Let’s start with the Lower Wye Valley

I have to admit that, beautiful as our area is, we are off and over this hills this bank holiday. However, I thought it would be rather nice to share a few thoughts for those of you who’s ‘over the hills’IMG_6805, is actually my little part of Wales.

The Wye Valley has been a popular tourist destination since the 18th century; one guide book depicts be-hatted and floral-bonneted ‘tourists’ being rowed down the Wye (past the heavy industry which blackened almost everything green and natural) to appreciate it’s beauty (from a safe distance). Even Nelson visited (a visit upon which Monmouth has been dining out for over two centuries) with his ‘posh crumpet’ Lady Hamilton. But what does it have to offer?

Well, it’s great for families, you can keep the little ones entertained from dawn to dusk, on dry and wet days. It keeps the cultured happy and the food lovers, but most of all it’s a superb place to just relax. Being only 40 minutes from Bristol, under an hour from Cardiff and (with a fair wind) under three from London, the Lower Wye Valley, which lies between the towns of Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye, and is ideally located for a short break or weekend getaway.

Of course, the river is splendid at this time of year, when it reflects the pale yellows, deep reds and golden browns of the woodland, interspersed with numerous swans and the odd leaping salmon. Hiring a canoe from one of the many outdoor adventure companies is a great idea and meandering down the river makes for a very pleasant day out. There are numerous pubs to ‘rest’ at on the way, and most offer reasonably good fodder for a lunchtime sojourn. I think that it’s only from the river that one can fully appreciate the majesty of the Valley. The road which shadows it is well worth the drive but you fail to notice the little things, the unusual angle to view Tintern Abbey, the lost church of Lancaut, the Seven Sisters Rocks and The Slaughters (named for the memory of a battle between Viking invaders and the rather annoyed natives) near Symond’s Yat or the great railway bridge at Redbrook which stands, somewhat forgotten, a legacy of an Industrial Age when this little village produced the thinnest tin in the world. There’s Goodrich Castle which peers down at the river and the old Priory of Flansford which sits, timelessly, beneath it; and a plethora of architecturally fascinating bridges.

Ross-on-Wye, a few miles into Herefordshire, and well named for the red sandstone upon which it is built, is quintessentially English, its pretty covered marketplace the centre of many a 1950’s picture postcard.

The county town of Monmouth is well worth a visit. Although it has a few too many coffee shops for comfort the museum is free and the fortified gatehouse which sits astride the river Monnow is one the best preserved examples in the UK. It also has a Waitrose which is obviously a good thing!

Chepstow, the final stop on the Offa’s Dyke path is known for its castle, once the stronghold of William Marshall, the greatest knight of the 12th century. There are a few chunks of the old town walls about and there are a rather good soft play centre for rainy days and bored children.

This site is a good starting point: Wye Valley AONB

 

 


Proustian Thoughts…

  

 

I had a relatively unusual childhood. As the product of musician parents I spent a good deal of time with grandparents and my love of food and cookery lies very much in the hands of my Grandmothers. My paternal grandmother was from the Welsh Valleys; she was from a rather poor family who had little but made the most of what they had; she was famous for her Chocolate Eclairs which she would bake in rather nifty 1950’s eclair tins, always to the same exact recipe, all timed and usually perfect. Her standard dish, come Autumn, was her Stew which would be served with dumplings, on a plate with a knife and fork to eat it with (yes, we always found it odd). It was simple food but tasty, the meat would be coated in flour and the whole thing pressure cooked until the braising steak fell apart and it was ready for the dumplings,  but I recall that there never were enough dumplings. I assume that these recipes came from the Marguerite Patten cookbook sat alongside one or two photo-history books , bible and dictionary, which completed her rather meagre library.

My maternal grandmother, who is still alive and very much ‘with it’ at 104 was born into a middle class Cardiff family and grew up near the docks in Newport. Her memories are amazing, she recalls everything in such great detail; the shops and shopkeepers, her mother’s food, her father’s breakfast choices, which bacon and sausage were accepted and which were considered beneath them. 

As a little girl I would stand on a stool, clean tea-towel serving as an apron, in Grandma’s tiny, dark, Welsh cottage kitchen, more of a lean-to than anything and knead dough, add tiny drops of browning to gravy or coat buns with a sticky sugar and water glaze. She would make proper chicken dinners, the veg would be yellowing and over soft, yet comforting. There would be a rice pudding baking in a chipped enamel tin, another Roses tin filled with cakes to take home. There were always battles in that household as my Grandfather, a rather bohemian artist-type would insist that Grandma bought the wrong bread (he was all for wholemeal, not white) so he would be forced to make his own, a dense crumb and pale crust with a hint of honey sweetness. He would also cook great pans of butter-beans and eat then with with a spoon, bread and butter on the side.

As I have previously mentioned, my life is remembered in tastes; sometimes colours as well, but always tastes. To me, even air tastes different. I recall the tang of the Parisian air as I was walked about the city at the age of eight; the warm, soft, herb tinged air of Provence, almost honey sweet; and the cloying scent of my home town in Autumn, the fruit and decomposing leaves, again, creating a taste memory rather than a smell. 
Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on the origin of these Proustian moments, my mind first identifying happiness or sadness, then offering the final pieces of the puzzle; a definite ‘ah’ moment. I want my son to have these memories…after all as you can never quite recreate the whole food/surroundings moments once experienced, you must just make new ones – the sea salt on the lips as you devour Padstow fish and chips, the exploratory mouthfuls of goats cheese at a market in the south-west of France. I really enjoy these ‘Mummy, remember when we ate…’ moments; even shop bought antipasti eaten in front of a roaring wood fire whilst listening to Verdi’s Requiem has its place in my sensory library; the juxtaposition of a continental summer versus a cold Welsh autumn.

 I recall once eating a superb piece of pork in a cream and apple sauce in a seafood restaurant in Brittany; against the grain, yet remembered in detail. One taste of pork with cream and I’m back there, remembering the blue tiled floor and paper tablecloth. Another taste/smell memory comes from Estonia where, in a wooded clearing, beside a lake, the air full of pine trees and smoke, I ate barbecued, herb strewn fish, so fresh that it was almost still breathing; the dill and salt and pepper crust hiding a pale, delicate pink flesh…it was sublime and entirely unique.