No longer an international culinary joke, Wales is revelling in having five Michelin stars - at least, as Janet Harmer learns, some people are.
Having endured derogatory articles slating their country as "a gastronomic wilderness", the inhabitants of Wales will have been cheered by the recently published Michelin Red Guide to Great Britain & Ireland 2002 and its award of stars to five establishments in the principality. In the past, Wales has never boasted more than two Michelin stars at any one time. To achieve five, four of which are new, is a major achievement and one of which all the recipients are immensely proud.
Joining the one existing Michelin star-holder - the Old Rectory Country House in Llansanffraid Glan Conway, Gwynedd - are Carlton House, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys; Plas Bodegroes, Pwllheli, Gwynedd; the Walnut Tree Inn, Llandewi Skirrid, Gwent; and Ynyshir Hall, Eglwysfach Machynlleth, Powys. Unfortunately, one Welsh establishment - Sir Bernard Ashley's Llangoed Hall in Llyswen, Powys - lost a star in the 2002 guide.
"The new stars are excellent news for Wales and are thoroughly well deserved," says Gilli Davies, editor of The Red Book, Eat Well in Wales. "Food in restaurants has certainly improved over the past five years, with chefs like Mary Ann Gilchrist [Carlton House], Wendy Vaughan [Old Rectory] and Chris Chown [Plas Bodegroes] showing particular determination to succeed, and chefs such as Stephen Terry [Walnut Tree] and Les Rennie [Ynyshir Hall] bringing new talent into Wales."
Davies says that improvements have been fuelled by the increasing availability of good local ingredients that the chefs are proud of and are using simply, coupled with the public becoming more discerning about eating out. "There also seems to be a greater confidence in ‘Welsh' cooking rather than [chefs] trying to home in on what is going on in London and elsewhere," he says.
She adds: "Wales being referred to as a culinary desert first cropped up in a report in the early 1980s, and was later highlighted in an article in the Sunday Times by AA Gill. I think there was some truth in that phrase 20 years ago, but things have moved on a long way since then."
For Simon Wright, editor of the AA Restaurant Guide, good restaurants in Wales are not a new thing. "Country house hotels in particular have been flying the flag for many years, and we've long recognised the achievements of places like Ynyshir Hall and Carlton House, among others," he says. "So I don't think there has been a dramatic change in this part of the market, it has just taken some people a while to recognise it.
"There's no question, though, that standards have risen in a wider sense. Cardiff, which was short on quality restaurants, has made a major leap forward in recent years with places such as Le Gallois, Woods, and most latterly da Venditto, which is the AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales 2002.
"The most dramatic advance has been in the pubs, however, where there is some great food now, particularly in mid-Wales, and along the border with England. This is great news because it's promoting honest, good-value cooking with an emphasis on fresh, local produce."
Out of this world Les Rennie, head chef at Ynyshir Hall for nearly two years, echoes the views of all five Michelin-starred establishments: "We're all absolutely delighted. Winning a Michelin star is what most chefs strive for, and when it happens it's out of this world."
Together with the euphoria that has come with receiving recognition from the guide that is most highly regarded by chefs is the realisation that, individually, the stars should go some way to improving business for each one of them, following the disastrous effects of the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the terrorist attacks of 11 September. Collectively, they should help dispel the long-held perception that Wales is a culinary joke.
"This really could not have come at a better time for all of us," says Mary Ann Gilchrist, chef and joint proprietor for 10 years, with husband Alan, of Carlton House. "Business in 2001 was down by 50%."
Enquiries for brochures and bookings have grown for all the newly starred establishments since the 2002 Michelin guide was published on 18 January. Just six weeks into the new year, business ahead is looking far brighter than anyone could have imagined amid the gloom and despair of 2001.
With a property situated in the midst of a nature reserve owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Reens were badly hit by the impact of foot-and-mouth, even though there were no reported cases nearby. Business was down by 25% across the whole year. But since the launch of the new Michelin guide, the telephone hasn't stopped ringing. "As well as being inundated with congratulatory messages," Reen says, "we've also picked up bookings, including one for five rooms for two nights from Switzerland."
Wendy Vaughan, who runs the Old Rectory Country House with her husband, Michael, knows only too well the draw that having a Michelin star can be. "This is the third year we have had a star and it has increasingly brought in more British customers as well as a lot of continentals," she says.
