Category Archives: Food shopping

In praise of chocolate

Ages ago, when I first moved here, I felt deeply deprived. I had a chocolate problem.

Coffee, anyone?When working at home – and I often was – I had developed a ritual. I’d been used to getting a bar of wonderful, amazing, sensational dark chocolate and having a piece every lunchtime with my scary Costa Rican high-roast coffee (made in a Bialetti on my gas hob, of course).

Then I  moved. The hob went (no gas here), the Bialetti went (ridiculous waste of electricity, even on the smallest ring), the coffee stayed thanks to the Algerian Coffee Stores’ mail order, but I had a chocolate difficulty. Cadbury’s Bourneville did NOT cut it.

It didn’t take long for my assumed metropolitan attitudes to drop away (a relatively rural upbringing soon reasserts itself once you’re back in a place where you can get lambing ointment more easily than lemongrass). Soon a coffee roaster opened up locally – Poblado Coffi’s roasts are a great substitute for my ear-zinging, head-tingling Costa Rican blend – but I still missed the chocolate. The Bourneville experiment was not repeated.

Dolgellau market

Then I discovered a local chocolatier, Cathryn Cariad, and particularly her bars (dark chocolate with sea salt and lemon, using Halen Mon salt, natch, and – nom double nom nom – with blackcurrant and liquorice). She pops up at the farmers markets I go to in Dolgellau and Porthmadog, and she is good. She is very good. I will happily kill for her salted caramels, but when I popped into Porthmadog market she had a surprise for me. Umami. Yes, umami-flavoured chocolate. It’s under development, as they say, but my goodness it was good.

UmamiThe umami flavouring comes from another farmers’ market regular, Cynan Jones, The Mushroom Garden. That’s also local, and also making quite an impression away from here too: selling – for instance – the umami flavouring through Booths supermarkets. I may not have access to an extraordinary range of choices, but I think that is more than made up for by the quality of what I do have, and by the wonderful community spirit that affects the food producers in this area. I’m sure it’s the same for many others, and many other areas, but the close collaboration here is particularly effective.

And it’s almost time for the Dolgellau market again – it’s dormant in January and February. I’m hoping the umami chocolate will be in full production, and then I can try it out in savoury dishes (as well as by itself – delicious, lovely long finish). Apparently it’s stunning!



Greengrocer glories

We have a new greengrocer! I can’t quite believe it, but there it was – a man putting up a sign above a shop in Eldon Square, Dolgellau. Did it say ‘greengrocers’? I wasn’t quite sure I’d read it properly, so changed out of my sunglasses and moved closer, risking life, limb and being run over by a 38 bus. Yup: greengrocers.

A couple of days later and I was back in Dolgellau. A friend excitedly told me that the greengrocer had opened, and we popped in after we finished work. I admit that I had to stop myself from going mad, but I did quite well nonetheless:

grocer haul

That’s a huge sweet potato (just under a kilo – really), a magnificent aubergine, a bundle of lemon grass, a bag of French shallots and a couple of onions. No idea what I was going to do with any of them, but I couldn’t resist. Planning? What planning? Moi??

I quite enjoy doing this, buying what looks good instead of buying what I need to make X or Y, and I really enjoy the trawling through the cookery books that follows. I knew that I didn’t want to make such a perfect specimen of an aubergine into a dip like moutabal / baba ghanoush (smoked under the grill and puréed), and nor did I want to lose it in something like a ratatouille or curry, though I do have a lovely dry aubergine curry I make regularly – but this was just too fat and glossy to be used like that. I wanted it to stand out. In the end I based a dish on a recipe from Nigel Slater, with added za-atar, but it was – in my opinion – a bit too oily. I need to work it.

That left me with the sweet potato as the remaining ‘main’ ingredient, and I knew what I wanted to do with that: try and make the roasted sweet potato ‘chip’ work.

The problem is that sweet potatoes are extremely difficult to get to crisp, unlike ordinary spuds. I have read several explanations for why this is, some scientific, some bonkers, some completely barking (I just cannot believe that the phase of the moon at cooking time is critical), some based on vagueness or inaccuracies such as ‘they contain more water’: no, they don’t, not significantly, and it depends on the variety – of both. Moisture is key, however.

