The Cotswolds are so over. These days savvy urbanites are heading further west to Monmouthshire. Why? For the quality farmers' markets and the growing band of gourmet restaurants. Meera Selva reports
At Abergavenny's market hall, Mrs Jones is selling her home-made preserves. Jars of lemon curd the colour of spring sunshine are lined up neatly alongside orange and ginger marmalade and pink grapefruit jam. Nearby, Guy Simon is telling me how his foie gras pâté is too rich for anything but Christmas with your lover, while the pork belly and seaweed pâté is perfect for a picnic.
There are also butchers selling hunks of Monmouthshire lamb and grocers with rust-coloured autumn vegetables. I buy a hunk of organic cheddar and a scotch egg made with black pudding, then walk swiftly past the apple pies and homemade ice-cream. The food is perfect to nibble on while traipsing through the muddy lanes and glorious hills of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains.
The Welsh Marches, dotted with Norman castles, market towns and lots and lots of sheep, are becoming Britain's larder, and Monmouthshire is finally waking up to the fact that some of the best ingredients in the country are on its doorstep.
Franco and Ann Taruschio put Abergavenny on the gastronomic map 40 years ago with The Walnut Tree restaurant, introducing bemused locals to Italian dishes cooked with local produce from the Marche region. But for decades, they laboured alone.
Now, farmers' markets, food festivals and a clutch of new restaurateurs seeking to celebrate local ingredients make food the highlight of a visit to this green, craggy slice of Wales. The Welsh farming industry has slowly staggered back to its feet after the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis in which more than a million animals were slaughtered.
In Monmouthshire, the revival has taken on a gourmet note as farmers look for new ways to boost their revenues. Farmers' markets began to trade more frequently in Usk, Monmouth and Abergavenny. As well as fresh produce, farmers began to make organic sausage rolls, gluten-free goats' cheese tarts and chocolate brownies. The annual Abergavenny Food Festival, now in its seventh year, holds demonstrations by chefs, tastings of New World wines, displays of French cheeses, and general gourmandising.
Prices for weekend homes in the nearby Cotswolds have soared now that Kate Moss and Sadie Frost have moved in, so Monmouthshire is the next obvious place for affordable cosy cottages, charming pubs and good food. The Michelin inspectors have noticed the area's appeal, too. The Bell at Skenfrith, a renovated coaching inn, has just been voted Michelin pub of the year for its dedication to sourcing local, seasonal produce.
Diners settle down on overstuffed sofas with potent gin and tonics in hand to read through the menu, which is something like a meander through the Welsh countryside. Rump of Monmouthshire lamb, fillet of Brecon beef, glazed breast of local duck, are all served with wild mushrooms and other local vegetables in a cheerful, slightly too bright dining room.
Upstairs, eight bedrooms are supplied with recent copies of Vanity Fair, Vogue and Prospect. There is a little thermos of fresh milk to go with the fresh coffee and tea and you will find waffle-weave cotton dressing gowns in the wardrobe. Sitting snugly in the shadows of ruined Skenfrith castle, The Bell is cosy, unpretentious and luxurious at the same time; exactly the kind of place exhausted townies hope to stumble across as they drive into the countryside.
Of course, not everyone is excited about this gourmet gentrification. Mrs Jones, who makes those delicious looking jams and preserves at the Abergavenny farmers' market looks alarmed when I pull out a notebook to jot down some details. "They'll start ringing in with orders from London see, and I don't want any more business. I sell enough as it is and I don't want to mass produce like some around here," she explains with a disapproving sniff.
And there is a sense that much of Monmouthshire's food revival is yet to take off with most people who live there. Ambitious chefs such as Matthew Tebbutt at the Foxhunter in Nant-y-derry are making a big play of sourcing local ingredients and turning them into imaginative recipes, but then again, they are definitely priced for the Londoners who drive down for the weekend.
Friday nights are always buzzing with urbanites who have stopped off for a meal before heading off to their cottages.
But the Foxhunter is Nant-y-derry's only pub, and while the restaurant's cream walls, gleaming cutlery and extensive wine list have gone down well with the out-of-towners, the prices are beyond most people who live within staggering distance. Their only choice now is to drive to a neighbouring village, then drink their allocated half pint and drive home safely.
The Compact Guide
The Bell at Skenfrith (01600 750235; skenfrith.co.uk).
The Foxhunter, Nant-y-derry (01873 881101; thefoxhunter.com).
Abergavenny farmers' market (01873 860271), fourth Thursday of each month;
Usk farmers' market (0845 610 6496), fortnightly; Monmouth farmers' market (0845 610 6496), fourth Saturday of each month.