Matt Powell, Wales' Guiding Gourmet Chef
Pembrokeshire is a truly beautiful county. It's like Cornwall, but without quite the same annual summer tsunami of traffic-jams, sticky children and chip-gorging grockles. That's not of course to denude Cornwall of it's charm and appeal (after all, that's why it attracts so many people), but moreover to highlight that Pembrokeshire really does offer something special.
The beaches are the majestic. The surfing is ...erm...rad?...and, of course, the coastal fishing is fabulous. The sheer variety of angling opportunity is remarkable - from dune-backed, sweeping, salt-misted surf beaches, to intimidating, saw-toothed, red-grey rock-marks, and steep-sided estuaries and inlets, fringed by ancient forest. It's breathtakingly picturesque and varied.
That combination of habitat makes the Pembrokeshire coast a dream environment for bass. Of course, for the visiting angler, thats an awful lot of coastline to go at. You can do your online homework, use your accumulated experience, and maybe strike lucky on your very first trip, but as most saltwater anglers would affirm, generally it takes a lot of time (often years) to work out when and where the fish are in a particular venue or region to shift the odds significantly in your favour.
A fine lure-caught Pembrokeshire bass is released unharmed
If you don't have that time (and for me, being weeeeell into the trench of middle-age, that's an increasing concern), then your best bet to short-cut the whole '10-years experience' thing is go down the 'here's one I prepared earlier' route and hire a guide. That's what I did a few years back, and it was how I met the unassuming, affable and frankly super-talented Matt Powell.
Naturally, I started by calling on the assistance of Google, and with my best one-finger-typing entered the words "Welsh Bass Guide". Thanks to the magic of Search Engine Optimisation (no, I don't know what that actually means, but it sounded great in a meeting at work this week), Matt's name popped up with hardly any scrolling required. It was only a short digital hop then to find his web-site (now https://www.fishingandforagingwales.co.uk) and I was soon booked up for a weekend bass fishing adventure with my long-time fishing pal, Steve Donald.
Matt knows every inch of the south Pembrokeshire coast. And every idiosyncrasy of the bass that hunt there. Having started bass fishing as a teenager, Matt gradually realised he was catching more and bigger fish close-in, compared to anglers throwing lures and bait as far as their rods would allow. He pursued that angle and with an enquiring approach and a lot of dedicated time on the water, became an expert at lure fishing, sometimes at unbelievably close range. In 2012 he decided to take that accumulated knowledge and enter the world of professional guiding. He was a resounding success. His quiet impartation of his bass-fishing wisdom was fascinating and completely upended many of my preconceptions.
Matt Powell shows off a typically fine specimen
Below: As a guide, Matt knows exactly how to put his clients on their first lure-caught bass!
To cut a rambling story short ("Why can't you do that on the rest of your site then" I hear you cry), we had fantastic weekend!
Oddly enough, the fishing was unusually tough (strangely, thats the case wherever I go in the world ; From Canada to Cuba, many's the time I've heard guides exclaim "I just can't understand it...there were masses here yesterday..." as I look guiltily at my boots, wondering whether to explain that I seem to carry a rare 'Jinx Gene'). Oh, the fish were there, and indeed I had some crashing takes on top-water lures - I just couldn't stick the landing as it were, which was rod-gnawingly frustrating. But...the fact is, the whole experience with Matt, the quirky and extremely comfortable Yurt camping he laid on, the massive gain in knowledge from Matt's clear, quiet tutoring on bass behaviour and lure-working skills (hard lures and soft plastics), the thrill of the hit (and the tears of the miss), the general resulting banter, the utterly epic, fascinating (and sometimes downright scary!) places he took us to...and finally the food - well, it all added up to a superb and highly memorable short fishing break.
Needless to say then, I always had it in mind to experience it all again and have another go, armed with the extra experience gained the first time around. This year however has turned out to be a bit of an odd one (you may have noticed). When I could've gone fishing, I couldn't, and when I couldn't go fishing, I could've. Make sense? So the exasperating, misaligned months dragged by, with 2020's fishing opportunities, indeed opportunities to do anything, but a thin gruel upon which to exist. And the thing about existing on thin gruel is it leaves you hungry.