There are all sorts of solutions online. I’ve tried some – parboiling, soaking – and have found no difference other than making them worse, but I wanted to try another. If you’ve ever tried making sweet potato chips (or wedges), you’ll know that they generate a lot of steam which does not help them crisp up at all. Some of that needs to be let out. Size is also a factor – the bigger, the less likely they are to crisp up. The edges may burn, but the middles will be really soggy. They’re never going to be like roasted ‘ordinary’ potato chips, but they can be better than I’ve managed so far. I’m not going to say that I’ve cracked it, but I think I’m as close as I’m going to get. Opening the oven door may be counter-intuitive, but…

IMG_2010Now, they need a dipping sauce, something to cut through the sweetness. Greek yoghurt with a little Tabasco stirred in is lovely; a sharp salsa is messy but good; a raita made with grated cucumber, mint and Greek yohgurt is best. Well, for me… and they were served as part of a tapas-style assortment.

Roast sweet potato chips
serves 2

1 very large sweet potato (or 3 or so smaller ones)
2 tsp oil (I used garlic-flavoured rapeseed oil from Blodyn Aur, but olive is fine)
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
a sprig of rosemary
a sprig of thyme
lemon wedges (to serve)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, GM6. Find the biggest baking sheet you have, or get two smaller ones – the sweet potato pieces need to be spread out in a single layer.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into long slices. Cut the slices into chips, never thicker than 1cm, and a maximum of 4cm long. Toss them in kitchen paper to dry off some of the dampness that the chopping generates.

Put the oil and paprika into a large shallow dish or bowl and mix them together. Add the sweet potato pieces and stir them gently around, making sure they are coated in the mixture. Then spread them out on the baking sheet so that they do not touch – some people have found that lining the tray with baking parchment first also helps, but don’t use greaseproof paper as that keeps the moisture in. Put them in the oven for 10 minutes.

Open the door carefully and allow the steam to escape. Then close the oven and cook for another ten minutes. Take the tray out, turn the chips over if it’s possible to do so without breaking them, and scatter the herbs over them. Return the tray to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper – oh, and if you pile them up in a small dish, they’ll just go soggy again (I know this… ahem).

sweet potato

What next, I wonder? I’m going with the flow and seeing what they have in, and what looks good. For some bizarre reason the selection of fruit and veg at the Co-op in Dolgellau is rather patchy (it’s fine in Barmouth, not that far away), and the Eurospar is the other side of town – not that handy, depending on where you are. But this new greengrocer – Youngs – is slap in the middle, right by the bus stops. Worth supporting!


Squash soup for a stormy day

The weather forecast is terrible; it sounds as though the end of the world is coming. In such circumstances I have one response (er, apart from a tendency to say ‘yeah right’ and ask if it’s been reported anywhere other than in the Daily Express). That’s to make vast quantities of soup. I’m not at all sure what the connection is – I like soup in summer too; a hot day and some chilled cucumber soup – but it seems to be inevitable. I shall just go with it and fill the freezer. Freezers.

SquashIn late November I met up with some friends at Machynlleth market. It’s one of the best markets near me – well, it’s quite near, about an hour away – and is often worth a trip. Plus there are some good places for coffee and some rather nice shops, but one of the big draws for me is the vegetable stalls.

There are several, and they are generally excellent. One is a particular favourite, and I picked up a beautiful Crown Prince squash for 80p, along with some romanesco and a heap of succulent banana shallots. I often grow squash but, depressed by recent poor invisible harvests, I failed to plant any this year. Clearly a mistake, given the good summer, but that’s gardening for you. This stall had several different varieties, all looking beautifully autumnal, but I plumped for the Crown Prince because it tastes gorgeous and keeps well. It certainly has, and this seemed the perfect time to turn it into soup.

