Monthly Archives: October 2017

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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