Category Archives: local produce

French onion soup with a bit of oomph!

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Yes I know, I slightly burnt my toast…but it didn’t matter with all that Gruyere and once it has soaked into the soup…anyway they were my last slices of bread!

I’m fast becoming the queen of soup! What with running pop-up soup kitchens at festivals and events, making soup for lunches (The Green Man crew love their lunch time soup) and quite a lot of soup recipes under my belt, I guess I have to admit, I really like soup. And so do the kids which is an important factor in the equation. If the kids will eat it, its quick, nutritious and tasty it’s on my menu list.

French onion soup is an absolute favourite but for the past few years I’ve avoided making it. This is of course because the kids won’t eat it, but now things are changing. The teen has discovered she likes onions and the boy will eat almost anything these days so I’ve joyfully rediscovered this glorious decadent,  peasant dish.

I’m not sure  ‘glorious’  ‘decadent’ and ‘peasant’ should go together in the same sentence. For all the fancy ingredients and recipes out there its the old ones, the ones made by the poorest, with the fewest ingredients that satisfy the most. The basis of this soup is just onion and stock, but I’ve chucked in a bit of butter, vermouth and some Gruyère which but takes this recipe from its firmly peasant origins to something quite luxurious.

Recipes for French onion soup vary from cook to cook but at its base is a simple formula; slowly cooked and lightly caramelised onions, good quality beef stock, wine and finished with a cheesy topped crouton. Inevitably chefs add their own touch, Felicity Cloake follows Anthony Bourdains lead adding balsamic vinegar plus a splash of brandy, the latter I approve of strongly (I usually add a dash of cognac to mine) but as the soup already has a sweetly savoury flavour, the vinegar adds little in my opinion. Delia Smith adds sugar to her French onion to help the onions caramelise. She recommends cooking in a very hot casserole, stirring until the edges turn dark, which should take all of 6 minutes! The cooking time is a huge underestimation, while sugar is wholly unneccessary because the onions are sweet enough to caramlise. As to the high heat, well slow is best, probably around 30 minutes slowly.

Another pet hate is adding flour to soup which both Nigel Slater and Raymond Blanc do. Having often made soup for friends with a range of allergies and dietary issues, I like to keep mine gluten-free and I don’t feel it lacks depth for doing so.

Like Delia I like to add a bit of garlic and as Felicity does, a bit of thyme. I would guess that these are fairly authentic additions so I don’t feel like I’m straying too far from the peasant origins.

The choice of stock is a hard one if you are vegetarian. Most of the recipes I’ve come across favour beef stock for its richness, although there are those that use chicken stock. The most important thing is that its good stock. Even if you choose to use a vegetable stock use one of those stock pots and not powdered varieties, they are a cut above and used by chefs, so that has to say something.  I wouldn’t recommend the Raymond Blanc approach to just use water. Having given it a go once I can vouch that it produces a fairly insipid soup and I prefer something with big banging flavours. The beef stock certainly gives it that.

Alcohol is crucial. Most chefs stick to dry white wine although Felicity uses cider, which is an option. I would go with the wine option, although once when I had no wine and couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop I tried it out with dry vermouth (my usual addition to any risotto) which is after all begins life as wine and to my relief it worked well, adding a somewhat deeper, heavier flavour. I balanced it by using slightly less than recipes using wine ask for, but it was a perfectly adequate substitution working along with so many other intense flavours. I rather liked it.

The other essential to component to a French onion soup is the cheese topped crouton. I wouldn’t argue with any recipe that calls for toasted baton, rubbed with a clove of garlic and topped with Gruyère. No substitutions will suffice, although the night I made my soup I was using house leftovers (as usual) and only had a crusty loaf from which I cut thick slices toasted them and cut them in half.

Of course as I already mentioned I also favour the addition of Cognac at the end, as does Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson in The Prawn Cocktail Years. It adds that last bit of oomph that the original peasant version may well have lacked.

French onion soup recipe: Serves four.

800g white onions

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

250ml vermouth (or 300ml white wine)

700ml beef stock

salt and pepper to taste

A glug of cognac

8 slices from a baguette

a clove of garlic

about 100g Gruyère, grated.

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Add the butter and olive oil to a large saucepan and when melted and just beginning to bubble add the onions. Allow to cook gently (for about 30 minutes) until very soft. Add the garlic and thyme and keep cooking, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. Cook until a nice golden caramel colour. They will begin to stick to the bottom a bit at this point but keep stirring until they turn a nice golden brown.

