthy for both its nearby waterfall and the distillery. The team at In the Welsh Wind grow their own barley to make Welsh grain whisky and forage for local botanicals to make bespoke gins. They also run gin-making experiences.
Tucked away beside the Teifi Gorge, Fforest Farm is a back-to-nature retreat, with eclectic accommodation options, an onsite pub and a penchant for hosting huge feasts focused on local, seasonal ingredients — think sea bass ceviche, barbecued crab or fire-roasted Welsh meat. pizzatipi.co.uk
How to make it: sewin & samphire recipe
This recipe from Rhiannon Edwards, at Jonah’s Fishmarket, is a classic way to cook sewin (although salmon or trout can be used instead).
Takes: 40 mins
350g Pembrokeshire new potatoes
1 tin laverbread (optional)
10g salted butter, plus extra for the potatoes
fresh sewin, either one whole fish (around 700g) or two 150g fillets
bunch of fresh asparagus (3-4 stems per person)
120g samphire, tough stems removed
2 lemons, 1 juiced and 1 sliced
bunch of parsley (around 20g), chopped
100g potted or cooked and peeled brown shrimp (optional)
1 Steam or boil the potatoes for 15-20 mins. To add a Welsh twist, toss the warm potatoes in a few spoonfuls of laverbread and a little butter, if you like.
2 Heat oven to 200C, 180C fan, gas 6. If you’re using a whole fish, prepare the sewin to your preference — it can be cooked whole or with head and bones removed (you can ask your fishmonger to do this for you).
3 Put the fish on a large sheet of tin foil. If using a whole fish, score the skin and arrange the slices of lemon inside the cavity; if using fillets, place them skin-side-down and top with the lemon slices. Layer on the asparagus, butter and parsley. Sprinkle with half the lemon juice and season to taste. Wrap up the foil to make a parcel, then bake for 20 mins. Check the fish is cooked through before removing.
4 Rinse the samphire with cold water, then steam over a pan of boiling water for 3 mins. Squeeze over the remaining lemon juice.
5 Serve the foil parcel on a sharing plate alongside the samphire and potatoes. Scatter with the potted or cooked shrimp, if you like.
Getting there and around
Aberystwyth has a railway station, served by direct trains from Shrewsbury and Birmingham. The T5 bus runs along the Ceredigion coast between Aberystwyth and Cardigan, with stops at Aberaeron and New Quay. Exploring by car is easiest, though narrow roads to coastal villages get busy. Or walk, using the spectacular 65-mile Ceredigion Coast Path.
Where to stay
Aberaeron is a good base for tours along Cardigan Bay. Doubles at the Harbourmaster Hotel start from £150 per night B&B.
Published in the Wales guide 2021, distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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