A Virtual Monmouthshire Meander

Spring is certainly in the air, and usually, this is the time of year that we share our fabulous county with tourists from across the world. Although we miss the sleepier months, we rely on the tourist industry for survival, so it’s generally a very welcome return.

Of course, this year is very different. For those who have visited, were due to visit or plan to visit in the future this is my ‘Virtual’ visitors guide taking in some of my favourite famous, and secret spaces, in this little county nestled on the Welsh border. A gentle Monmouthshire Meander.

Known in Welsh as Sîr Fynwy, Monmouthshire is most famous for the spectacular Wye Valley which meanders gracefully from Monmouth down to Chepstow and out into the Severn estuary. It is said that that British tourism began here in the 18th century when a boat trip down the valley was considered a very fashionable ‘must-do’. There are outdoor pursuits galore, from wonderful hikes to canoe hire and cycling, with much in between. Why not discover wild swimming in the Wye or climb one of our spectacular hills, and be completely at one with nature?

Monmouth

Nestled on the banks of the River Wye, the county town of Monmouth is famed for several things; Monmouth Caps, Monmouth Puddings, Rockfield Studios (which, over the past 50 years has seen everybody from Queen to Oasis record in its hallowed converted barns) and The Roundhouse, a pretty piece of Georgian architecture, which served as rather smart picnicking house, and is to be found perched on the Kymin hill, high above the town.

Here, you can hire canoes and take a day trip down the river stopping for lunch at one of the riverside pubs and enjoyed spectacular cliffs, wild woods and a plethora of wildlife. Don’t miss the 13th century Gatehouse which crosses the Monnow, the small river from which the county and town gets its name. Located at the bottom end of town it’s the only remaining fortified river bridge in the UK with its gatehouse standing.

A visit to the Castle is also a must. Tucked up a side street, close to the Monmouthshire Regimental Museum you’ll find the ruins of Monmouth Castle, famous for being the birthplace of the future Henry the V, his statue can be found above the Georgian Shire Hall. It was also the home town of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame, who’s life was lost in the first ever aeroplane crash, his statue sits in the centre of Agincourt Square . The castle is the perfect place for a short picnic stop. Pick up some yummy goodies from the wonderful Marches Deli, which sells, amongst other things, local bread and cheeses, ciders, wines and a good variety of pickles and relishes. Stop at Green and Jenks in the main square for an Italian-style gelato, all made from locally sourced daily and fruit with an ever-changing selection of mouthwatering flavours.

Chepstow

Monmouthshire’s most southernly town, Chepstow, has a nationally famous castle, and some of its original town walls still stand. Once in the keeping of the legendary William Marshall, one of history’s most famous Knights, Chepstow Castle sits high above the River Wye facing imposing cliffs and watching out over the border with England. Chepstow castle is also reputed to be the site of a long lost Celtic chapel in which Joseph of Aramethea is reputed to have hidden the Spear of Longinus, which was said to have pierced the side of Christ. There has also been talk of the hidden, mummified head of Shakespeare, which became the subject of a series of archaeological digs in the 1920s spear-headed by the American treasure-hunter Orville Ward Owen. Chepstow is a place of many mysteries and there are plenty of cafes to while away a few hours. A few miles upstream is Tintern Abbey, the ruins of a cistercian abbey which was destroyed on the orders Henry VIII in the 1530s. Over the ensuing 500 years the picturesque ruins have been immortalised in word and paint by the likes of William Wordsworth and JW Turner, and are quite beautiful to behold, languishing gracefully beside the gentle river. As you drive from Tintern to Chepstow, you can see climbers scaling the cliffs, as the river disappears below, setting a more isolated course as it moves the final few miles towards the estuary. A short journey towards Newport brings you to Caerwent, a Roman town, packed full of archaeological remains and a small museum telling its story.