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Add the vermouth and stir scraping any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan then add the stock. Allow to cook on a low heat for about 50 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, toast the baguette on both sides then rub with the garlic clove. Grate the cheese.

When cooked add the glug of cognac and taste for seasoning. Ladle into warm heatproof bowls, top with the croutons and sprinkle over the cheese. Place under the grill until the cheese begins to melt then serve.

 

 

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Filed under family budget cooking, French food, home cooking, local produce, recipe books, Recipes, reviews, Welsh produce

MSN food: twice in one month!

I’m really not very good at taking compliments. I have this irritating tendency to get flustered when people greet me with praise. I look for the nearest thing to hide behind, embarrassed, not quite knowing what to do with myself and turning a lovely shade of scarlet (not the most becoming colour). Despite this I am unbelievably proud of my supper club and how well its done. Despite my squirming-at-praise tendencies, like most people I like being recognised for my hard work and achievements (as long as its not too public!!). This is probably why I prefer being safely hidden behind the camera and not standing in front of it. It’s a case of thank you for recognising my work and talents, but please don’t make a big deal of it (as well as being horribly unphotogenic and terribly vain!)

I’m quite at home with my strange, psychological insecurities (in which I’m sure I’m not alone). I always doubt myself, find fault, waiting to fuck up. My second chef Mark summed it up when he announced to his students (that I was mentoring and giving a talk to) that I was a highly strung perfectionist. I wasn’t sure whether to take issue with the highly strung bit, but I guess he is correct in some ways, but then aren’t all chefs?

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This month I have received not one, but two nice little accolades from MSN. The first  was a MSN food review of Britain’s Best Home pop-ups.  I am now not only listed among the pioneers of the supper club scene (I started in 2009) but one of the stalwarts since I’m one of few that are still running since the early days. My formula has changed little; I have a laid back and intimate style with sometimes quite simple grub, while at other times it can be wildly experimental. With the former style in mind, it was with pleasure that I contributed to MSN again, this time as an ‘expert’ in my new role as a freelance tutor at Bodnant Cookery School. Contributing simple ideas for cooking, guidance on what to choose and recipes for Welsh lamb. Check out the article here.

Roast lamb (© Sainsbury's)

Image from Sainsbury’s courtesy of MSN

And now i’m off to cook for tonight’s Earth Hour Supper Club…see you on the other side!

 

 

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Filed under British food, in the press, living room restaurant, local produce, Organic meat, Recipes, reviews, secret supper, Sources and suppliers, Welsh food, Welsh produce

Leek and wild mushroom risotto…a quick midweek, singleton’s supper

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There are definitely some positives to being single and one of them is being able to cook exactly what I want when the kids are with their Dad. Mushrooms were always a no-no in our house, especially anything that resembled a wild mushroom, so I sadly forsook my beloved fungi to cook family friendly dinners.

One of my favourite dishes is mushroom risotto ( well, I love all risotto really…its one of my top ten comfort foods). Imagine, lovely oozy, buttery rice with the deep earthiness of wild mushrooms. I also love leeks, another pet hate of the children, especially the teen..although the littler kid will tolerate them blitzed to a pulp in soup, if he has to.

So now when I’m on my own I revel in the opportunity to savour my new favourite mid-week supper which combines leek, thyme and mushroom (dried wild and organic chestnut).

A lot of people seem afraid of making risotto. Its one of those dishes, like panacotta or meringue, that seem far more complicated than they actually are. It only requires one pot (so minimal washing up) and if you stick a couple of simple principles you can’t go far wrong.

1/ Don’t over cook the rice (it should be al dente)

2/ Let it rest for 5 minutes before you serve it. The residual heat of the pan will keep the rice cooking, so even if you think the rice is a little underdone, it will be utter perfection by the time you serve it.

3/ A good risotto is nice and wet. Theres nothing worse than hard, dry rice or rice that isn’t thickly coated in a rich, buttery, deeply savoury sauce. Having said this you don’t want it to resemble rice pudding. The trick is to keep adding hot stock, stirring almost continually until its absorbed by the rice, then add a little bit more. I find that recipes are often wrong and inevitably you need more than stated.  Even if you think you’ve added too much it will mostly absorb as you leave it to rest.

Another trick with this risotto, and any dish that includes mushrooms, is to slice and dry fry them before adding. I learnt this recently from friend, colleague and former Jamie Oliver Fifteen cadet, Tom. He cooked me an amazing risotto explaining that dry frying the mushrooms helps seal in the flavour, and by only adding them to the risotto when cooked it also prevents them turning mushy and formless. He’s right of course, he knows his stuff and this is a tip I have followed ever since.

