Exploring Pembrokeshire's culinary landscape
Fernery at the Grove of Narberth
A hidden gem leading Pembrokeshire’s fine dining scene, we chatted to Executive Chef Douglas Balish to get an insight into what makes the Fernery restaurant stand out from the rest.
The experience starts at the driveway…
Entering through gates opening onto meadows, we drive beneath a line of tall, aged beech before the country house reveals itself, nestled just so in the dip of countryside.
The gently sloping drive guides us effortlessly to Grove of Narberth’s front door, framed by a wooden porch. To our right, a walkway to the wildlife pond disappears beneath a small grove of Japanese Cherry Blossom trees decked in peach and yellow leaves, with stragglers of lime green still clinging on. In summer, there’d be dragonflies to watch flitting across the water, but for now, we turn our backs on the pond and fading dusk, and make our way inside.
Greeted in the hallway by General Manager Thomas, the pleasure of a warm, friendly handshake is appreciated as we pass beneath a wooden arch reminiscent of a church interior. The 19th century architect who renovated much of the original 17th century main house worked largely on church buildings, we are told, after spotting other neo-gothic features in the same style.
Thomas leads us into a cosy, low-ceilinged bar that feels like the ground floor’s beating heart, to sit around a table made of glass and filled with lumps of anthracite coal. The bar’s décor hints at Wales’ mining history, with colours, textures and lights reminiscent of the coal and slate industries that shaped this countryside’s past. Black and white art sets the scene; the deep contrasts of Knapp-Fishers sit comfortably beside local photographer David Wilson’s dark frames on the walls, but it’s not oppressive – it captures the stark beauty of this landscape in a cosy way, softened by open fireplaces, hand-crafted cushions and the lull of soft music. As we settle ourselves down onto a traditionally Welsh, high-backed skew, Douglas emerges from the kitchen to meet us.
Originally hailing from Ayrshire, Douglas previously held a Michelin star in Surrey, before finding his way to Pembrokeshire in 2019 to take on the Executive Head Chef role at Grove of Narberth. Drawn to Grove by the prospect of a rural lifestyle and keen to set down roots, he left Surrey: “I wanted to enjoy a more relaxing quality of life with my family. Alongside that, I shared Neil and Zoe’s dreams and aspirations – how they go about running a business is completely different from anyone else – and I knew I wanted to be a part of what they were building here”.
It’s clear that individuality is welcomed by owners Neil and Zoe Kedward, who want the business to be a reflection of the excellent staff they feel lucky to employ. The couple are also paving the way in sustainable hospitality, with Grove of Narberth becoming the first hotel in Wales to achieve the Green Tourism Gold Award back in 2017, and many other initiatives happening since then, including converting to 100% renewable energy, using reed-bed techniques for wastewater and planting over 4,000 indigenous trees on the site. “We do so much here that we actually take some of it for granted, and it’s difficult to remember to explain it all!” Douglas jokes. “But most of the produce used at Fernery, and in our more relaxed Artisan Rooms restaurant, is from the grounds or nearby”.
He’s referring to the extensive Kitchen Garden – a massive asset to the chefs in reducing food miles, which he’s been collaborating with the gardening team to improve. Affectionately recounting the “ambitious varieties” that were being grown in quantities too small to sustain a whole dish on the menu, Douglas explains their new approach: “we’ve cut everything back and grow fewer varieties of vegetables but higher quantities of each one, so it’s more practical, like Jerusalem artichokes”. He laughs that now, there’s almost “too many to get through, but they make up the first course in the Fernery. Our own artichokes paired with ceps”.
Working with the gardeners ahead of each season allows the kitchen to explore more options with vegetables, which is something that Douglas, who spent years as a vegetarian, prioritises: “I asked them to grow me some specific carrots, an unusual variety with an extra strong flavour, then the team and I built a whole dish around them. We treat vegetables with the same care as meat, basting them in butter for example, rather than just throwing them in a pan and boiling the flavour out of them.”
