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/


Midweek Musings – Nourishing the body and soul under lockdown living.

So, it has been over year since I last added to my blog. It’s been a difficult year, but now, more than ever, I see the need to use technology, not only to communicate with others but also to hold myself accountable. These past few weeks have been challenging for everybody. We have been forced to adapt to a new normal. Our basic needs have come to forefront and we now live in a world where nothing can be taken for granted.

I have embraced lockdown, established different routines and hope to come out the other side a more grounded person, grateful for all I have and knowing the importance of the roles involved in providing our basic essentials – from the farmers, who grow our food to the key workers packing and producing through to the retailers and delivery drivers. This chain is now very much clearer for many.

When I started writing about food, 15 years ago, one of my first jobs was to create recipes from store cupboard ingredients. For three years I produced monthly recipes championing tinned meat, pules, vegetables, pasta, rice…in fact all those things which have, in recent weeks become scarce and more in demand than ever. It became easier, and there are infinite options and, whilst market fresh ingredients are to be preferred, we can eat extremely well from our store cupboards.

With a handful of something delicious, the most simple ‘boring’ dishes can be elevated to something we can really enjoy eating…especially in a time when the next meal, for many, has become a focus of the day.

My Top Tips for Lockdown Living

  1. Use spices – they wonderfully transform basic ingredients and carry you off across the world. From the vibrant spices of the East, through the piquant paprikas and saffrons of Europe, to the chilies of South America –  you really can be anywhere you choose with the right spices, and, with spice, no dish is ever boring.
  2. Season well. Proper seasoning makes such a difference. A good sea salt, white pepper or a decent grinding of black pepper really is the key to turning an average dish into an amazing dish. Don’t be afraid of salt, we need it in our diets – just be cautious in which salt you choose.
  3. fullsizeoutput_419dFresh herbs – easy to grow on the window sill, they add colour and flavour. You can use them to garnish, to flavour a salad or lift meat or fish. Finely chop and add to butter before freezing in a log shape and slicing into disks…perfect for those frozen green beans or defrosted chicken fillet.

4. Consider charcuterie. With exceptionally long best before dates, charcuterie is a wonderful ingredient to stash in the fridge and use, in moderation, to flavour dishes. Wonderful for soups and stews, as toppings for pizzas or forming the protein element of a pasta dish – a little goes a long way and there are so many options to choose from.

And finally, nourish the soul – a little mindfulness, a walk barefoot in the garden, yoga or meditation. Turn preparing a meal into a ritual because rituals are very important to humankind. Our whole life is full of them, from brushing our teeth in the morning to sitting down for dinner, walking the dog or evening settling down to sleep. We are a series of rituals and when challenging come upon us, like Coronavirus, it’s many of these rituals which we miss, however we do have the excuse to make new ones and maybe, for some, these new ones may be here to stay, regardless.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The eternal quest for the best Hot Chocolate!

One of the annual traditions in our household is putting up the Christmas decorations on the first weekend in December – this is accompanied by lots of steaming hot chocolate and, of course, homemade gingerbread biscuits.

I fully admit that I am a bit of a Hot Chocolate perfectionist. So often, when I order the ‘Special Hot Chocolate’ on a menu I find myself disappointed – it’s always either not hot enough, not thick enough, not creamy enough or the worst crime, just not chocolaty enough!

This has led to a multitude of experiments at home, trying everything from Spanish recipes, to cocoa powder based recipes with cream and even butter, custard based recipes and, of course, all the brands available at both the supermarkets and delis.

I finally concluded that Jersey milk and real chocolate makes the best and simplest Hot Chocolate – perhaps with the addition of a glug of Baileys or rum for the grown-ups, and there are no end of small additions to make my basic Hot Chocolate extremely festive and child friendly. Winter without Hot Chocolate is like Christmas without Santa, and when the colder weather comes, there’s nothing more satisfying than making a real ritual out of its preparation.

Recipe:

Per Person:

50g of good chocolate (dark or milk or even white)

150ml jersey milk

I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, combing the ingredients with a small whisk, never allowing the bowl to come into contact with the water. This creates the most indulgent drink, patience is the key here, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.