Leek and wild mushroom risotto: recipe to feed one person

A small knob of butter (plus another 25g)

a dessertspoonful of olive oil

One small leek finely chopped

a sprig of thyme, leaves removed from the stem

half a dozen wild mushrooms, fresh or dried. I used dried shiitake, rehydrated for 20 mins in hot water them roughly chopped. If you are using fresh mushrooms slice and cook them in the same way as the chestnut mushrooms below.

100 g or so of chestnut mushrooms, wiped and sliced

2 – 3 handfuls of arborio rice (I used around 75 g because I have little hands)

a good glug of vermouth

500 ml vegetable stock

salt and pepper

parmesan to serve (if required)

a handful of wild rocket

Method:

Heat the knob of butter and olive oil in a saucepan. Add leek and cook gently until it begins to soften but not brown. Add the fresh thyme and rice and stir for a couple of minutes until the rice begins to turn translucent (i.e. it no longer looks so chalky white). Turn the heat up a fraction and add a glug of vermouth. Within a minute it the rice will absorb it and there will be little alcohol left. Begin to add the hot stock stirring frequently until the rice has absorbed most of it, then add more. Keep doing this until the rice has absorbed most of the stock (you may not need it all, or you may need a little more depending on how much rice you have used) and has reached the desired al dente point.

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While the rice is cooking heat a non-stick frying pan and when hot add the sliced mushrooms in one layer. Cook until beginning to brown then flip over. Remove from the heat and keep to one side.

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To serve:

Once the rice has reached the al dente point add the dried and rehydrated wild mushrooms, the remaining 25 g butter, the mushrooms and check seasoning adding plenty of black pepper. Remove from the heat and allow to rest. If you wish to top with a few slivers of parmesan that’s ok, but it doesn’t need it. Finish with a handful of fresh peppery rocket; it will help make you feel virtuous that you are at least attempting some greenery with your bowl of rich buttery comfort food.

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Conwy Rural Producers dinner at Coleg Llandrillo

Back in October last year, before life became a tad fraught, I attended the Conwy Rural producers dinner, a showcase for some of the best produce in the area. Hosted by the catering department at Coleg Llandrillo in Colwyn Bay in their training restaurant The Orme View, the evening brought together selected producers, local businesses, restauranteurs and chefs to try out a variety of dishes made from wonderful local produce and it gave Llandrillo catering students the opportunity to show off their talents. Supervised by the wonderful team of Mark, Glenn and Mike (they pay me to say that you know!) they put together a creative and interesting menu.

I spend most of my time too-ing and fro-ing around Anglesey and Gwynedd so it made a change to head off down the coast in the other direction.  Even though it’s just 20 mins drive away I rarely get up to places like the Bodnant Welsh Food Centre or get the opportunity to meet up with other Conwy Food producers and businesses, so it was a pleasure to venture out of my usual domain.

I’m also lucky that I know the college lecturers well. I’ve worked closely with a couple (Mark being one who regularly joins me on jobs and keeps me in order) and that gave me access to the frantically busy kitchen. I enjoy taking pictures of people when they are busy. The rest of the evening was hilariously surreal. In between speaking to producers and annoying the chef’s and waitresses with my camera, I sat chatting to the other occupants of my table. These included the quiet but friendly owners of a local farm, the pretty blond owner of a local B&B who it transpired was vegetarian so couldn’t eat most of the food, myself, the host of the event John Rooney from Conwy council, and the manager and chef from a local restaurant. The latter of the last two proceeded to order copious amounts of wine, which he tried to ply both myself and the blond woman with. We were both driving so not drinking. We then spent the rest of the evening watching him get drunker and more outrageous. As we got ready to leave he asked me if I was sure he couldn’t give me a lift somewhere….I declined, stating that I was driving. He turned to the blond and asked her the same thing…she too declined. A jokey comment about ‘independent women’ floated around the table, and his passing remark, before his colleague ushered him from restaurant towards the waiting cab...’yes, you independent women…I bet you’ve got toys as well’.…an awkward silence descended over the table, broken only by me dissolving into peels of laughter. Chefs, I know them well. Crude to the last!

