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.


The Abergavenny Food Festival Part 2: The Producers #AFF2017

 

 

PrintAs I mentioned in my earlier post, the stars of Abergavenny Food Festival are without doubt the producers. Whether nestling between the little booths or creating fine displays in the prestigious Market Hall,  the producers have an infallible passion for food and drink which is infectious and wonderful. Most are happy to chat and I unreservedly apologise, to those who are behind me in queues, for holding them up. I am a questioner; I want to know about the product, the sourcing, origin and inspiration. I’ve been privy to some wonderful tales from lost family recipe books, to accidental discoveries, to lifelong ambition; as well as meeting those farmers whose forebears have farmed for generations through difficult times; inherently believing in their crop or herd – families for whom the ‘organic’ and ‘buy local’ campaigns are finally paying off.

 

 

IMG_7331I love that there is always something new to be learnt. Food is an ever evolving subject and the little  things gleaned at such festivals can often form the basis for longer articles, recipes or books. I do feel a little guilty though, because were I to buy from every stall I taste (and enjoy) I would be empty of pocket and overly full of larder; however that is not to say that I can’t take my new found knowledge and share the products at a later date and so many companies offer internet shops or mail order these days. I always rather fantasised about those great hampers ordered from Fortnum and Mason and arriving in the Highlands, at grand houses, after spending the night as freight on those wonderful steam trains – I suppose I seek nostalgia – and having seen the creative thought which goes into much of the artisanal packaging these days I feel a return to these glory days are on the horizon, and it warms my heart!

I also get great pleasure from passing a stall with a hand-drawn ‘Sold Out, see you next year’ sign; whilst it is obviously a great accolade for the producer (who are no doubt cursing themselves for not having made enough, even though many were working on very little sleep and far too much coffee in the weeks leading up to the festival) it also demonstrates a belief in future success.

The diverse and  rich varieties of food and drink related produce to be found at festivals are a testament to the British public’s return to real, local and artisanal foods, whether it be sauces, whose recipes come from as far away as Borneo wth Sorai; delicately flavoured gin with autumnal botanicals from Sibling Distillery or a jar of Forage Fine Foods herb rub bursting with the smells and tastes of a summer meadow, there is a story and a demand – rubbed into a leg of Welsh lamb and then slowly roasted, the herb rub is absolutely exquisite.

As I wander through the markets the smells which waft about are all too tempting; from the jars of Joe and Seph’s Willy Wonkaesque popcorn, to the elegant displays of cakes, pasties, real breads and finely sliced charcuterie. The cheese market is difficult to pass through without adding at least another four cheeses to my already overladen refrigerator. This years haul, (chick in tow, who is possibly even more of a cheese lover than me) added mature yet smooth unpasteurised cheddar from Batch Farm; IMG_7492award winning firm Somerset goat’s cheese, creamy and surprisingly mild, and charmingly named ‘Rachel’ from White Lake Cheese ; the Bath Soft Cheese Company’s Wyfe of Bath, an organic Gouda inspired cheese (although there was much debate over whether to also buy their rather marvellous Bath Blue); and  finally a donation to Macmillan (sponsors M & S’ chosen charity) secured us two packets of classic soft and milky Abergavenny goat’s cheese, a fitting final choice given the location. Soft goat’s cheese is something I always have in the refrigerator, it’s my go-to topping for oatcakes, toasted sourdough or even to add  a surprising savoury lift to cheese cake.

