Category Archives: photography

Abergavenny food festival (day one)

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As the summer wanes and the hectic music festival and wedding season draws to a close, Autumn arrives with a glint in its eye offering a whole new wave of food festivals to keep me busy.

First came the Menai Seafood Festival. As one of the organising committee this was a biggie for me. It was the first time I’d stage-managed a chef demo tent, booked chefs, set out the itinerary etc. I was kept busy, as you can imagine, ironing out problems, filling gaps and firefights when things didn’t go according to plan but it was a buzz watching all the chefs do fantastic demos and seeing the crowd have such a great time. The down side of working at events like this is that you get to see very little of the festival. I only managed the briefest of walks around the site and that was at the end of the day once all the stall holders had sold out!

Last weekend was different as I paid my first visit to Abergavenny Food Festival, this time as a visitor rather than as an organiser or presenter, so I was able to enjoy the full array of events, activities and food sampling on offer. In earlier years I looked on with envy as fellow bloggers and food producers wrote and Tweeted about the weekend but this year I got to do it! What an amazing weekend it was. I was bowled over by the scale of it all, the excitement, bustle and general feeling of good will around the town. In three words, I loved it!

Abergavenny Food Festival is so much bigger than other food events I’ve attended. With demonstrations, master classes, tutored tastings and inspiring talks spread across four different venues around the town, I found it hard to decide what I wanted to see and do. There was also a fifth demo kitchen featuring local and regional chefs (I didn’t manage to spend any time there at all), plus a series of walks and forays around the local area. There just weren’t enough hours in the day to take it all in.

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Unlike smaller festivals where most of the demos are free and open to all, the bigger events here (tutored tastings, masterclasses and talks) are ticketed and many had sold out on the day. As a guest I was lucky enough to attend any I wanted, but it was impossible to fit in more than three or four in a day. On day one I managed three, plus a food debate that went on until about 6.30 pm. I finally left for the refuge of my friend’s house in Crickhowell at 7.30, totally exhausted.

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The day’s highlight was Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food masterclass at The Priory Centre. I love the simplicity of his food. Proper British dishes cooked without fuss, focusing on great ingredients and clarity of taste. His masterclass was entertaining and inspirational and under it all he seems a genuinely lovely, down to earth bloke. I came away an even bigger fan and a bit star struck having had a brief conversation with him about his visit to North Wales. I wanted to talk more but felt like a stalker as he was ushered off to sign books.

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From here I took a walk over to The Angel Hotel Ballroom to join Martin Morales’ Ceviche tutored tasting session. I love South American food and especially enjoy making ceviche, so Martin’s Peruvian menus have always appealed (along with a good Pisco sour). Martin is an inspiration. Just at a time when he was a successful DJ and music producer he had a sudden urge to change career, a move driven by a passion for his native Peruvian food and the wish to share it with others.  His ethos is one of sharing (it’s no surprise he began his journey with supper clubs) and his aim is to leave a healthy legacy. This is clear in his commitment to and links with Amantani, a charity focused on helping the poorest children in Peru.

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He Tweeted me earlier this year to invite me along to his Cardiff pop-up and I was gutted I couldn’t attend (it was the same weekend as FBC13, the food bloggers conference in London) but his restaurant in Soho should be top of everyone’s list to visit. Again the event was in great demand. I sat on the press table at the back wedged between his wife and children, photographer and publisher. They were all lovely as we sat chatting food and kids over the delicious tasters; Cancha, Pisco sour, Don Ceviche (with sea bass) and it was great to finally meet Martin, who gave me such a warm heartfelt greeting that I was a little taken aback!

Next up was another tutored tasting, this time with master chocolatier Marc Demarquette. Apart from a love of chocolate I also wanted to see Jess from Halen Mon and Shop Cwtch who acted as his glamorous assistant for the demo. Her cheeks turned a little pink as she saw me taking photographs! Marc demonstrated how they make their 85% chocolate truffles (dark and rich and tasting as if laced with rum…although it isn’t. It’s a trick of the chocolate, something I’ve discovered when making my chocolate torte). Marc’s aim is to create chocolate with length and depth – a chocolate that’s smooth and rich but without the sugar hit and crash afterwards. A chocolate that stays with you. His velvety ganache (71%) was as it should be, silky smooth with a hint of orange (although again this may have been a trick of the chocolate) and the fresh strawberry caramel, my particular favourite, just dissolved on the tongue, flavour trickling down the throat, neither too sweet or too sharp, an almost erotic experience. I could have eaten a bucket full! To finish we drank hot chocolate made of full fat milk and pure chocolate. Heaven in a cup. The last sample was a Halen Mon salted caramel with a dollop of cream on top. The perfect finish to a truly heavenly tasting.

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By the time I wended my way back to the Market Hall for the Big Debate with food writer, presenter and bug eating fan  Stefan Gates Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation Steve Trent, biologist and farmer Jonathan Herrington and fruit farmer Anthony Snell, I was already shattered.  It was hard to concentrate as I was tired and to a certain extent I felt it was a missed opportunity; the conversation firmly focused on GM versus non GM and intensive farming and not the issue of food waste which I think is key when we talk about feeding future generations. With food poverty on the increase in the Western World, discussion of food grown for export or animal feed, rather than to feed the indigenous population and the reduction of animal farming needs to be to the fore. But then that is my favourite soap box rant!