The menu

**Pant Ysgawen goats cheese in a ginger crumb with beetroot cake and chutney (produce supplied by Tan Lan Bakery, Cae Melwr Farm and Cegin Croesonen

**Courgette veloute with brioche flavoured with truffle oil (Produce supplied by Cae Melwr Farm)

**Welsh black beef steak tartar (Produce from AL & RO Jones)

**Elderflower sorbet

**Seared loin of pork with slow cooked belly served with braised potato, squash and apples (Produce supplied by Pigging good Pork, Cae Melwr Farm and Bryn Cocyn Farm)

**Carrots cooked in duck fat (Produce from Belmont Farm)

**Lamb Scottadito (Produce from O E Metcalfe)

**Ice cream served with soft fruits (Produce supplied by Bodnant Welsh Food Centre and Bryn Dowsi Farm)

**A selection of Bodnant cheese

**Coffee (supplied by Chris Martindale at Caffi Cristobal/Cilydd)

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The Orme View Restaurant is open to the public. Attending a training restaurant is a great way to try out new food, prepared by the trainess, at a fraction of the price of a restaurant. You never know you might be tasting the early creations of the next Bryn Williams, Angela Hartnett, Jamie Oliver or Tom Kerridge. Opening times and contact details are below.

Lunch: Tuesday – Friday 12:00 for 12:15
Dinner: Wednesday Evening 19:00 for 19:30
Contact: Joan Hammond 01492 542 341

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Filed under British food, local produce, North Wales restaurants, photography, pork, reviews, Sources and suppliers, Welsh food, Welsh produce

Adore Naturals Christmas ebook and other stories

Hello hello!! Yes I’m still here despite going AWOL for a while. Looking at the blog the other day I realised I hadn’t written or posted for a whole month! That’s a long time without writing for me.

There are significant reasons for my sluggishness. Writers block is not something to be forced away, or overcome easily especially when life is already full to the point of bursting.  I guess that’s the point; life has been at the point of bursting and so many other things have taken precedence over the writing (which I love, but it doesn’t pay the bills!!).

So, its cooking, eating, attending food events and training that have kept me busy, while the stormy seas of life raged around me. I know I don’t do things by halves, but this month I’ve experienced more than my fair share of major life changing events. These are the things that have taken over my thoughts and time. Separation from my partner after twenty years has been a traumatic wrench along with, a house move and a new chapter in my life as a chef.

Although for now supper club is on hold, I’ve suddenly found myself back in a restaurant after more than twenty years this time as pastry chef at The Oyster Catcher training academy, a role that also involves cooking for the restaurant,  training and mentoring the cadets.  I’ve also been all over the place with cookery demo’s…Conwy, Portmeirion, Abergavenny which also meant little time spent in my new house.

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One piece of writing I did manage to concentrate on was a commission by Adore Naturals. Their festive guide to a natural, stress free Christmas includes ideas for making home-made gifts, family craft projects, health tips, perfect presents and my vegetarian Christmas dinner menu. The book went ‘live’ a while ago and you can access it here if you are looking for last minute inspiration

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The dessert recipe was recently trialled on the specials menu at The Oyster Catcher and was a bit of a hit!

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Beetroot tatin with goats cheese and balsamic glaze from the Adore Christmas ebook and it can be found here

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A rather melted mincemeat and marzipan parfait…studio lights and all that with orange and cinnamon syrup

For now I’m sad to say that supper club is having a break, although I am still cooking private dinners at different locations and am available for private bookings. Don’t worry though, it’s not a permanent break…just to give me enough time to take a breather while I regroup, review where I’m going with business and work out our next move for 2014. Exciting ideas are flying about…collaborations, new venues and opportunities….all I can say is have a great Christmas and watch this space closely!

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Filed under British food, Christmas, Christmas menu's, Food festival, home cooking, in the press, local produce, recipe books, Recipes

Burmese spiced fish, Conwy Feast and writers block

Writers block is a terrible thing. I want to write. I have lots to say and many stories to write-up of events I’ve attended and people I’ve spoken to in recent weeks. But as soon as it comes to sitting down and transferring my thoughts to paper its like the shutters come down in my head and the words wont flow. This is the reason for my recent silence. Writing, even food writing, needs a bit of mental space and freedom so my thoughts can roam and explore ideas. If I feel stressed, upset, preoccupied with problems or constrained my thoughts are otherwise engaged….no mental space, no writing. Its frustrating. So rather than spend weeks on a full essay, here are some pictures from my Conwy Feast demo and the recipe for the Burmese inspired spiced fish I cooked at the Feast.