This is a very rich drink so serve in small cups with your choice from the following toppings and additions:

Family Friendly

Whipped cream and grated chocolate

A couple of drops of peppermint extract, whipped cream and a little crushed stripy candy cane

1/4 tsp cinnamon per serving

1/4 tsp ginger per serving

A couple of drops almond extract, cream and toasted almonds

Whipped cream and crushed smarties

marshmallows, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce

Whipped cream and drizzle of warmed salted caramel sauce

Vanilla extract and a grating of nutmeg

Adults Only

A tablespoon of your choice of liqueur per serving, some of my favourites include:

Tia Maria, whipped cream and crushed coffee beans is delicious

Cointreau, cream and grated Terry’s Chocolate Orange

Baileys, whipped cream and chocolate flake

Whisky and a sprinkle of ginger

Amaretto, cream and crushed Amaretti biscuits


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Day 2, The Butcher’s Order

Today I’m turning my attention to planning my Christmas butchery order. Last year I chose one of Holt-Wilson’s Monmouthshire Turkeys and I was extremely impressed with the bird – it served far more mouths (with leftovers) than recommended, and was firm and img_1976flavoursome – not gamey, but rich and a real treat! I do feel that we so often over estimate the amount of turkey needed – after canapés, starters, fish courses etc you should really be looking at no more than 80g or so per person for the main course, and of course there’s only so many ways one can prepare leftovers.

img_1984Every year I also order a large gammon for Boxing Day, ideally rare breed and most certainly British, as is my bacon and my sausages. I prepare my stuffing separately, the sausage meat cooked with cranberries and orange, whilst the sage and onion goes into the Turkey neck. My sister, who always joins us for Christmas, doesn’t eat pork so a vegetarian stuffing is preferred, I usually add pears to the sage and onion, and roast a few to serve as a cranberry sauce alternative.

My Boxing Day gammon is studded with cloves and sliced clementines and glazed with a little maple syrup and eats well with hot with creamy mashed potato or cold in doorstop sandwiches with plenty of peppery mustard.

img_1983Another tradition in our household is the preparing of Duck Rillettes, this recipe comes from Gascony, where we spend the summer at our holiday home, and is great for those who find liver pâtés a little squeamish. I serve it with a good chutney on crisp toasts and it always goes down a treat – and there’s lots left over for cold plates. I will be sharing my recipe for Rillettes a little later December, and I also have a bit of cheaty method, for those who are really short of time.

One of the simple pleasures of Christmas Eve is queueing at the butchers, knowing that your order is taken care of, and enjoying the friendly banter and festive atmosphere and here in Monmouthshire we are spoilt for choice!

img_1974img_1973


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stir Up Sunday

Originating in the early 18th century, Stir Up Sunday is the day traditionally designated to undertake the making of the Christmas Pudding.

Always kept on the last Sunday before Advent, it is said that Stir Up Sunday originated from a passage in a sermon in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ translated from the Roman Catholic ‘Excita Quarsumus’ and read on the last Sunday in November.

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”

However, whilst I consider myself spiritual, but not tied to one particular religion, I see it as a day to have fun with the family, make wishes whilst stirring, and generally set the scene for the beginning of the Christmas festivities. It also allows at least 4 weeks for the Pudding to mature in a dark cupboard before being brought flaming to the table on Christmas Day.

Traditionally made with 13 ingredients to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus, my Christmas Pudding recipe is adapted from the doyenne of English cookery Eliza Acton, whose recipe was first published in the 1840s. Under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), with Prince Albert’s Germanic influences, Christmas became the spectacle it it today, with so many of our Christmas traditions filtering down from this, most famous of couples.

Although the roots of Christmas Pudding’s are deep set in The Middle Ages – where meat and fruit was combined with spices in many recipes – the sweet, sticky, boozy concoction we know and love today is very much a product of post-reformation Britain.