There are all sorts of variants on the theme of squash soup. Some recommend roasting the squash first, but in general I find that this can make the soup a bit oily – for me, anyway. Maybe I’m too generous with my olive oil when roasting the chunks of squash, but I have tried it with very little and – well, neh. I’ve used lots of different recipes recently, some I’ve been editing and some I’ve just been trying for pleasure, but for me this simple version stands head and shoulders above the rest. However, you do need a well-flavoured squash (roasting can compensate for one that is less than thrilling); all, alas, are not the same. Butternut is probably the most reliable one, and one that is also easily available. That’s if you’ve not grown any Crown Prince, something I plan on rectifying next year. I’ve given two alternative flavourings, as well…

soupSquash Soup with sage or nutmeg
serves 3 to 4

1 medium squash
1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100ml good chicken stock
water or vegetable stock
1 small sprig of fresh sage or a few grates of a nutmeg
salt and black pepper

Using a heavy knife, chop the squash into slices or sections. Trim the skin off the squash sections, remove the seeds and chop the flesh into chunks about 2cm square (you should have about 650g of squash pieces).

Put the olive oil into a large heavy-bottomed pan and warm it over a medium heat. Add the onion, turn it in the oil and put the lid on the pan to sweat the onion for about 5 minutes. Check that it isn’t burning, giving it a good stir, then allow it to colour slightly – and add the garlic and put the lid back on for another minute or so.

Add the squash to the pan and turn it in, mixing everything together. Add the chicken stock and enough liquid to cover – go easy, because the thickness of the soup will depend on the type of squash and should be adjusted later (some squashes can turn out to be surprisingly watery, and adding lots of liquid at this stage would result in a thin soup). Add the small sprig of sage or some freshly grated nutmeg. Bring the soup to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the sage sprig (which should hold together; if not, fish out any large leaves too) and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup, and then thin it to the required consistency with water or vegetable stock. Reheat, season with salt and plenty of black pepper, and serve.

Some recipes suggest toasting the seeds and adding them as a garnish. However, they are better dried, and I prefer to lightly toast some pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan and scatter those over the top. You can always dry the fresher seeds out for next time (or not).

OK, weather, you can do what you want now – and a simple bowl of soup will also be very welcome after all the richness of Christmas food, too. Maybe I’d better make more!

Sausages, biscuits, coffee and crafts

Early FairThis last weekend saw the second Portmeirion Food and Craft Fair, so I grabbed my bag and went along. Portmeirion should, after all, be a great venue, packed with character and style. I didn’t go last year but I had heard some rather equivocal reports, so I was eager to see what was what for myself. And to see if there were any exciting new producers, people I didn’t already know who were doing something interesting.

First, the good news: it was busy. The car park was heaving, even though we got there relatively early, but the Fair itself was perfectly manageable. Second, the bad news: that changed.

It quickly became so busy that you couldn’t move in some places – where stalls had been laid out along a narrow path, for instance – and the stalls themselves were so cramped as to be inaccessible once three or so people were there. Good to see it so popular, but I wonder how many people gave up? I wanted to visit the Pant Du stand, for instance – they have a vineyard at Dyffryn Nantlle and also produce delicious cider – but couldn’t even get into the little marquee where, according to the plan and a hanging sign, they could be found. I could – temporarily, I’m sure – get near two brewers, but I wanted Pant Du cider (grumble). Time to move on.

FairThere were a couple of stalls selling seafood and there was plenty of good meat on offer, too. Some of the nicest sausages I tasted, and there were plenty, came from Oinc Oinc. I usually get them from their stall at the Porthmadog Food Market though, but I haven’t had the chance to try their ham there. Beam me up, Scottie – delicious. It was a pity I’d had a good breakfast, really (I should have known better), because they were doing hot ham rolls which looked and smelled wonderful.

But there seemed to be a lot of butchers, and almost no one selling vegetables – the closest was probably our wonderful mushroom grower. Interestingly, the stallholder at Cig Howatson, one of the butchers – with fabulous and really hot chorizo – said he’d never realised just how many people were vegetarian until he started doing food fairs.

biscuit heavenBy this time the Fair was getting seriously crowded, but one stall I did manage to get near was that of Cryms, cake and – ooooo, especially – biscuit producers. They don’t have a web presence yet which is a shame, because their lemon meringue biscuits were to die for and much, much better than you’d think possible (but they will have a website up soon). By the time I decided I really  couldn’t live without them, I couldn’t get near the stand. Rats.

