Category Archives: Welsh food

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

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.

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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

Glamorgan sausages, a Welsh vegetarian favourite

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January and February are traditionally lean months so I often avoid (or at least restrict) the amount of meat I eat. Stuffed from Christmas and recovering from financial overindulgence its nice to pare things down a bit and appease the vegetarian in me.

As a teenager and into my early twenties I was vegetarian. No fish and no meat. In fact I even made a foray into vegan living, but as a fussy teenager with a mother who had no idea what to feed a girl of such persuasion, it meant eating very little. Not a healthy option for an adolescent girl and after a six months I saw sense and returned to a less restrictive veggie diet.

My mother gave vegetarian cooking a good go. Being quite creative in those days and an avid collector of Sainsbury’s recipe cards (circa 1980 something) she tried out all kinds of strange and wonderful recipes on us kids.  One of her favourite and regular creations was something called “Glamorgan supper”  a breadcrumb, cheese, egg and spring onion mixture, rolled into balls and fried. We couldn’t get enough of them back then, but it was only as I got older I discovered they were in fact a variation on the Welsh classic, Glamorgan sausages.

Now I have my own kids, one of whom is an avid meat hater, Glamorgan sausages have once again become the perfect lunch or supper dish of the day, avidly devoured with a rich home-made tomato sauce..or indeed good old ‘sos coch’ (which translated is red sauce. In other words plain old tomato ketchup). I prefer mine with a nice tomato chutney, or even red onion marmalade and a lightly dressed salad.

Glamorgan sausages: recipe makes approx 8

175g breadcrumbs

110g Gorwydd Caerphilly

1 small leek finely chopped and cooked gently in butter until soft but not browned (or a bunch of spring onions if you prefer)

1 teaspoon of Welsh honey grain mustard

1 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped

a small handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley

2 large eggs beaten

a drop of milk (if needed)

Halen Mon sea salt

black pepper

To coat:

1 egg beaten

panko crumbs

3 to 4 tablespoons of sunflower oil

To serve:

A lightly dressed salad, some nice tomato relish (or sos coch…tomato sauce…as the kids prefer)

Mix the breadcrumbs, herbs, spring onions (or cooked leek) and grated cheese in a large bowl. Add the beaten eggs and mustard, with a little salt and pepper, to the bowl and mix until you have a stiff doughy mixture.

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Mix breadcrumbs, thyme, parsley and a lovely chunk of Gorwydd Caerphilly in a large bowl

Divide into eight sausage shapes.

Beat the remaining egg in a shallow dish and spread the panko crumbs on a plate. Dip each sausage in the egg, then roll in the crumbs. Heat sunflower oil in a shallow frying pan until quite hot and just sizzling but not smoking, then lay the sausages in the pan in a single layer and cook until nicely browned on all sides.

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nine fat sausages sizzling in the pan…turning a lovely golden brown

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Filed under British food, family budget cooking, home cooking, photography, Recipes, vegetarian dishes, welsh cheese, 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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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

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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Filed under British food, event catering, photography, private catering, Wedding catering, Welsh food

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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At sea with the mussel men

Its 9am and I’m standing on the deck of the Mare Gratia thanking the heavens that it’s a calm still day. The Menai Straits are like a looking-glass reflecting the mountains as the sun slowly creeps up behind them. It’s the proverbial mill-pond and I’m looking forward to a morning’s mussel collecting with mussel farmer James Wilson and his crew.

It was one of those fluke meetings that led to this trip. A train journey to London and a conversation about occupations introduced food blogger and writer (me) to Menai mussel fisherman (James). I happened to mention that I loved mussels and was keen to go on a boat trip out and so he invited me. A month later here I was, boarding a boat bound for the Straits.

The mussel boat usually sails three times a week during mussel season (October to march) but I chose to join them on the day with the most humane leaving time (9am). Our mission: to collect 20 tons of mussels.

Mussel collecting in the Menai Straits is as old as the hills,  but the modern industry has been going for about 50 years. These days it’s a cross between farming and fishing; the seed (or juvenile mussels) are collected from further afield and returned to the local beds where they grow and mature naturally, not on ropes or chains, but on the bed of the straits itself. This process apparently produces a better flavoured mussel and who am I to argue, I love our local mussels!

Three main companies work the Menai Straits collecting mussels on beds that stretch between Caernarfon and Beaumaris. James’s company works primarily at the Beaumaris end of the Straights.

I’d read that Menai mussels make up around fifty percent of the UK mussel market, but James pointed out that this is dependent on how much is produced elsewhere. Northern Ireland and Scotland make up the rest of the market and in a normal year James reckoned that Menai mussels probably make up about thirty percent of the UK market. What really surprised me though is just how small the UK mussel market actually is! Most of those we set out to collect that morning were bound for Holland!

I am a person that tries her best to cut food miles so you can imagine my outrage when I discovered that our Welsh mussels were mostly destined for Europe, however James reassured me that mussels sort of redress the balance by being good at recycling carbon emissions. Carbon is a constituent ingredient of shell, in fact around 40 grams per kilo of mussels will be carbon, which put me and my environmental concerns into perspective a little.

Still, even if it’s not a food mile issue it is a shame that so many of our native gown mussels end up elsewhere. The demand for mussels in the UK market is tiny compared to Europe where they consume much more seafood. Even though the domestic market is growing (at around 15% a year) and we sell more now than ten or twelve years ago (mostly to the restaurant trade) it’s still a small percentage.

I asked James why when we are so close to the sea, the local supermarkets don’t seem too keen to stock this abundant local produce…

Much of it comes down to processing regulations and grading.  Supermarkets in the UK have historically been twitchy about buying from anywhere but ‘grade A’ sources, they are the ones deemed safest based on water tests. Safety tests and required preparation  prior to selling do appear to vary widely between countries but overall there is little difference in the mussel quality of the Menai mussels and those produced in Scotland or Ireland especially after cleaning and processing. It is simply because the waters of the Menai Straits are classed as ‘long-term grade B’, they have generally not made it to British supermarket shelves, or at least not until they have been to Holland for treatment then come back again!

With the UK market slowly growing there is more of a demand for Menai Mussels but no processing facilities to treat and clean them. In Scotland this infrastructure is in place which is  why most of the mussels we see in the supermarkets come from there.

I asked James what could be done to improve the selling of Menai mussels locally and in the UK….

The immediate plan is to build a processing factory on the harbour side where the mussels are landed. They can then be cleaned, packaged and more sold locally and to the wider UK.  As far as I’m concerned this is great news for the local population here in Bangor and the surrounding area. It means that we might once again have our own harbour side fresh fish shop stocking local mussels just like we did when I moved to Wales all that time ago!

Leaving harbour

Leaving harbour

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Bangor pier in the mist

Bangor pier in the mist

sun coming up behind the mountains

sun coming up behind the mountains

Mussel collecting: they look like brushes and sweep over the top of the mussel bed, shifting the mussel 'mud' but not disturbing the bed itself

Mussel collecting: they look like brushes and sweep over the top of the mussel bed, shifting the mussel ‘mud’ but not disturbing the bed itself

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lifting the mussels

lifting the mussels

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nets full of mussels

nets full of mussels

emptying the net into the container ready for cleaning

emptying the net into the container ready for cleaning

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mussels being washed, cleaned and bagged

mussels being washed, cleaned and bagged

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lifting the mussels off the boat

lifting the mussels off the boat

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not the most flattering picture of James so I hope he forgives me my bad photography

not the most flattering picture of James so I hope he forgives me my bad photography

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