…oh and the weirdest thing I put in my mouth over the weekend (courtesy of Stefan) ? Just so you know, they weren’t alive….they were crispy, salted and with a hint of smoked paprika.

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Filed under British food, festival food, Food festival, Food travel, photography

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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Filed under British food, eating out, Food festival, in the press, local produce, photography, seasonal food, secret supper, sustainable fish, underground restaurant, Welsh food

One day in Menai Bridge: The Seafood Festival in pictures

Today is the fourth anniversary of my blog. My very first post was a recipe for courgette chutney, (quite apt considering I currently have a glut in my fridge) but today I will mostly be writing about my amazing weekend.

What can I say? I keep finding myself smiling at random moments as I think back over Saturdays first ever Menai Seafood Festival. We thought people would come, we hoped it would be worth all the effort and hard work. We expected maybe three, four thousand but in the first hour we clocked 1,500 and stopped counting when numbers reached 8,500. We were gobsmacked (for want of a better phrase, but this perfectly describes our open-mouthed observations of the crowd that streamed into Menai Bridge). It didn’t just catch us, the organisers, off guard. Stall holders sold out in two hours, car parks overflowed and my demo tent had queues of people waiting to get in!

The total number of visitors was undoubtedly closer to 10,000. I’d call that a success, don’t know about you!

Sadly I didn’t get out to see much as I was so busy stage managing the demo tent, but here is small selection of the pictures I managed to snap on the day (between rounding up chefs, ingredients and getting the washing up done in-between demo’s)…I think the pictures speak volumes about how good our day was and how professional the event was.

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Demo tent at 10.30am packed already

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Rob Alexander from The Black Lion, cooking razor clams

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Aled Williams, Cennin….and his beautiful crab risotto served in a stunning Welsh slate bowl

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Neil Davies, Dylan’s Restaurant cooking clam chowder and drunken mussels

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The boatyard

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Rowan Clark, Coleg Menai tutor overseeing their demo

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Backstage discussions

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Young chefs Jake and Ioan do a double act as they cook up two mussel dishes….they had the audience in stitches. It was their first ever demo and they loved it (both are third year Coleg Menai students training as they work…one with the Bulkeley Hotel in Beaumaris and the other at the Hayloft Restaurant, Ye Olde Bulls Head in Beaumaris.

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Visitors enjoying the event

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The air sea rescue helicopter and boat do a quick fly past…

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Crowds in the boatyard give them a wave as they pass over head

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Bryan Webb from Tyddyn Llan, made four stunning dishes in just three-quarters of an hour!!

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Our wonderful compere Elliw Williams from ATOM PR…dropped in it by me, she did a truly wonderful job especially as it was her first time compering

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Matt White and I also did a double act…Matt is one of very few local fishmongers (he runs MJWhite Fishmongers) . He demonstrated how to fillet seabass and turbot

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…while I demonstrated how to hot smoke at home, then pan fry turbot and make a simple white wine and cream sauce to go with it. 

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mum watches on enthralled

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smoked seabass with beetroot slaw and a lime and ginger cream…the healthy option!

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….while Elliw enjoys the turbot dish

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Filed under British food, festival food, Food activities for kids, Food festival, Food travel, in the press, local produce, photography, Seafood recipes, sustainable fish, Welsh produce

Black pudding regrets and other Green Man food stories…

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Early morning haze over Glanusk

Every August I disappear into the hills of Brecon to cook for the crew and production of the Green Man Festival. It’s a fantastic, frantic, hard-working month filled with highs and lows, time spent catching up with friends and making new ones, parties, hangovers, sleepless nights, topped finally by one big festival in the middle. Every year I intend to catch up with writing over the few days I have a break, but always I fail. Tiredness catches up and my brain just can’t compute.

This was my third consecutive year so I’ve pretty much cracked the routine bit and so with Lizzie my assistant from last year we ran like a well oiled machine! We even had an extra pair of hands to help with washing up! This gave me more time to think about being creative with the cooking. Even though we work to a budget I still like to experiment and try new dishes. Old favourites, big one pot meals and hearty pies make up the staple diet but it doesn’t take much to create well-flavoured, tasty grub and as ever our efforts are greatly appreciated. In fact even as we sat down to dinner at The Bear (our traditional first night on site evening out) talk turned to what was on the menu for my first week of cooking and everyone has their special request….fish pie, cottage pie and a good curry, which along with the Welsh cheese board, honey baked gammon and vast array of cakes, have become standard Green Man fare. I try to vary the menu to keep things fresh. This year I cooked my first crew roast dinner, finally getting over my fear of screwing up the timings for so many people so I braved it.

Spiced pulled pork with crispy crackling followed by warm chocolate torte with ganache was the triumph of the week…and the dinner that saw me peak too soon! The torte, as expected, was so good it broke a few grown men. Ben arrived in the morning claiming he would not be eating cakes and puddings this year..before devouring two lots of chocolate torte the same evening. Another was overheard declaring “holy shit!!” as he took a mouthful….I took that as a compliment).

