CARDIFF, Wales — Only the sheep, bounding recklessly across the vertiginous mountain slopes, seemed to know where they were going. Hopelessly lost, we were trying not to cast our eyes downward, beneath where our rented car wheels clung to the unfenced road edge. Around a hairpin bend bordering a sheer heather-spun cliff, we spotted a pub and silvery mustachioed farmer exiting it to wend, on foot, his way home. True to the Welshman's ancient reputation, ours proved as hospitable as they come.
Inhaling a great gust of mountain air, he proceeded to extol poetically upon the virtues of the valley in which we found ourselves. Then, as if reciting the verse of some national bard, he directed us through vale and hummock to hill's crest and river's edge. Forget road signs. The Welsh are as ingrained with topography as the French are with a taste for crusty bread.
Within minutes, despite the suicidally narrow roads, we were pulling into the splendid grounds of a fine stone Georgian manse-turned-hotel called Tyddan Llan. Set on an ancient stop of a former drover's route at the foot of the Berwybn Mountains resides one of the country's finest restaurants.
A few years ago, if anyone had told us that we would embark on a culinary tour of Wales, which would take us from the wilder regions of the Welsh-speaking north down to the urbanized southern coast, we would have laughed into our porridge.
This tiny peninsular country, tacked onto England's western trunk, doesn't exactly conjure up visions of glamorous food. On the contrary, when you think of Welsh food--in the unlikely event that you think of it at all--you think of Welsh Rarebit, that raft of soggy toast adrift in a puddle of syrupy processed cheese.
Until now, Welsh ingredients, wholesome and basic, have kept their humble place. But health consciousness and an awakened collective palate have spawned a new generation of enlightened cooks who have begun to prepare these ingredients in startingly original ways.
Nowhere is the stylistic change in Welsh food more pronounced than in the country house hotels that flourish from coast to vale across the varied landscape. These are not the self-aggrandizing stately homes of England, the seat of those invaders to the east, but, rather, hushed and comfortable dwellings built to a domestic scale and still lived in by their owners whose welcoming fires glow into the lingering summer evenings.
As represented by the cooking at a variety of farmhouse inns, including Ty'n Rhos, Plas Bodegroes and the Lake Hotel, the food is often steeped in French cooking style.
On our five nights in Wales last summer, my fiance and I stayed at a variety of places including houses listed in "Welsh Rarebits," a booklet listing a rarefied consortium of country house hotels in which can be found some of the best food in Britain. (This selection is so discriminating that inns included in this year's list may not make it in next year's.)
One page showed a picture of two pioneers of the new Welsh cooking, Tyddyn Llan's Peter and Bridget Kindred. Though English by nationality (Peter was a set designer for "Fawlty Towers"), the Kindreds are typical of the new breed of couples who are migrating to Welsh country house hotels.
Our room was a medley of antiques and deep armchairs. After a soak in our bathroom's claw foot tub, we settled--sherry and menus in hand--before a fire in one of the drawing room's cozy sofas to lazily place our orders. (The British don't pamper you; they provide the setting in which you can pamper yourself.)
Menus at Tyddyn Llan change daily. That night's food was prepared by David Barratt, 35, who took over the kitchen from Bridget last spring. Our meal, in the small but peopled dining room, did not disappoint our ambitious expectations.
For starters, a sharp, acidic Welsh goat cheese with a curd-like texture was baked in filo pastry (larded with lamb drippings) and served on an assortment of tender young garden salad leaves--rocket, lamb's tongue, rossel, curly endive--with a flavorful walnut oil vinaigrette boosted by the addition of toasted sesame oil. Pigeon breast, like liver in its richness, was quickly pan-roasted, then doused with a ketchup-colored pomegranate sauce and toasted pine nuts--alas, not all ingredients were local.
Nor was the Gressingham duckling strictly Welsh, having been farm-bred in England's Lancashire as a cross between a gamey wild mallard and rich farmyard duck. But the ancient, almost moldy flavor of its breast drenched in a silken sauce of black currants and fat, raw bilberries (the British version of blueberries) would have pleased the palate of any Welshman, from King Arthur to Tom Jones.