Welsh business, Halen Mon salt and taking the plunge into self-employment

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There’s no doubt that Wales is a nation of self-employed and small business owners. My partner, when he first moved here from Leeds and started to get to know people, would ask what they did for a living and was constantly met with a series of unexpected responses.  “I’m a…poet, yoga teacher, Reiki practitioner, vegan cake maker, photographer, musician, mushroom grower, actress, chakra dance teacher, gong therapist, outdoor instructor, silversmith, the voice of the Welsh Peppa Pig!…. finally he asked me if I knew anyone with a ‘normal’ job?

Err, the answer to that is probably no. But I do know an extraordinarily large number of self-employed people.

Figures from a House of Commons Briefing paper 2016  report 5.5 million businesses listed in the UK with 99% of them being small to medium-sized, although 96% are considered micro businesses (employing less than 10 people) while the number of sole traders has increased by more than the number of all businesses 77% compared to 59%.

Considering the comparative size of the Welsh population to the whole of the UK, we have one of the highest rates of self-employment, and this is positively encouraged throughout schools and colleges in several ways. The Welsh Baccalaureate  qualification is a compulsory subject taught in all Welsh schools and has a strong emphasis on employment skills and entrepreneurship. This is further supported by local entrepreneurs who are booked to speak, share their stories and conduct skills workshops with Big Ideas Wales  . I’m one of those entrepreneurs. So why has self-employment become such a thing in Wales, and why is it a significant part of the curriculum?

With high unemployment and little remaining traditional industry there is little in the way of viable job opportunities for young people in Wales. Aside from public services (which employs the largest proportion of the local population), much of the work is based in the hospitality, retail or tourist industry.  Youngsters face the prospect of working on predominantly zero hours contracts or in seasonal jobs. Inevitably this leads to what is referred to as the ‘brain drain,’ where the best of Welsh talent leaves the country looking for employment, training or the chance to shine elsewhere.

Consequently, the people of Wales who stay or return, migrants and natives alike, are very good at being inventive, thinking outside the box and doing it for themselves. Wales is a proud, talented nation of artistic, musical, sightly eccentric and community minded individuals and certainly, the part of Wales in which I live, has a very high percentage of said creatives.

Many of the most successful business owners I know have started small, grown steadily, without over stretching themselves too soon. In 2016 there were 383,000 business births and 252,000 business deaths. Many businesses that fail, do so because they have misjudged the market, overstretched themselves, invested too much, taken too much of a risk or failed to adapt. A striking feature is that across the UK only 20% of SMEs are female led, however, many of the business owners that I know are extremely dynamic, intelligent and sightly formidable women (probably myself included). Indeed it seems like most of the sole traders and self-employed people I know are also women.

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When I think about those successful female or family led businesses, many actually began life in the kitchen at home. Sometimes with a simple creative or sometimes crazy idea. A few people spring to mind; Paola and Danny at Dr Zigs Extraordinary Bubbles , Margaret Carter and Patchwork Pate and Alison and David Lea-Wilson at Halen Mon salt 

David and Alison set up their first business while still students at Bangor University, supplementing their student grant by growing oysters. After graduation this evolved into a wholesale fish and game business which they ran for twelve years. Noticing that people were just as interested in the live fish as they were in eating them, they set up The Sea Zoo. This was established in 1983 and became the largest aquarium in Wales, but both this and the fresh fish business were seasonal which caused income problems over the winter months. The couple set to work on income generating ideas; after brainstorming and rejecting many, they settled on a plan to make sea salt.

In 1997 they put a pan of seawater to boil on the Aga in the family kitchen. Soon salt crystals began to form and that is where history was made. In 1999 they started selling the salt to the local butchers in Menai Bridge and from there they haven’t looked back. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate just how successful their simple creative idea would be, but now that their salt is being sold at over 100 of the best delicatessen’s in the UK plus supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Harvey Nichols and successful export to more than 22 countries, there’s no denying, it worked!

Halen Mon are potentially Anglesey, if not North Wales’s, top small business success story.

I have used Halen Mon salt since 2010, for me it knocks the socks off other sea salt brands. Initially I bought it at the local produce market, then began to buy in bulk from their original base on Anglesey ( a series of portacabins) until today; now I visit Tŷ Halen, their award-winning Saltcote and Visitor Centre. A truly unique £1.25m bespoke building; a first for Anglesey, Wales and the UK.  It is their centre of production, shop, headquarters and tourist attraction in its own right. It lies on the banks of the Menai Strait in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, next door to Anglesey Sea Zoo in Brynsiencyn and is well worth a visit.

So, to go back to the beginning. When I started my supper club people laughed. “Who’s going to come and eat dinner in your living room?” people said. A year later I launched a business and a blog, both of which are still thriving. So, the moral to this story and the point I wanted to get to, is…go take a risk. Do something you love. Have passion and belief in your ideas. Don’t let anyone tell you that your plans are crazy. You never know, you could be the next Halen Mon, Patchwork Pate, Dr Zigs… you could write that book, be that musician; but you’ll never know if you don’t try!

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Filed under Food issues, in the press, local produce, reviews, Sources and suppliers, Wales tourism, Welsh food, Welsh produce

Thai turkey and shiitake meatballs with spinach and coconut

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Finding the oomph to create new and inspiring recipes when life conspires against you is hard. The last couple of years have been something of a roller-coaster, one where I’ve barely recovered from one crisis before the next comes along. We all have periods like this in our life; times when we feel things will never calm down and our creative or vibrant spark proves elusive. I guess its like a form of writers block, or a creative grey patch where new ideas are impossible to muster. Instead of creating I find myself rushing through family dinner preparation, or shoving something together quickly while the hungry boys clamor to be fed. It’s a place where cooking is less, leisurely relaxing pursuit and more race against time. Does this all sound familiar?