But I did manage to fight my way back to an ethical artisan coffee roaster – and there was my new and exciting supplier. I’d no idea we had anybody doing something like this around here, and I’m really pleased to have discovered Poblado Coffi. The smells from that stall – which happily was inside, unlike most – were delicious, though unfortunately there was no facility for tasting (!). Hmm, this Fair definitely needs more thought if it’s going to be up there with the big boys, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.

Quibble, quibble, quibble – I know, that’s me. But somehow I expected better of Portmeirion. I know they can’t police the people manning the stalls, so there’s nothing they could do about the one whose concept of customer service was heavy and universal sarcasm, but they can do some editing of stallholders and stall placements. As I said, there were, or seemed to be, a lot of butchers – the local meat is fab so that’s not surprising – and people selling preserves (some were shops rather than producers, which did add an element of variety) And there was a curious lack of a good chocolatier.

One other quibble concerned the crafts. Not their existence – I’m a craftsperson myself – but the lack of ‘editing’ when it came to stall placements (and again the fact that some were not actual craftspeople, but were retailing bought-in items). Yes, there were things like three jewellers all making ‘celtic’ silver jewellery and almost next door to each other, but more serious was the placing of some next to people frying bacon or sausages. Fabric and fibre take up smells really quickly, and the beautiful bags on one stall were beginning to whiff like a transport caff. And that was at the start of the two days; by the end they’d have been unsaleable – you expect better when you’re paying a decent rate for a stall. I wouldn’t like to see the crafts relegated to some sort of quarantine, but maybe it would be best to concentrate on one or the other. And to institute some sort of quality control.

snack timeSo was it worth it, and would I go again? Well, I discovered the coffee roaster, the amazing lemon meringue biscuits and the spicy, hot chorizo. I didn’t know about them. But most of the other stalls – and many were good; this isn’t to detract from that – were familiar (and the one I’d have liked to see wasn’t there, but she’ll be at the market in Dolgellau this weekend). If I go next year, I’ll make sure I’m there as the Fair opens, I won’t have breakfast and I will be out of there by, oh, 11.a.m. If I go. As most of it’s outside, that will depend on the weather as well.

Supermarket, shmoopermarket

trolliesOnce upon a time, I didn’t think twice. I popped into my car, popped down to Sainsburies, popped things into my basket, popped the money out of my purse and popped back home. There was a notable absence of local food shops in my (temporary) part of South London – there had been a traditional butcher, but he’d closed down – and no local market. I went up to Borough Market some weekends and could always pop to Brixton or Tooting if I needed anything more exotique. In all fairness, the picture when I visited my family in the country wasn’t dissimilar, except there was no Sainsbury. (It was dangerously northern and there was a time when whippets in cloth caps ate Sainsbury’s managers, or so you’d have thought; leek-chomping, daffodil-wearing dragons evidently still present a problem.)

In the past twelve years things have changed, and not only because I now live – nominally – ‘twelve miles from a lemon’, or – really – fifty-five from fresh yeast. More and more people have begun to question the role of supermarkets, and not just the predictable knit-your-own-yoghurt bunch who started avoiding them in the late 1960s. Questions have been raised about their ethics, about the way they treat suppliers, about the impact the arrival of a supermarket can have on a high street or small community, about the insidious, big-brother-like monitoring of their customers. (Got a loyalty card? You are being watched… and in my case they are watching someone called Mrs Xanthe Throngdribble, who is apparently 96 but who still works as a brain surgeon and lives with her seventeen children. I like filling in forms, sometimes. Then there’s also their monitoring of the aforementioned Mrs Throngdribble attempting to take a photograph of trollies in a supermarket car park. She’s got a surprising turn of speed for someone in her nineties.)

