And so we begin again…cheers!

IMG_6648

 

When I first started this blog, several years ago, I wanted to focus purely on food. As a food writer I wanted to share my recipes, thoughts, recommendations…however, at the time it was not to be and I have admittedly been rather sporadic with my posts (although feel free to read through them). Life has been a bit up and down over that time but now I’ve think I’ve discovered happiness, Hygga, contentment, Cwtchiness (as we say in Wales). For a long time I lost myself and now I realise I was there all along, I just refused to accept myself. Now I am on a new journey.

I ultimately chose one thing ‘To Find Happiness” – if I had to write a list, now, of things which make me smile, it would be extremely long. This blog is going to be packed full of those things, whether physical items, days out with memories attached or photographs. Negativity is not good for the soul, it can always be counteracted, though. This is where mindfulness come in (I do try but I’m not really a kale smoothie drinking, flexibly yogic, life coach-type); I just believe that a happy, positive thought has far more power than a dark, negative one.

I cannot leave my roots though and there will be a fair amount of foodie related (and boozie related) content but alongside this I want to introduce you to some of the ‘lovely things’ in my life that make me smile and yes, some of them are commercialised indulgences and most of them are food and drink! These make you feel good inside just as much as the walk after the rain down by the river, under the trees where the light shone just so. Sometimes a pretty cup or stupidly expensive cake is exactly what’s needed, sometimes new shoes or picking up a lost feather does it. I’m afraid that I am not a ‘back to nature’ blogger who’s wardrobe is capsule and mostly made by indigenous peoples from natural fibres (although I do like a bit of alpaca of a winter), and just sometimes (ahhhhhhh) I even go to McDonalds.

I do subscribe to the ‘buy quality and it will last’ theory and I try to buy British as I believe it is important to support these industries especially  as we approach Brexit. And yet, I always seem to turn out a little scruffy.

I never compromise on my annual Smythson diary, rather enjoy wearing pearls and silk scarfs as well as drapey linen ‘Toast” numbers for days when I want to feel ‘yummy mummy’ and I own a pair of Birks. I am not of a type, I am me and am finally proud to be so.


Heavenly Bread @ The Angel Bakery

  

 
Abergavenny is a relatively small, very rural and ancient market town in the north of Monmouthshire but it’s always been far ahead of the competition in its foodie credentials – I have written about the famous annual food festival before and today, on a cold, crisp, sunny afternoon I set off to discover its most recent culinary offering – The Angel Bakery. 

The Angel Hotel is one of Abergavenny’s great success stories – once the hub of the thriving town (my great-great aunt worked there at the turn of the 20th century) it fell a little behind the times but in recent years has been restored and is now holder of the title ‘AA Hotel of the year’ as well as enjoying great renown for its afternoon teas (one of the best in the uk) but that’s for another day – I was here to visit the very stylish Angel Bakery hidden to the side of the hotel in the street which led up to Abergavenny’s famous castle.

The Angel Bakery is beautiful, from its elegant shop to its enormous light and bright bakery with its huge window overlooking the tiny street. Officially opened on the 19th December the bakery predominantly makes sourdough bread, the traditional way with organic, British milled flours. 

  

The Bakers hail from London as does the sourdough culture which, interestingly, is changing in flavour all the time, due to the local water, air and flour. The flour is all organic and each loaf is developed through much testing to decide which flour is best for the job – three different mills are currently used Shipton, Gilchester and Cann Mill however there are plans to use more local mills in the future. Aside from sourdough loaves which come in several different varieties,

 

The Angel Bakery produces splendid baguettes, beautifully crisp, yet yielding, which take me straight back to French summer holidays;

  

 

Buttery croissants which really do melt in the mouth;

  

Rich and vibrant Focaccia which adds an elegant authenticity to a platter of antipasti;

  

And Brioche – the cake of Marie-Antoinette’s famous misquote. The grapefruit glazed individual Brioche is a picture to behold, glistening and unctuous, calling for little more than a good cup of cafe au lait, of course they also make the classic larger sharing Brioche (though who would want to…) with its sugar coating and pleasantly fluted undercarriage – Fig jam is my personal choice with good Brioche although my son favours (rather heinously) Nutella.

  

The bakers are obviously very passionate about their bread, as I was there a batch of fig rye was being placed into tins ready to prove. There is a wonderful newness and lively competence about the place – The ovens are immense and had to be installed before the feature window due to their size. 

   
 

The shop also offers takeaway hot drinks, delicious coffee and tea.  