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Spiced roast pork

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The cake that broke a thousand men…warm chocolate torte with ganache and strawberries

By Monday the numbers had increased and I never quite reached the heady heights of that dinner again.  Embarking on a lemon meringue pie for fifty with home-made pastry, nearly gave me a nervous breakdown as I struggled to get it ready on time and my battles with a temperamental Aga raged over the week…its constant use meant it cooled down rapidly refusing to cook the food. Fair enough if you have all the time in the world, not so good if you have half an hour until dinner and the carrots still haven’t come to the boil. We peered despondently into the pot willing them to be ready in time….they weren’t, and dinner was half an hour late.

Still, we hit a few high’s; poached pears with rum and cinnamon caused our dairy free crew member to come over all unnecessary, potato pancakes at breakfast got everyone a bit excited and of course cake formed the basis of everything…even a bit of sculpting to mark out the stage set-up

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Hi-tec design: main stage and speaker lay out in cake

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“How will I live without potato pancakes” (Tash)

and lots of black and white pudding was consumed…over heard from the kitchen…

“I’m having black pudding regrets”

“From eating it?”

No, from not eating it”

Being part of the Green Man experience is unique. It’s hard to explain to others the family feeling this festival evokes. As a group we spend time with people we might only see once a year, live closely together and share the excitement, the highs and the lows of building a festival. We see the love, care and attention that goes in to every bit of the build and the dramas that go with it. We gear ourselves up for the party, almost to the point of elation and then its over in a flash and we find ourselves on the other side tired, broken and bereft as the family goes its separate ways. Its hard and emotional but worth every second.

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The Green Man team (for the build): Claire, me and Lizzie

And as the tiredness creeps in, it gets harder to stay creative and on the ball. One kitchen, an Aga blasting out its heat twenty-four hours a day as the sun beats down outside, it’s easy to end up a bit hot and bothered, distracted and lacking focus…although to be fair on this occasion I can’t just blame that on the heat in the kitchen ….but that’s another story altogether.

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Filed under cakes & Baking, event catering, festival catering, festival food, photography

Food Bloggers Connect…a weekend to talk, listen, meet and eat

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Ren Behan’s pop-up Polish

I don’t often get the opportunity to meet fellow food bloggers. They are something of a rare breed here in North Wales so I was very excited about my trip to London for the Food Bloggers Connect conference.

I do little networking with food bloggers outside of Wales so it was this, and the invite to speak, that were my main motivations for attending. Usually I am the first to introduce myself, strike up conversations and generally get chatting but I felt strangely shy. It didn’t help that I’d been suffering from a stomach bug earlier in the week and hadn’t totally recovered, that humidity levels were through the roof, the heat was almost unbearable and my hay fever terrible. I felt lethargic, out of breath and generally out of sorts. Consequently I was extremely lazy with my photography, I ran out of business cards on the first day and it was all I could do to hold a conversation.

A missed opportunity? Definitely not. I made the very most of what was an enjoyable and valuable weekend. I strongly believe that every experience in life is a chance to learn and grow, and I listened to some wonderful speakers who inspired me. I picked up tips, met some fantastic people and if I had been in the mood for eating would have stuffed myself silly. I gave it a good go anyway.

It was great listening to David Lebovitz talk about how he started his blog back in the 90’s. He made his name with his genuine, warts and all approach. He focuses on his successes and failures in equal measure, keeps it real, personal and writes from the heart; something that I empathise with. I tried to have a chat with him after the session but ended up feeling like an irritating groupie among all the others wanting to talk to him, so gave up and let the man move on.

It was also great finally getting to meet Niamh Shields. Her blog has long been an inspiration to me. Like David she keeps it real. Her Eat Like A Girl blog is down to earth and funny, and so is she in the flesh. With her southern Irish accent and dry sharp wit it was like being among my family down in Cork, I felt at home with her. Sadly, I only got a brief opportunity to talk to her; mostly about Cork, random tweets and a love for Canada. She wooed me with the divine maple syrup brought back from her travels, then nearly killed me with a shot of pear au de vie. Her talk about travelling Canada was frank and funny, with lovely images to match. It  made me want to go back and see more.

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Niamh with her lethal pear au de vie

I listened avidly to the Food Cycle talk from Kelvin Cheung and Aine Morris from the Sustainable Food Trust. Later speaking to both about my attempts to cook and live in a sustainable way, and my own adventures in ‘Freeganism’. Further conversations with other bloggers led to an interesting meeting of minds; talk of local produce, growing our own and hatred of supermarkets plus a nice glass of cold Prosecco perked me up at the end of a long hot day.

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Kelvin Cheung talking food poverty

Saturday morning started with a talk by Penny De Los Santos. Penny is one of the most inspiring food photographers I have ever seen. Her pictures are expressive, vibrant stories of food, culture and for me verge on being works of art with their vivid colours, honesty and ability to make me salivate just by looking at them.  Her pictures are most often seen in The National Geographic and Saveur magazine and she has won many awards. It’s easy to see why. These are pictures I would love to take. Again I tried to strike up a conversation but felt like a blustering groupie so left it at a compliment at how much I love her photography.

