Category Archives: Local suppliers

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!


There are more than two coffee shops in Wales…

Way back in January of last year, one national – hah, allegedly – newspaper published a list of the fifty best independent coffee shops in the UK. Wales, apparently, has – wait for it – two. Both in Cardiff. At least they restricted their choice of London coffee shops to ten, but there were still more in the EC postcode area than in the whole of Wales. Hello?

Now this might have been acceptable, or even vaguely accurate, about twenty years ago (then again no, it wouldn’t have been either) but today it is merely lazy and complacent. There are plenty of good independents. Plenty. Even in small towns like those near me. OK, there are some bad ones and some which are merely indifferent. But there are some which are stonkingly good.

I’ve had a bit of a rant about coffee shops here before, where I contrasted a bad experience and a good one. Just to show that there’s more than one good coffee shop in Gwynedd, despite what what the Daily X might think, I’m going to have a quiet rave about another favourite: the Llew Glas Delicatessen in Harlech. It’s just had its second birthday (as it were), but it’s already hard to remember what Harlech was like without it.

Sigh. What’s not to like?

cakes at Freya'sEvery time I go in I’m reminded of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

OK, Rick’s featured a casino and not cake. And it’s not the gambling, the diamond dealing, the Nazis or Bogart in a tuxedo, either: it’s the fact that everyone ends up here. As Rene says in the film, ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’. I have seldom been in the Llew Glas and not known anybody there, but it’s not just a local haunt – some friends of mine popped in recently, complete strangers to the area, and were made to feel just as much part of the scene.

I came up with several pointers for a decent coffee shop in that earlier post – good coffee, good alternatives, good food and good service were, predictably, my top four (the others were a little more, um, idiosyncratic, including a complete absence of religious quotes and seats you can actually sit on).

The Llew Glas wins on all those; the coffee is good, as are the non-coffs, the herb tea (me), the hot chocolate (not for lactose-intolerant moi but for almost all of my friends). The food is great. There are light lunches – soups, sandwiches, a choice of scrumptious quiches – which are freshly cooked and not bought in, as well as the usual staples of gorgeous cakes and, as the sign outside says, ‘probably the best scones in Harlech’.

But for me it’s the service which shines out. An Irish friend of mine used to do a splendid act as a waitress in a newly-flash, Celtic Tiger, Dublin eaterie. She slouched up, got too close, sniffed juicily and then said, loudly and in tones of deep boredom, ‘y’aright?’. Once upon a time service like this was the norm; customers were a nuisance who got in the way. Unfortunately there are some places which haven’t realised that times have changed (another friend of mine was asked recently whether he could ‘take down’ the – accurate – reports of bad service which a restaurant had received on TripAdvisor, and was berated when he explained that this was impossible). But fake, we’re-afraid-of-TripAdvisor, service is one thing. Genuinely good service is another, and that is what you get at the Llew Glas.

Many years ago, some friends and I had a drunken conversation about something that was missing in Harlech. There were pubs (two, then, in the upper town) and a couple of very traditional cafés, but we didn’t feel that they catered for us or our friends. A wine bar was our conclusion, then. The main reason we felt we needed one was that it would provide a place for us to socialise without going to one of the pubs – no reflection on them, but they were quite a male preserve. To an extent, and a very considerable extent, the Llew Glas has filled this niche – and it’s a tribute to how good it is that it has done so without selling alcohol or being open in the evenings. After all, ‘everybody comes to Rick’s’ or, in this case, Freya’s…

harlech castleDetails? Well, the Llew Glas Delicatessen is at 3, Plas y Goits, Harlech – just opposite the Plas restaurant, in what is often known as Blue Lion (Llew Glas) Courtyard.

It’s open 10-5, Monday to Saturday; Sundays in the season, and if there’s only one piece of raspberry and coconut slice left, you won’t like it. Honest. Leave it.

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.

Really real seeds

I’ve always tried to grow at least some of my own food, even if that’s only been herbs in a window box. Now I grow much more, and last week I had a deep disappointment over beetroot, but at least they weren’t mine. I know that for some people the very existence of beetroot might be a deep disappointment, but I’m not one of them. I love beetroot, the earthy taste, the sharp fruity sweetness (if that’s possible), and most of all I love roasted beets chopped into a feta salad. Unfortunately I didn’t grow any myself this year – illness at planting time restricted my activity – and so when I saw some at the local produce market, I grabbed them. They were smaller than most, about the size of a golf ball, promising concentrated flavour.