Abergavenny

In the shadow of the Black Mountains, sitting on the banks of the Usk river, Abergavenny is famed for its annual Food Festival, now in its 22nd year and one of the biggest in Britain. Every September, thousands of people descend on this pretty little market town to hob-nob with the elite of the British food and drink industry, while picking up some rather tasty foodie offerings. The Angel Hotel has, in recent, years become rather famous for its afternoon teas and The Angel Bakery, tucked down a side street leading to the castle makes wonderful sourdough, cakes and pastries, perfect for picking up a few things for lunch before heading into the hills to explore the Black Mountains. Abergavenny Castle is, rather unfortunately, most well know for a pretty horrendous massacre at the end of the 12th century which saw the Norman lord William De Broase order the slaughter of his dinner guests, the Welsh Prince Seisyll and his retainers. The castle is picturesque, and massacre aside, makes for an interesting visit. Just outside the town you’ll find the Skirrid Mountain, well worth the effort to climb as the views are stunning and whilst you’re in the area, why not stop for a pint at the historic Skirrid Inn, reputedly the most haunted pub in Britain. In the shadow of The Skirrid is Michelin starred, Walnut Tree restaurant, enjoying legendary status and offering extremely delicious seasonal dishes or try The Harwick, owned my celebrity chef Stephen Terry, which has held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2011. The Sugar Loaf mountain is also a delight to climb, however there is a local saying, “If you can’t see The Sugar Loaf, its raining, and if you can see The Sugar Loaf, it’s about to rain,” so wellies and waterproofs at the ready!

Usk

Named after the river upon which it sits, Usk is a very sleepy market town with a fabulous farmer’s market, held on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month. Usk Castle, which sits nestled in trees above the quaint Twyn Square, and is privately owned, is available to hire for events. Around the town there are plenty of craft shops selling hand-crafted goodies, a small museum of Rural Life and several rather good places to eat and drink. Why not head to The Mad Platter for cocktails and nibbles, before a meal at the historic Three Salmons coaching inn? A little outside the town, on the Llanbadoc road is Morris’ of Usk, garden centre and farm shop – it’s a great place to stock up on locally produced, and regionally sourced products, and they do a rather yum breakfast in the onsite restaurant – the road eventually arrives at the Roman Fortress of Caerleon, with its impressive ruins and recently renovated museum, however this is no longer Monmouthshire, but the county of Newport.

For further information please click on the following links:

http://www.wyedeantourism.co.uk/

https://www.visitmonmouthshire.com/

https://www.visitwales.com/


New Year, Old Me…..just paying more attention to Time and Balance

I rather like January, it is a month filled with family celebrations, lots of birthdays and parties. Britain’s ‘fresh start’ mindset is still clinging on but in reality we are probably now thinking that the comfort foods are definitely calling.

For me, Balance is going to be my key word for 2019, something which needs to apply to all aspects of my life…diet, mood, calendar. Why eat food which makes you miserable, it inevitably leads to overeating and, eventually, failure in whatever healthy path we put ourselves on. January is always diet month. There appears to be two types of dieter, the first fully embraces optimal health, posts images packed with colourful superfoods, understands the nutritional content and feels the buzz…the second tries to mimic ‘normal’ foods with low fat, low calories alternatives…these are the people who claim that potatoes sprayed with oil/water products and baked in the oven are a ‘real treat’ – they are only trying to prove this to themselves. Their diet, which, on the surface is filled with fruit and veg actually contains a lot of junk; fillers, palm oils, sugars. Yes, this is controversial, but subscribing to quality over quantity is manageable…for life.

Having been a member of a well known worldwide slimming club, I can see that only now, after several decades, are they finally coming round to a more holistic approach to diet and lifestyle. It is to be commended, but the number of people who criticise the company for making lean chicken, fish, fruit and pulses ‘free’ foods whilst their old ‘treats’ of cake bars etc ‘cost’ them far more than they ever used to, is quite astounding.

The UK is looking towards a more flexitarian approach to food, quality meat and fish, in smaller portions – with lots of lovely veggies, fruits and pulses…this isn’t really a diet, it’s just common sense. It’s all about engaging our senses…how much more pleasure can one get from a small toasted slice of sourdough spread with organic, cold salted butter and topped with a little rare-breed dry cured bacon, over a huge bowl of cereal drowned in skimmed milk? I know which I would choose, unquestionably.