Packed full of moist vine fruits, suet, mixed peel, spices and, of course, booze – it is synonymous with Christmas Lunch and, love it or hate it, no Christmas meal is complete without it. Traditionally, every member of the household takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a wish. My Great Grandmother would take her industrial sized Christmas Pudding to the local brewery to be steamed in the great vessels used for brewing and my grandmother, who is now almost 108 still enjoys taking a turn stirring the pudding and making her wish.

Historically, a selection of silver tokens are stirred into the mix – most often a sixpence (silver is by nature anti-bacterial so no poisoning worries there, although it does make for somewhat of a choking hazard) and the finder of this would “enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come”.

Christmas Pudding

Serves 6-8

75g plain flour (or gluten free)

75g breadcrumbs (I like to use wholemeal)

175g suet (beef or vegetable)

175g chopped figs

175g sultanas

50g diced mixed peel

1 large apple, grated

1 large orange, zest grated and juiced

150g dark brown sugar

1.5 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp sea salt

100ml Armagnac (or any spirit you prefer)

3 eggs lightly beaten

Method

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, making sure that every member of the household gets to stir and make their wish!

Pour into a greased pudding bowl – I use a 21 cm Pyrex bowl – cover with a dampened new tea towel or muslin then tie securely with string.

Place on a trivet in a large lidded pan and pour water 3/4 of the way up the side

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 4 hours, topping up the water when necessary

Cool and store in a cool, dark and dry place – I keep my pudding in the bowl, in a large tin – you can ‘feed’ it with spirits but if you are planning on bringing it, flaming, to the table too much additional alcohol can prove dangerous.

On Christmas Day, repeat the steaming procedure for 1 and 1/2 hours then serve with your choice of Brandy Butter, Custard, Cream or Vanilla Sauce – not forgetting the obligatory sprig of decorative Holly!


Moroccan Spiced Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb

I adore the combination of flavours in North African cooking, the rich tagines, delicate sweet pastries, mounds of minted, olive oil rich couscous, bulgar wheat salads gleaming with jewel-like pomegranate seeds – and now, with autumn on the way i’d like to share one of my favourite, albeit possibly inauthentic, recipes combining local Welsh Lamb (which I firmly believe is some the best in the world) with those flavours synonymous with Morocco – garlic, lemon, honey, figs, ras-al-hanout – all melding together to create an extremely ‘moorish’ dish.

IMG_5477

This would make an excellent alternative Sunday lunch or supper party dish, served with a roasted vegetable couscous, or even simply jacket potatoes and salad. The lamb is also excellent tucked into warmed flatbreads with some hummus, spiced yoghurt and a dash of pomegranate molasses. The leftovers (including the bone) can be turned into a simple spiced lamb broth with a few chick peas, veggies and squeeze of Harissa – two meals for the price of one and no waste. I do recommend marinating the meat overnight as it allows the flavours to penetrate the meat.

Serves 4-6 with leftovers

IngredientsIMG_5404

2.5 kg shoulder of lamb (bone in)

2 preserved lemons, sliced

2 heaped tsp ras-al-hanout spice blend – I use Parva Spices

A good handful of fresh parsley

6 cloves of garlic, smashed with their skins

2 tbls of good olive oil

4 chopped, dried figs

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses – this can be found in specialty food shops, in some delis or online from The Belazu Ingredient Company, and gives a rich intensity without too much sweetness

1 heaped tablespoon runny honey

Method

(Day 1)

Place the lamb in a large casserole or in a roasting dish, slash the meat diagonally at 2 cm intervals to make little pockets in the meat.

Slice the lemons and figs, and roughly chop the parsley

In a small bowl mix the Ras-al-Hanout, olive oil, seasoning and pomegranate molasses

Rub this into the meat, making sure to cover the surface completely

Push the lemon, garlic, parsley and fig slices into the slashed pockets, then drizzle with the honey

Cover well and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge

(Day 2)

Remove the meat from the fridge and bring to room temperature

Heat the oven to 150 degrees C , gas mark 2, 300 degree f.