Wrong. Texture, yes. Flavour? Nah.

You can grow things beautifully, with great care. You can harvest them when they should be tasty and succulent. But if you don’t have a good, tasty variety in the first place, what’s the point? And if you buy seed from the Big Boys your chances of getting a tasty end result are dimininshed. That’s because the Big Boys have to sell approved seed, and approved seed means commercial varieties. Varieties designed for the supermarket, by and large, where taste is not the first priority. Often the seeds on offer are F1 hybrids, so you can’t save the seed because they won’t come true, and they won’t have been bred to suit the domestic grower anyway. Oh, the copy on the packets or the in the catalogues may make them sound good, but stop a mo to consider what some of the wording means. ‘Good for freezing’ for instance, on a packet of French beans. All French beans are good for freezing. What this means in this context is that they’ve been designed (bred or engineered) to all ripen at the same time, which is what commercial growers need. Gardeners do not; we generally prefer our mad, insane, ripening season to be spread out a little bit, if only to ease the stress on our nerves and picking hands. Nor do most of us demand ‘good uniform fruit’ – another strap line – but supermarkets do. Flavour, they’re not so bothered about. And, almost inevitably, many adaptable and delicious (often local) strains of vegetables have been lost in the past 40 or 50 years.

This brings me to a company who are the first of my local food heroes. I’m stretching ‘local’ a bit here, but they are in Wales. South-west Wales, but Wales nonetheless: The Real Seed Catalogue. I try and order most of my seed from them, at least in the beginning – and that’s at their encouragement, because one of their aims, at the cost to their own profits, is to get people to save their own seed. So what’s different about them? That would be almost everything. They specialise in heirloom and heritage seeds, seeds for plants that have been shown to really work, seeds for plants that are packed with flavour.

kaleTake one example, Sutherland Kale. I first grew this a couple of years ago, and it’s a smasher. It’s also a perfect illustration of the philosophy behind Real Seeds. It’s a real heirloom variety, now thought to be extinct except for individual gardens – and the Real Seeds seedbank. It can withstand almost anything in my exposed garden (even cabbage whites, which have been hellish this year), and still perform. And it tastes great, so several ticks for this variety already. Then there’s how it came to be offered through Real Seeds, which illustrates the collaborative community they have built up. As the packet says: ‘This variety was saved for years by Elizabeth Woolcombe of West Drummie in Sutherland, who is now 93. She got it from a kale researcher [who knew there were such jobs?] called Angus Simmonds in the 1950s…’ and it was sent in by someone called V. Shilling. Not exactly a product of intensive development, then, designed to produce lots of kale for a giant supermarket distribution centre in, say, the third week of February. Maybe this year they’ll be adding Shetland Kale, as they have had seeds submitted for trial and it’s currently doing well. And they do trial; nothing gets in the catalogue or on the website unless it works. Everything is grown at their place in Pembrokeshire for family use; if it’s fiddly, fastidious or tasteless it doesn’t make the cut. But it’s not parochial; there’s a wide selection of oriental vegetables, for example, or tasty Bulgarian tomatoes alongside the more familiar Cosse Violette climbing beans and the Verde di Italia courgettes. And they all work.

Adaptability is vital; growing your own vegetables can be chancy enough without unconsciously trying to replicate commercially grown varieties. The small team at Real Seeds also make sure that they select the best seed in the first place, something most gardeners used to do but which is impossible on a highly commercial scale. They also continuously assess the range of seeds they offer, looking at areas which are a little light – runner beans, for instance, or endives – and deliberately going in search of appropriate possibilities. Some of the things they offer might be an acquired taste (I’m not quite sure why I ordered the cucumber I did one time, but let’s just say it didn’t make my cut, though some friends loved it), or completely unfamiliar – but I follow the advice of one of the River Cottage books and grow something unfamiliar every year. And I know that if I fancy growing huauzontle*, there’ll be decent seeds available, clear instructions and even a few recipes delivered with my seeds.

*A Mexican contribution, otherwise known as ‘Aztec greens’, Chenopodium berlandieri. Now you know…

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.