Happily I am beginning to return to the old me and have started to experience the odd brain wave moment. Give me some random ingredients and a bit of head space and I’m in my element and now that work is winding down for the winter I’m returning to my roots. Experimental cooking, writing, photography (and possibly even a supper club!).

For added incentive I’m on a self enforced weight loss programme. I’m trying to ditch the carbs and refined sugars in a bid to drop a dress size. Now I’m not generally prone to following fad diets, but despite making excuses for my weight gain (contentment, new relationship, etc) I have to admit that its most likely down to menopause (a bastard to women in their forties) and despite being pretty fit all my life I’m no longer able to rely on my metabolism and exercise. Its crap. But I’m looking for ways to eat well without piling on the pounds.

I’ve ditched potatoes, pasta, rice and bread. I’m limiting sweet things and trying to stick to fruit and nuts as snacks. It’s hard to come up with interesting things when my partner is picky as hell, but at least my fourteen year old eats anything put in front of him (an understatement…the boy never stops eating. He can clear a fruit bowl in one sitting..oh, except if its mash potato apparently; because mashed potatoes taste different to boiled ones. Yes that one confused me too..go figure).

Anyway, with this new and rather limited remit I set off on an experimental journey. What I came up with ticked everyone’s boxes: A cheaper and lighter meat, my favourite Thai ingredients, mushrooms to keep the other half happy (they are his favourite food in all the world) and just lots of it (for the teen). The boys ate their meatballs with rice and I made myself some courgette noodles with my spiralizer.

For the meat balls:

500g turkey mince

Half a medium onion finely chopped (save the other half for the sauce)

2 cloves garlic finely chopped

4 shiitake mushrooms finely chopped (from a 125g punnet)

an inch of fresh ginger finely chopped

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon Thai curry paste

1 egg

Groundnut oil

For the sauce:

1 small red bell pepper thinly sliced

the other half of the onion

the rest of the shiitake mushrooms

a handful of shredded spinach or chard

2 cloves of garlic

tin of coconut milk

Thai curry paste (enough for your own taste) I used a teaspoon because I can’t tolerate too much chilli

Juice of one lime

Chopped coriander to finish

For the meatballs: Either in a food processor, or by hand, pulse the onion, mushrooms, ginger and garlic until finely chopped. Add the turkey mince, fish sauce, curry paste and egg and pulse again until combined. Form into small balls the size of golf balls.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan and fry the balls in batches until browned all over. Put to one side in a bowl while you make the sauce.

Add the remaining onion, red pepper, garlic and stir fry for one minute. Add the remaining shiitake mushrooms and the Thai curry paste and stir fry for another minute. Add the coconut milk and lime juice and return the meatballs to the pan. Simmer until the sauce has reduced and meatballs are cooked. Stir in the spinach or chard right at the end and allow to wilt into the sauce. Finish with a good sprinkling of coriander.

 

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Filed under Asian cookery, home cooking, local produce, Recipes

An art and food lovers guide to Barcelona

Barcelona has been up at the top of my wish list of places to visit as long as I can remember. As an art lover with a particular attraction to Art Nouveau, Modernism, Picasso, Dali and Gaudi and a leaning towards all things Mediterranean (food and weather wise) it’s a wonder I’ve never made it there before now. Somehow the trip had eluded me as other destinations took priority, often those involving visits to stay with family, or friends, or for work. Taking a trip just for ME was pretty much unheard of.

This trip was an extra special one; straight from the top of my bucket list to celebrate a very big birthday. It was totally indulgent and all about what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was explore the art and architecture of the Modernisme movement (or Catalonian modernism) and Catalonian cuisine.

I planned and researched meticulously putting together a detailed travel plan and a ‘must see’ list. I like to immerse myself in the detail, I’m a bit OCD like that,  but I also like a bit of flexibility and am not averse to chopping and changing as I go along, which was just as well as I hadn’t anticipated the enormity of Barcelona. We easily navigated the metro system and our apartment was very central (many things such as La Boqueria,the Cathedral, MACBA, Palau Guell were no more than ten minutes walk away) but still we ended up with an unfinished list, while still managing to clock up a whopping 30k in three days (seriously! we should have got into training before we left, my calves hurt for ages). It dawned on me the very first day that Barcelona was going to be impossible to explore in the time we had.

WHAT I SAW

I managed to pack in most of the arty things I wanted to see and only a few fell by the wayside, but that just means I have to go back and finish what I started!

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Park Guell

Park Guell – (Metro Green Line L3. Book tickets online to avoid the queues. Prices are 7 euros per person) Antoni Gaudi’s extravagant creation for the industrial tycoon Eusebi Guell was originally conceived as a modern housing development which began development in 1900. Sixty houses were planned, but only two were ever completed, one of which Gaudi, his father and niece eventually came to live in. The Park became city property in 1923 and was opened to the public in 1926. In 1984 it was made a World Heritage Site. We caught the Metro train to Vallcarca and then walked up the most hellish hill to the park. My advice; wear sensible shoes and take plenty of water to drink. I was thankful for my life in Wales which prepared me for the hills otherwise the trek there might have finished me off. The sculpture park itself is quite small, but there are about 3 kilometres of hilly paths that criss-cross and wind through the surrounding palm trees and gardens. The colour and architecture of the park reminded us a little of Portmeirion, except with sun and palm trees and a lot more mosaic. When you book you are alloted a time for entry and they are quite strict about adhering to it. We had to wait for about 15 minutes until the correct slot as we were a bit early but once inside we were able to stay as long as we wanted. Even in March the park was busy with tourists so I suspect in high season they may stick more rigidly to the 40 minute time limit we were supposed to have.  We could have spent longer in there but headed out because we were hungry (no picnics allowed inside the sculpture area) and had booked to go into the Gaudi House museum.