Next up was MsMarmiteLover (Kerstin Rogers) who’d been booked to talk about monetisation and launching a food career. I guess it was inevitable she would include running a supper club, although she almost sailed through much of my talk. Kerstin gave me advice when I set up my supper club back in 2009 and I have remained in contact with her since, working with her on Global Feast event in London last year. She is funny, outrageous, enthusiastic and her frank, ‘don’t give a toss’ attitude has won friends, enemies and admirers (probably in equal numbers). Whatever you think of her she is a great raconteur and good to listen to.

By the time I stood up to do my talk I was feeling pretty exhausted. It was almost quarter to six, I had stomach ache and although the heat had started to subside I felt quite drained. Then the computer network started playing up making my presentation unplayable. I began to think it would all be a disaster. Then somehow it all came together; the adrenalin of talking to a group of people kicked in and suddenly I was up there telling my story. I can’t remember much of what I said, but it all went well in the end.

There were other presentations that I liked too. Aoife Cox of The Daily Spud, Ren Behan and Emily Jonzen with her shocking stories of food styling (I will never look at a roast turkey on a TV advert in the same way again….that’s all I’m saying, but you other bloggers that listened to her talk will know what I mean).

By Sunday I was done in. Plus my prodigal teen called with tales of woe and stolen purses from Glastonbury (where she’d been working) and needed rescuing from Paddington station on Sunday morning so I missed Regula Ysewijn from Miss Foodwise (who I really wanted to listen to).

I also met some wonderful people with whom I had some great conversations. Karen Burns-Booth from Lavender and Lovage , Jane Sarchet from The Hedge Combers and Louisa Foti from Chez Foti were among that first ‘meeting of minds’ group that chatted after the Food Cycle and Sustainable Food Trust talks, Regula with whom I talked British food history (anyone remember Gypsy tart?) and Rachel Brady from Well Worn whisk who became my partner in crime on day two…sneaking off like two naughty school girls for a fag behind the bike sheds and talking about how hard it is to juggle kids, family and food blogging. We definitely clicked and it will be nice to meet up again on her turf or mine.

As for the food…my highlights were Bethany Kehdy’s table of Persian, Moroccan and Middle Eastern delights. ‘Please come and join me for my book launch after this…I’ve been cooking for it for two weeks!’ she implored us. How could I resist when I adore middle eastern food.  Bethany is the author of Dirty Kitchen Secrets and her first book The Jewelled Kitchen is out. I will have to get a copy, which I should have done on Saturday evening, but what with one thing and another I just wanted to collapse in a heap. I did try the food and I only wish I could have eaten more. I loved the tiny pastries, but anything else was beyond my stomach at that point. It was so bad I couldn’t even manage a glass of wine!

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Delicious food from The Jewelled Kitchen

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More delights from The Jewelled Kitchen…beautiful, light nests…I didn’t manage to try one so can’t remember what they were topped with

On Friday Ren Behan’s Polish pop-up had me drooling over beautiful light plum-cake and traditional polish stews and canapes, while in-between we snacked on Pig a Chic skewers, Chobani yogurt and fruit, Luchito with cheese, salami and crackers. I took home some of their wonderful chilli paste.

On the last day I took home a goodie bag so heavily laden I could barely lift it. Predictably the beer, chocolate and drinks disappeared quickly. Dove chocolate was a hit with the teen and the amiano choco Bella fair trade chocolate spread has been well used; I particularly liked the sundried tomato puree from the Olive Branch Greek Mezze range which has been liberally added to all kinds of dishes.

I leave you with a few pictures….not as good as I would have liked due to my tardiness on both days, but a small taster of a great weekend.

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Ren Behan again…with delicious plum cake

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Pig a Chic working hard to feed everyone

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delicious cheese from La Fromagerie….I love that shop!

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Giant cookies

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Luchito stall with lots of toppings and wonderful chilli paste…their chilli honey was delicious

 

 

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Filed under Food festival, in the press, middle eastern food, photography, Pop-up cafe, reviews, street food

Authentic Italian lasagne; a simple family favourite

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I remember the days when my mother cooked us ‘exotic’ dinners. It was the 1970’s and early 80’s and she was experimental for the time. She didn’t entirely leave behind the post-war and rationing traditions of her parents generation; everything laced with a generous amount of butter, cheese and cream, but because she’d travelled widely and liked to cook she took inspiration from the food encountered on her trips around Europe. Later, when she married my step-father more cross cultural traditions entered the house. He grew up in Trinidad to a white family who held on to their British heritage, although he much preferred Caribbean food and company. Rum punch entered our lives, as did cauliflower ‘Roman’.

We lived on the local council estate where our decidedly ‘middle class’ diet and eccentric ways were something of a novelty in the street. From the books that lined our walls to the high brow discussions that took place over the dinner table our upbringing was not financially rich, but was eclectic and intellectual often leaving friends somewhat bemused when they came to visit.

One of my favourite dinners was a simple plate of home-made beef lasagne. This dish, along with moussaka, crepes stuffed with mediterranean vegetables and parmesan, and her famous ‘Saturday chicken’  are meals inextricably linked to my teenage years. They remind me of a time of food discovery, experimentation and a bustling house.