Increased bookings are just one of the benefits that Chris Chown, chef-proprietor at Plas Bodegroes, experienced when he last held a Michelin star. He was, in fact, the first chef in Wales to win the accolade - a feat he achieved in 1991, only to lose the star in 1998 when he moved away to Bath. He says: "Last time, as well as getting a lot of new business, we also benefited from increased publicity and job applications from chefs, as well as improvements to both staff morale and my own confidence. I never put a fish cake on the menu before I had the star because I didn't feel confident about doing something so simple."
Simplicity is a particularly important element of good Welsh cooking, Gilchrist believes, and is linked to the fantastic improvement that has taken place in the availability of local produce. "All my salad leaves and herbs are grown by local producers, and I can trace every piece of beef and lamb I use back to the blade of grass it stood on," she says. "The message is filtering through that, with beautiful ingredients like these, there is no need to mess around with them. The public now understands that less is more."
Stephen Terry, who arrived from London to take over the Walnut Tree from Franco Taruschio at the beginning of last year, with front of house partner Francesco Mattioli, has found the local Welsh produce a major inspiration. Having been stuck in the middle of a city for many years, he revels in the fact that he is now only minutes from the fields in which most of his vegetables are grown. He says: "I think Michelin has recognised us for the consistency we have been able to achieve from using such wonderful ingredients - tied in with the hard work and effort put in by all the team here."
Chown believes it is significant that chefs such as Terry have decided to turn their backs on London and put down roots in Wales. "My own sous chef has done it," he says. "He used to work for Garry Hollihead and dropped his salary by almost a half to come here. Having previously rented a bedsit for £1,000 per month and endured a daily commute of two-and-a-half hours, he has now bought a house by the sea and is enjoying a much better quality of life."
All five Michelin-starred chefs fervently hope that Wales can now move on from the barrage of poor publicity it has received in the past, most notoriously in the article by Gill, who, while praising the food at Plas Bodegroes, suggested that if anyone should want to eat anywhere else in Wales they should take sandwiches. Chown himself received death threats as a result and Reen, who describes herself as normally a very calm person, was incandescent with rage. "The article was abusive, rude and racist," she says. "It did a lot of damage to Wales."
Limited publicity However, there is disappointment that, within Wales itself, the Michelin stars have so far received only limited publicity. "This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Welsh tourist industry, yet BBC Wales and HTV Wales didn't cover it at all, although there was a piece on the Welsh language channel, S4C," Gilchrist says. And despite telephone calls from the chefs to the news desks of all the major Welsh newspapers, there have only been a handful of small stories in the printed media. "Unfortunately," Reen says, "if you're not in the trade, or a traveller, it seems that people don't understand what Michelin stars are all about."
The chefs also feel that the Wales Tourist Board (WTB) should use their success as a marketing opportunity - particularly given the geographical spread of the five starred establishments. "Wales is screaming out for tourism and here is the opportunity to promote the country as somewhere to come for a great gastronomic tour," Terry says.
Catrin Harries at the WTB says that the Michelin stars are "fantastic news for Wales, and just go to prove that Welsh food has come a long way in recent years. No longer is Wales the poor man of fine dining that it has been labelled so many times in the past. There are fantastic restaurants dotted all over the country, offering a wide variety of tastes and styles, using the best of local Welsh produce."
She adds that, as well as the Michelin-starred establishments, there are many excellent places to eat in Wales, and together they are all "promoted as widely as possible in everything we do". Yet there are currently no plans to capitalise on the Michelin achievements.
Current initiatives that the WTB are involved in include the Wales stands at European travel exhibitions. There is also the work of Taste of Wales, which organises tours taking people through the Welsh food chain from producers to table.
The five Welsh Michelin stars
Carlton House Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys
Tel: 01591 610248
\* 14-seat restaurant with seven bedrooms
Old Rectory Country House
Llansanffraid Glan Conway, Gwynedd
Tel: 01492 580611www.oldrectoryhouse.co.uk
\* 14-seat restaurant with six bedrooms
Tel: 01758 612363www.bodegroes.co.uk
* 40-seat restaurant with 11 bedrooms
Walnut Tree Inn
Llandewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny, Gwent
Tel: 01873 852797www.thewalnuttreeinn.com
* 80-seat restaurant
Eglwysfach Machynlleth, Powys
Tel: 01654 781209www.ynyshir-hall.co.uk
* 25-seat restaurant with 10 bedrooms