Time is important, time to eat, time to relax, time to enjoy. Embracing the little things in life; a hot cup of leaf tea, one homemade delectable biscuit or a leisurely Sunday lunch with friends or family. January is a time of hibernation, of Cwtching Up as we say in Wales, of Hygge as favoured by the Danes. Drinking mugs of hot soup around a brazier on a frosty night or a family Pizza making frenzy, all these make us feel warm and comfortable and our worries are abandoned in that moment.

Mindfulness had become something of a craze, rather than something which is essential and natural to each and every one of us. Slowing down is, holistically, good for us,  and so many of us have forgotten how to relax, myself included. Living in the moment can be applied to everything, it creates a healthier mind and in turn a healthier body.

So, this month, you don’t need to subscribe to Dry January or Veganuary or anything ‘on trend’ – if a decent steak or G and T makes you happy, and keeps you in the moment….just enjoy it and leave the baggage and the guilt behind.

Time and Balance is the key.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: ‘Vegging’ out at Christmas

I personally find the Christmas standard veg offering rather boring, ‘boiled’ or ‘roasted’ (aside from potatoes) seems so unimaginative and it doesn’t take much more time to ‘pimp’ those everyday vegetables up to new heights. I enjoy all veg, I try and stick to seasonal choices, however, aside from the somewhat more exciting spiced red cabbage, which had been rather popular in recent years, how else can  carrots, sprouts, cauliflower, peas etc become an integral part of the meal, as opposed to a ‘side’?

Here are a few suggestions:

Carrots

Honey roasted carrots are delicious, roast baby carrots with olive oil and a good drizzle of hones, lots of black pepper and sea salt

Sprouts

Lightly boiled spouts, tossed with small dice of pancetta then placed in an oven proof dish and scattered with breadcrumbs, a little chopped sage and some crumbled blue cheese, baked until bubbling and brown, makes a lovely change. Casting aside the yellowing boiled offerings so many of us face, this is almost a dish in itself!

Peas

French style peas cooked with butter and shallots are terribly moorish. Gently sweat some finely sliced shallots in butter until translucent, add the frozen peas and heat through –  finally stir some finely sliced baby gem lettuce through and serve.

Cauliflower

One of 2018’s ‘superfoods’ cauliflower is an extremely versatile vegetable. I boil mine until soft and then mash with butter, double cream and seasoning – returning to the oven with a sprinkle of grated Swiss cheese for a super smooth cauliflower cheese (and a drizzle of truffle oil doesn’t go amiss either)

Red Cabbage

Every family has their own recipe for spiced red cabbage – we usually serve it on New Year’s Day with a gilded roast goose. I like to add apple, port, dried figs, mixed spice, shallots, garlic, red wine and honey. It makes such a medieval tasting dish, and also works very well cold alongside meats and cheeses after the big day.

Broccoli

Steamed and tossed with chestnuts and butter, adds a nuttiness which compliments this brassica admirably.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: a change from turkey…my partridge (or pheasant) in a pear tree

Many people are becoming much more experimental in the kitchen and, where once, turkey or goose took centre stage, now there are many different options for the Christmas table. Aside from a good joint of beef, leg of lamb or meltingly soft slow-cooked pork shoulder many people look to game – especially in smaller households,  where cooking a large bird is impractical and would encourage waste. A haunch of venison, of course, is certainly more suited to a large party but, for a simple and delicious alternative, for that more intimate celebration, why not consider game birds?

Pheasant can be braised whole, with pancetta and cider and apples,  then finished with a slug of cream

Partridge breasts make an excellent first course

Venison Carpaccio is seen on the menus of the country’s best restaurants

Wild boar is a great choice – we slow cook ours with lots of red wine and garlic; it’s richness allows it to take on some really bold flavours – you never have to be worried about what you throw in with wild boar, most things work!

One of my personal favourite recipes for pheasant, or partridge, is pan-fried with IMG_6782pancetta and pears on a celeriac puree, with Savoy cabbage and a blackberry port reduction. It’s an impressive looking dish which is really quite easy (and surprisingly) quick to put together.