The street food stalls at Abergavenny do encourage gluttony, however when you’re presented with everything from Taiwanese Bao Buns to the South West’s (and that’s Bristol not the U S of A, whatever image the logo may inspire) now legendary The Pickled Brisket and their outstanding salt-beef stuffed brioche rolls; chocolate dipped authentic Churros or The Guardian’s 2017 number one choice for Pizza, our own Cardiff based  The Dusty Knuckle Pizza Company.  There was hog roast, Aberaeron honey ice-cream, Legges of Bromyard’s traditional British pies, Welsh venison and even Ghanaian street food – you could have easily taken all your main meals for a fortnight and still not covered everything. Abergavenny Food Festival champions all good food, yes a lot of it is classically British, but also a lot of it stems from other cultures; many of these chefs and producers, although British born and bred, have carried with them a great passion for their ancestral cuisine and it’s rather lucky for us, that they have. DSCN0635

I could quite easily write a whole book about just one year’s festival in Abergavenny, there is so much to see and do and taste; but alas, I am forced to be content with rifling through my collection of cards, leaflets and recipes until I can match taste to name and put in my online orders. I have also been know to drive Mr D rather mad on weekend breaks when I’ve insisted on searching the lanes of some rural county (inevitably without a sat-nav signal) for a farm shop selling something of which I only half remember the name, but found absolutely delicious at Abergavenny.

Of course, I obviously am looking forward to next year’s 20th anniversary celebration but may well have to consider some sort of abstemious routine in the early days of September!

Whilst I attended the Abergavenny Food Festival as a guest, all opinions are my own as are the images.

 

 


Personal Picks for Abergavenny Food Festival 2017 #AFF2017

 

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I am so proud to champion Abergavenny Food Festival. Abergavenny is just under half an hour’s drive from my home in Monmouth and (perhaps I am a little biased) but I absolutely love it. It’s an international festival with a wonderfully local feel; I adore the crowds, the sites, smells and of course the tastes.

Having attended for the past few years and having built up a rather encyclopaedic knowledge of my local producers, possibly through simple gluttony;  I thought it would be rather nice to share some of my favourites with you.

My Top Five Local Producers @ Abergavenny Food Festival (in no particular order!)

  1. Green and Jenks (www.greenandjenks.com) Traditional Italian Gelato; based in Monnow Street, Monmouth. This exquisite Italian-Style Gelato in made on site in the cellars of their flagship shop. The owners’ family  were the proprietors of a rather well know dairy in Cardiff in the early 20th century and, having learnt the art directly from Italian Gelato masters in Italy, the owner decided to continue the dairy tradition by opening an ice-cream parlour. The flavours are seasonal; local ingredients are a priority; the Fig and Marscapone is sensational.
  2. Blaenavon Cheddar Company (www.chunkofcheese.co.uk). Several varieties, my favourite being the cheddar aged in the Big Pit mine in the industrial World Heritage Site of Blaenavon, which nestles high in the hills above Abergavenny. All the cheeses would prove excellent additions to any cheese-board, so taste your way to your favourites. The Pwll Mawr (Big Pit) cheddar cheese is also available smoked over oak chips.IMG_4981
  3. Chase Distillery (www.chasedistillery.co.uk) Festival sponsors and internationally renowned makers of Single Estate spirits; one of my absolute favourite Gins is their Pink Grapefruit; but all their spirits provide an elegant base for any cocktail, and there are one or two rather surprising flavours too.
  4. Trealy Farm (www.trealyfarm.com). Monmouthshire based Trealy Farm Charcuterie has made rather a name for itself over the past few years – it can be found on the most distinguished of Charcuterie boards at some of Britain’s finest restaurants. The salami and saucisson are traditionally made from high welfare, free-range, rare breed meat; the flavours immediately transport you back to the France and Italy of summer holidays. Their Boudin Noir is almost too good to merely grace a Full English; I serve it with scallops and bacon for a simple yet delicious first course or light lunch dish.
  5. The Preservation Society (www.thepreservationsociety.co.uk). Chepstow, Monmouthshire, based company specialising in preserves, jams, chutneys and sauces. Perfect to serve alongside any the above. Very local produce oriented; I always return from food festivals with bags of sauces and preserves; they keep so well and make excellent Christmas gifts. Look out for their Blackberry Bramble Sirop which, added to Chase Vodka, is autumn in a glass – or their delicious ‘Not Just for Christmas Chutney’ which partners very well with Pwll Mawr cheese.

 


Back to school, foodie festivals….and sticky buns!