Bear with me…I will be back with a vengeance soon….once some of the chaos going on in my life has subsided.

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Burmese spiced fish with coconut milk (to serve 2 people): Takes 20 mins to cook

The prominent flavours that you find in Burmese dishes are heavily influenced by the countries that border it. With Thailand on one side and Bangladesh on the other, both Asian and Indian flavours fuse to create a distinctive and colourful cuisine. This is a favourite dish that I’ve cooked for years and although of course I’ve added to or tinkered with the original ingredients it remains true to the original recipe I found in an old cookbook. These days I often use Thai / sweet basil to enhance the Asian flavours, while of course the vivid yellow colouring created by the turmeric is specifically Indian in origin.

2 thick white fish fillets (monkfish, cod or haddock)

Sunflower oil

1 small onion

1 clove of garlic

Half a thumb sized piece of ginger

Teaspoon turmeric

A small red chilli (home-grown)

Salt to taste

Half a can coconut milk

A small handful of Thai sweet basil (home-grown)

1 juicy lime

Finely chop the onion. Mince garlic, ginger and chilli (seeds removed).

Heat 2 tablespoons sunflower oil in a pan until hot. Add onions and fry quickly over the heat moving continuously for about 5 to 10 minutes, it doesn’t matter if they brown a little. Add garlic, ginger, chilli and turmeric and stir for one minute. Move the onion and garlic mixture to the side of the pan and add the fish fillets skin side down. Fry for 5 minutes or so until the skin starts to turn a golden crispy brown. While its cooking coat the top of the fish with the onion and garlic mixture.  Turn the fish briefly and add the coconut milk and salt to taste. Allow to bubble for about 10 to 15 minutes without covering. Check seasoning and then finish with the juice of a lime and a sprinkling of Thai basi. Serve with plain white rice and perhaps a minty cucumber and tomato salad.

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This fragrant plateful was divided up and between all the avid tasters at the demo!

Photographs courtesy of Kate Withstandley …photographer and art blogger at Exploring Art in the City

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Filed under Asian cookery, Food festival, home cooking, in the press, Indian cooking, local produce, Recipes, Seafood recipes, sustainable fish

Post festival recovery risotto with Trealy farm chorizo and artichokes

Travelling here, there and everywhere is unsettling at times. It always takes me a while to  get acclimatised once back at home and despite finding cooking remarkably relaxing and therapeutic, I often struggle to get back in to the familiar groove of  daily routine, family meals and planning shopping. Instead I crave quick, easy suppers with limited washing up and preparation time, often using whatever I have in the store cupboard and not go charging about to the supermarket.

Add to my current state of de-stabilisation a large dose of stress, a sudden influx of work and if I’m  honest I just want to hide away. I am juggling the desire to eat well with a severe lack of creative energy. I want to be cooked for, or at least if I have to cook I want to be able to rustle up something that’s quick but also delicious, comforting and soothing. A recovery dish.

If I’m looking for comfort food then risotto is one of my favourites. Deep, intense, savoury flavours, but also rich and satiating. Laden with cheese and butter, with a hint of wine or vermouth. I love all risotto, whether it be full of parmesan, seafood, a gorgeous mushroom one cooked for me by a lovely friend, or a kid friendly one that my daughter loves with chicken, fresh herbs and a dollop of mascarpone.

Once, when I was still working as a researcher I stayed in Oxford for a week. Life can get lonely when you go away to work, so my trick was always to find a good restaurant and a friendly bar. The restaurant I found in Oxford was Branca, a popular Italian on the edge of the trendy Jericho district. With welcoming staff and no urge to usher me out the door I often lingered over my evening meals, plus it was the place where I ate the best risotto I have ever had. I can’t to this day work out what made it so good….I know it had masala in it and finished with perfectly cooked scallops. It was so good I ordered it three nights in a row. I haven’t been to Oxford since so have no idea if they still make it, but the memory stayed with me.

My festival recovery risotto was less glamorous, but no less tasty. Chorizo is another favourite and armed with my stash from Trealy Farm a tin of artichokes I found in the cupboard, and some left over parmesan I set to cooking.