Mum’s lasagne would have given any Italian cook a run for their money. It consisted of dryish layers of deliciously thick and tomatoey bolognaise sauce, alternated with layers of bechamel, dried pasta blanched in  plenty of hot water and finished with plenty of parmesan cheese. Mum’s was not the lasagne of the traditional British cook or supermarket. It wasn’t falling apart and the sauce didn’t run off the plate (although as a teenager I rather liked it like this, not caring a jot for authenticity and happily mopping up sauce with crisp lettuce and cucumber slices). Mum made a good lasagne which improved after it had stood a while, or the next day.

Much to the horror of my waistline my love for rich, sauce laden dinners has stayed with me (although these days I try not to cook them so much as I’m less able to burn off the pounds in the way I did as a teen). The simple lasagne however holds special memories of those loud communal dinners, evoking warm, safe feelings that only comfort food from childhood can. Its one of those dishes I crave when I need a carb hit, or if I’m a bit under the weather.

Over the years I have made different versions of lasagne. In my vegetarian days I regularly made vegetable lasagne with eggplant, courgette, peppers and tomatoes or even a mushroom, tomato and ricotta concoction. My favourite layered spinach with tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. I didn’t mind the these variations and much prefered them to the version my daughter got me to make with chicken or turkey mince (for the teen who won’t eat beef). In he end though there is always a bit missing from the jigsaw. The pieces just don’t fit together in the way a simple, traditional beef bolognaise and bechamel do.

Here is my tried and tested version.

Serves 4 to 6

Two tablespoons of olive or rapeseed oil

1 large onion finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and grated

1 stick of celery finely chopped

1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped

750g good quality beef mince

100ml of red or white wine (red gives a richer, deeper flavour)

1 tin of chopped tomatoes or the same amount of passata

100ml good beef stock

1 teaspoon or dessertspoonful tomato puree (optional, but it produces an even more intensely rich tomato sauce)

salt and pepper

50g butter

50g plain flour

1 pint (500ml) milk

enough pasta to make 3 layers. I used bigger sheets of fresh pasta which needed no pre-cooking so it only took 5 sheets

about 100g parmesan cheese to finish the dish

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6, 200 degrees C

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Gently fry the onion until almost soft hen add the carrot and cook for another 5 minutes. Add celery and garlic and continue to cook. Add the mince and turn the heat up a bit to brown it (5 to 10 mins). Add the wine and allow to bubble until it reduces a bit then add the tomatoes and stock. Season with salt, pepper and simmer gently for about an hour. It should be almost dry by the time it’s cooked.

To make the bechamel sauce melt the butter in a medium pan, then stir in the flour cooking for a minute or two. Remove from the heat and gradually add the milk stirring into the butter/flour paste well. When it’s all mixed return the pan to the heat and cook gently until it comes to the boil and begins to thicken. Stir continually so it doesn’t turn lumpy. Season well with salt and pepper.

To assemble the lasagne, take a deep, wide dish and coat the bottom with about a third of the meat sauce. Add a layer of pasta then a layer of bechamel, then another layer of sauce, pasta, bechamel and finish with a layer of pasta. Pour over the rest of the bechamel and sprinkle over the cheese. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling.

If you have time leave the lasagne to rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

NB. If you but dried lasagne that needs precooking, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add a couple of drops of olive oil. Add a few sheets of pasta at a time blanching for one minute or so. Remove with tongs and leave to dry on a tea towel or plate before using in your dish.

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I didn’t wait to let my lasagne rest. I was too hungry. But it holds together even better if you are patient.

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Perl Las, flame roasted peppers with charred little gem (an Ethicurian delight)

Ok this is my very last post about The Ethicurean cookbook.

My mother informed me that my last post was rather harsh….I didn’t mean it like that. I was simply being my usual brutally honest self, saying out loud the things that popped into my head while I was reading the book. I have probably managed to alienate them with my comments forever, but I still like the book, want to visit the restaurant and have already latched on to recipes that are fast becoming favourites.

I’ve found that it’s the simpler ones that make the best everyday suppers. They take little time to rustle up after a busy day at work and make the perfect summer dish. What I crave is something light on a hot summers evening and we’ve had enough warm sunny weather to justify my pushing the light summery suppers!

This salad is perfect paired with a glass of cold crisp Pinot Grigio or Prosecco and is also elegant enough for a dinner party / supper club starter (I’ve made it several times I like it so much).

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To serve four people as a main, or 6 to 8 as a starter:

2 romero peppers

250g new potatoes

6 to 8 little gem lettuces (one or two per person, cut in half lengthways)

Rapeseed oil (I just invested in some Cotswold Gold, which is just the best)

Salad dressing:

100g rapeseed oil

60g cider vinegar

8g dijon mustard

Coriander flower heads (I used boarge and chive flowers to decorate as coriander flowers were not available)

crushed coriander seeds (1 teaspoon) plus a little ground coriander

Perl Las sauce:

100g Perl Las

50g Creme fraiche

sea salt and pepper

To flame grill the peppers: either cook on a barbecue, under a hot grill, or directly over the flame of a gas cooker using a pair of tongs to turn, until the skin is blackened all over. Place peppers in a sealed plastic bag for about 10 minutes. This helps the skin come away from the flesh.