The gathering night means we can’t go and see the garden for ourselves, but guests have the freedom to explore inside its stone walls at their leisure, or watch from the apple tree-dappled terrace as the chefs go back and forth. “I’m always getting asked what I’m picking or what dish something’s used for – it’s so lovely that the guests feel engaged”, Douglas says. “Our florists grow flowers for the hotel up there too… It’s really nice to have such a focus on home-grown produce, it’s a lovely idea that reduces our carbon footprint”.
We move from the bar through to the Fernery and it’s immediately clear why it holds that name – fern fronds from the gardens have been dried and pressed carefully onto the walls to create a lovely, natural wallpaper and colour palette that compliments the foliage centrepieces and large wicker baskets that sit beneath the central table. It’s tasteful, dimly lit and romantic, the perfect mix of elegant and relaxed, the décor connecting the restaurant to its surroundings in an homage to Grove’s meadowland situ.
Understandably, not all produce can be found within the estate’s luxurious perimeter, so creating a seasonal menu using local suppliers is fundamental to Douglas’s cooking style, and he assures us he does not buy any out of season veg from Africa or Asia – “we don’t need to. We try to use mainly Welsh or British ingredients, I don’t know any other way of doing it to be honest. Using high-quality produce that’s as local as possible is how I’ve always worked.”
In Pembrokeshire’s rural communities, the seasons are felt keenly and noted intently because many livelihoods revolve entirely around them, so it’s nice to spot field or hedgerow crops both outdoors and on the Fernery menu simultaneously. In a multi-sensory approach, Douglas plays with emotions attached to seasons: “we always try and keep the feel of the food in keeping with the feel of outside, the colours, the flavours, the spices, everything. Even if it’s just a psychological thing and people maybe don’t realise, you still have that feeling of warmth and comfort”. Clearly though, some ingredients are too good not to preserve for the coming months – our mouths water as he describes late summer blueberries fermented till they taste like merlot, or the bottled springtime of elderflower syrups and vinegars.
Keeping food-miles down means creating a menu that sings praises of the restaurant’s locality, which proves easy because “there’s tonnes of great produce around here, it’s amazing. The best goats’ cheese I’ve ever tasted, anywhere in the world, was here”. It’s clear too that Douglas values ecology-conscious suppliers and makes every effort to support local initiatives, be that working closely with a Saundersfoot fisherman who “delivers sustainable, line-caught seabass”, or supporting the reintroduction of native oysters into Angle Bay by a local marine biologist turned oyster farmer. It’s important for him to understand the ethos of the people he works with and get to know the product totally before putting it on the menu.
Attempting to showcase the best of Pembrokeshire, Fernery’s menu is heavily influenced by place, and with plenty of ideas in the pipeline, Douglas is enthusiastic about the variance in landscape we have here – the sea, the hills, the woodlands, the fields and of course the garden – and the creative possibilities each locality gives him. But he’s careful to emphasise that Fernery’s menu is “not fussy, because Pembrokeshire isn’t a fussy county really. But at the same time, it’s totally refined”. Like a theatrical performance, Douglas feels that a meal out should engage all the senses and emotions, and educate people, without being inaccessible or intimidating. “I hate that fine dining thing”, he says, waving his fingers through the air in inverted commas. “Something about those two words together has connotations of stuffiness, but it’s not like that here, not at all, everyone is so friendly and approachable”.
This kind of immersive experience is a rare find in Pembrokeshire, and such crafted and considered dining hopefully inspires guests to look outward at their environment, appreciate sustainable practices and recognise quality cuisine on their doorstep. Douglas reflects, “I didn’t have to change anything here to suit my ethos when I arrived; because I shared Neil and Zoe’s vision, I slotted straight in – it already worked”. And it does work. Every last bit of it.
Douglas retreats back into the kitchen apologetically, and we linger on awhile, unsure of which lounge to take our coffee in – there are three – but finally settle on elevated views from the galleried upstairs landing. Downstairs, open fires roar and sofas beckon, and it would be all too easy to while away an evening snuggled beneath a Welsh wool blanket in the wood-panelled, Lovespoon-adorned rooms. But upstairs is airy beneath the A-frame, and landscape paintings blend with the view outside to continue a 180-degree vista of the Preseli hills, where the last glow of twilight bleeds away until morning.
Outside, owls hoot, and all is still.