Place the meat in the oven, covered with foil or lidded (if using a casserole)

Cook for four hours, checking every hour or so

If you do find the meat looks as if it is a little dry, add some lamb stock (this can be from a stockpot or cube). Lamb shoulder is a relatively fatty cut, yielding delicious juices so this shouldn’t really be a problem.

Remove the lid, turn the oven up to 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 4, 350 degrees F and cook for a further 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender, browned and a little crisp on the outside

IMG_5457Rest the meat for at least 15 minutes before serving.

I like to serve my lamb with wholegrain couscous which I stir into the juices whilst the meat is resting, adding lemon, mint, stock and seasoning, bringing to the boil and then leaving  for few minutes to ‘fluff’ – this is a great way of using up all those lovely juices and means the couscous really packs a flavour punch.


March Morning Musings from Monmouthshire

IMG_2616
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!


A Few Foodie Thoughts In The Bleak Midwinter

IMG_2263

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.


Festive Goodies from The Wye Valley and The Forest of Dean

Every year, I do my very best to source my Christmas foods locally – and living in such a fabulously foodie area, it’s surprisingly easy to do. Restaurants place such an importance on food miles and rightly so, but it’s not just about the environmental impact, it’s about supporting those small businesses who a passionate about their products and who are relying on you for survival. So, here’s my guide to the best places to source delicious food and drink for your festive celebrations in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean.

Party Drinks and Nibbles

There’s no doubt that you’ll find yourself hosting at least one party over the coming

fullsizeoutput_1803

©HannahFreeman

weeks, or at lasting bringing some goodies to a friends gathering. One of the most popular drinks at this time of year, and perfect for the colder weather is Mulled Cider and, being in the heart of the British cider country you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice. I think a medium cider is most suited to mulling, you are then in control of how much sugar or honey you add. I like Awre based Severn Cider, a family business dedicated to its art. I enjoyed a tour and tasting a few weeks ago with other members of The Guild of Food Writers and was extremely impressed by the quality and variety on offer – we were immediately furnished with mugs of mulled cider which was very welcome after a long, and rather, chilly day. I like to add honey, cinnamon, cardamon, apple slices, fullsizeoutput_1814grated nutmeg and a splash of cider brandy (Dymock’s Charles Martell’s is perfect) – but its all down to taste, and you can cheat with one the supermarket sachets, then add some cinnamon sticks and apple.  And what to serve alongside your mulled cider? How about a good old sausage roll – surely an essential part of Christmas! I love the  delicious Wild Boar sausage rolls from Cinderhill Farm in St Briavels, it’s hard to stop at one (and they are extremely generous portions). Served alongside one of Chepstow based, Claire’s Kitchen’s chutney they make a very simple addition to any drinks party or buffet.

Christmas Dinner

Many people look for a simple, no cook starter for their Christmas Dinner, I think that fullsizeoutput_1842really top quality smoked salmon fits the bill perfectly – my personal choice would be the smoked Var salmon from Chaxhill’s Severn and Wye Smokery. Having been lucky enough to tour the factory recently, I learned a lot about the different varieties and curing styles. Having tasted my way though their entire catalogue I settled on the Var which offers a good balance or smokey richness and full flavour. Served alongside some good local bread and a handful of organic leaves, it allows plenty of time to relax with your guests before the main event.

There are the traditionalists who favour a good free range turkey – I have ordered mine from Monmouthshire Turkeys near Raglan – and those who look for a different option so how about a Free Range Goose or Slow Cooked Confit Duck from Madgett’s Farm? Well IMG_1706known throughout the area they offer a really good selection of poultry and game, and make some rather excellent sausages and stuffings to serve alongside.

IMG_0352

Veg is from Organic grower Paul’s Organic Veg. For really fresh brassicas (including those essential sprouts) Paul is your man and he offers veg boxes of various sizes to take all the veg buying hassle away. Next you’ll need some really good sausages and bacon. I think its hard to beat the bacon from Trealy Farm, found in some of the most exclusive hotels and restaurants in the UK, the charcuterie is second to none. For sausages, the Cowshill Herd in Hewelsfield are my first choice, their rear breed pork sausages are perfect for wrapping and serving alongside the bronzed bird.