When cool rub the skin from the peppers removing all the black bits, cut in half and scoop out all the seeds then either tear the peppers into pieces or chop roughly.

Cook the new potatoes in their skin in a pan of salted water. They should be just tender and offer a bit of resistance when pierced with a knife. Very fresh potatoes will cook quicker (10 minutes or so) than ones that have been in the supermarket a while (15 minutes).

Make the blue cheese dressing by putting the chopped cheese, creme fraiche and seasoning into a blender and whizzing up (or mix together in a bowl with a fork).

Heat a griddle pan over a high heat. Brush the little gems with some rapeseed oil and place in the griddle pan. Leave until some chargrill lines form and then turn. Make sure you don’t over cook them. I sprinkled some salt and pepper, crushed coriander seed and ground coriander over the little gems at this point.

Put some mixed leaf salad on to each plate with the charred little gem, scatter with potatoes and dress with the salad dressing. Add some of the flame roasted peppers and dot with the blue cheese dressing. Finish with a scatter of edible flowers and enjoy!

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The Ethicurean cookbook…review and dinner

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I don’t usually base a whole supper club menu on a recipe book however this dinner was an exception. Back in May I wrote a recipe review for the Food Travel Website. It came from The Ethicurean Cookbook but as it was  a blind tasting I didn’t know that when I cooked it. I wasn’t that impressed with my particular recipe, although in its defense I struggled to find some of the listed ingredients and components of the dish were in different sections of the book (bits I didn’t have). After the reviews were published a copy of the book came winging its way over to me.

Now that I have had time to read through the book and get a feel for it I understand better the ethos, ingredients and techniques used by the team at The Epicurean. I like their approach and their commitment to traditional British production methods, artisan ingredients and seasonal produce. As a book for an experimental, confident cook or chef its great but it’s not for the faint hearted. There are some things I don’t like about the book (which I will return to later) but I really wanted to try out a few of the other recipes and wanted to know what other people thought of them.

I chose dishes that really caught my eye. Negroni cocktails made with gin, vermouth (my vermouth is not yet ready, but I’m going to give it a go soon. The process is a complicated one and takes time) and Campari bitters nearly blew my head off

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Next came a choice of salad…either fresh crab, new potato and paprika mayonnaise salad, or for those not eating seafood, chargrilled little gem lettuce, blue cheese, roasted peppers and edible flowers. I’d already made the latter for a previous dinner so knew it worked well. Both tasted delicious. Added edible herb flowers were visually very attractive and eye-catching, and except for a little more cider vinegar in the home-made smoked paprika mayonnaise and the use of Perl Las instead of Blue Vinney in the salad we stuck faithfully to the recipe and the flavours were spot on. Our favourite bits were the pickled carrots (in the crab salad) and the Perl Las dressing.

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Edible flowers and bronze fennel from the garden

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Perl Las and flame roasted peppers with charred little gem (page 178)

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Crab salad with New Potatoes, pickled carrots and smoked paprika mayonnaise (p.96)

…our least favourite bits were picking over the crabs which is laborious job and a painful one, it left my hands covered in tiny little nicks and scratches (and I didn’t even do most of the work; Mark my new assistant chef did it!).

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removing crab meat from the shells…a slow, laborious process

For the main course I chose a slow cooked spring lamb. The recipe in the book called for ‘salt-marsh lamb’ which was hard to find here in Wales (there are salt marshes where sheep graze so that is something I can look in to later) so I settled on shoulders of spring Welsh lamb served with simple sides of buttery new potatoes, new season carrots, foraged marsh samphire, new season broad beans and wilted chard and kale. The skin of the lamb was pierced with a sharp knife and anchovies inserted into the slits producing a salty (but not at all fishy) flavour. The book told me that it would give the lamb an ‘umami’ flavour and it wasn’t wrong! The lamb was then browned in a pan, placed on a bed of vegetables and laced with plenty of Vermouth before being slow roasted in the oven for five hours.

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Early morning, low tide, off for a spot of foraging

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Tiny fronds of marsh samphire

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Tender, buttery soft shoulder of Welsh lamb with wilted chard and kale, marsh samphire and baby broad beans

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family served main course

The samphire, lightly pan-fried with baby broad beans, was our highlight…along with the lamb that simply fell apart and melted in the mouth. We hardly changed the recipe; just opting for kale and chard rather than the ‘Tidal Greens’ mentioned in the recipe and it all worked so well together.

A friend offered me a glut of rhubarb earlier this week. Never one to turn down free produce I rushed over to collect, visit, drink tea, play with her new baby and then head off with a boot full of swag. This collection helped with my decision-making on what to make for dessert. The book offers an ‘alternative’ version of rhubarb and custard; a cross between a jelly and a terrine and the most time-consuming of all the dishes on the menu. It involved steaming rhubarb for an hour, straining juice, making custard, adding lots of gelatine, layering and refrigerating for hours in between layers. The recipe irritated both Mark and I with over complex directions but in the end we were very pleased with the results (as were our supper club guests). The only thing we tinkered with was the compote; it was very tart so we added a little more sugar, but not too much as the terrine was very sweet and the sharpness counteracted this beautifully.

