The food heaven market town undergoing a post-lockdown renaissance

The food heaven market town undergoing a post-lockdown renaissance

While Wales’ urban hubs are struggling with the impact of a loss of office workers and visitors due to the pandemic, the quirky rural town of Abergavenny is thriving amidst a flow of visitors and new businesses.

The quaint town in north Monmouthshire has always boasted plenty of culinary assets, but now something brilliant is brewing in this beautiful spot which is overflowing with foodie excellence.

“We’ve always come here, living just around the corner,” said Sarah Charles from her new site in Nevill Street in the centre of the town.

She is the part-owner of Madame Fromage – one of the most popular cheese emporiums in Wales. They moved here in May after 17 years in Cardiff – deciding it was the right time to downsize, but also because it made business sense.

“We would go to the Angel [Hotel] for a treat and have some coffee and food. Coming to Abergavenny was always something we wanted to do as well as the Cardiff shop, but the pandemic made us rethink.

“Some nights over the years we’ve been getting home at midnight, getting stuck in loads of traffic to and from Cardiff. We want to use our time more efficiently, and we want a better lifestyle. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic we’d still be in Cardiff. Covid brought difficulties that couldn’t be ignored. A lot of office workers aren’t there anymore, tourism in Cardiff isn’t what it was. We relied on those things.”

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The shop is already brimming with visitors, as are most of the neighbours. It’s as though the pandemic is all but a distant memory here. Is it a coincidence?

“No, I don’t think so,” added Sarah. “Our spending habits have changed and I think people’s routines have changed. We’ve had a lot of customers travel to us who were with us in Cardiff, it’s the first time some of them have been to Abergavenny, and they’re telling us how beautiful it is and that they will be coming back often.”

Madame Fromage has moved to the town from Cardiff, with part-owner Sarah saying they couldn’t have hoped for a better start

Inside Madame Fromage


Shaun Hill is the head chef at the Michelin star Walnut Tree Inn which sits just outside the cobbled town in picturesque Llanddewi Skirrid. He’s been in the business for more than 50 years and is nationally recognised as one of the best chefs in the UK.

Now 74, he said the only reason he is still in the kitchen was because of the enduring custom – which he believes has improved since restrictions were lifted.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the place, since coming here as a customer when Franco Taruschio was here,” he said. “The food was interesting and the countryside was lovely.

“I moved here in 2008 because there was a population of people who I thought might eat out, and that’s never changed.

“I had no plans to take it over for as long as this. I was already 60 then, why would I want to start burning my fingers working all day? It’s never made me rich, but it’s got a special place in the history of hospitality in south Wales in a way that I don’t think anywhere else has. In a funny way it’s almost like being a curator of a prized local institution.

“We are lucky here that there’s a population of people here who are comfortable but not rich, who have the means and the desire to pop out and eat.

“It’s about entertainment, not nourishment. That’s why the Abergavenny Food Festival is not a farce, it’s genuine and it’s important because it reflects that the local population is interested.”

Shaun Hill said he felt lucky people in Abergavenny and the wider area cared about good food

The Walnut Tree

Inside the restaurant

Thousands attended the food festival again this year, which was sold out on its opening day on September 18 – albeit diluted for social distancing.

Giuseppe Scarpetta, who has been in the town for 30 years and has owned Harry’s Sandwich Bar in the town centre for 13 years, said the festival has “put us on the map and helped us grow”.

“Even this year the food festival was so so busy. People come for the food but also I think for the mountains around here. There are plenty of places to enjoy a walk and it’s not far from the motorway. We are lucky. The place is overflowing with cafes and coffee shops,” he laughed.

Giuseppe Scarpetta, who has lived in the town for 30 years and has owned Harry’s Sandwich Bar for 13 years

Some of the food on sale in Harry’s

Harry’s

One of those new coffee shops is Ziggy’s in Frogmore Street – which part-owner David Sagan dubbed the new “West End of Monmouthshire”.

His partner Rebecca said: “We grabbed it within minutes of hearing about it, and we’ve been shocked at how busy we’ve been. We’ve noticed so many more tourists coming recently, possibly because fewer people are going abroad. It’s made for an amazing summer. When the weather is nice it feels like being on holiday every day here.”

Shaun believes the area is unique in how many people care about where their food is coming from.

Georgie Restall, who works at Ziggy’s coffee shop in Frogmore Street

Ziggy’s


“I remember people coming up from places like Hastings and saying to me that they’d like a food festival. I’m sure they would, but do you have good independent food shops and is there a backdrop of enthusiasm for it? That’s something that has grown here over the years and it’s made a name for itself.

“I have noticed a lot more interest in how food is produced and the quality of the produce. People are quite happy to have artisan food suppliers and to support them.”

Since popular Italian Franco Taruschio opened The Walnut Tree in the 1960s, top chefs have flooded into the town – and many have spent time at the restaurant, including Stephen Terry, who now runs multi-award winning The Hardwick nearby, and Dan Saunders and Danielle Phillips, who run the Michelin recognised The Gaff.

After Dan and Danielle met at The Walnut Tree, they broke away to open the cosy restaurant in the town’s Courtyard in 2019. In 2021 they opened a coffee shop and deli too.

Co-owner of the Gaff, Danielle Phillips, said the town was ‘buzzing’ due to more tourists and more eateries

The Gaff

Inside The Gaff

“By September and October you usually start to see a decline but we just haven’t had that,” Danielle said. “We’re still telling people they have to book, especially for weekends. Every restaurant is buzzing, you can feel that sense of a real foodie atmosphere.

“We love it here, it’s not a town full of chains and I think that entices people now. We do get a lot of people from afar because of that. We’ve noticed, especially since lockdown restrictions lifted, that a lot of people travel here specifically for a food weekend – many of them from London, Bath and Bristol. Many of them are telling us they haven’t been for ten years and can’t believe how the place has transformed.

“It’s not a typical market town. When you walk through the streets you see a variety of shops with lots of different cuisines.”

The town is proud of its thriving Turkish cuisine with plenty of popular restaurants including Mezze Me and Anatolian.

Even on an overcast weekday afternoon the town is busy

Mezze Me

Inside

Mehmet Muftuoglu, of Mezze Me, said: “Abergavenny’s reputation as a foodie destination maybe leads to a higher than average consumer confidence. People seem to be interested in food, which is great and they also appreciate the chance to try something that they wouldn’t usually cook at home.

“It is great that our town welcomes and is able to support so many food businesses. Hospitality is much more than an employer of local people, it also contributes to the visitor economy which is crucial in Wales.

“Our industry can bolster tourism and the ripple effect of attracting more people to the town is not only that local businesses are supported, but it also fosters entrepreneurship and new businesses.”

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