I see a great future for this bakery – as a champion of slow food nothing beats real soughdough lavishly spread with fresh butter, and sourdough, once the realm of the ‘knit your own yoghurt’ brigade is now very firmly back on the culinary map and as someone who thoroughly disagrees with the modern fast bread of the white sliced generation I for one will be a regular! 


Proustian Thoughts…

  

 

I had a relatively unusual childhood. As the product of musician parents I spent a good deal of time with grandparents and my love of food and cookery lies very much in the hands of my Grandmothers. My paternal grandmother was from the Welsh Valleys; she was from a rather poor family who had little but made the most of what they had; she was famous for her Chocolate Eclairs which she would bake in rather nifty 1950’s eclair tins, always to the same exact recipe, all timed and usually perfect. Her standard dish, come Autumn, was her Stew which would be served with dumplings, on a plate with a knife and fork to eat it with (yes, we always found it odd). It was simple food but tasty, the meat would be coated in flour and the whole thing pressure cooked until the braising steak fell apart and it was ready for the dumplings,  but I recall that there never were enough dumplings. I assume that these recipes came from the Marguerite Patten cookbook sat alongside one or two photo-history books , bible and dictionary, which completed her rather meagre library.

My maternal grandmother, who is still alive and very much ‘with it’ at 104 was born into a middle class Cardiff family and grew up near the docks in Newport. Her memories are amazing, she recalls everything in such great detail; the shops and shopkeepers, her mother’s food, her father’s breakfast choices, which bacon and sausage were accepted and which were considered beneath them. 

As a little girl I would stand on a stool, clean tea-towel serving as an apron, in Grandma’s tiny, dark, Welsh cottage kitchen, more of a lean-to than anything and knead dough, add tiny drops of browning to gravy or coat buns with a sticky sugar and water glaze. She would make proper chicken dinners, the veg would be yellowing and over soft, yet comforting. There would be a rice pudding baking in a chipped enamel tin, another Roses tin filled with cakes to take home. There were always battles in that household as my Grandfather, a rather bohemian artist-type would insist that Grandma bought the wrong bread (he was all for wholemeal, not white) so he would be forced to make his own, a dense crumb and pale crust with a hint of honey sweetness. He would also cook great pans of butter-beans and eat then with with a spoon, bread and butter on the side.

As I have previously mentioned, my life is remembered in tastes; sometimes colours as well, but always tastes. To me, even air tastes different. I recall the tang of the Parisian air as I was walked about the city at the age of eight; the warm, soft, herb tinged air of Provence, almost honey sweet; and the cloying scent of my home town in Autumn, the fruit and decomposing leaves, again, creating a taste memory rather than a smell. 
Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on the origin of these Proustian moments, my mind first identifying happiness or sadness, then offering the final pieces of the puzzle; a definite ‘ah’ moment. I want my son to have these memories…after all as you can never quite recreate the whole food/surroundings moments once experienced, you must just make new ones – the sea salt on the lips as you devour Padstow fish and chips, the exploratory mouthfuls of goats cheese at a market in the south-west of France. I really enjoy these ‘Mummy, remember when we ate…’ moments; even shop bought antipasti eaten in front of a roaring wood fire whilst listening to Verdi’s Requiem has its place in my sensory library; the juxtaposition of a continental summer versus a cold Welsh autumn.

 I recall once eating a superb piece of pork in a cream and apple sauce in a seafood restaurant in Brittany; against the grain, yet remembered in detail. One taste of pork with cream and I’m back there, remembering the blue tiled floor and paper tablecloth. Another taste/smell memory comes from Estonia where, in a wooded clearing, beside a lake, the air full of pine trees and smoke, I ate barbecued, herb strewn fish, so fresh that it was almost still breathing; the dill and salt and pepper crust hiding a pale, delicate pink flesh…it was sublime and entirely unique.


Remember, remember the 5th of November….

  

Admittedly, I’ve been a little lax with this blog in the last week – if was of course half-term and the days were spent juggling outings, appointments and ‘I’m bored’ – however I did notice (and possibly for the first time) Vast quantities of Christmas products in shops alongside Halloween things.

 When I was a child in the 80’s Halloween was very much on its own, it followed back-to-school which rather depressingly always fell in July and preceded Bonfire Night which, aside from fireworks and sparklers wasn’t really the big event (and foodie push) that it is today. 