Lure fishing Pembrokeshire's spectacular coastline
So when the Covid-clouds parted a little at the end of August, and my wedding anniversary hove into view, Diana and I decided we'd better make a decent fist of it. But what to do? Going out for dinner is the staple answer, but this year we wanted something a little...different. Something different. Hmmm. The little particle of inspiration that actually hit home missed my meagre brain entirely but squarely connected with that of my wife and, recalling me talking about Matt's reputation, and as a surprise, she booked us up. It was, as we say here, 'bob-on'.
I'd stayed in contact with Matt over the last few years and seen how he had evolved his business, blending his angling experiences with his biggest passion - food. Matt has for some time been offering and building a completely unique dining experience; spend a revelatory day foraging for wild ingredients in the Pembrokeshire countryside and along it's wild shores, with Matt as your guide and teacher, and then return to his house to have him cook an incredible dinner for you.
Oh, hang on...did I forget to mention one little detail about Matt which is probably quite important and sort of completes the picture here? The man is an extraordinary, Michelin-star trained chef as well as talented angler!
Hard work this foraging malarky...good job there's glorious sunshine and a stunning beach at hand to take a moment on...
Ah...now if you're an angler AND a 'foodie', you should be really interested at this point! Matt learned his craft under the masterly tutorship of none other than Raymond Blanc, at the two Michelin star restaurant Le Manoir Aux Qait'Saisons in Oxfordshire. He then took those finely honed skills and travelled Europe working in a succession of Michelin Star kitchens before returning to the UK.
Taking the decision to have a break from the kitchens and try something completely different for a while is what lead Matt to the guiding. He recognised that doing something you're really passionate about is truly fulfilling, hence the success of the angling. But, to use a weird metaphor, food was in his veins and he couldn't quite let that go.
The foraging started as a side-line, and something Matt wanted to learn for himself as much as anything, but once he'd mastered that and was experimenting with cooking with his harvests at home, it occurred to him there may just be another opportunity here.
He wasn't wrong.
Whilst the foraging and food idea was put into practice in 2012 too, it's in the last few years it's really taken off, having tapped into a rich seam of people looking for a truly unique an extraordinary dining experience.
You venture out in a small group with Matt for a full day learning how to find and harvest a myriad of natural treasures.
Inland, it's everything from tapping birch sap to picking meadowsweet and wild garlic, to bosky woodland mushrooms, plucking golden-trumpeted Girolles, Chanterelles or dumpy Ceps from the sun-dappled, moss-draped verges and forest floor.
Finding golden Chanterelles isn't easy...fortunately you have Matt's expert tuition!
You then switch to salty estuarine marshes to nip tender tips of various Samphires, succulent Sea Arrowgrass, Sea Buckthorn, Sea Coriander etc., tasting as you go, surprise after surprise which are enough to give you eyebrow fatigue!
The array of flavours available in these unassuming, ground-hugging salt-marsh plants is amazing. Weirdly, some wouldn't be amiss in a Thai kitchen!
Onwards then to the dramatic open coast, dipping into the inter-tidal zone, where the barnacle-peppered red-grey rocks meet the expansive sands, here to find an array of delicately flavoured seaweeds, Laverbread, and the frankly incredible Sea Truffle (I won't spoil the surprise on that one, but you'll be blown-away!), stopping only on the rocky, cliff-path ascent to pluck some crisp Rock Samphire which tastes exactly like sweet, concentrated carrot.
Prepare to be astounded by 'Sea Truffle'!
Having gathered your treasure-trove of amazing taste explosions that, frankly, the previous day you would have trodden all over in complete ignorance, you return to Matt's place for a well earned drink (bring your own wine of choice) whilst he and his young sous chef set about preparing, right there in front of you, a menu of sublime courses made solely from local produce and the foraged ingredients, and creatively capturing through the artistry of sight, smell and taste, the very spirit of the shoreline, fields and forests of Pembrokeshire, as well as the season in which you're dining.