Pudding, or cheese and pudding?  Of course making your Christmas Pudding is preferable IMG_7705but where cheeses are concerned we are extremely fortunate. A good cheese board should comprise a hard cheese, creamy, goats and blue. A good start would be a wedge of Smart’s Double Gloucester, then a round of deliciously soft Angiddy, a Welsh cheese made from Jersey Milk at Brooke’s Dairy, a slice of the internally famous Stinking Bishop and for a blue…..well, you may have to nip out of the area, The Marches Deli in Monmouth has some excellent and well-kept artisan cheeses and they are always happy to guide you through them. If a heavy classic pud is a little too much why not try some extremely naughty adult ice-cream from Forest and Wye, this artisanal ice-cream comes in flavours such as Baileys and Kahlua, Islay Whiskey and Coffee and Speyside Whisky and Coffee – all remarkably individual and all packing a definite punch. They’re more conventional flavours are pretty fab too – or for those in the Monmouth area its hard to beat Green and Jenks Italian Gelato, take-home packs always available.

So to finish a good meal you need a good digestive and some choccie. Again, I would turn to Charles Martell and one of their devious perry, cider or plum spirits – these are a real treat. The Chocolate Bar in Lydney’s Taurus Crafts is one of the best local makers of fine chocolate, with a moreish selection knowing when to stop buying can be tricky but some good truffles on the table to serve with coffee are essential.

IMG_1852Whatever your foodie preference this Christmas, look about you and explore. Half the fun of the festive season id sourcing all those seasonal goodies that you restrict during the year – indulgence is Christmas and in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean, you can indulge to your heart’s content!


Win 2 Ticket to Abergavenny Food Festival’s Christmas Fair on Sunday 10th December

I have teamed up with the wonderful Abergavenny Food Festival Team to give my readers the chance to win a pair of wristbands for this year’s Abergavenny Christmas Fair, allowing access to the yuletide markets and demo stage in the Market Hall, for the whole day.

All the details are below so hop over to Twitter then like, follow and retweet to be entered into the draw.

Competition closes at 12pm GMT Friday 1st December

Good luck!

The Abergavenny Christmas Fair is coming to town!

HJ-ABER-8453 - credit Huw John, Cardiff.jpg

©HuwJohn

On Sunday 10th December from 10am till 5pm, the Market Hall in Abergavenny will be filled with the tastes and aromas of Christmas and a lot of festive cheer as the Abergavenny Christmas Fair comes to town. There will be over 85 stallholders with festive food and gifts for sale across the Market Hall, Upper Brewery Yard and the Priory. Back in the Market Hall there will also be Christmas decoration making fun for the kids and festive menu tips from a glittering demo stage line up of culinary experts including MasterChef quarter-finalist Imran Nathoo, top chef Tommy Heaney, Guardian gardening journalist Lia Leendertz, and expert forager Liz Knight. You can even jump in Santa’s horse and carriage at The Angel Hotel! Don’t miss tasting workshops at Homes of Elegance too – there’s more about tickets for these and info on the Christmas Fair on abergavennyfoodfestival.com.

HJ-ABER-8433 - credit Huw John, Cardiff.jpg

©HuwJohn

HJ-ABER-8180 - credit Huw John, Cardiff.jpg

©HuwJohn

 
Terms and Conditions from the Abergavenny Christmas Fair:
Wristbands are non transferable and only valid for the Abergavenny Christmas Fair in Abergavenny, Sunday 10th December 2017, between 10am – 5pm
There is no monetary alternative
Wristbands will need to be collected at the Box Office on the High Street (Red Square) in front of Neil Powell Butchers
Horse & carriage rides at The Angel Hotel are costed separately at £5 each and are available between 1pm-5pm on Sunday 10th December
Tickets for tasting workshops at Homes of Elegance need to be purchased separately
Children go free with a paying/winning adult (i.e. these competition wristbands can be used by 2 adults and 2 children can accompany for free)