IMG_1722For years, those words, banded about from about mid-June terrified me. I admit that I did not enjoy school; I was classic bully fodder and suffered terribly. Now, Master A is about to start secondary school; luckily he takes after Mr D and is very popular albeit a little geeky around the edges and after twenty five years I am finally at peace…I think (although I have been having anxiety dreams for the past week).

I still associate September with fresh starts. I think it is ingrained upon you as a child that the true New Year is actually your first day back to school in September; I have implemented diets,  started projects and freshened things up, all in that first week of September. Perhaps that’s why I am an Autumnophile.

In other news, the food festival season has now started and most weekends will find me surrounded by delicious foods and sampling all manner of little drinkies, all in the name of research of course. However, as they are on weekends I do have to ensure that Master A, when he comes with us, always has something to look forward to, rather than trailing around after Mum, lamenting his enforced separation from various gadgets. Luckily, he only gets bored after a couple of  hours; he is a cheese fanatic and will, ostensibly,  try anything (even though he is rather more picky at home). Last year saw us sharing our car with a lovely wedge of the famous Stinking Bishop, perry-washed cheese whose odour is somewhat akin to trench-foot!

I do believe in feeding your children a nourishing diet, certainly not without treats though.  I have found that limiting sugar and swapping white for wholemeal, heritage grains or sourdough does help with concentration hugely. I enjoy baking and always make sure that I stock up the tins with lots of yummy treats. This week I have been making Spelt Buns, with an egg-enriched dough. We are split into two camps in our household – Camp Cinnamon (myself and Master A) and Camp Fruit (Mr D), so I made both. Using spelt flour makes these buns more easily digestible and you needn’t kneed quite so much as with wheat flour.

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These can be made with only a small amount of sugar (and a tiny dusting of icing sugar) as the fruit or cinnamon adds its own natural sweetness.

The Bun tradition is Britain is wonderfully regional, with almost every county and often town having its own variety. The most famous buns being the Chelsea Bun and the Bath Bun (which is also home to the Sally Lunn which possible originates from the French Sol et Lune, sun and moon). In Cornwall, Saffron Buns are found; rich, yellow and slightly spicy. Obviously the most famous is the Hot Cross Bun which is pan-British; however if you delve into those dogeared cookery books you’re bound to find hundreds of small variations which give each bun its individual identity.  The lesser know varieties (mostly from the Bun-loving 17th century include;

The Real Current Bun (Hampshire late 17th C)

The Colston Bun (Bristol mid 17thC)

The London Bun (Unk. but NEVER to be confused with the finger bun!)

 

 


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.

 

 


Hidcote and The National Trust in general

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In 2015 we joined The National Trust. We were in Cornwall, the rain was beating down and had been for two days, the wind was rather dominant and it was the August Bank holiday.

What to do with a bored 9 years old and a borrowed 15 year old (my niece)? Also we were a little down on our uppers and the National Trust offered monthly instalments. And so we took the plunge and have never looked back. We have been to so many stunningly beautiful places; we have centred weekends away around National Trust properties, we have been inspired and in awe (and sometimes a little spooked). For family membership we pay about £9 a month and we try and visit something at least once a month (our record being 5 in 2 days, although we are off the Cheshire next weekend so watch this space).

I really love the ethos of the National Trust, the volunteers are knowledgeable and very enthusiastic, the cafes and restaurants are usually very good (although they do get very busy) but we often take a picnic. I’m a bit of a picnic addict, I have far too many wicker hampers, cool bags and melamine, I get very excited by picnic mats and multi-tools. Sad, I know. Often we’ll pack an empty hampers and stop at a farm shop or deli on route – sampling the local cheeses, breads or pies. It’s always lovely to immerse ourselves in the area, last week we enjoyed  a bottle of local cider and a chunk of Single Gloucester from Morton-in-Marsh’s cheese shop before visiting nearby Chastleton House .

