An Advent-aegous Purchase

 

In just over two weeks we’ll all be opening that first, exciting door on the advent calendar and this year there are dozens of options to choose from. Not just for children, in recent years advent calendars have exploded in a plethora of extremely grown-up delights. From affordable luxury to extreme indulgence, these will surely satisfy all the adults in the family.

Here is just a small selection of my favourites.

Pukka Tea Christmas Calendar 

What’s more relaxing than sitting down on front of a cosy log fire sipping a delicious herbal tea? The Pukka Tea calendar offers a variety of flavours to suit all aspects of the festive season. An affordable treat at £9.99

Hotel Chocolat Grand Advent Calendar 

Who doesn’t indulge in a bit of naughtiness over the Christmas holidays? This calendar is jam-packed with Hotel Chocolat’s  excellent and innovative products, from truffles to cocoa gin – it’s got something for everyone and at £68 proves rather good value.

Master of Malt: Whisky Calendar

For the Whisky lover, the Master of Malt calendar offers 24 delicious tipples to get you through the cold winter nights and put a little fire in your belly, at £149.95 it is rather more indulgent but Christmas comes but once a year!

The Spicery Curry Legend Advent Calendar

Curry, every day until Christmas? Yes…24 curry recipes hide behind these quirky little doors and the calendar comes with four spice blends, all of which combine to create delicious flavours proving that curry doesn’t have to be confined to boxing day – an economical buy at £29

Honest Brew Craft Beer Advent Calendar 

Well, if you’ve selected the curry calendar, here’s the perfect complimentary choice. A plethora of craft beer from around the globe. I can personally recommend this one, there  really are beers for all occasions and at £139, it’s not too bank breaking either.

Joe and Seph’s Popcorn Advent Calendar 

Popcorn, a movie every night? 24 bags of yummy popcorn make this a perfect gift for the film buff in the family. With flavours ranging from Banoffee Pie to Toffee Apple and Cinnamon, through White Chocolate and Strawberry, this sweet treat is available for just £25

Fever-Tree Ultimate G & T Advent Calendar 

G and T, and T done well is Fever-Tree. With 12 gins and 12 mixers, this calendar is perfect for the gin lover of the family. Offering a selection of the better known British gins, this retails at £60 and will really get you into the festive ‘spirit’

Fortum and Mason Rare Tea Wooden Advent Calendar

The beautiful offering from Fortum and Mason comprises 24 elegant round pots filled with exotic and rare tea. At £145 it is certainly aimed at the luxury market, however the wooden calendar offers a wonderfully nostalgic twist and can be re-used for years to come.

The Snaffling Pig, Pork Crackling Advent Calendar 

For the low carb fanatic, the Pork Crackling advent calendar from The Snaffling Pig costs £17.50 and offers 24 packets Great Taste winning crackling . This A3 offering will surely impress the snacker in the family and combined with the G and T or Craft Beer calendars, it’ll certainly satisfy that ‘nibbley’ itch.

 

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The Pheasant Philosophises in Gascony: Market Musings

PoudenasAlmost twenty-five years ago, my parents bought a large, honey coloured stone village house on the borders of three French departments; the Lot-et-Garonne, The Gers and The Landes. Three departments with extremely different culinary influences yet all exceptional in their own way.My first ever piece of food writing was for my GCSE English coursework portfolio. I wrote about French Markets, they enthralled me with their colours, smells, tastes and vibrancy. I had always enjoyed writing but when I wrote about food and drink it was like coming home. Every holiday I made it my business to learn everything I could about the local French food – I tried it all and discovered so much.

So, twenty-years later, what’s changed in rural France? 

The village hasn’t, the markets haven’t – although there has been a wonderful resurgence in artisanal beer which has proved very popular with my other half. The pace of life is still the same…a few more shops open on Monday than used to, and one or two of the supermarkets are opening on Sunday mornings. There have been small injections of more contemporary culture – only this morning I spotted a designer coffee stall offering lattes and syrup-garnished cappuccinos; but in general, my little part of South-West France has remained the same and that is quite wonderful. 

I think the British could learn a lot from the French attitude towards food – they are proud of their regional dishes, simple as some are, and in Britain we too have a great deal to celebrate, culinarily. Whilst France is synonymous with fine dining, rural France indulges differently – not in the most elegant and visually perfect – but in the freshest and most nutritious, children are fed well from an early age, their palates are educated, they’ll often choose salad and fruit over some fake sugary concoction. Unlike the UK, France is not at the height of an obesity crisis, although twenty years ago it was rare to see any obesity in the county, today it is about – something which has fallen in line with the expansion of ready meals and highly processed products arriving in the great, overly lit hypermarkets which are sadly now ever present. 