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Chorizo and artichoke risotto (serves up to 4 people)

2 small onions, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic (or I used a quarter of a bulb of elephant garlic) finely chopped

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

350g arborio rice

1 stick of Trealy farm sweet chorizo diced

100ml vermouth

750ml hot vegetable (or chicken) stock

6 artichokes, quartered taken from a tin

50g parmesan cheese (with a bit extra to grate on top)

Melt the butter and oil in a large pan and add onion. Sweat without browning for about 5 to 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic and rice and stir well to coat. Cook until the rice begins to turn slightly translucent (about 5 minutes) then turn the heat up a little and add the vermouth. Allow to bubble until the vermouth has almost been absorbed into the rice then begin to add the stock a ladle full at a time, waiting until it’s totally absorbed before adding the next.  It’s not necessary to stir continuously, but it is important to stir or shake the pan frequently to make sure the rice doesn’t stick and the starch in the rice has broken down. You may well run out of stock; if you do just add a little boiling water, but don’t over do it. You are looking for the rice to be ‘al dente’, soft, but with a bit of bite which should take about 15-20 minutes. If you want it softer just cook for another 5 minutes, but don’t overdo it.

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In a separate pan heat a little oil and when hot chuck in your chorizo. Fry briskly until just beginning to crisp then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the risotto.

Turn off the heat and add another knob of butter, the grated parmesan and the artichokes. Check seasoning then put a lid on the pan and allow to rest for a couple of minutes.

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Abergavenny Food Festival day two (From Indiana Jones to James Bond)

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Abandoned 18th Century Ironworks at Clydach Gorge, the site of our forage eexpedition

Day two of the Abergavenny Food Festival dawned and I decided to escape the bustle of town for a while. The weather was beautiful and the lure of a forage tour entitled Forgotten Landscapes drew me in. Much as I love town/city life I guess I’m a country girl at heart and I keenly grasped the opportunity to explore around Abergavenny, something I’ve not had the opportunity to do, despite working at the Green Man Festival for the last three years.

The tour was led by hedgerow guru Adele Nozedar, author of The Hedgerow Handbook and enthusiastic exponent of getting outside to collect wild food!  It turned out to be the perfect start to the day, a hill walk to get the circulation going, with stunning views to waken and  enthuse the senses, combined with words of plant wisdom from Adele.

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Adele telling us all about Ash keys

I think of myself as a pretty avid forager. I pick a variety of seasonal fruit from the hedgerows; sloes, blackberries, elder flowers and berries, rosehips, ramsons and sorrel. Occasionally I manage to grab crab apples when they have a good season. Adele on the other hand knows the secrets of more than just the most popular plants. As we ambled up hill she regularly cried “STOP!” and drew our attention to plants like coltsfoot, plantain, horsetail, ground elder, and hedge woundwort. Who knew that woundwort stems the flow of blood so efficiently? A few leaves applied to a cut and hey presto! bleeding stops. She is a goldmine of useful information on plant history and folk tales and has an extensive knowledge of medicinal as well as culinary herbs. Inspired, I picked up her book, which I know will prove a very valuable addition to this forager’s library. It’s easy to get stuck in a groove cooking the same foods and making the same things so I’m looking forward to trying out some of the recipes in the book.

Watching Adele in action reminded me of a friend of mine, Jules Cooper from the Incredible Edible Hedgerow project who has the same enthused approach to explaining nature and loves sharing her knowledge. I secretly wondered what it would be like to throw the pair of them together, and then sit back and listen to the conversation.

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The view from the top (above) and pointing out ancient trees (below)

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We had such a lovely day we ran over time, so it was a brisk walk downhill to our coach with just enough time for a bit of tasting. Adele gave everyone two sweets, having us guess what ingredients she’d used. The flavours of the first were an easy guess for me – jellies made from a distinctive mix of elderberry syrup and elderflower syrup. She’d already given the game away as earlier she told me she’d get me liking elderberry (which I find quite harsh normally). The second was a creamy centred chocolate. Adele informed me no one had ever guessed the secret ingredient. The centre had a caramel taste, but not sweet and sugary. She gave me a clue that it was a common plant found in the garden. I had a feeling I knew what it was. Is it a weed? Has it got a yellow flower? Is it Dandelion? It was, but not the flower. I was very pleased with myself for getting it right. Something in the back of my mind reminded me that dandelion root is often used in coffee substitutes, as it has a caramel taste when roasted.

Back in Abergavenny time was short. I missed lunch, did a quick bit of shopping for gifts to take home and headed off to The Borough Theatre for a talk/tasting with Xanthe Clay and William Chase (the man behind Chase Vodka and Tyrells crisps), entitled The Spirit of Enterprise. I love to listen to stories of succesful entrepreneurship. Triumph over adversity where you start with nothing but an idea, and then building, creating, facing defeat, riding the hard times and finally making something work. They are the stories that drive us new entrepreneurs with small or growing businesses. They inspire and motivate and tell us that nothing is impossible with a bit of hard work and commitment.