Peel and boil your celeriac as you would potato, if you are preparing ahead make sure to keep the celeriac under water (ideally with a little squirt of lemon juice) to prevent browning.

Add a couple of teaspoons of oil to a frying pan and fry two rashers of thinly sliced pancetta per person until crisp and gently browned. Set aside and add a small knob of butter to the pan. Season one pheasant breast or two partridge breasts per person with salt and pepper, then quickly fry on a medium/high  heat until golden brown, place in an oven preheated to 180 degrees c for 5 mins (partridge) or 8 (pheasant). It’s very important not to let the meat dry out as game can be rather tough if overcooked. I check the oven every three minutes or so, the flesh should be firm when pressed but not rubbery – sadly, timing is something which rather depends on the size of the bird.

Finely slice the Savoy cabbage and fry with a little water and lots of butter until cooked, then allow the water to evaporate allowing the butter to turn into a an unctuous glaze. Season with black pepper

Meanwhile, quickly fry some fresh pear (It looks rather pretty if sliced top to bottom, although if you find this a little tricky, tinned pear quarters, sliced, also work rather well too), when caramelised, place them in the oven with the meat to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with a small glass of port, add a tablespoon or two of blackberry jam and allow it to bubble a little, then set aside. This rich ‘jus’ will have taken on all the delicious flavours of the pan.

Mash the Celeriac with butter, salt and pepper. I use a 1/4 to 3/4, butter to veg, as it gives an incredibly smooth and rich puree which foils the rather more ‘plain’ game rather well.

Place a couple of spoonfuls of celeriac on each plate, top with a little cabbage, slice the breasts on an angle and place on top with the pears. Spoon the reduction around the plate (a little goes a long way) and finally finish with the crisp pancetta.

This will certainly impress guests and could be served as a starter or main.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The Big Festive Breakfast

I have always been a great supporter of the ‘Full English Breakfast’. It is one of the few meals that can be almost entirely locally sourced, at any time of the year. A legacy of the great Country House breakfasts which were at their height in the 19th and early 20th century, these were full meals, sustaining enough to take family and guests though a full days hunting with only a picnic type luncheon. The emphasis on breakfast was hearty English food, whilst dinner followed the more fashionable French style of cuisine.

Breakfast was a buffet style meal, buffets laden with everything from Devilled Kidneys, Kippers and Kedgeree through to game, meat and of course breads and cheeses. It was served between 9 am and 11 am, sound familiar? The American Brunch follows this pattern quite neatly, more substantial food than mere toast and cereal, and served later in the morning. So, could you say that the Victorians invented Brunch? Perhaps, but with a little controversy.

The festive period is a great time to go all-out for Breakfast, many of us are out and about during the day, nibbling a mince pie or sausage roll here and there, not really having time for a sit-down lunch so a decent breakfast hits the spot perfectly, also there is a wonderful ritual to Breakfast, a time to chat, sit around the table, light some candles and enjoy the present. Many people are off work between Christmas and New Year and these precious holidays, unlike others in the year, are almost always spent at home, surrounded by friends and family –  and with time on your hands.

Breakfast is also a good meal to get the children to help with, laying the table, easy recipes…perhaps Christmas muffins or homemade bread. Aside from the usual ‘Bacon and Eggs’ there are thousands of recipes suitable for a substantial breakfast, how about waffles with lots of different toppings, pancakes or Spanish Tortilla, baked ham and egg cups, roasted avocado with a little chilli on toasted sourdough, Turkish Shakshouka (spicy baked eggs often served with Merguez sausages) or Mexican Huervos Rancheros  (ranch style eggs) served with soft tortillas?  Or what about designating a different country to each breakfast and tour the world?

I have written about the classic British breakfast before, I have extolled the virtues of locally produced bacon and sausages, decent bread and free-range eggs, personally this combination never bores me, but with a little baking and a few festive touches any breakfast can be made an extra special and memorable experience.