I have friends who won’t go near any supermarket, or who avoid a particular chain. And that does put more restrictions on you when you live somewhere remote than I’m prepared to accept, whatever I may feel about their vaguely sinister power. Most of the time I can manage perfectly well with the few local shops and a branch of the Co-op, and that’s what is available without a twenty-mile round trip. When Tesco opened a smallish branch in the town ten miles away a friend and I took about two hours to wheel our way through the excited crowds (in the words of Roz from Frasier, ‘there’s a town that badly needs a bowling alley’), being just as excited ourselves and greeting each new discovery with loud cries: ‘They’ve got lemon grass! Lemon grass!!!’

Now I could use the fact that much of my work involves ingredients I can only get in supermarkets as justification, but it would be a Potemkin village of an excuse. I do not want to have my choice of food restricted just because I live somewhere magnificent but comparatively remote, but I do want to do the best I can by shopping locally as much as possible. It’s a balancing act, and I don’t want to be doctrinaire. But there is one exception. Asda I will avoid if I can, partly because I can get what I want elsewhere, partly because it requires a longer journey and the use of more expensive petrol, partly because I hate the dark, cramped branch concerned and partly because they are a Walmart company and I really, really, really hate Walmart’s labour – sorry, labor – practices.

All of this means that I can build up quite a shopping list for those occasions when I have to go to a larger town, one with at least one large supermarket and maybe two or three, and one which is wonderfully a breath away from a small branch of Waitrose. The larger town also contains the big hospital, and it’s quite normal to get a call along the lines of ‘I’ve got to go and visit Huw tomorrow, do you want anything from Waitrose?’. It reaches the stage when you resent a hospital appointment that doesn’t mesh with their opening hours.

roadThere’s no more ‘popping’, of course. That’s partly because of the drive there – not one to be undertaken on a whim. There are essentially two choices, and they both take roughly the same time, about 90 minutes: the main road (roadworks, traffic jams at school time, motorbikes, caravans), and the mountains (roadworks, lycra-clad men on bikes, motorbikes, caravans). The main road is quite good, though with bottlenecks, but the mountain road is amazing – it’s behind the line of wall on the right and Snowdon is on the left out of shot. On a good day it doesn’t half beat the traffic jam at the bottom of Streatham Common; on a bad day it’s like doing your shopping by way of Mordor, complete with orcs in cycling gear looming out of the mist.

Last week I did some quick calculations. How much could I save by going to Bangor for X, Y and Z, allowing for the fact that I would have to spend A on fuel and take B hours to get there, at a potential hourly rate of C, given that I’m a self-employed writer and editor and not a 96-year-old brain surgeon? I factored in the N element – running out of Lingham’s Ginger Garlic Chilli Sauce – and the A/M/K essentials – getting stuff for friends – and set off.

Thursday was a Mordor day, but it was worth it. I got my X, Y and Z and saved at least £50 on those; I did my popping into to wild metropolis that is Bangor and had a drink in a coffee shop with a communal pine table and free WiFi, feeling all street and urban (think Blade Runner, oh, OK, I lie); I got my things in Waitrose. A few example purchases illustrate my point: some I could have bought anywhere but there was no point in making another trip when I was in Waitrose already (mushrooms, grapes); some I bought because I prefer the Waitrose own brands (small tinned tomatoes, anchovies); and some where enquiries about buying them locally would be met with ‘you must be joking’: pickling onions (why not???), camomile and lavender tea, linguine, Jarlsberg (I know some people think this Norwegian cheese tastes like rubber, but I like it), Greek basil, chilli crackers… and, of course, Lingham’s Ginger Garlic Chilli Sauce. I’m a happy bunny. So I really couldn’t be too much of a purist and abandon the supermarket altogether; getting even that little lot would have involved hours online, or trekking from small shop to small shop in a diminishing spirit of optimism, or growing my own. That’s an option I do explore, but you can’t grow bottles of Ginger Garlic Chilli Sauce. Xanthe Throngdribble is far too busy, plus she now needs another alias.