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rhubarb and custard (p. 124) a pleasingly striking result

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served with a sharp and tangy rhubarb compote.

As a final treat I made the chocolate and salt caramel brownie recipe again, this time cut into bite size pieces to go with tea and coffee at the end of the meal. I didn’t follow their method in the book as I have my own tried and tested way of making brownies, but the recipe was the same. I actually find these get better the day after making them (and for the next two or three subsequent days after) becoming denser and squidgier as they are left.

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Chocolate and salt caramel brownies (p. 127)

As a parting shot these were a winner.

So, back to the book. All the recipes were well received by our table full of supper club guests, but we did need to tinker with a couple until they tasted as we wanted. The success of the dinner has geared me up to try more from the book as initially I was rather put off by the sometimes overcomplicated instructions.

Let me leave you with a few thoughts (positive and negative) of my own…

  • I like the Ethicurean ethos; they clearly care a great deal about what they are doing but at times it verges on pretentious. I like an understated, down to earth approach and unfortunately they do at times come across as posh, well-healed, over zealous, well-meaning hippies.
  • The book is not for the novice cook, or someone looking for a quick recipe. The unnecessarily complex instructions do at times make things seem much harder to do than they actually are! Both Mark and I who are chefs struggled to make head or tail of some of their instructions, often simplifying things between us.
  • Having said this I also love the way they explain and use old, underused techniques (like clamping) and discuss traditions (wassailing) and the histories of some of the produce they use (look out for little snippets at the bottom of the page).
  • Although I whole-heartedly support and love their focus on seasonal, local produce (I’m well-known for banging on endlessly about Welsh produce), the recipes are very county-specific…i.e. based around the Bristol area and they don’t always offer advice on what the best alternative ingredients are should their suggestions not be available.
  • I see the book as more of a show case for the restaurant, and while there is nothing wrong with that (I’d really like to visit) it may mean the book sadly has a somewhat limited audience.

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The wonderful world of wedding catering…behind the scenes at our latest gig

If you’d said to me when I started running my little supper club back in 2009 that in three years time I would be catering for two hundred people at a wedding I’d have laughed. Now, as the weddings get bigger, more intricate, stylish, particular in their tastes, its hard to see life without such full on, demanding and monumentally satisfying jobs. These days cooking for twelve at supper club is like making an intimate family evening meal, all be it an experimental and slightly exotic one.

The one down side of it is that it takes up so much of my head space; planning, prepping and cooking become my life while writing and everything else gets pushed to one side. I’m only so good at multi-tasking and I get to the point where even family shopping is beyond me. The kids rifle through the ‘home’ fridge asking if there is anything to eat while the ‘work’ fridge overflows with cheese, salmon and pate and stacks of cakes line the counter of my prep room.

This weekends wedding was the biggest i’ve ever catered for. A sit down meal for two hundred. Starters served family style, hot buffet and plate served desserts. Rules learned from earlier jobs helped make it work….

1. Employ a good team that you trust

2. Over estimate the food and not under as big eaters will always want a bit of everything

3. Big flavours always hit the spot

…But there are always lessons learned from every job.

Considering the numbers the kitchen ran pretty smoothly. No real stress and only when the salads started to run short ( a surprise as there was a lot of salad!) did we feel rather pressured.

Offering a choice of desserts proved our downfall making service slow and I guess that is the main lesson for next time….don’t offer a choice of desserts (or at least get people to choose in advance if you do)…All in all the best reference of the day was this email received from the mother of the bride..

What can l say! You did great and given the numbers involved that was a pretty big great! Thank you so much. The food was lovely and it all passed beautifully despite the fact that it must have been an enormous piece of work for you to organise and complete on.

 Thank you Denise and team for helping to give Nonn and Chris and all their family and friends a day to remember with so much pleasure for years to come.

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View from the venue

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Working the young chefs hard….while my second chef drinks coffee!!

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staff dinner break

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Boxes of chocolate torte…we made fifteen in total

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always bad when the waiters and waitresses get hold of the camera….

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…don’t ya just love them 🙂

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the bride’s mum just heading off for the service

and last but not least…..the beautiful bride Nonn…before the ceremony

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….and later during the evening with Chris

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The Oyster Catcher restaurant and the Timpsons connection

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Last week I attended the graduation evening for the trainee chefs completing their training at The Oyster Catcher restaurant in Rhosneigr (Anglesey). It was an honour to be there because this was no ordinary graduation. For the nine young chefs it marked an enormous transition and a huge achievement. For these lads, who could have ended up stuck in North Wales with few opportunities for training or employment, it was a real celebration of what a young person can do with the right guidance, motivation and support. To see the pride on the faces of their families and friends almost brought me to tears (I am a bit emotional at times). It was a very special night.

