March Morning Musings from Monmouthshire

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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

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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.


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.