Inherently though, there is a good nutritional underpinning and food is celebrated. Families gather together to share a meal, the summer evenings offer nocturnal markets showcasing the very best the region has to offer, there are feasts dedicated to individual dishes – the Gascon Garbure for example – which is a wonderful hotchpotch of meats boiled with vegetables and sometimes white beans, then served with great reverence – I suppose it’s a little like our Welsh Cawl, that ever boiling stock pot which had been part of Welsh culture for centuries. 

This morning I visited one of my favourite local markets, about 30 minutes drive away. The town of Eauze, in the Gers, is famed for its Roman remains and the market which snakes through the streets on a Thursday morning is one of those places that tourists hope to happen to happen upon to tell friends about at home. Divided into two halves, one for clothing, household goods, gifts, jewellery and the like and the other – my favourite – is in the lower square under the shadow of the trees and is, of course, the food market.

Packed into a relatively small space are dozens of traders – some selling a few vegetables or eggs from their gardens, some on a much grander scale. It’s like Pandora’s box, around each corner is something delicious waiting to be discovered. 

Today, it being mid June, I picked up some delicious local strawberries, absolutely on the point of perfection (so perfect in fact that they had to be eaten rather quickly after lunch), deep, green courgettes with their smooth, tactile skin, and deep, vibrant red cherries from the Gers. There were the first of the season’s melons – still an expensive treat until July when they fill the markets in abundance with that sweet smell which begs you to buy them. There were haricots blancs, haricot vert – the vendor snapping the fine beans to display their crisp freshness. A little further on were organic cheeses; goats, cows and sheep, wrapped in waxed paper and proudly displaying their ‘Bio’ credentials. Another stall was packed with glistening barrels of olives, all varieties and flavours – beside which were drums of preserved fruit from the sweet local prunes of Agen to the candid pineapples of the exotic West Indies, and littles packets of spices from across the globe. 

What is wonderful about France, is the opportunity to regularly buy exactly the amount you need. Markets are held daily somewhere in the area, most towns are no more than a 30 minute drive apart and there is no shame in buying three tomatoes, 100g of olives or a handful of cherries. There is certainly less waste, which, in this age of over excess and a throwaway economy, is surely welcome. 

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March Morning Musings from Monmouthshire

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I have to admit to being a little lax over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot going on, (not all food related) however, now that the worst weather is over and Spring is, hopefully, on the horizon, I’ve come home to roost a while.

This year, I’m hoping to put together a few ‘what’s going on’, food and drink-wise in Monmouthshire and the borders pieces  – some very good things are happening locally, including the 20th anniversary of the legendary Abergavenny Food Festival in September, 2018 is defiantly a great year for food and drink lovers.

IMG_2379The beginning of the year saw butchers Neil Powell come to Monmouth to take over the, recently closed,  Le Gourmet shop. Neil Powell meat is always excellent, locally sourced (and slaughtered) and the staff are extremely knowledgeable. It’s a real pleasure to visit and often has some of the more obscure cuts to stimulate the creative thought-process when it comes to recipe development. Why not call by for some breakfast staples, the home-cured bacon is delicious and alongside some black pudding and a variety of tasty sausages, a weekend brunch becomes a real indulgence.

The Anchor, in Tintern, nestled between the River Wye and the famous abbey has been the recent subject of a rather grand scale sprucing-up. Re-opening at the end of February, The Anchor has been much extended and diner’s can now enjoy views of the abbey as they peruse the locally sourced menus – mainly traditional pub favourites, with a few twists. Perfect for family dining, there are special offers for youngsters, see the website for more details. I wish them the very best of luck!

May sees the annual Welsh Perry and Cider Festival in the splendid surroundings of Caldicot Castle which also plays host to The Monmouthshire Food Festival in June. More details on those to follow.

IMG_1129In the Forest of Dean, The Severn and Wye Smokery is still going from strength to strength following its outstanding eco-friendly rebuild last year. A great location, just off the A48 at Chaxhill, it offers delicious food and drink, a well-stocked deli (including, of course the famous smoked salmon). Look out for special tasting menu evenings and other special events, but even stopping by for a quick lunch or morning coffee is sure to inspire. The fish counter is outstanding and so fresh, you can almost feel the sea beside you. Having spoken with the owner, I can see a true passion for sustainability and a plan for the future which could be quite outstanding. Watch this space!

And finally, let’s not forget the wonderful small farmers’ markets which can be found dotted about the countryside, from St Briavels and Woolaston, to Usk and Grosmont, with many more in between  – these places are a haven for devoted food lovers, the producers are mostly small scale and totally dedicated to their art. Supporting at grass-roots level is so very important at this time of political uncertainty, and with such excellent produce around, why turn to supermarkets and mass production? – just look about you, and try to make cooking (and sourcing) a real experience from field to fork!


The Monmouthshire Food Festival – Fit for a King (or the son of one anyway!)