A Few Foodie Thoughts In The Bleak Midwinter

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After Christmas, the harsh month of January brings about a distinct need for creative culinary construction. It begins with the craving for spring. Soon after the Christmas items disappear, just as the Easter eggs start filling the supermarket shelves my heart yearns for oranges. There’s something wonderful about those Spanish oranges which conjure up the most vibrant sweetness winter has to offer. There is a historical decadence –  I can imagine standing on the dock waiting for the old orange boats to arrive, perfuming the air – and, now I am compelled to share a fetish – a peeled orange sliced into rounds, sprinkled with sugar and served at tea time with white bread and butter. This was my paternal Grandmother’s stalwart, a strange comfort of my childhood.  Of course, oranges mean marmalade and the chore of prepping pound after pound, however, when you open one of those little jars in the warm of a summer’s day,  it’s suddenly worth all the effort.

January, often the darkest and bleakest month – and certainly, the most depressing,  is a time of soup or Cawl as we call it in Wales. Cawl gyda caws – cheese with soup, a surprisingly good combination especially if one pairs a good, hard sheep’s cheese with a lamb stew. In times of revolution the Welsh called for caws gyda bara (cheese with bread); and I am inclined to agree, simple yet always satisfying.  Soup is still ‘home’ – My mother constantly has a pot of lamb Cawl waiting for us to dive into any time we pop around. A hearty, steaming bowl, a thick slice of Alex Gooch (alexgoochbaker.com) sourdough bread smothered in fabulous Netherend Farm Butter made on the other side of the Forest, and, maybe a slice of Smart’s Double Gloucester, a fine example of one of the few great Gloucester cheese-makers remaining.

Weekdays often begin with a Winter breakfast of thick creamy porridge bathed in maple syrup and double cream, the oats first soaked overnight – a perfect start to a days foraging, although not foraging in the conventional sense. A circumference of 15 miles encompasses all manner of fabulous local producers giving a varied choice of specialised products most of which far exceed those found even the better supermarkets. And afterwards? Arriving home to a Winter frost calls for steaming mugs of cocoa, made the old way with thick, creamy, non-homogenised, whole milk (Oh for the days of unpasturised legality!). Whisking the mixture over the stove creates a delightful froth on which to balance the all-important marshmallows, whilst selfishly hiding the usually alcohol-infused nectar. I think a dollop of whipped double cream is essential (providing the cocoa is scalding hot), as is a freshly baked biscuit or bun, something plain to enhance rather than interfere with the robust chocolate flavour.

The Monmouthshire/Gloucestershire culinary traditions are deep-rooted in those whose families arrived here for work, moving from the rural farm professions into a more promising industrial future.  When one says ‘Gloucestershire’ three things spring to mind pork, cheese and cider. Monmouthshire is a more veiled delight, clinging to many Welsh traditional recipes whilst asserting its Anglo allegiance. Monmouth Pudding, probably the most famous Monmouthian dish is rarely seen on a menu yet is one of those fabulously rib-sticking puddings deserving of a place after a robust Sunday roast. Moist layers of jam and crumb-thickened custard give the Monmouth Pudding its distinctive red stripe. Personally I believe it to be named after the famous Monmouth Cap, historically made in the Overmonnow district  – their distinctive shape reminiscent of the pudding bowl. And so we are spoiled for choice every Sunday, will it be a handsome leg of Welsh Lamb, enrobed in its buttery sweet fat studded with rosemary from the gnarly old bush which sits, like a pondering wise woman, in the corner of the courtyard; will it be a plump Madgett’s Farm chicken, encrusted with crunchy sea salt, its sage and onion voluptuousness bursting from its moist depths; or will it be a handsome Gloucester Old Spot shoulder, rolled and stuffed, its crackling crisp with a surprisingly delicate perry gravy at its  side; finally and perhaps the King of the Sunday table, a prime rib of Usk Valley Beef, rare and juicy, with puffed up, courtier like, Yorkshire Puddings sitting alongside this, most decadent of dishes. A stately queue of puddings wait in the shadows for their moment, and arrived flanked by homely jugs of rich yellow custard. This is how a weekend should end; or how the week should begin.