The natural seasonality of these ingredients brings another dimension to the dishes on offer, and Matt skilfully remasters his menu to reflect how these bounties pivot throughout the year.
Innovative use of seasonal local produce is at the heart of Matt's cooking
Having had a beautiful, blue-skied day out gathering (and it was glorious), we sat down in early September to 11 (yes 11!) exquisite, and stunningly presented courses. And let me tell the 'big eaters' out there (of which I consider myself one), don't be fooled by the delicate portions...if you can make the full 11 and clean every plate, you will have been comfortably challenged!
Matt's sous chef meticulously assembling the next course...
I hope Matt won't mind me listing the menu we drifted through on a blissful cloud of gastronomic heaven:
Leavened flat bread (36 year old yeast and proved for 36 hrs) served with wild garlic preserved in its life cycle.
Cured and air dried Waun Valley lamb (Sagi an ancient British word for it. In Welsh Halltu oen)
Limpets - Limpet mousse, samphire, (pickled and also fresh raw lower littoral zone seaweeds)
Slow cooked and charred Beetroot, pickled beetroot leaf, preserved sea beet leaves, beet cooking juices and beet sauce, preserved hogweed seeds.
Kelp soup, kelp emulsification, pepper dulse (sea truffle), sea radish and scurvy grass.
Slow cooked duck egg yolk, Chanterelles, Wood Hedgehog (don't worry, this is a fungus, not Mrs.Tiggywinkle, and no, this sentence isn't on the menu), last year's pennybun sauce, sharpened with birch syrup.
Lobster and the shoreline. - Lobster with estuary plants, laver seaweed and a sauce made with the lobster heads.
Crab apple Ice
Day old cheese and last years raspberries.
'Stack Rocks' - Gorse flower custard, birch meringue coloured with ash.
Chocolate cockle shells - Chocolate shells with Sea Buckthorn gel.
Having Matt right there with you means you can either sit in rapt and joyful silence as the rich and phenomenally complex flavours wash over your tastebuds, or you can ask him to explain every element, which Matt will do with relish, reverence and a clear love for every single ingredient.
Ask Matt what goes into cooking this single, simple duck-egg yolk, just one element of a complex dish. The answer will amaze you!
To describe the sublime tastes in each dish is almost pointless. You have to experience it for yourself. I do however have to mention one dish in particular; For me it was the limpet mouse and seaweeds. The reaction I had went beyond "Wow, that tastes fantastic!". It was a pure, emotional response that I was quite unprepared for. All my life, since I was a small child, I have been in love with the seashore. I have salt in my very veins, and my life-long love of fishing in that environment is a deeply ingrained part of who I am. It's where I find peace and freedom from life's stresses (although at this point I hasten to add I get the same effect from every moment spent with my darling wife!).
What Matt achieved in that single dish was hard to put into words. It was like he'd somehow managed to distil, at the finest level, the purest essence of every shoreline I'd ever visited. It was jangling shingle and pounding waves, quiet and sharp ice-crusted night-time silence, the haunting song of oyster-catchers, the gentle lapping of balmy summer estuaries, the thrill of catching... every fond memory, crystallising the very soul of 40 years-worth of experiences and delivering them all in one go via my taste-buds. It was nothing short of genius and it stopped me in my tracks. Just like a particular smell or song has the power to do, this dish utterly transported me.
Deceptively simple looking Limpet Mouse & seaweeds, but what an incredible dish.
It truly is one of the finest and most unique dining experiences (and days out) you'll ever have, and in the company of a one of the nicest, most modest people you'll ever meet, and it'll leave you wanting to return and try every season's bounty. Fishing, foraging and fine food - what's not to like?
Book Matt - your tastebuds will thank you for it and you'll have a lot of fun!
PS. Special mention here has to go to Matt's wonderful mum, Linda, who played front-of-house Host for us and was an absolute joy and a pleasure to spend time with, especially once the end-of-evening gin came out...Diana and I raucously laughed the rest of the evening away into the small hours with them both until we took pity on Matt and let the poor fellow retire!