Bonfire Night was never heralded by large adverts of rosy-faced children in knitted hats clutching rare breed hotdogs in brioche rolls with a side of ‘lighter style’ slaw – there weren’t any glamorous articles advising how to entertain with enamel mugs of hot chocolate or mulled wine, wrapped in rough linen with a cinnamon stick tied to the side with rustic twine. But it was a special occasion in so much as I was allowed a ‘mad cow burger’ with a floppy, melted piece of ‘fake’ cheese and lashings of overly sweet  ketchup – with a can of Top Deck shandy on the side. 

Historically, there have always been dishes associated with Halloween and Bonfire Night – Halloween cakes made to ward of the devil were often part of country culture and were made until the middle of the twentieth century. Bonfire Night with its Guy and fireworks required something easily left unattended so jacket potatoes were often eaten, having been abandoned to the wood or coal fired oven whilst the family watched the fireworks and then served simply with good butter and salt – to be eaten with a spoon – sometimes a luxurious glug of cream was poured into a hole made in the top. 

Today we are encouraged to used these events as a foodie platform – inviting some friends over to have supper after the display – providing a simple, autumnal, locally produced meal which showcases the ‘Best of British’ in a slow-cooked form (in case the display runs over) and can be served in pretty bowls with a torn chunk of artisanal bread, warmed of course. 

Yet, sometimes the best recipes are the most simple and it’s hard to go wrong with a good stew with local meat – here in Wales we make Cawl, a Welsh lamb stew which was served with wedges of cheese (caws) and bread (bara). 

Cawl is a glorious dish which can be made with pretty much any seasons vegetable, the fattier the meat the better and if mutton is obtainable – go for it. It has so much depth of flavour and can be left happily for hours whilst you go about your business. The most simple Cawl comprises meat, potatoes, onion and carrot, maybe a bit of turnip or swede and lots of seasoning. This should please all meat eating guests. Follow with some warm gingerbread, very traditional on Bonfire Night (especially the heavier Parkin with its oatmeally solidity) and a glass of ginger wine.  For children, toasting marshmallows is a must – there is something wonderfully decadent about the hot, crisp and gooey mallow, so hot that it almost burns the lips as it passes through. 

Mulled cider is perfect to offer guests and paper cups are fine – handmade pottery cider beakers, although they look splendid, do not fare well with darkness and children. I combine 2 litres of good, still local cider with 1 litre of cloudy Apple juice, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, a good grating of nutmeg, a couple of tablespoons of clear honey, a thumb of ginger bruised and, finally, I stud some small apples with a couple of cloves and float them in the pan. Warm without boiling and serve. 


Humbled by Pork!

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a press day organised by porc.wales, a new, assembly backed initiative to promote small producers of proper pork in Wales.

Wales and Pork have a history which goes far back (although not too far, as the pig was sacred to the celts) but up until the early twentieth century, when it was finally outlawed, many Welsh families kept a pig which was sent for slaughter to keep the family in meat – no part of the pig was wasted – it was true nose to tail eating.

The porc.wales press event was held at Humble by Nature, the Monmouthshire farm championing sustainability and tradition. Owned by television presenter Kate Humble, Humble by Nature offers a wide variety of practical courses as well as being a good family day out – with an excellent cafe and regular supper clubs.

A study conducted into the Welsh pork industry found that in general the herds were substantially smaller than those in England – and often comprised native or heritage breeds.

At Humble by Nature we enjoyed a masterclass in faggot making from Gloucestershire charcutier Ruth Waddington who, alongside husband Graham, runs Lydney based Native Breeds www.nativebreeds.co.uk which make delectable products with the best possible pork (I can very much recommend their British Frankfurter) and very much enjoyed the accompanying talk about paring foraged ingredients with meats to create a storyboard for the recipe. Liz Knight, from borders based Forage Fine Foods www.foragefinefoods.com is obviously extremely passionate and introduced us to delightful flavour bombs such as acorns, giant hogweed and chamomile.


Having finally produced our faggots we had a guided tour of the farm from farmer Tim Stephens and met the pigs, of course! Humble by Nature’s dedication to sustainability is obvious – their animals are extremely well cared for and look extremely relaxed.


Lunch was splendid, as you can see, a few green beans and some creamy mash on the side, not forgetting my first ‘stock shot’ of cooking liquor which was packed with flavour – the sticky toffee Spotted Dick which was followed was equally yum! A glass of Humble by Nature branded cider finished off the day perfectly (along with a little bit of foodie debate)

For further info on foodie and countryside courses search www.humblebynature.com