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Casa Gaudi

Gaudi House museum (Book tickets separately for the house, again online. 5.50 euros per person) was built as one of the showcase houses in the park and eventually lived in by Gaudi, his father and his niece. Despite Gaudi’s often outlandish and wildly imaginative architecture (Nigel, my partner, says he’s like a child with a doodle who doesn’t know when to stop, he just needs to keep adding one more thing, then another and another) he lived a very simple, pious life. Basic in his needs; he was religious, greatly influenced by the natural world, a vegetarian and remained single all his life. He lived in the house in Park Guell until in 1910 when he moved into his workshop on site at the Sagrada Familia to oversee work. In 1926 he died after being hit by a tram on his way to vespers.

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Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia (Metro to Sagrada Familia on L5, blue line or get L2 purple line. Book tickets online, 15 euros per person)- A visit to Gaudi’s unfinished work, which won’t see completion until 2026, has to be on everyones list. As we climbed the steps from the metro station and turned around I literally stepped back open-mouthed. The Sagrada is quite breathtaking in its architectural complexity. It is a mish-mash of religious iconography, elements from nature and impossibly fragile looking towers. They don’t look as though they should stay upright. The building is covered with intricate mosaic, sculpted leaves, figures, birds, shells, lizards and other animals carved into stone and wood. When you step inside it’s as though you’ve entered another world altogether. Outside is dark, gothic and imposing, which leads you to summise that the inside would be similarly intense but it is quite the opposite. As you step through the door the light hits you. A kaleidoscope of colour shines through the various stained glass windows reflecting different colours onto each wall; while one side is warm with reds, yellows and orange, the other streams with blues and greens. The colour seems to be fluid, washing over the interior. I was a little awestruck.IMG_0760 (2)

 

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MACBA – (Nearest metro stop is Universitat on L2 Purple line, but it was 10 minutes walk from our apartment. Book tickets online during high season. Costs 10 euro per person) If you love contemporary art you must pay this gallery a visit. We saved our trip for the one rainy day and the tail end of all that walking, when I literally couldn’t have walked more than ten minutes if I’d tried. The museum has an extensive permanent collection which we spent hours browsing and a temporary exhibition by Antoni Miralda, a Spanish artist who has made food his creative focus. The irony wasn’t lost on us especially when we saw Bread Line and our joint response was “all that wasted bread”!!

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Bread Line by Antoni Miralda

 

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Picasso Museum – While Gaudi was all about the large breathtaking structure, the flight of fancy and the ground breaking architectural design Picasso was quite unexpected. The museum certainly gave us our moneys worth, but since Picasso was one of the twentieth centuries most prolific artists that’s probably no surprise . The exhibited work spanned all of his notable periods; rose, blue, cubist, modernist, and stretched back to his early work as a fourteen year old which was a real eye opener.  Like with Gaudi’s architecture, my partner felt that Picasso was another artist who was somewhat self-indulgent and got a bit carried away, what he didn’t expect was his skill as a classical painter. Even at fourteen he was prodigiously talented, showing great skill as a copyist, slowly honing his talent until he matured and went his own way. If you think you know Picasso, this will show you that there is so much more to him. Book online during high season but we bought tickets there. Fourteen euros per adult pays entry to the normal exhibition and the temporary exhibition (which this time was his portraits).

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Barceloneta

Barceloneta – Friends had suggested that it was better to get out of the centre of Barcelona as the beach nearer to the city was dirty but I found the Barceloneta a lovely area. Fair enough the sand is quite harsh underfoot, great if you want to exfoliate the feet, but not as dirty as I’d expected. We took a stroll on our second morning while it was warm and sunny, past Columbus on his column and down to the sea where we sat, drank a morning coffee at a beach side cafe while watching the sand sculpture makers and then lazed on the beach eating our lunch before heading back towards the Picasso museum. The worst bits of the Barceloneta (and Barcelona as a whole) were the hawkers, although to give them their dues they’ve totally got every market covered. At the beach they tried to flog scarves and shawls, in Park Guell it was selfie sticks and water, outside MACBA which is a haunt for skateboarding students it was cheap beer, in town it was selfie sticks and those light up things that you throw in the air for kids (apart from when it rained, then they quickly swapped to umbrellas..like I said, they knew their market!)

EAT

La Boqueria

La Boqueria is undoubtedly one of the best food markets I have ever visited. A riot of colour, smells, texture and traders selling everything from chillies to cheese, fruit to fish, sea urchins, mushrooms, eggs, manchego, jamon, and everything in-between.

This is the place to come for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Before we headed off for the day we popped in to collect provisions. For my love (who is a philistine Yorkshireman and rather less of a food connoseur) it was a differing selection of empanadas (or as I suggested pasties) and for me it was salad with some sliced Iberico ham and manchego plus a selection of fruit and a smoothie for the road.

There is definitely something for everyone despite my partners singularity in his choices. I think if we’d been staying longer and had an apartment all to ourselves I’d have bought more of the unusual things on sale and experimented more at ‘home’. We also ran out of time and didn’t bring as much back as I’d have liked (it pretty much ended up being tons of chocolate!)