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Will Chase farmed potatoes for years. He didn’t shy away from talking about bankruptcy and starting over. His father made him buy the farm, no inheritance for Will, and I guess that taught him that nothing comes for free. He sold potatoes as a commodity but it didn’t work out and didn’t inspire him. Then came what he calls his “eureka” moment. He saw the potential for his potatoes not as a commodity but what they could become. This was the moment he came up with the idea to turn them into crisps and in 2002 he formed Tyrrells.

With Tyrrells growing fast Will went looking at other avenues. In 2004 while travelling the States he stumbled across a small distillery that made potato vodka. A seed was planted. Will returned home, had a think and the idea matured and grew until he decided that vodka making would be a lot more fun! Production started and it soon transpired that you actually need a lot of crop to produce a small amount of vodka  (16 tonnes of potatoes made only 1000 litres of alcohol!). Disheartened initially, he soon realised that this produced a higher quality product than the other mass-produced vodka on the market.This heralded the birth of Chase Vodka

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While we listened to Xanthe and Will we were treated to arse-kicking cocktail tasters mixed by bar manager Dominic Jacobs and served by the exceptionally glamorous mixettes, dressed head to toe in beautiful vintage outfits provided by a local shop. For a few minutes I sat musing over the contrasting experiences of the day, like stepping from an Indiana Jones movie set to full on James Bond. As I sipped dry Martini and rhubarb and ginger gin I rued the decision to skip lunch, the slightly glazed expression I wore as I left the theatre testament to an empty stomach.

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An end of summer Salad Niçoise…put some sun back in your lunch

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Salad Niçoise evokes visions of lazy lunches in France, holidays, sunshine, the beach……please excuse me while I drift into hazy memories of camping in the Vendee with my kids….my first visit was with Rosie (the teen) when she was 11 months old. We camped next to the beach, bought fresh bread from the boulangerie, shopped in the Super U (French supermarket chain) and the market in Ile de Noirmoutier. Even in the supermarket the produce was fresh, local and a reflection of the warm, sunny climate. I returned again when my youngest kid was exactly the same age as Rosie had been on the first trip. This time we camped in an area of woods and forest, the smell of pine and sea air heightened our appetites and although at that point money was tight (eating out every night was beyond us), we filled our baskets once again with all the amazing produce grown in the area.  I vividly remember that the campsite take-away sold home-made boeuf bourguignon, not any old take away this! The beef melted in the mouth, the sauce thick, rich and supremely tasty with all the lingering flavourings from the wine in which the beef had been marinated.

Memories aside, I don’t think I ever actually ate a Salad Niçoise while in France. Soft boiled eggs are generally not my thing (I have a strange aversion to runny egg yolks, the only thing I physically cannot eat) and I know the kids would never have chosen a dish with anchovies or olives. These days that has changed (except for the anchovy bit) and the kids will eat it and I make nicoise a fair bit for parties and buffets. With the eye-catching colour contrast of the scarlet tomatoes, green lettuce and bright yellow eggs it really stands out.

With so much fresh local produce in my veg box, a glut of cute pink bantam eggs and a craving for a pretty salad to make me think summer will never end I set about making this slightly cheaty Salad Niçoise. I used runner beans (of which there is an unending supply at the moment) and not green beans, crisp lettuce hearts, beautiful and sweet deep red tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic and lots of (hard) boiled eggs. sorry, I know they should really be soft, but as I said I have this aversion. The missing ingredients were olives (which some people include, while others don’t) and anchovies, but I improvised with a can of green olives (stuffed with anchovies) found on the shelf of my local shop. This is not the perfect choice at all; they should really be the beautiful purpley French olives, or nice juicy fat black ones but in the absence of these (you can’t have Niçoise without olives) it worked all the same.

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Locally grown lettuce, tomatoes, basil and pretty pink bantam eggs from my hens

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add olives, anchovies, blanched runner beans and a basil garlic dressing made with flaked (Halen Mon) seasalt

Recipe: Salad Niçoise (to serve 4 as a main or up to 6 as an accompanying dish)

1 or 2 heads of crisp cos or little gem lettuce

5 ripe tomatoes quartered

5 eggs boiled (to your preference, mine were hard-boiled)

250g green beans or runner beans

6-8 nice fat anchovies (preferably from a fishmonger in a pack or tin packed in salt and washed before use). Jarred anchovies in oil should be washed before adding, and are not as tasty as the former.