We preceded our visit to Chastleton with a few hours wandering about the flagship gardens at Hidcote which were an absolute delight, in fact we plan to return there to see them in the other seasons, I should imagine early summer would be exceptional.

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The gardens would inspire anyone to turn their hand to horticulture, the wild cottage style gardens within gardens were wonderfully informal (and the ice-cream was good too!)

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As with all National Trust properties it’s very family friendly, there are lots of things for children to get involved in, we enjoyed the Croquet (although it did get a little bit, shin-achingly competitive). So it’s a thumbs up for The National Trust and no doubt I will be hopping on my soapbox to extol their virtues for many years to come!


An Apple a Day….Or A Pint!

Yesterday was National Apple Day, but around here we are constantly reminded of the versatile fruit which first arrived on these shores with the Romans. Of course, we had our native apple, the Crab Apple, a small sharp fruit which is much underused yet still lurks in many a hedgerow, but the apple has come to represent so many things.

  
Living on the borders, with Herefordshire and Gloucestershire only a stone’s throw away, we have some of the finest orchards in the country on our doorstep 

Once famous for perry and cider, Monmouthshire is remaking a name for itself; small local producers almost always offering an excellent quality product. We drink it, mull it, use it in cooking.  It really is very handy to keep one of those imploding boxes of basic cider in the kitchen throughout the autumn and winter. It can be reduced to a sticky glaze for a free-range pork chop, poured into gravy or used to de-glaze the pan when making a cream sauce to serve with poached chicken. Inspired by the neighbouring  Forest of Dean, I often make a Chicken Forest-of-Dean-iere, my take on the classic Chicken Forestiere, replacing the mushrooms with apple and cooking the chicken slowly in cider before finishing off with a glug of cream, a little mustard and some finely chopped sage. This is perfect autumn fodder and even better with a glass of vintage cider on the side.

  
Monmouthshire’s Apple County Cider

www.applecountycider.co.uk

There are many farm Apple Days in October, the roads are filled with groaning trailers of apples awaiting their wooden crates. Cider Farms have their yards stacked with the crates which go off at all hours to be turned in the amber nectar. One of the loveliest local drives is from Ross-on-Wye to Ledbury, at this time of the year the air is scented with fruit, the road is slow (due to the tractors) but a leisurely half hour inhaling the country air is a very pleasant way to pass the time. There are signs to several Cider Farms on the road, the most famous, and most commercial, being Westons – famed Great Britain over – it even sponsors national sportsman. The visitor centre is definitely worth a visit, and be sure to squeeze in a tour if you can. The Restaurant is splendid and offers (as expected) a large variety of bottled as cask ciders and the food is really good.

www.westons-cider.co.uk
For a more ‘local’ experience, Broome Farm near Ross-on-Wye is also worth a closer inspection – the cider is sold from the cellar, a cool, slightly damp cider paradise located under the farmhouse itself. The steps down are hewn by years of use and the barrels sit temptingly waiting for you to make your choice. They cater for all tastes, including apple juice for the little ones. You can choose your favourite and they will vacuum pack it and box it for you to keep it fresh for 4-6 weeks after opening.

www.broomefarmhouse.co.uk
Of course, there are also the beautiful eating apples,  so many varieties and each one so different, some sharp and almost peppery which others are tinged with overtones of rose or peach. The tree at the bottom of the garden is groaning with fruit this year, it fruits every other year. Last time, we made fresh apple juice which I turned into jelly to accompany roast meats and belly and liver terrine, some apples were cooked and frozen for almost instant crumbles and some were eaten just as they were, with a large slice of unpasteurised local Single Gloucester cheese from Smart’s Dairy.

www.smartsgloucestercheese.com
I think that the British cider and apple industry in general is a wonderful thing, but so much more could be made of it – when I think about the huge wine festivals I have attended in France, with thousands of people eating,  drinking and dancing, all in praise of the wine it makes me a little sad.

  
Please….please seek out local Apple events, then, maybe one day British cider will again be as internationally famed as the wines of France.