Wales: a foodie’s paradise
This blog feature is part of a series – “Hiraeth for Beginners” – by Pamela Petro
I’m going to have to struggle to keep this post under the prescribed word limit…
Food in Wales! It’s such an exciting—even revolutionary!—subject. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, Welsh farmers and producers never had to “get back to basics” or “go natural” because Wales—too poor to go in for fancy pesticides and frozen foods—always was organic in the first place. Blessed with mountain pastures, rivers, alluvial valleys, a damp climate, and the sea, Wales is quite literally ripe with fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, shellfish, mushrooms, berries, and more: literally anything and everything edible.
Residents of the Welsh countryside have been eating well and healthily for years, but traditionally had no means of making their products available to a larger market. This is where the revolution comes into the story: over the past 20 years or so, the market has come to them.
“As chefs, we don’t grow or rear things, but we are passionate about what we cook,” says Stephen Terry, chef and co-owner, along with his wife Joanna, of The Hardwick, an acclaimed destination-pub near Abergavenny. “What we need,” continues Terry, “is a like-minded producer who is equally enthusiastic about how they produce things, [so we can] get the quality of ingredients that we need, and that’s what Wales has.”
As a matter of fact, Wales has quality ingredients in abundance. Here is a much-abbreviated list of “for instances.” Pembrokeshire, for instance, is rich in sea bass, sole, monkfish, scallops, oysters, crabs, cockles and muscles; Preseli lamb; and organic farmhouse cheeses (from makers such as Pant Mawr Farm), including all manner of cow and goat varieties. In mid Wales, Brecon and Radnor, for instance, have a wealth of salmon; black beef and venison; specialist crops including lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, and leeks; and foraged specialties from wild garlic and elderflowers to deep blue whinberries (used in jams and preserves). Head up to North Wales, and the Isle of Anglesey, for instance, offers sea salt; turbot, lobsters and Menai oysters; vegetables from early potatoes to cauliflower and cabbage; summer fruits including currants, strawberries, gooseberries, and raspberries; organic pork and poultry; and crabs and rock prawns.
These are just some of the reasons that Wales has, according to True Taste magazine, “attracted a massive number of top chefs relative to its small population.” People like Franco Taruschio, who began the venerable Walnut Tree Restaurant near Abergavenny (now being run by Michelin-starred chef Shaun Hill), plus celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has a restaurant in Cardiff, and James Sommerin, whose restaurants include the Michelin-starred Crown at Whitebrook, near Monmouth, and the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport (where golfing’s great European-American event, the Ryder Cup, was held last year).
These chefs have at their disposal—and so do you and I—a wealth of Welsh specialty products, many of which are available in the U.S. In the latter category is “Halen Mon,” or Anglesey Sea Salt, which may be found in most American gourmet food shops. Alison Lea-Wilson began the company, as she says, “with a saucepan of seawater on the Aga [wood or coal burning range] in the family kitchen. As the water boiled away and the salt crystals started to form, we knew we’d struck culinary gold.”
Today Anglesey Sea Salt—a completely organic product—is the salt of choice of top chefs around the world. Branching out from the original product, you may now purchase Celery Sea Salt; Smoked Sea Salt; Spiced Sea Salt; and Vanilla Sea Salt (plus bags of “Halen Mon Crisps!”).
Other stand-outs among artisan food producers in Wales include its smokeries. As other smokehouses in Britain are closing down, Welsh smokeries have come into their own, including the Rhydlewis Trout Farm and Smokery near Llandysul, and the Black Mountains Smokery in Crickhowell. Both use Welsh oak; Rose Collins, of Rhydlewis, shaves all the sawdust herself. While Rhydlewis smokes its products in traditional wooden chambers, Black Mountain uses modern, custom-made kilns. Both produce smoked fish, cheeses, bacon, pork, lamb, chicken, and duck, all of which are absolutely exceptional. (It doesn’t hurt that all the base ingredients are local made or reared!)
Believe it or not, celebrity chefs around Britain are now featuring Welsh Oak Smoked Ice Cream on their menus. On that note, I’ll proceed to the Really Wild Food and Countryside Festival, which takes place in St Davids—held within sight of the sea and the 12th century Cathedral of St Davids—on 29-30 July 2011. It’s a locavores’ paradise, showcasing tastings and cooking courses derived from locally produced, foraged, and grown foods, as well as kid-friendly events like pony rides and pig races. Exhibited foods include fruit liqueurs, chocolates, ice cream, locally roasted coffee, and cheese—to name just a few options.