Ocana

Before we left for our trip I checked out ideas for places to eat. Luckily I am part of a food loving family and I’m lucky enough to have two food blogger / photographer cousins  (one of whom is on trend instagrammer Jack Baker) and another aunt/cousin supper club running combo. Jack’s sister Emily’s food and travel blog had a bit about Barcelona so I took some restaurant tips from her. On our first night in the city we wanted somewhere close by that we could walk to easily. Ocana was about ten minutes from our apartment on a lovely palm tree rimmed square just off La Rambas.  We sat outside to make the most of the warm Spanish evening, a bit of a novelty after the cold and damp of North Wales.

Naturally I went for sangria; in this case a blueberry sangria with Jerez brandy and lots of crushed berries. It knocked my socks off!  As it was late we didn’t want to get into a massive tapas fest so chose a dish of arroz caldoso to share. A bit like paella but rich and mushroomy, it was stuffed with lovely langoustine and squid.

Pudding was essential and Nigel finished with chocolate pie with dulce de leche while I went for crema catalana (of course! The traditional Catalan creme brulee just had to be done). The meal was delicious and the restaurant beautiful.

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Ocana on Placa Reial

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Our second meal and another suggestion from Emily. Sadly this time not quite living up to its review, especially after Ocana which was absolutely divine. I found it strange that they went to so much trouble bringing me fresh warm gluten-free bread, only to be told that there was at most three things I could eat on the menu. Even the desserts (including the ice cream) were apparently full of gluten. My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to try to discover if the gluten was something like a wafer that they could easily leave out and I ended up somewhat frustrated. Even the choices we eventually made were underwhelming.

Horiginal

We discovered Horiginal by accident. Wandering back from a night at the opera (yep, I also got to tick that off my bucket list; Carmina Burana at the Tivoli Theatre) it was too early to go back to the apartment so we went in search of an after show drink. The bar is pretty much next door to MACBA and convenient as a lunch or evening spot. On this night we just wanted a drink and a snack having eaten dinner earlier (a rather expensive and forgettable paella hastily grabbed on the street where our apartment was) so a hearty portion of patatas bravas and a Sangria sorted us out. On our last day we returned for lunch after our MACBA visit. A section of tapas including some seriously huge prawns, patatas bravas (again) although I skipped the Sangria this time. The portions were great, the only downside was the rather frosty lunch time service

Taller de Tapas

We’d deliberately avoided eating on La Ramblas expecting it to be expensive and touristy, but on our last night as a storm raged overhead and the rain became biblical we couldn’t face a long trek anywhere. I did a quick search on the internet for the best, reasonably priced restaurants close to La Ramblas and discovered Taller de Tapas. We’d walked past it several times but hadn’t paid it any attention but this time decided to give it a go. On arrival the place was packed with cold wet tourists, but we only had to wait dripping by the door for about ten minutes before a table became available.

As it was our last night we decided to go for it. We started with a selection of tapas; Mussels with herbs, sautéed wild mushrooms, Spanish tortilla and chicken kebab with herbs and spices. All were delicious and the portions were good; they would have been too much for me, but I reckon my partner could have eaten the paella on his own. Since we were sharing everything and grazing at a leisurely pace (we weren’t in a big hurry to go back out in the rain) we ordered plenty;  the tapas and the paella was filling, but left plenty of room for dessert. True to predictable form I chose Catalan creme brulee (I can’t help it, its my favourite and everything else had gluten in it) while my partner went for almond tart. All of this plus a couple of beers and Sangria and it didn’t break the bank. This was the best spontaneous find of the week!

STAY

We looked at B&B’s and hotels but then decided to go for Airbnb in order to save money on accommodation so we could do and see more while we were there. We found ourselves a reasonable budget apartment.  At 40 euros the one I found seemed too cheap to be true and perhaps a bit of a risk but I wasn’t going to spend a fortune on somewhere that we were just going to be sleeping.

There are pluses and minuses to going budget. The room was clean, basic, with a private bathroom and completely adequate. It was just off La Rambla so close to everything, close to Liceu Metro station with an array of shops, bars and cafes next door. In reality we spent very little time there.

The down side? The apartment was on the fourth floor with no lift. The street was noisy at night and we seemed to be sharing with quite a few others so the ‘shared’ space (kitchen and lounge) didn’t seem so inviting. We used the kitchen for breakfast but I got the impression that a couple of the guys there were long-term room renters. I think maybe we would have cooked for ourselves or used the apartment more if we’d had it to ourselves but it was fine because we were only there for a few days.

We flew from Liverpool to Barcelona and then caught the train into the city and then the Metro to Liceu stop. On the way back we caught the airport bus (Aerobus) from Placa Catalunya which was much more convenient

Other stuff we didn’t quite get around to….. On our first night we took a walk up to Passeig de Gracia so I could get my first glimpse of Gaudi. I was impatient and couldn’t wait but as it turned out we didn’t ever make it back to go inside. La Pedrera and Casa Batllo were both lit up and I took a few pictures but that’s as far as it went. There was so much to see and its a place that draws you in so obviously I’ll just have to go back again and catch the places I missed first time around!

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Filed under Food travel, Spain, travel, Uncategorized

Scallop risotto with marsala

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I have this trace memory that harks back to my days as a psychologist. I travelled around a fair bit in my job and often found myself spending the night in various hotels around the UK.

If I stayed more than a couple of nights I made it my mission to find at least one good place to eat and one good bar or cafe to hang out in the evening. I didn’t always succeed but I tried my hardest. One of the projects I worked on took me to Oxford, a city i’d visited several times for conferences and one that I love. This time I stayed in a hotel on the edge of the Jericho, one of the suburbs of the city. Once run down, it is now all arty and bohemian so looking for a place to eat was extremely easy.

