Category Archives: reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sensory pleasure of Bristol

I visited Bristol once for an interview at the university. This was years ago when I was still an academic researcher, searching for a highly sought after PhD place just before I had kids. Despite seeing little of the city I liked the feel of the place; it had a nice vibe and the people were friendly.  I didn’t get the PhD place so never discovered more and was just left with that brief first impression.

Last year the teen started visiting Bristol. She too fell in love with its hippy vibe, its cool vintage shops, eclectic night life and variety of festival loving people. She fitted right in. I promised myself a return visit to see for myself exactly what it was she had fallen in love with, and as several of my ‘Green Man’ crew friends live there (one of whom just a couple of weeks away from having her first baby) I took the opportunity on a rare weekend off work.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love all over again. Precisely half an hour I’d say. As soon as I sat down in the sun outside The Bristolian with a late lunch I knew I didn’t want to go home. One of the friends with whom I stayed lives in Montpelier, arguably the most vibrant, up and coming part of the city where everyone is hip, cool and arty. Essential accessories include a guitar, a skateboard and a beard (although not if you are a woman of course…save that for Eurovision).

I felt at home among the vintage shops, graffiti adorned walls and independent cafes and shops. The share and recycle culture is clear. Just up the road from my friend’s house is the street where locals rioted in protest at a Tesco moving in. I’d probably have been one of them if I lived there. Sadly it didn’t stop the multinational opening shop, but they did make their point loud and clear.

Imagine the slightly stoned crowd of a festival, transplant it back in a city and there you have Bristol. Ok so I happened to visit on a particularly sun drenched weekend, this probably helped, and the Rave On Avon music festival (we went to see a band playing as part of the festival, the Bombs with their soulful, funky trip hop tinged with a bit of rock) was in full swing, but it seems to me that every weekend has a festival of some kind happening just down the road, plus there is street art everywhere, so many local food producers, purveyors and markets, cool community owned and run venues like The Canteen where we watched the Bombs and music hanging in the air. They even have their own currency!! Bristol is a city of sensory overload, but not in the 100-miles-an-hour London kind of way, of community, of recycling…..I could go on but I’ll tell you what, feast your eyes on the pictures instead…they will show you exactly why I love Bristol!

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Thali cafe at the Tobacco Factory Produce market

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Local produce and street art at the Tobacco Factory

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Eli enjoying a gigantic cheese straw

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More Love at the Old Police Station

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Aren’t we all 🙂

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Say No to Monsanto…mural at Stokes Croft

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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

Branding, Guardian review’s and new supper club dates

January is supposed to be a slow quiet month. It arrives with false promise, new years resolutions swiftly broken as the month creeps through endless dark nights, rain and gloom. Like many I often feel lethargic and slightly despondent, lacking in vitamin D gained from a bit of natural sunshine. This year its different. The new year arrived with more of an explosion than I expected. Instead of drooping about the house I felt renewed, invigorated and ready for action. New year, new me. I had a feeling life was going to be different from now on, and I soon discovered I wasn’t wrong.

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Bursting with excitement I launched my ‘new look’. A fresh logo, new pictures and design graced my blog and Facebook page and received an enthusiastic response from readers. I’d procrastinated over branding and identity for a long time. Being a picky perfectionist i’m hard to please but wonderful artist and designer Nina Farrell at &Agency (who was also Felicity Cloakes art director at Penguin books) took up the gauntlet. She did so admirably really capturing the essence of ME! She merged colours that reflected my Welsh rural life, images that showed my love of local produce and foraged food, with a thoroughly modern, yet also kind of vintage logo.

A warm feeling of contentment crept through me with wedding and private dinner bookings rolling in, interesting discussions and plans for future supper clubs and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better I received a text from my neighbour saying

“Den, CONGRATS on being in the Guardian mag under 5 of best supper clubs Xx”

I read the text wondering what the hell she was on about. I called her back. Are you serious? I asked. I searched on-line and there it was…how about that to start the year?!!!!