Most of you will have heard of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen, well, The Oyster Catcher runs along the same lines taking on disadvantaged young people and providing them with the training and life skills necessary to help them find a rewarding career in the food industry.  Established by The Timpson Foundation, which has a long history of philanthropic work, it is still in its infancy but it has already set two lots of graduates on the path to a successful career.

A bit of history about the Timpsons then; they are a family firm established in 1865 by 16-year-old William Timpson. William’s first shoe shop opened in Manchester and from there the organisation grew, adapted and diversified. They opened more shoe shops and then heel bars. Business continued to grow, then waned as modern cheaper shoe manufacturers entered the market. Some areas of the business were more successful and although John Timpson (the great-grandson of William) who heads the organisation today, finally sold off the shoe shop part of the business in 1987, the shoe repair business remains hugely successful. They carry a  reputation for being caring and easy-going employers and an organisation that puts high value on a good quality service and customer care. They offer their staff lots of perks, even free holiday accommodation in one of the homes they own across the North West and Wales.

As a Cheshire family they have a history of holidaying in North Wales. John and his wife Alex have owned a holiday cottage close to Rhoscolyn for years. Their first food related business buy in the area was The White Eagle when it closed down in 2004/2005.  A love of good food and sadness at not finding anywhere decent to eat locally fuelled their purchase and later refurbishment, making The White Eagle a place of good repute in the area.

The Timpsons initially bought the old Maelog Lake Hotel in 2009 with plans to create more holiday accommodation for their staff, but around the same time James Timpson (chief executive and John’s son) visited Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen. He began to think about doing something similar and slowly those plans for the Maelog changed. James decided the site was the perfect place for a North Wales chef’s academy and so The Maelog Project and The Oyster Catcher were born.

The Timpsons demolished the original building which was looking rather sad and dated and employed Huf Haus, a German company, to build a modern, airy glass fronted, environmentally friendly building that allows diners to view the stunning scenery through the huge windows, while introducing energy-efficient features such as bore holes with a ground source pump to provide hot water and heating, and clever computers that keep energy use to a minimum.

Although I have been aware of The Maelog Project and The Oyster Catcher since the projects start this was my first visit. My personal background in psychology, youth work, counselling and prison research. plus my voluntary directorship of another local Social Enterprise project make the Oyster Catchers Ethos one that’s close to my heart and whose progress I have followed closely and with great interest (despite always being too busy to eat out!)

The building has undergone some refurbishment since it opened. Since this was the first commercial Huf Haus the builders were entering unknown territory. They weren’t entirely sure how it would all work and so, after living with it for a while, a few issues came to light. Noise levels were high due to the open plan nature of the building and some people were not so enamoured by the decor and design. They took measures to introduce sound proofing, laid carpet and carried out a refit. Now the decor and layout is smart and trendy, with elements that fit well with the beach side location. I particularly like the little beach huts on the balcony and the new seating alcoves within the restaurant. I know once they also displayed art work from The Koestler Trust (another organisation I follow closely as my sister, artist, photographer and art blogger is a strong supporter of their work) but I admit I was so busy talking and taking photographs that I forgot to have a look!

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In 2011 the first wave of sixteen cadets began their training, spending their first year in the local catering college (Coleg Menai) gaining basic skills, then moving into the restaurant to work with The Oyster Catcher chefs (notably head chef Roger Gorman from The White Eagle and motivational chef Eamon Fullalove, previously head chef at Fifteen) gaining practical skills and experience. With mentoring and further support provided by The Timpson Foundation. Nine of those chefs completed the course and started work full-time at the Oyster Catcher. Since then a second wave of cadets has started. I had the pleasure of working with one of this years graduates (Matt) and one of the new intake (Elfed) on a recent job; both worked their arses off!…Festival catering is hard going, but a great opportunity for a young chef looking for new experiences. This time it was a pleasure to see them on home turf; one where I didn’t look as if I’d crawled from a hedge in chef’s whites, having slept for less than six hours over 3 days. Elfed almost didn’t recognise the nicely scrubbed up version of me.

As I hadn’t visited the Oyster Catcher I wasn’t sure what to expect food wise. I’ve heard mixed reviews from friends, mostly related to expensive food and small portion sizes. This is a bug-bear of mine, but my visit was quite the opposite. There was so much food we were bursting at the seams! As the waitresses wandered round asking “would you like another mini-burger? Or maybe some more chips? we wondered if we would be able to manage pudding. By the time it arrived I think the guests on most tables had eaten one too many mini burgers leaving many bowls barely touched. We had no trouble on our table. Hearty appetites all round!

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The meal was cooked by the latest intake of chefs and this was probably reflected in the menu. Dishes were simple, well cooked and beautifully presented. Choosing to serve family style made the meal a much more interactive and communal experience, which I liked.

All in all my experience of The Oyster Catcher was a good one. I strongly support the project and will hopefully return to eat again soon. I also hope it grows and gains support in the way Fifteen has. It’s so much more than just a gimmick (which is what I thought Jamie Oliver’s place was when I first heard about it) and it really does offer young people like Matt (who has now been employed full-time at The Oyster Catcher), Kyle (who is off to do a stint at The Fat Duck) and the rest of the graduates a fighting chance. And really, hats off to the Timpsons for giving them that.

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