How Mal Tattersall went foraging while exploring Monmouthshire’s growing food and drinks scene … and ended up in a bit of a Crafty Pickle.
If you spot a rather attractive woman wearing a pair of muddy wellies, carrying a wicker basket and poking a big stick into the hedgerows and undergrowth round the Severn Estuary near Chepstow, don’t be alarmed.
It’ll just be Chloé Newcomb Hodgetts foraging for edible leaves, berries, fruits and fungi to feed well-heeled diners at some of Monmouthshire’s poshest restaurants.
Stuff like hairy bittercress (apparently it’s great to spice up salads), common hogweed (tastes rather like asparagus), stinging nettles (crammed full of vitamins and minerals) and mallow (just the job for preparing a healthy soup).
In a previous life Chloé, a marine biologist by training, wrote an academic paper on the sex pheromone of the European shore crab.
She also spent some time in Africa, learnt Swahili, studied in the Caribbean and once owned a trendy restaurant-cum-cocktail bar built on stilts over the sea in Honduras.
But back home again she set up Gourmet Gatherings to help hone Monmouthshire’s rapidly-growing reputation as the culinary capital of Wales.
And when not collecting tasty ingredients for the area’s Michelin-starred chefs, she takes clueless townies like me out on foraging expeditions to teach us what to look for.
Within a couple of hours pottering around Beachley one sunny spring morning our little party has unearthed enough ingredients for Cholé to prepare a delicious 10-dish lunch.
This time it is purely vegetarian because one of us won’t eat meat. But for carnivores there would also be wild venison, boar, rabbit or pheasant.
Later as we sip honey-infused beer at the nearby Wye Valley Meadery, Chloe, 40, says: “It’s a mystery why people go spending a fortune in the supermarket.
“There’s enough stuff growing wild here to feed everyone in Wales. Pick it yourself and it won’t cost a penny.”
But then she adds a word of warning: “You need to know what you’re doing though – one wrong leaf could be fatal!”
Meanwhile, the Meadery booze is going down a treat and I’m soon ordering another bottle of their 7% Smoked Honey Porter.
Like Choé, bee-keeper Matt Newell and his brother Kit are doing their bit to put Monmouthshire, nestling between the picturesque Wye Valley and the Brecon Beacons National Park, firmly on the food and drink map.
They started out brewing an award-winning mead using honey from 32-year-old Matt’s apiaries before branching out with honey-flavoured beers.
Now they offer bee-keeping and mead-making courses, and if you call at their taproom with its beer garden in Caldicot village on a Friday then likely as not there’ll be a comedy or music night on.
Twenty miles away in the village of Llanvetherine, Robb and Nicola Merchant’s White Castle vineyard is getting rave reviews from wine buffs like Oz Clarke, as well as winning orders from Michelin-star restaurants.
Their Pinot Noir Reserve 2018, a fruity red, last year became the first Welsh wine to be awarded a gold medal in the prestigious Decanter World Awards.
It’s not exactly cheap at £25 a bottle, but tastes lovely, putting similar-priced Burgundies to shame, and most people taking the regular weekend vineyard tours end up buying at least one.
Nicola always dreamed of having a Loire-style vineyard before in 2009 she and Robb planted 4,000 vines on a 12-acre field next to their farmhouse home.
“At first we didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” admits one-time postman Robb, 61. “So we both went on a college course to learn.”
The Welsh weather, though, can be a cruel master – two years ago a late May frost killed 70 per cent of their crop. But all things being equal, they’ll produce 10,000 bottles this year.
Rugby-loving Robb already plans to plant up another field but says: “We don’t want to be a massive estate, we just want to be known for good quality wines.”
Then he adds: “I would never say we are the best in Wales – that’s for other people to judge. But it’s true we probably have the highest profile because we’ve won more awards.”
Just down the road, though, former City financier Deri Llewellyn-Davies is determined to be the best with his £24million dream for a former golf club that went bust a few years ago.
He wants to plant thousands of trees and turn the 227-acre Raglan Country Estate into a high-end, self-sustaining eco-tourism centre.
The plan is for pampered guests to get back to nature staying in luxury glass-fronted cottages – concrete, with its hefty carbon footprint, will be banned.
They’ll be able to go wild swimming in the three lakes, relax in Russian-style banyons, or saunas, and enjoy Shakespeare plays or a string quartet in a purpose-built amphitheatre
If the first stage, the newly-opened Calon Rhaglan restaurant, is anything to go by, then Deri looks to be on a winner.
The roasted lamb rump, produced by a farmer just two miles away and served up with wild garlic by Michelin-trained chef Adam Whittle, was probably the tastiest I have ever eaten.
Base for our weekend in the lovely town of Abergavenny, dubbed the Gateway to Wales and host to a huge Food Festival every September, was the extremely comfortable four-star Angel Inn.
Check out their rightly-famous afternoon teas or dine in the elegant Oak Room Restaurant.
Finally before leaving Monmouthshire we called at the Crafty Pickle in Caldicot for a crash course in how to make fermented drinks.
Lovely Madi Myers and her American partner Arthur Serini, who describe themselves as “nutritionists, science geeks, tree-huggers and food nerds”, supply everything we need.
Two hours later, I stagger out clutching starter jars containing what I am assured will turn into extremely healthy Kombucha, a Mexican pineapple drink called Tepeche and some sort of ginger beer.
As I write, all three are now slowly fermenting on my kitchen shelf. I’ll let you know how they turn out!