All change with ‘them purple things’…

Aubergines. Let me make that quite clear before anyone assumes anything else… this is a food blog, after all.

aubergineOnce upon a time It was almost impossible to get aubergines around here;  if I wanted to make ratatouille ten years ago I either had to grow my own or take a chance that a stray aubergine had escaped from captivity and sneaked onto the shelves at the local Co-op. There was no guarantee they’d be there – they were missing more often than not – and there was no guarantee they’d be in a decent condition if they were present. Ratatouille became an improvised treat, one organised on the hoof if aubergines were in stock, as did baba ganoush and any of a whole variety of smoked aubergine dips. When I saw them, I grabbed them.

The whole situation was summed up in a conversation my brother had when he was on a similar quest several years earlier. He had returned with his family to the North Yorkshire coast, had gone into one of the two local greengrocers (both – incidentally – very good, if what you wanted was ‘normal’ – quote). He looked around, didn’t see what he wanted:

Bro: ‘Have you got any aubergines?’
Girl behind till: ??? [Pause] ‘Do-REEN! Have we got any aubergines?’
Woman sticks head out of door at back. ‘Aubergines?’
Bro and GBT: ‘Yes.’
Doreen: ‘Are them them purple things?’
Bro: ‘Yes.’
Doreen: [Pause 2] ‘We had two of them but they went off.’

Today, by contrast, I wanted to make a ratatouille. The courgettes have gone a bit mad, possibly a swan song as they’ve also gone rather yellow, and I have to make lunch for a visiting friend. I had in mind a rather delicious ratatouille quiche, but I’d no ratatouille left in the freezer (it freezes so very well that some always ends up in there). So I took myself off to the Co-op, nice and early before all the holidaymakers filled up the car park, and bought my aubergine along with the rest of the shopping. And it’s a beauty, rotund and gleaming, in perfect condition. I also had my choice of peppers – unremarkable if you live in many places, but they were once also difficult to find in useable condition.

How very much things have changed in eleven years.

Then we had one branch of the Co-op, somewhat unreconstructed and five miles away, and another, even worse, ten miles in the other direction; they were my closest supermarkets. There was and still is a Spar in the village; there’s a great butcher but you wouldn’t want to rely on it for anything else. If I was in one of the towns – Bangor, perhaps, 30-odd miles away – or on a longer trip to, say, the bright lights of Llandudno, I would take a cool bag and make sure I popped into a bigger supermarket. I didn’t regard doing this as letting the side down because the Co-op let me down often enough, running out of exotica like bread and milk by 10 a.m.

Now? Well, while there isn’t the same selection that you’d get in a less remote area, things have improved vastly. And I do mean improved, despite the fact that one of the changes was the arrival of Tesco. It’s not an enormous branch, and I have had several arguments about its selection of goods (some used to appear during the summer season and then vanish – when I asked why once I was told ‘oh, the locals won’t buy things like that’; grr – I am ****** local and call me fussy but I actually wanted crème fraiche) it is a Tesco. To my delight this was shortly followed by both Lidl and Aldi and, even more to my delight, their presence seems to have revived, rather than killed, the local town. There’s even less of the holiday-season availability nonsense in Tesco, no doubt because when they come out with that sort of excuse you can pop round the corner and buy whatever outrageous thing you require in Aldi or Lidl. Yes, the Co-op closed soon after the trio arrived but it was often like being in a holiday airport in winter – empty and echoing, with a few people wandering about muttering to themselves. Probably about the fact that they were unable to buy bread.

Even better, it’s not just supermarkets. There were one or two local producers of particular things: Halen Mon, with their gorgeous sea salt; some cheesemakers and meat producers. Now there are many more. For instance, there are two excellent sources for local honey, several suppliers of delicious organic eggs, there’s a great chocolatier and even a mushroom farm, and obtaining mutton, great dry-cured bacon and a wonderful range of sausages is easy at one of the two local farmers’ markets. Yes, I still have a list for when I have to be in Bangor (Waitrose have opened a small but perfectly formed branch in Menai Bridge, plus the big Tesco there has many specialist ingredients I might need when editing and recipe testing), but now my list is full of the weird and wonderful rather than the basics. ‘Normal’ has been redefined, and not just in greengrocers.