As I was staying a few nights (and was earning a decent crust in those days) I had to give Raymond Blancs Brasserie Blanc (it was Petit Blanc back then) a try. It was good, as expected, but it was Branca, an Italian almost opposite that left me salivating and for ever trying to recreate the dish I ate three times in one week (it really was that good).

When i’m doing demo’s or teaching sesssions people often ask me what my favourite food is and are surprised that I have such simple tastes. Give me a perfect seafood risotto followed by proper panacotta any day and am happy. The risotto I had that day at Branca was the best I’d ever eaten. So simple, risotto with garlic and topped with scallops, yet so effective. The re-creation of which has eluded me for years. but I think I finally did it!

Scallop Risotto

1 small onion finely chopped

2 small cloves of garlic, finely chopped

25g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

Approx 100g Arborio rice (generous)

splash of dry Vermouth

1 pint of fish stock

salt and pepper

To finish:

4 nice fat scallops, corals removed

25g butter

drizzle of olive oil

a good splash of marsala wine

one lemon

fresh parsley

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Heat the oil and butter for the risotto in a shallow frying pan. Add the onion and soften until turning golden but not brown. Add the garlic and stir for a minute then add the risotto rice. Stir for a couple of minutes in the hot oil until it begins to turn transluscent (i.e. not chalky any more) then add a splash of Vermouth. Let the pan bubble until its evaporated then add enough stock to cover the rice. Try to avoid stirring, but give the pan a shake every now and again to prevent the rice sticking. As the stock is absorbed add a little more stock keeping the rice covered until you have used the full pint. You may need a little more but just check the consistency of the rice. Once it is al dente, or almost soft. Turn off the pan and allow the risotto to rest. It should absorb the last of the liquid.

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While the risotto is resting heat a small heavy bottomed frying pan ( cast iron is best) add a little olive oil to coat the base and wait until it’s really hot (almost smoking). Add scallops to the pan, they shouldn’t stick if the pan is hot, just sizzle and start to shrink in the heat. Cook for a couple of minutes until nicely browned then turn over.

At the end of cooking add a good splash of marsala (stand back as the pan may spit) then add the remaining 25g butter. Serve the risotto and finish with the scallops, spoon over the buttery juices, squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley.

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The RNLI Fish Supper at Moelfre lifeboat station

Next month see’s the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Fish Supper launch a new fundraising event created to raise money and awareness of the work the RNLI, but also to encourage individual’s to eat more fish!

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Between the 9th and 11th October individual’s can host their own Fish Supper, inviting family and friends to share the meal while collecting donations and raising money for the RNLI charity. It doesn’t matter if you are an accomplished chef, cook or total amateur it’s about sharing and supporting our hard-working primarily volunteer, lifeboat crews who are on call 24 hours a day. Over 8,000 RNLI volunteer crew members look after our coastal waters across the UK and Ireland regularly missing their evening meals, so get your friends together and eat in their honour!

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As I live close to the sea and act as a firm advocate for local seafood I was lucky enough to get the chance to attend the inaugural fish supper held at Moelfre Lifeboat station on Anglesey. Around 30 guests including lifeboat men and women, fishermen, seafood suppliers and restauranteurs gathered to sample canapes, made with locally supplied seafood followed by traditional fish and chips supplied by Moelfre’s Coastal cafe and Fish Bar.

Cywain Pysgod (which means fish in Welsh) supported the event. They are a project run by local business support company Menter a Busnes, and co-ordinated by Caroline Dawson, a passionate supporter of local seafood. Their aim is to create a more profitable and sustainable Welsh Fisheries sector by increasing the value of the catch through identifying new markets and developing new products.

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So, go on… get involved! Anyone can host a fish supper. There is a special page on the website where you can register. You will be sent a free party pack which includes recipe inspiration, party game ideas and place-name cards. The Fish Supper doesn’t have to be held between 9–11 October, it’s quite flexible although the RNLI asks that all Fish Supper donations are received by 7 November.

Our evening finished spectacularly with the launch of the lifeboat, a rare opportunity for me as it’s about half an hours drive from where I live, but it was a clear beautiful evening, with stunning views over the Irish sea and all in all it was quite exciting!

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Filed under sustainable fish, travel, Wales tourism

Crisis at Christmas

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On Monday I finished the last of the three shifts  I’d volunteered to do for Crisis at Christmas. Based at Deptford Day Centre (the closest centre to where my Mum lives) I worked the last three days before it all ended and the centre returned to being the Lewisham LeSoCo college campus.

This was my first time volunteering for Crisis. My sister Kate, author of Exploring Art in the City and a veteran Crisis volunteer (usually based at Bermondsey but taking a year off as she’s a week away from giving birth) was the one who inspired me to sign up.  She told me I’d love it and find it rewarding.She wasn’t wrong.

I wanted to volunteer last year but it didn’t happen. There were so many other life changing events going on, plus it’s not an easy task too-ing and fro-ing between Wales and London, so I have to plan my time carefully. This year it all came together, not the full seven days which I may sign up for next year, but with Christmas, kids to organise and other commitments to consider three days was the most I could manage. This year one of those kids did her own organising. Rosy my teen waitress is all grown up and has moved to London, she sofa surfs and does odd bits of work while trying to find the kind of work she wants. She will only be the teen for one more year and has had enough of Wales.  She decided to stay down south for Christmas and sign-up for Crisis as well. We reunited after a month apart over the kitchen sink where we reconnected and had a great time. The work was hard, fun, tiring, emotional but ultimately the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done. I woke on Tuesday with aching legs and feet, physically drained, tearful, emotional, but still buzzing from a truly epic experience.

