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 Pheasant Philosophises: Part 3 Sunday Morning Musings: Seasonality

fullsizeoutput_1600So, this week saw the end of National Cake Week, the beginning of National Seafood Week and tomorrow we look forward to the start of British Egg Week. Whilst I enjoy these specialised food and drink weeks it does make me wonder how on earth the British food industry survived for all those years without national annual promotion. Whilst these ‘weeks’ generally fall into place at the peak or opening of the season, some items are in season continually (and in the case of Cake week, it was initially established to share and enjoy a cake together), I look back and try to understand where the British food industry went wrong with seasonality. One hundred years ago, you knew that if it was December there were no strawberries and if it was August, Mussels were generally off the menu.

The only area within which we can categorically state that there is definite seasonality in the UK is through the various Game seasons.

IMG_7075The nostalgia and traditions which surround Game have managed to survive, unchallenged into the twenty first century, and so, today, many people still ‘look forward’ to the first Pheasant, Partridge or Grouse (the glorious 12th a testimony to this). Another example is the relatively new (1951), seasonal arrival of  Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November, but the general non-foodie populous are not privy to such seasonal excitements.

Perhaps this is where National Food Weeks come in? When my Grandmother was born in 1911 and yes, she’s still with us today, the seasons were heralded by the changing foods available in markets and shops. People waited almost a whole year for the first Scottish Raspberries or English grown lettuces, hot houses did exist but mostly for the rich. There has been a distinct reversal in the ensuing years. Those with money can seek out the very best of seasonal produce whilst those on budgets can buy ‘year round’ mediocre quality items from the local supermarket.

As a budget conscious nation, we have been told to buy seasonally to save money, even I have advocated this, however on closer inspection perhaps my encouragement is mis-worded. What I should say is, “when buying at specialist food shops, farm shops, farmers markets or similar try to buy seasonally because it proves far better value and generally you reduce your purchases’ food miles”.  This is where the quality issue comes in. In my earlier piece about Organic food  #feedyourhappy I recommended seasonal buying and I do stick by this. IMG_0044

I do, however, think it’s sad that we’ve lost the excitement of seasonality, those of us who produce our own foods know all too well the “No….I can’t manage another strawberry” and the  “We’ll just make jam, now” scenarios after a glut of fruit. We have eaten our fill are are quite happy to wait, in the most, another year for more fresh, sweet, glistening berries. That’s why opening a jar of summer Strawberry Jam in the middle of Winter is so evocative. It is the very fact that it is the preservation of summer which makes it ‘special’ – but that aside, it is not fresh produce like the little trays of overpriced out of season strawberries we see on our supermarket shelves at Christmas. Jam is a shadow of the memory of Summer, preserving gluts of fruit has been a ritual in world kitchens for thousands of years, whether it be drying, potting, jam-making or, more recently freezing (although again, I’m not so keen as you end with a pale example of what first went in). You cannot compare a decent jam to a bowl fresh fruit and it would be wrong to do so.

Therefore, perhaps the Britain’s Food Weeks have a place, not so much in promoting awareness and purchase of produce, but in highlighting what shouldn’t be around….it is all extremely confusing…but Happy National Seafood Week anyway!!!

img_2144


Digging for Ancestral Roots in our Cookery…..?

I think that most of us were probably taught to cook by family members; whether Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents or the more extended family. IIMG_4936 learnt a lot from my Grandmothers; though each was very different in their approach to cookery. One was very much a bake-from-scratch cook; still alive today (at 106) she taught me bread making, jam making and gravy making; she learnt all that from her mother who was born in the late 19th century. Grandma’s rubbed-in cakes and Welsh bake-stones have weathered the years and are still regularly baked in my kitchen at home. Grandma was very much a wartime wife; she embraced rationing, skinned rabbits and ‘made do and mended’.

My other Grandmother, Nan, born in 1922 and sadly no longer with us, was a classic 1950’s housewife; she enjoyed convenience, loved M & S and, as she got older, rarely cooked at all, but when I was a child she would make choux pastry Chocolate Eclairs (which I’ve always considered rather complicated) and Coconut Pyramids (from the eponymous Marguerite Patten); her Beef Stew with Dumplings was always served on a plate rather than in a bowl and the trifles which adorned the birthday table were always from a packet. However, there was something she always made from scratch and which we all found rather amusing – Porridge. At home, porridge was a thick and creamy affair, adorned with honey or syrup or sultanas, it was thick and unctuous. My Nan’s on the other hand was solid, a greying cloddy mass made with half water and half milk then surrounded by another pool of cold milk. It stood like an iceberg, its undercarriage swamped and its head lightly adorned with sugar. It tasted fine, but it looked….well ‘different’! IMG_7474

It was only after doing a bit of research and talking with my Nan that I realised why this porridge was ‘different’ – and it was all down to her ancestry. My Nan made porridge that way because she had learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother – and that lady (all the way back in the mid-19th century) was called Florence MacDonald and was born a little way outside Inverness in 1858. Having looked into the Scottish porridge tradition I discovered that it is served, very thick, in bowls and alongside is placed a communal bowl of cream. The horn spoon goes into the porridge (which is served savoury or sweet) and then dunked in the cream. The leftover porridge was then tipped into a ‘porridge draw’ and spread about so as to set firm; this

IMG_1821was carried by crofters and workers to eat during their lunch break as it travelled more easily than oatcakes which tended to crumble.

Although, it’s likely that this was how Florence cooked and served her porridge, a gentle evolution has obviously occurred – an amalgamation of two bowls into one and the result being my Nan’s ‘different’ porridge. Having discovered this I do wonder whether I should make my porridge that bit thicker and carry on the tradition….who knows how far back it goes? I’m sure if we looked about us, we could

DSCN0279.JPG

 find dozens of hacks and recipes which travel deep into our family history, not all of us are lucky enough to have a family recipe notebook added to and stained and use, to carry these recipes, we just have our memories and these memories should be treasured and handed down to the next generation. In a gesture towards my heritage I do always stir my porridge with a Spurtle (the traditional carved stick-like porridge stirrer) and I only stir clockwise, superstition or tradition; you decide.