Guardian article on starting a supper club and top 5 supper clubs in the UK

Guardian article on starting a supper club and top 5 supper clubs in the UK

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As January rolled into February life increased its pace. As I mentioned January and February are traditionally lean months in the catering world, no festivals, no weddings and very few parties, but this article kickstarted something. I suddenly found myself inundated with bookings for supper clubs I didn’t yet know I was going to hold, people wishing to collaborate, offering venues and wanting to help. It was overwhelming. My landlord gave me permission to run little suppers in my new house.

The article was a metaphorical kick up the jacksy. I knew I wanted to work with more people, engage more with the local community, use more interesting spaces. Last year I wanted to branch out but plans had to be put on the back burner…now i’m off into the unknown…time to be brave!

And so to dates….there is plenty going on this year and on Friday the first of those events came to life.  A mini supper for six VERY different people in my new house.  I was nervous as hell. I felt like a new supper club host doing it all for the first time. All those old fears of will it work? Will people like my house, feel comfortable, get on with each other!

I don’t know why I worried so much, everyone got on well, conversation flowed as did the wine and cocktails. What better way to christen the new house and enjoy Valentines evening than to have four supper club regulars and two ‘virgins’ (one of whom I have known for over 20 years…ever since I made Wales my home).

The evening finished relatively early (about 10pm which is a first) as people went off to other events or battled their way home through the foul weather, but that didn’t matter…it was lovely. Rosanna had no idea where her boyfriend was taking her for Valentines night, she looked terrified when she arrived  (she’s quite a shy person)….I looked at her and said “he didn’t tell you did he?”

“No” she replied “and if it was anyone other than you i’d have run away”

At the end I suggested it was  a romantic thing to do to. She agreed claiming it was probably was the most romantic thing he had ever done! Aahhh, how sweet!…just because I have no romance in my life right now, doesn’t mean I can’t bring it to others 🙂

Supper club table all ready to go

Supper club table all ready to go…sorry about the poor quality, I only managed to get a few quick pics on my phone!

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The table decorated with rose petals, hearts and a menu with cupid wings

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White onion soup with cider and thyme, seared scallops and parsley-garlic puree

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A full table of happy guests

AND SO ON TO THE NEXT EVENTS:…

8TH MARCH……pop-up supper club at Cafe Seren, Bethesda. The aim is to use local spaces when they are generally not in use. Cafe Seren is open during the day and hopefully this will be the beginning of a regular collaboration.

The evening features live acoustic music from John Lawrence and Jaci Williams…check out John and Jaci’s collaborations here. The menu will have a wild woodland theme…I saw John and Jaci play recently and they were fantastic!! ..(limited spaces so get in quick!! We have room for 24 and we are HALF FULL ALREADY)

21ST MARCH……Equinox Bal and French Feast (pop-up cafe). Another live music and food event this time at Mynydd Llandegai Community Hall and with folk band Mouton  …this is a ticketed event and prices are £11 in advance with food (purchased from Wegottickets here) or £5 on the door without food.

Feast menu: Two courses to include either…

Boeuf bourguinon or beetroot bourguignon with roast new potatoes and a mixed leaf salad with roasted nuts and seeds (meat or vegetarian/vegan)

Traditional French crepes with orange and lemon syrup and cream

29TH MARCH…..Celebrate Earth Hour with a candlelit supper at Ty Bryn Adda; the old laundry and drying house on The Vaynol Estate, Bangor.  This is a collaboration with the owners Kim and Martin who run personal coaching workshops, but would like to see the space used for some different events. She is also a supper club fan!…. To get an idea of what the venue is like watch this video on Youtube or check out their website

This is a rare opportunity to spend time in a very unique space. There are also three rooms available in the house and bed and breakfast can be booked by those wishing to make a weekend of it (this can be discussed directly with Kim). More details regarding the menu will follow shortly.

5TH APRIL….pop-up event (details will be confirmed shortly)

26TH APRIL……mini supper club (spaces for 6 to 8 people)

18TH MAY…..mini Sunday lunch (spaces for 6 to 8 people)

To find out more about any of these events please email me on moelfabansuppers@gmail.com, send me a message on Facebook, Twitter or give me a call on 07775828769

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Filed under home cooking, in the press, North Wales restaurants, reviews, secret supper, underground restaurant, Welsh food

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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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

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 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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