100g purple or black olives

Dressing:

2 good tablespoons of red wine vinegar

100ml olive oil

1 fat clove of garlic chopped finely

a small handful of fresh basil leaves finely chopped

half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard

a good pinch of Halen Mon sea salt and ground black pepper

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From the Sea: a salty seafood pop-up

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To close the inaugural Menai Seafood Festival a very special pop-up charity supper took place. Inevitably salt and sea were its principal themes; the salt provided by Halen Mon (Welsh sea salt specialists) and every course focusing on a different type of seafood, provided by local fish monger Matt White and with local farmed sea bass from Anglesey Aquaculture.

Now I get little opportunity to attend supper club’s or pop-ups as generally there are none locally, and my forays out of Wales don’t always coincide with supper club dates or events elsewhere. This, as you can imagine was a massive treat for me! I also took my mum along to say thank you for looking after the kids over the holidays and I think she was just about as excited as I was. She’d seen the menu online thinking how delicious it looked before I told her I’d booked for us both. It wasn’t a  cheap night, but as it transpired it was the perfect, decadent end to a busy day.

Jess Leah-Wilson, glamorous owner of Shop Cwtch hosted the event. Her shop, transformed into a stylish intimate dining room for the evening, has a lovely vibe by day, and is the sort of place where you just want to buy everything (during the festival I think my Mum did!). She has great taste, an eye for detail and scatters the shop with so many beautiful things that it was destined to make the perfect backdrop for this dinner. The food, a seven course tasting menu with paired wine, cocktails and Prosecco was designed and cooked by Eamon Fullalove (yep, that IS his real name) with the help of three young aspiring chefs; my assistant chef Mark Burns helped out along with Elfed Roberts and Dion Hughes from The Oyster Catcher Restaurant, where Eamon is the motivational chef and a tutor. Waitressing and helping introduce the food and wine was Nia Williams, also from The Oyster Catcher. All proceeds from the event were donated to Hope House children’s hospices who give specialist nursing care and support to life-limited children, young people and young adults from Shropshire, Cheshire, North and Mid Wales.

Eamon’s background is impressive. Former head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, he has years of high-end restaurant experience and this supper was the perfect platform for his skills. It offered the young chefs an opportunity to experience food preparation in a very different environment (i.e. in an open air kitchen outside the shop in Menai Bridge). They survived the onslaught of questions from relentlessly curious passers-by and later drunken hangers-on slumped over the kitchen wanting to taste the food!

I cannot make a single gripe about the evening, friendly, informal, great conversation, stunning food. At the beginning of each course Eamon introduced the dish and the matched wine. By the end of the meal we’d tasted many incarnations of Halen Mon salt…from  smoked water used to cook the puy lentils, spiced salt in the bisque,  plain sea salt to cure the salmon and vanilla salt to crust the glasses for the watermelon margarita….as Eamon introduced dessert he simply said “there’s no need to gild a lily” before bringing in warm chocolate brownie’s, vanilla ice cream with salted caramel sauce. He was right, it needed nothing more. Simple pleasures.

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mackerel cured with salted limes, pomegranate and cress

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Perfect scallops, puy lentils cooked with smoked water and unsmoked bacon to top…”Chefs hate unsmoked bacon, but here the smoke is in the lentils”….one of my favourite dishes of the night

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Happy guests

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four different salts…spiced, vanilla, plain and smoked. We were invited to use them to season our own seabass…which had not been seasoned at all. In fact I didn’t need anything extra, the samphire brought enough saltiness to the dish along with the olive tapenade. The fennel, cooked until it broke down, is referred to as Trufillo (to be like truffle) in Italy. There is no alternative translation in English so Eamon told us…its just fennel mush….apart from dessert this was my other favourite dish of the evening

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“no need to gild a lily”

We finally staggered off home at almost midnight….with a glass of wine matched to every course, a couple of Margareta’s and two glasses of Prosecco I almost carried my mother home. I smiled to myself as I escorted her to bed with a glass of water that this was a great night and one to remember.

Matched wines were sourced from Llyn Wines and were as follows:

  • Di Maria Prosecco
  • McPherson Verdelho
  • Yalumba dry white
  • Cher et Tendre Vouvray sec
  • Torre de Menagem Vinho Verde
  • Gavi La Battistina
  • Bacalhoa Moscatel de Setubal

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