A note about Welsh cheese: the farmhouse cheese movement got started in Wales about 25 years ago, when European milk quotas changed, and Welsh farmers, for the first time since World War II, had excess milk on their hands. They began to turn it into cheese, and the results have been profound. One of the exhibitors at the “Wild” Festival, Caws Cenarth, is one of the finest organic cheese-makers in Wales. Their Pearl Las, a delicate blue, is as divine as cheese gets, as is their version of Caerphilly, Wales’ only traditional indigenous variety, which is piquant and crumbly—perfect for making Welsh Rarebit.
Caws Cenarth (in English, Cenarth Cheese) is one of five producers in the Teifi Valley that are beginning, as a group, to gain worldwide recognition for their cheeses. In addition to Caws Cenarth they include Teifi Farmhouse Cheese (winner of last year’s Product of the Year in the Wales True Taste Awards), Carmarthenshire Cheese Company, Hafod Welsh Organic Cheddar, and Sancler Organic. A visit to some of their operations and tasting rooms makes a nice, two-day trip…
Whether you’re planning a visit to Wales or not, be sure to check out Food Wales, a very useful region-by-region guide to Welsh food products, including where to eat and where to buy, the most recent edition of which is 2008, as well as Food Wales Eating Out Guide, the latest edition of which came out just this year. Both are by Colin Pressdee [and available through international book sellers such as Amazon.co.uk].
Finally, to end (don’t know how I managed to fit this all in—and I’ve left so much out!), I’m including two recipes from True Taste Magazine. Enjoy!
(PS: One of the recipes I selected below includes the notorious “laverbread,” or bara lafwr in Welsh. I call it “notorious,” but it’s really just seaweed—laver—that’s been boiled down, rolled in oats, and fried. Richard Burton called it “the Welshman’s caviar,” and recently it’s found a place on upscale menus, if not in my heart. But that’s a failing of mine, not the dish’s. I should reveal that I don’t care for sushi, either…)
Fingerlicking Lamb with Laverbread Herb Sauce
The best way to eat these lamb racks are to cut them into cutlets; dip in the laverbread and herb sauce followed by the lemon crumbs. Enjoy!
Serves: 4 Prep: 20 min. Cook: 20 min.
– 2 Slade Farm Organic racks of lamb (cut in half—3 to 4 bones per person)*
– 1 large handful fresh mint
– 1 large handful fresh parsley
– 1 clove garlic, crushed
– 1 dessert spoonful small capers
– 6 cornichons (gherkins)
– 3 tbs. olive oil
– zest of 2 lemons; juice of one lemon
– 1 dessert spoon Gil’s Plaice laverbread**
– 4 tbs. breadcrumbs
– 1 tbs. oil
– 15 grams butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Score the fat on the lamb and season well. Sear in a hot, non-stick pan until golden, and place in oven for 15 min. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 min.
Finely chop the mint, parsley, and cornichons. Add the olive oil, zest of one lemon, lemon juice, and laverbread, and stir. Season to taste.
Heat the oil in frying pan, add the butter, leave to melt before adding breadcrumbs and tossing in butter and oil. Cook over medium heat until crisp and golden. Remove from heat and add lemon zest. Divide cutlets and serve with dipping sauce and breadcrumbs.
* Slade Farm Organics is located in South Wales (www.sladefarmorganics.com)
** Gill’s Plaice is a gourmet fish market in Gwynedd (www.gillsplaice.co.uk)
Puffin Potato Scones
A perfect way to ensconce your guests. Serve for breakfast, brunch or tea. Try with crispy bacon and a drizzle of honey, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or a simple dollop of jam. The list is endless.
Serves: 6-8 Prep: 20 min. Cook: 20 min.
– 450 grams floury potatoes, peeled and quartered
– 25 grams butter
– 75 grams plain flour
– vegetable oil
Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15 min. or until tender. Drain and mash. Add the butter and flour and beat with a wooden spoon. Turn out onto floured surface and knead lightly. Chill for one hour. Roll out and using a 7 cm. plain cutter cut out 8 scones.
Heat and lightly grease a heavy frying pan. Cook the scones for about 4-5 min. on each side until golden. Serve warm with butter and jam.
This blog feature is part of a series – “Hiraeth for Beginners” – by Pamela Petro.
Pamela Petro is a writer and artist who first traveled to Wales to attend graduate school at St David’s University College in Lampeter. She speaks Welsh haltingly, with a wing and a prayer–and has visited Wales from her home in Massachusetts nearly once a year. She’s written about her language-learning saga in the acclaimed book, Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh (Flamingo, 1997), and about Wales and the Welsh for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Islands, and many more. www.petrographs.blogspot.com