Quarter-Life Sabbatical, part II

Retirement in Wales … and Tales of British Food

After leaving London (you can read about our stay there in blog post #1), we visited family in Reading and then headed to Wales — new territory for me. The border between Wales and England isn’t very distinct. After an hour-long train ride from Reading (the train was probably moving at upwards of 100 mph — hello, efficient public transport), my mom’s Uncle David collected us from the Bristol Parkway station. A short car ride over the River Severn and we had entered Wales. It’s like entering into a different county in the U.S. The biggest tip off that you’re in a new region is the signage, which displays both English and Welsh. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the latter (the Welsh might say that of the former). “Croeso” is “Welcome,” and “Ceir Parc” is the most similar I’ve seen yet — “Car Park” (that’s British for parking lot).

Uncle David and Mom sitting on the border  between Wales and England (Mom's in England).

Uncle David and Mom sitting on the border between Wales and England (Mom’s in England).

 

And then there are the sheep. Uncle David says there are 20 million sheep in Wales — that’s five times the human population. They graze along the hills, as white speckles against vivid green, everywhere you look. The only time you may not see them is while driving along the toothpick-thin roads that are lined with 8-foot hedging (which is almost every road I’ve seen), but I promise you, they’re behind the green wall. Aside from acting as lawn mowers, sheep’s primary contribution to society is the meat market. Welsh lamb is sought-after all over the “continent,” as my Great Uncle refers to  Europe.

By the way, I think I’m now used to seeing drivers on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road, but my heart did sink several times the first few days when I saw oncoming traffic in what I thought at first was our lane. Also, fun fact (thanks to the guide of our London tour bus) — Romans first built the roads in London and designed them to fit a certain rank and file of soldiers. With most soldiers being right-handed, they thought it important that the “passing lane” should be on the right, so that if battle engaged during the transition, swords were at the ready. I’m waiting to see a sword-holster on the driver’s door; that would give new meaning to aggressive driving.

View from Uncle David and Aunt Terry's backyard. The 20 million sheep are there somewhere, I promise.

View from Uncle David and Aunt Terry’s backyard. The 20 million sheep are there somewhere, I promise.

Anyway, Uncle David and Aunt Terry retired to Wales about 20 years ago. They live near a small village called Hay-on-Wye, which is also known as the “Town of Books.” There are 23 shops for used books in the village of probably no more than 36 storefronts. Thursday is market day, so we joined the weekly excursion to town to purchase fresh produce, meat, dairy and bread. Mom and I put our postcards in the mail, then stopped for tea and wi-fi at a small cafe. Terry and David bumped into a few friends of theirs — it’s a village of 1,700 so market day is somewhat of a social outing.

"The hills are alive with the sound of..." Oh wait, not in that country yet.  David & Terry's bungalow is the little white one almost directly where my right arm is pointing. Their village is just outside of Hay-on-Wye.

“The hills are alive with the sound of…” Oh wait, not in that country yet.
David & Terry’s bungalow is the little white one almost directly where my right arm is pointing. Their village is just outside of Hay-on-Wye.

 

The reward of these locally-sourced meals we’re having is perhaps beyond written description. Uncle David is a phenomenal cook, although he’ll tell you this is just everyday homestyle cooking that’s “a bit rustic and nothing fancy.” We had Hereford beef slow-braised in red wine the first night (see photo below); the second night was sea bass, which is a local favorite that looks and tastes like light salmon and has a short season of only three months; and the last was venison, especially for another family member who joined us from Liverpool, three hours away.

All of these meals are paired with a fine wine from France’s Cote de Rhone Valley, where David and Terry, who are both fluent in French and have enjoyed many trips there, deem as the best wine source of the country. If that’s not enough, just when you think you’ve saved room for dessert, out comes the salad and Welsh cheeses (customary European style for salad after a main course.

At least dessert has been the simple elegance of organic vanilla ice cream drizzled with raspberry couli and topped with locally grown berries. However, after several spoonfuls, looking into my bowl at the remains, never have five raspberries looked so intimidating. I think if my sides had seams, they would have been bursting, but no way could I let those jewels go to waste. Down the hatch they went and straight to bed I went soon after.

 

The leftovers of a traditional British/French dish of beef bourguignon. (Sorry it's not a more artistic picture; Uncle David is strictly against digital cameras, so I had to sneak this one after dinner.)

I’m not sure how to translate this label except for: GOOD.

The leftovers of a traditional British/French dish of beef bourguignon. (Sorry it's not a more artistic picture; Uncle David is strictly against the use of iAnythings as cameras, so I had to sneak this one after dinner.)

The leftovers of a traditional British/French dish of beef bourguignon. (Sorry it’s not a more artistic picture; Uncle David is strictly against the use of iAnythings as cameras, so I had to sneak this one after dinner.)

Chicken & mushroom pie: five-star rating; the first and best savory pie of my stay in England. Above is "bangers & mash," sausages and mashed potatoes -- a traditional dish of my mom's choice.

Chicken & mushroom pie: five-star rating; the first and best savory pie of my stay in England. Above is “bangers & mash,” sausages and mashed potatoes — a traditional dish of my mom’s choice.

If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, remember when she’s in Italy eating so much that she has to buy all new clothes? Well, my clothes still fit, but they might not by the time I get to Italy. I’m obeying doctor’s orders. Before I left the states, she said I better gain some weight and that pasta in Italy would do the trick. I took a shortcut, two countries early.

Aside from Uncle David’s food, take a look at what else I’ve been eating. Here are the savory pies that put Marie Callendar’s to shame. (Vegetarians, be warned.)

1. Chicken & Mushroom

2. Steak, Bacon & Ale

3. Cottage Pie (minced beef topped with mashed potatoes & cheddar. Similarly, Shepherd’s pie is traditionally made with minced lamb; I just learned that after years of my mom making Shepherd’s pie with beef.)

4. Mutton Pie (sheep)

I’ve also had a ploughman’s lunch (see picture below), fish & chips, a brie & vegetable tart, grilled chicken salad with mango chutney and butternut squash soup.

A ploughman's lunch, the field workers' traditional selection: cheese, bread, butter, chutney, pickled onions, apples and some veggies. Sometimes ham, too. The beer was a lager of some sort, not what the coaster boasts.

A ploughman’s lunch, the field workers’ traditional selection: cheese, bread, butter, chutney, pickled onions, apples and some veggies. Sometimes ham, too. The beer was a lager of some sort, not what the coaster boasts.

If you think British food is bad, then I think you’ve either gone to the wrong establishments or ordered wrong. Or you have the wrong relatives.

I’d like to learn a thing or two from Uncle David’s cooking, but he won’t take any help in the kitchen. Instead, before dinner, he props us up with a glass of Champagne on the back patio. We also take afternoon tea there, admiring picturesque hills in the distance and a slight breeze carrying the tune of chirping birds. The only disturbance of peace of mind is the occasional jet that flies low overhead from the British Air Force base, which is located somewhere nearby.

We’ve been wickedly lucky with the weather. Sunshine provides panoramic visibility that Uncle David says is perfect, and we only realized it for ourselves on our last day when the clouds rolled in. The weather and terrain reminds me of the Willamette Valley, for all you Oregonians out there.

They say you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. I suppose I’m that girl. Exploring London was great fun, but I do prefer the scenery outside the city. After this sabbatical and getting back to work, I think it would be a good idea to retire here, too.

Next up: Austria.

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One Comment to “Quarter-Life Sabbatical, part II”

  1. Oh YUM! The best food, more often than not, is “nothing fancy.” I’m glad you’re having an awesome time, it looks beautiful!

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