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On day one Rosy and I arrived at the gate and within half an hour were changed, and in the kitchen. Lunch service was still ongoing; it looked busy. I was more terrified than if I’d been serving a gourmet wedding breakfast. I didn’t know what to expect.

Mary, the kitchen co-ordinator gave me a very brisk run down of procedure. I hadn’t slept much the night before and really had to hit the ground running to remember everything. Mercifully there wasn’t much evening prep to be done so I got an opportunity to familiarise myself with the kitchen, follow Mary’s lead while getting on with what needed doing.  It wasn’t long before Mary broke the news to me that this was her last day, from Sunday I was the chef in charge and the kitchen co-ordinator. Shit!!!!

Dinner passed without incident but food was sparse towards the end and more people arrived than I’d anticipated. I wanted to make sure both guests (most importantly) and volunteers were able to eat, so as day two arrived I knew we had to make more.

We arrived early and this time a different chef was on duty. I started to plan for dinner as soon as I got in the door, prep needed doing so I distributed tasks among those who had arrived early and those still on duty. I made sure volunteers got a lunch break and then as the evening shift arrived I packed some of them off home. Sunil, the morning chef didn’t seem to want to go and in the end he chose to stay on until the end of the evening admitting he wanted to see how my shift went. He wanted to learn and watch.  This wasn’t the first or last time I felt humbled, or proud of what we as a team achieved during my time at Crisis. With two very experienced assistants (Heather and Dave) plus Sunil, the night flew by and ran smoothly and efficiently and food was plentiful.

Day three on the other hand turned into an 11 hour epic. I’m sure the number of guests rose with every meal. At lunch it was 270. By dinner it was closer to 300, including volunteers.  The team was now familiar with my mission and mantra…cook ‘shit loads’ and my kitchen assistants (an awesome, amazing, hard-working bunch without exception) stepped up to the challenge. They shredded, chopped, grated, mixed, got creative and inspired and accepted that basic food could still be tasty.

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Our team had to prepare for dinner one woman down as Rosy went home sick, and no extra chef in the form of Sunil. It was hard work, we ran it up to the wire but the “Sex Pistols of Balkan brass” the  Trans-Siberian Marching Band distracted the guests with their noisy, chaotic, high energy, hugely entertaining performance and bought us an extra 10 minutes to prep dinner. We were a little late, but nobody was watching the clock that evening.

I’m proud of how well we fed our guests and volunteers. Even at the final hour we managed to find meals for stragglers, like the man who hadn’t eaten in 48 hours brought in by one of the outreach workers. We accommodated extras every day like those from Bermondsey who, rumour had it, came over to Deptford as the food was better!

I met guests and got a hearty thumbs up, Heather told me I HAD to return next year or they would hunt me down and Dave told me that despite how hard it was on the last day I nailed it. Brad told me I “rocked”. Another guest told me it was “Best food all week”,  while another had 6 helpings of pudding! and it was great we were able to give them six helpings!

On the last evening after service finished I took my dinner and sat in the day room. I watched some terrible karaoke, chatted to one of my kitchen assistants who was also homeless and had lived in a caravan for the last couple of years, I finally got a tour of the centre, but never quite got that briefing or debriefing. I only cried on the job once; when a teenage girl who looked like Rosy came to the counter for food. Dishevelled, thin, out of it, I realised how lucky my girl is despite her sofa surfing, to have love, safe places and a choice. I had to leave the counter. I also discovered that many of those at the day centre were not homeless, simply lonely, isolated, in need of company. Having lost a friend two days before Christmas who was lonely and depressed it really hit home how much we need people around us and I felt so priviliged to have such a close group of mates.

My sister told me I’d love it and she wasn’t wrong. What she didn’t tell me was how much I would learn, or how much it would touch and change me. I went home and cried….i’m still shedding tears and its now Thursday.

Crisis doesn’t just help people at Christmas, it helps all year round. If you would like to volunteer find out more here or get involved in the Crisis Skylight projects.

If you spot a rough sleeper in London, or any other city, there is currently SWEP provision (Severe Weather Emergency Protocols) to help find shelter during the cold weather…find out who to contact here

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The Christmas countdown: Pudding series #2..triple chocolate and brandy

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If you are all about the chocolate, but like the idea of Christmas pudding you can always opt for this ‘fake’ version that includes not one, not two, but three different types of chocolate! It has the rich density of a Christmas pud but without the fruit and are like a cross between a cake, a brownie and a muffin.

They are also quick, straight forward, no fuss and very popular. I prefer to make individual puddings that are generous enough for two (or one person with a very sweet tooth and plenty of room!!)

 

On this occasion I made loads as they also make very nice presents!

Double chocolate chip ‘fake’ Christmas pudding (Makes one 17cm cake, or six very generous ‘puddings’)
150g plain chocolate broken into squares
175g muscovado sugar
120ml double cream
75g butter softened
3 eggs beaten
25g cocoa powder
150g plain flour
100g breadcrumbs
150g white chocolate chips
100g milk chocolate chips
100g mixed peel
Brandy
Grease and line a 17cm cake tin with baking parchment, or grease individual large muffin tins.
In a small pan melt the plain chocolate with the cream and half of the sugar. Beat the remaining sugar, eggs, butter, cocoa and flour until smooth. Stir in the breadcrumbs and chocolate mixture then add the chocolate chips and mixed peel. Stir well. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin (or tins) and bake in a medium oven (180 degrees C / gas mark 4) for 45 minutes. Serve hot with cream or brandy butter.