Last weekend, Thomas of Woodstock’s once splendid castle at Caldicot played host, for the second time this year, to The Monmouthshire Food Festival. In general the weather held and there were some moments of dazzling sunshine, as visitors were treated to two splendid days of food, drink, demonstrations and workshops.

Although not the biggest in the area, there is a quaintness to The Monmouthshire Food Festival. It’s cosily snuggles into the courtyard of Caldicot Castle, and has ample stalls to while away several hours. On offer was everything from Squirrel meat to artisanal soda, passing through cheeses, sauces, jams and all manner of alcoholic and non-alcholic drinks.

In the demonstration tent visitors were treated to a broad range of wonderfully seasonal  recipes from passionate local chefs including BBC Masterchef: The Professionals semi-finalist and former sous-chef to, amongst others, Marcus Wareing,  Liam Whittle; who IMG_0405produced an outstanding Duck dish with flavoursome Quinoa and Salmon in Asian Style Broth – needless to say, both were delicious.

There were also guided tastings; I enjoyed a beer and food pairing workshop with Brecon Brewing’s Buster Grant and Gloucestershire based Hillside Brewery’s Paul Williamson; and found myself tasting a variety of foods from The Blaenavon Cheddar Cheese Company’s Oak Smoked Cheddar through to the rather excellent chocolate of Black Mountain Gold, by way of a deliciously chewy Lavabread Salami from Cwm Farm. All the beers were good, some pipped others to the post, but generally the extremely knowledgeable brewers had it all spot on.

The street food was excellent; prize-winning Welsh street-food  purveyors, The Original Goodfilla’s Company were offering their trademark calzone style Pizza, and I was delighted to discover Hereford based The Grub Shed with their obscenely decadent Brisket Fries, and, a bottle of Somerset Elderflower Lemonade from Somerset based Hullabaloo’s was just the ticket to wash it down.

It’s always wonderful to find new local producers to add to my every-increasing dossier and this time was no exception. I tasted cured Mutton by Gwella, a Welsh delicacy which was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and which I had even contemplated trying to produce at home due to the lack of commercial availability; amazing freezer friendly curry sauces from Rayeesa’s Indian Kitchen, artisanal botanical syrups from Tast Natur (some of which took you straight back to a summer meadow), the extremely potent Eccentric Gin whose Limbeck New Western Style Gin was one of the most innovative I’ve tasted yet, and I was introduced to Lurvill’s Delight (more on that soon).

I also managed to acquire a bucket of traditionally Welsh-style loose tea from Morgan’s Brew Tea Company and a yummy Nutella Swirl from Baked on Green Street.

I really enjoyed my day at The Monmouthshire Food Festival and could easily have loaded my larder fit to burst with the sheer array of produce on offer. However, I had to draw the line somewhere,else we would have struggled back to the car!

There are plans for four Monmouthshire Food Festivals next year, including two in Monmouth’s Shire Hall (almost on my doorstep).

I think they’ll be very well received, because our county’s commitment to buying local and artisanal produce is ever-growing and we have so much to be proud of.


A few thoughts on foodie fashion….

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As a food writer by profession (for more years than I care to remember), I have been fully immersed in the revival of the British food industry. I’ve always found it interesting to observe fashion and food fashion is no exception. Over the past decade we have seen quite a swing in the direction of ethical, local food; small producers and cottage industries had popped up all over the place. Television programs, such as The Great British Bake Off have encouraged us back to our cookery roots and it’s difficult to attend a dinner party these days where the origin of the ingredients aren’t discussed for the greater part of the evening. I think all this is wonderful! We should be proud of our heritage and our brand of British cuisine. We should be promoting our farmers and those taking up the reins of the great brewers, bakers, cheesemakers and butchers of old. These days a recipe ‘discovered’ in an old, well used cookery book is a great an accolade; ten years ago it was pesto and goats cheese tartlets; today ham hock terrine and piccalilli.

Buying local is far easier now than it ever has been; seasonality is a delight and companies promoting both (as well as ethical production) have a golden ticket. For the past six years I have written a monthly ‘foodie’ column in which I have tried to promote my ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ food and drink; it has been a privilege to research and I have discovered so many little gems. From my previous posts, you will see some of my favourites are still businesses thriving today and I continue to champion British food on a daily basis.

So….Lets hope this isn’t just a fashion, that’s its here for the duration and not tied up with the current ‘hip’ penchant for tweed and gin and beards (lovely as those trends are). If we really considered the quality and sourcing of our foodstuffs we would be healthier – for years our British staples have been messed around with by large corporations until they are genetically virtually unrecognisable – wheat being one
the main victims. Our daily bread is not the daily bread of old (but no doubt more on that in the future) – we are a society of allergies and intolerances, of cancers, fibromyalgia, and heart disease, not to mention type 2 diabetes. Can this be changed by diet alone? I, for one, believe it can.