January is also a wonderful month in which to bake. Childhood memories are filled with the smell of sticky buns cooling on the kitchen table; my maternal Grandmother, now almost 107 and still thriving, would stand me on a stool in her tiny cottage kitchen, a tea towel for an apron, and let me pound the rich dough, showing me, with her cool hands the ebb and flow of the master baker. I’d wait beside the oven demanding a bun straight from the tin, but no, they needed glazing. On went the sugar and water, the buns proudly glistening until, juggling the hot bread from hand to hand, I managed to take a bite.

In the adjoining sitting room, the fire would crackle alluringly, the little brass toasting fork waiting to be called into duty, creating piles of slightly charred toast to anoint with rich salted butter. There would be buns to take home in an old Danish cookie tin, perhaps some fairy cakes and best of all some fruit fingers made with pastry leftover from the apple pie. Folded with sugar and dried fruit, and sliced into rectangles, these ensured that nothing went to waste. My maternal Grandfather, a somewhat eccentric artist, would make bread with wholemeal flour and honey, and would stand over the stove, stirring great pans of butterbeans or ‘fruit on the turn’ to make into his legendary ‘Rocket Fuel’ wines. Some memories stay with you for ever.


Daylesford Harvest Festival – Organic in bundles!

I have always been intrigued by the Daylesford brand and have intended on paying them a visit for quite some time. Last weekend, I found the perfect excuse as they were holding their annual Harvest Festival. It was a lovely day out and although the day began a little gloomy, the sun shone on Daylesford.

Without doubt, Daylesford is marketed towards a certain type of person; its shops and ethos have been criticised for being elitist but I found it quite lovely. It is like entering a magical world where nothing is wrong, almost like Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon with its pre-wiped hen’s eggs for collection and its beribboned lambs. Daylesford is geared towards those to aspire to the country life. Everything is exceptional quality and the prices reflect this, however they also reflect the ‘behind the scenes’ effort which goes into the food, products and service offered by Daylesford.

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Owned by Lady Bamford of JCB fame, and located on the Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire border between Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh , in the heart of the Cotswolds,  it is one of the most sustainable working farms in the country. Fully organic, Daylesford comprises the working farm, holiday cottages, cookery school, original farm shop, restaurant, cafe, lifestyle shops, spa and nursery. The Daylesford branding is everywhere, which is strangely comforting and provides effortless continuity. Granted, some of the prices (especially in the clothing department) were eye-watering for mere mortals but the food hall was an absolute delight. I was extremely impressed by the chilled cheese room which offers dozens of cheeses including their own Single Gloucester, Double Gloucester, Blue and a Camembert-style cheese, all of which were excellent. The butchery and fish counters were impeccably presented and offered a rich variety of produce, predominantly from the farm (although of course not the fish!)

It being an open day, we enjoyed visiting the animals and learning about the different rare and historic breeds which make up the Daylesford livestock. There were sheepdog trials, cray-fish catching, donkey patting….everything shouted ‘true country living’ (although quite a number of their clientele had driven up from Town and were a little under equipped for the muddy fields!).

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I have to say, Daylesford is ‘well done’, its sister shops in London are stocked with the same superior quality ingredients as the Farm Shop and everything feels fresh and good for you (even the cakes). I didn’t dine in the restaurant as it was extremely full (although I full intend to return soon) but took the opportunity to indulge in a ‘smart’ takeaway – their wood-fired oven was offering glistening mozzarella and salami covered organic pizzas which looked delicious, however we chose the slow-cooked pulled beef with ‘slaw in an organic roll. Eaten in the sunshine with a cold bottle of their own cider it was idyllic, although extremely busy. The day finished with the purchase of a few delicious pastries, made in the on-site bakery; and a bag full of sumptuous cheeses, organic milk and a rather super organic mint jelly.

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Daylesford should be billed as an experience; I’d recommend a weekend away in one of their beautiful holiday cottages (which form the bulk of the original farmhouse) – you’re but a few steps away from a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner – indulge in a treatment in the spa, sip a coffee on the Cotswold stone terrace or sign up to a masterclass or day course at the cookery school. There is a lot to do but do go with very full pockets, you may need to book up almost a year in advance due to the popularity of the holiday accommodation. All in all, it’s a place to forget about the world, forget about the credit card bill and just indulge.