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The Christmas countdown: Pudding series #1 Date and pecan with salted caramel sauce

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See! It’s not all bah humbug. And so begins a Christmas countdown of my favourite alternative Christmas puddings, especially for those that loathe the traditional, dense fruity stuff.  According to Unilever and Love Food Hate Waste 5 million Christmas puddings get thrown away every year, I’m not sure if this is through over consumption and over enthusiastic purchasing or just because there are a lot of people who don’t like the stuff. Instead why not try something different?

There are plenty of alternatives to Christmas pud that are cheap, easy to make, have as much wow factors as a blazing steamed pudding and will bring many more gasps of appreciation.

To begin this brief, last-minute series one of my all time favourite desserts. Sticky toffee pudding with a twist, and a handful off chopped pecan nuts, a bit of spice and a salted caramel sauce with vanilla salt and there you have it, perfection in a dish.

Sticky date and pecan pudding with salted caramel sauce (makes 6 to 7 puddings, depending on the size of your dishes)

270g dates
50g pecan nuts (chopped)
half a teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
150g unsalted butter
185g self-raising flour
125g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
200g golden granulated sugar
120ml double cream
Vanilla sea salt

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180 degrees C. Grease six muffin holes or individual tins.
Place the dates and 250ml water in a saucepan. Bring to the boil then remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda. Add 60g of the butter and stir until melted.

When you add the bicarbonate of soda the pan will fizz. The addition helps soften and 'break down' the dates which may remain a litle hard otherwise

When you add the bicarbonate of soda the pan will fizz. The addition helps soften and ‘break down’ the dates which may remain a litle hard otherwise

Sift the flour into a large bowl, then add 125g of the sugar and stir well. Add the date mixture and egg and stir well. In the bottom the dishes add enough pecan nuts to make a pattern then spoon over the batter and bake for 20 minutes.
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For the caramel sauce place the granulated sugar in a heavy based saucepan and cook over a medium heat stirring constantly until it turns into a thick amber coloured liquid. Once you reach this point all the sugar should have melted so you can stir in the remaining 90g of butter, still stirring constantly. Then trickle in the cream whisking as you do. The mixture will spit and bubble rapidly. Boil for 1 minute, it will rise in the pan as it does so make sure it doesn’t boil over. Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla salt and allow to cool slightly.

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Food Bank Britain: who isn’t eating?

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Image courtesy of the Trussell Trust

This might read like one of those bah humbug kind of posts, it’s not supposed to be one, but as Christmas creeps closer I’ve begun to look back over the past year and realised that a lot of things are not right in the world.

Perhaps with my change of circumstances, both for the good and bad, I’ve become more acutely aware of the huge inequalities within the industry that I work in. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my feelings about the gulf between have’s and have-nots. Those that can afford good food and those who can’t…as if eating good food is only a right for those with money.

I’m going to go off on bit of a tangent here. About a  month ago I read a headline in the Guardian “Move over ‘poverty porn’ … is it the era of ‘prosperity porn’?” The whole concept of ‘poverty porn’ disgusted me to begin with. The idea that we watch poor people on our TV for ‘entertainment’, like it’s a dirty pleasure, but then another thought dawned on me. Why don’t people want to watch programmes about the poor anymore? Is it because there are a growing number of people in Britain  living in poverty. Everyday working people, those unemployed through no fault of their own and not the ‘dole scum’ they like to portray. People are beginning to empathise with the people in those programmes. They are beginning to understand what it is like to struggle. Is this perhaps the reason for the switch? A subtle government ploy to change the message? Now more people than ever are living in poverty the focus is shifted elsewhere. Where once we laughed at the poor now we’re being encouraged to laugh at the rich.

You can call me a conspiracy theorist, and I might not be correct in my assumption, but you can’t argue that the media is full of disingenuous information about how the economy is improving, shallow programmes that dumb us down and make us forget to focus on the things we should be angry about, the awful things happening in the real world, and who created the mess in this country.

Despite my education I’ve never been rich. I learned that critical opinion, morality, intellectual achievement was more valuable than money. I learned the lessons the hard way. I grew up on a council estate in a family of activists. I frequented the picket line while my parents shouted scab at strike breakers. As their strike dragged on into its sixth month and employees lost their pay we suffered extreme poverty. I have memories of scouring the fridge for anything to eat, asking when shopping would be done and being told not this week. We had no money. I’m almost convinced we even had to hide from a debt collector knocking on the door once. As growing teenagers we were hungry, but we never starved because we were lucky, my mother knew how to cook and make do. Generations after the 1980’s are even deprived of that skill since cooking, sewing etc were no longer considered as ‘life skills’.

So back to the point, I’m getting a bit sick of the TV food industry where a bunch of wannabe’s take part in reality cookery shows (yes I did it, I hold my hands up, guilty as charged..but it wasn’t for fame, that was the last thing on my mind, it was just for the hell of it, for the experience). There are hundreds of cookery programmes on the TV and chefs are ‘celebrities’. Were not. We make nice food for those that can afford it. The viewers of these TV shows include a host of people who happily live off ready meals, takeaways, junk food and haven’t a clue how to cook, or are not able to afford the ingredients to emulate the TV chefs dishes.

This is the way I see things….

  • Supermarkets sell masses of unnecessary food at inflated prices (we know this because you only have to look at Aldi and Lidl to know that it can be cheaper)
  • Advertising props up the idea that you need ‘convenience food’
  • Schools do not teach basic cooking skills, these lessons were not considered core skills and so were abolished by the conservative government in the 1990’s
  • Supermarkets link up with schemes like Fareshare to make themselves look better, to improve their profile by ‘helping’ the community. This is because their profits have dropped, not out of any sense of altruism or genuine caring
  • Many food banks are based in supermarkets where its the community, the people who are struggling, that are buying extra things to ‘donate’ not the supermarket giving freely
  • On top of this supermarkets are making it harder and harder to retrieve discarded food from the skips. In my area supermarkets tip bleach on what would be perfectly edible food, and hide it behind gates with razor wire and locks. Once upon a time students and the skint would have lived off this, now it just goes to landfill.
  • Supermarkets give very little to the local food banks and skips are still full of perfectly useable food.

Figures from the Trussell Trust, between April 1st 2013 and April 1st 2014 913,138 people were given 3 days emergency food rations. This is three times the number of people receiving aid in 2012-2013 and one can only imagine what the figures will be for 2014-2015. While The Real Junk Food Project cafe based in Leeds reports that they have intercepted 11.8 tons of food since March 2013, which has created 3338 meals served in their Pay as You Feel cafe (Dec 13′-July 14′).

I paid a visit to my local food bank where I spoke with Helen Roberts, part-time village post mistress, volunteer food bank organiser and do-er of other ‘random’ jobs. She co-ordinates the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, my nearest city, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. I visited on a Friday to find out about how they distribute emergency food.  I was early so sat in one of the pews watching the silent bustle of the volunteers preparing to open and packing numerous carrier bags with 3 days worth of food.

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A volunteer packing emergency supplies bags

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Volunteers sorting produce at the Cathedral

Helen reported a steady increase in users since they opened. Usually agencies helping people with other issues such as homelessness (Shelter Cymru), mental health problems (Community Mental Health Trust), housing issues (North Wales housing) or substance misuse problems (CAIS or NACRO) will make a referral to the food bank. Individuals are given vouchers which entitles them to either a family pack or a single persons pack containing three days of emergency rations. Depending on circumstances this maybe supplemented, such as, where there are more children in the family.

There is also a growing number of people arriving with no voucher. They are walk-ins that stop by because they are struggling at a particular time. Some of these are working people who for one reason or another find themselves in difficulty. They are never turned away. In these cases they are given a letter which entitles them to a further three days emergency food but usually they are also signposted to another service if necessary.

One of the problems with the service is that food packs only contain ‘ambient’ goods (so no fresh, chilled or frozen produce). Goods such as breakfast cereal, UHT milk, a variety of tins with sandwich fillings that can be used for lunch such as corned beef, tuna, bread and margarine, plus the ingredients for 3 main meals (tinned meat, chicken).

What shocked me the most was that food is mostly bought for these parcels. In the past the food bank received deliveries from the CREST Co-operative Fareshare service. Fareshare is an organisation which works with partners in the food industry securing surplus food and delivering it to a variety of community projects and charities across the UK. Sadly, although the service was only established in 2010 it has now been discontinued. According to Anna Hughes the marketing manager for Crest the operation was ‘not sustainable’ in North Wales and not enough groups had joined. Organisations wishing to receive deliveries from the service paid a £500 yearly membership fee which helped cover the costs of staff, fuel, deliveries and other overheads. Some of these community groups are now left without regular donations (like the Bangor Foodbank) while others access the service that runs out of the Wirral. I mentioned to Anna that it was a shame the service had closed now that there was a greater need for it and she agreed, although it was a decision made by the directors of the organisation. Perhaps such a large annual fee was off-putting for local community groups, who knows. I just think it is a shame there is no Fare share service here in North Wales at all.

I talked to volunteers and sat for a while quietly observing the steady stream of ‘customers’ arriving. They weren’t queuing around the block like they might in a bigger city, but there were plenty needing help, some of whom I knew by sight some people were collecting for others who weren’t able to get to the Cathedral.  It saddened me and made me thankful that I do know how to cook well and know how to make-do with very little. Whole generations of children and young adults are growing up in Britain watching their working parents struggling to put food on the table, struggling to know how to make a meal and not knowing how to manage on an ever decreasing income.

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One visitor collecting supplies for a neighbour

So what’s my solution? I know, it’s not easy…but I would push for the following…

Proper cookery, budgeting and nutrition lessons in schools would be a start. Follow that up with affordable fresh food all the time as a right, not a privilege. Go back to the days of buying from markets, small producers and greengrocers (remember them?). Buy meat from the butcher in smaller quantities, bread from a bakery. Do I sound old-fashioned? Well they did seem to get some things right back in the post war era where people came before profits and we all lived in a community. Perhaps its only now people are beginning to realise this..

So I am putting my money where my mouth is. In the coming months I will be telling you about a new project I am starting up under the umbrella of The Real Junk Food Project…a community, pay as you feel cafe using diverted produce.. keep watching this space, I’ve a long way to go yet.

In the meantime…donate food if you can, buy local, help your community. That is all.

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STOP PRESS: Exciting Competition Announcement for local cooks and chefs (Gwynedd and Ynys Mon)

Here is that exciting announcement I mentioned on Friday.

For all amateur chefs & cooks in Gwynedd or Ynys Mon I just want you to know that I am working with FLAG (fisheries local action group) and Menter Mon on a project to promote local seafood. As part of this we are holding a competition which will offer 20 lucky cooks the opportunity to win £100 to hold their own seafood themed ‘supper club’ (for friends, family or even total strangers if you wish!) plus the chance to attend a one day seafood master class with local seafood experts hosted at the Food Technology Centre, Coleg Menai

To qualify for this competition you must be a resident of Ynys Mon or Gwynedd, not be a professional chef working in the industry locally, be keen to use and learn more about local seafood, and enjoy cooking and entertaining…that’s it!

For further information and an application form where you can tell us why you would love to participate in this project, please email me at moelfabansuppers@gmail.com

Thanks and good luck!

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