Category Archives: Wales

A great way to spend a Sunday evening: Dylan’s, Criccieth

There were rumours this was happening for some time. Whispers, vague speculations, gossip. But if we believed everything we heard, all sorts of things would be true that patently are – well, rubbish. However, these rumours became more concrete – almost literally. Dylan’s, the restaurant beloved of those lucky people in Menai Bridge, was coming to Criccieth.

And in what a building.

Dylan's Criccieth

It looks Art Deco, but it was actually built in 1954 – it’s a typical Clough Williams-Ellis design, in that it’s a classy pastiche. It was built as a cafe, but not one like Dylan’s; in fact one of the owners in the early days was Billy Butlin, and people staying in his holiday camps would come for tea dances; after that, it was rented out. It’s listed (grade II), and it is indeed made of concrete.

As soon as we knew Dylan’s were taking bookings, we rang and got in as early as we could – you’ve got to test these exciting developments – and so we piled into the car yesterday evening and set off for our supper. An hour’s drive, yes, but we knew it would be worth it (the Menai Bridge branch has been well, er, researched).

ready and waitingWe were booked in quite early, and when we arrived the place was almost empty, allowing us to have a good look around. It’s a delightful, airy space, with full-height windows giving an magnificent view of the sea and lots of light. The restaurant seems very spacious and I suspect it will continue to do so, however frantic it gets at the height of the season.

Almost empty though it might have been when we arrived, it soon filled up – it was fully booked, in fact, as a few speculative ‘walk-ins’ were being told. The service was – no surprises, given past experience – great: efficient, friendly, chatty without being intrusive. The major problem was deciding what to have. Pizzas (such as the Menai Strait, with lobster and scallops)? A burger (maybe the felafel burger, with its sourdough bun, chunky chips, relishes and pickle)? Mussels (perhaps the Drunken Mussels, steamed in Welsh cider, with leeks and bacon)? A lobster salad?

We eventually went for other things. After all, we can come back and check out the pizzas and burgers – and indeed everything else – quite easily now. So I started with Gravadlax, salmon which had been cured for 48 hours in beetroot and gin, and which was served with a potato salad, including lots of fennel (I thought I detected dill instead, but it may just have been very strong fennel). Beautiful.

I follDylansowed this with a Ceasar Salad. I know it may seem boring, but I reckon that’s a good test: the dressing, the quality of the chicken and the Parmesan, even the lettuce – I’ve had some horrors over the past few years. This was a good one. In fact, this was a very good one. The chicken was perfect, and there was plenty of it – another good test: one anaemic, tasteless slice doth not a Caesar Salad make.

I decided to test their chunky chips too (someone has to do these things), and can report back that they were delicious, and I can also say that the house white was a perfectly respectable Sauvignon Blanc. The others had roast halibut and a hake fillet with a herb and parmesan crust, and were equally impressed – but we were too happily full to test the dessert menu. One for another visit…

Finally – the setting:

Dylan's boardwalk

Imagine this in a winter storm, with a warm and welcoming restaurant to watch it from. Perfect.

Dylan’s Restaurant, Maes Y Mor, Criccieth, Gwynedd, LL52 0HU;
01766 522773 – open 11a.m to 11p.m

 

 

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Terrible bad – and the need for free wifi

I’ve been terrible bad, barely blogging here – partly down to our broadband being not so much super-fast as super-dooper-sssslllloooowwww, and partly down to simply working too much on other things.

TH Cafe
T H Café, Dolgellau (photo from Trip Advisor)

Due to the aforementioned broadband running like a snail with arthritis, I have been working quite a bit in a couple of cafés in the nearby towns, and have come to the conclusion that an essential ingredient for a perfect café is free, decent wifi.

Happily my absolute favourite choices, depending on where I am, are generous with the wifi – they are TH Café in Dolgellau and the Llew Glas Deli in Harlech.There are others I use, but generally they fall down on other factors (customer service, ahem), or their wifi is either only free for a limited period of time and/or ensures that you are bombarded with marketing drivel for ever and ever. Making a pact with the devil would be a better bargain than getting ‘free’ wifi from one of the high street chains…

How did this happen? It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a post about local cafés, in which I went on about decent coffee, customer service, even the quality of the seating. The quality of the broadband barely occurred to me – then. Now it’s crucial. Is it something to do with the fact that I now carry my very own edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in the form of my iPad) everywhere?

It intrigues me, though.

A couple of days ago I sat in one of my favourite cafés and noticed a family of four nearby. It was a glorious day though the wind was a little nippy, but the sun was beating down, the countryside was gleaming with new leaves and the sea was the sort of deep blue you normally associate with the West Indies rather than West Wales. And yet this evidently holidaying family were sitting inside a café, each of them lost in their own mobile device – either tablets or smartphones. It wasn’t just that they weren’t paying attention to the world outside, they weren’t even paying attention to each other. Or the food, either: they could have been served a helping each of slugs stewed in their own juice, and they’d not have noticed. As they left one of the staff wished them a good day, and the mother said that they were going home tomorrow, and how thankful they’d been for the wifi.

I went over to pay myself, and started chatting with the staff (I know them, it’s OK, I don’t always start gossiping to complete strangers). Apparently the family had been in every day for a week, had never stayed less than a couple of hours and sometimes more, had almost never spoken to each other except to order food and drink. It’s been a good week, weatherwise, too. The staff were slightly baffled and so was I – why come to somewhere like Snowdonia for a holiday if you’re not going to get out into it?

This prompted me to ask about the wifi. Could the caff imagine life without it? No need to imagine, I was told – a few weeks previously it had gone down (no surprise there, I think BT believe that if they improve the cables in Wales they’ll just get eaten by dragons). And so had their takings.

So I’m making a plea to us all, including myself. Yes, let’s use cafés with wifi, and why not? But do let’s enjoy other things too. Counryside. Coasts. Our friends, our families. Cakes. Coffee. Or the slug stew will come out. Honest it will.

 

Preserves and produce – the show season

I tend – like most of us, I expect – to judge the passing of the seasons with markers. If the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award hikers have collapsed on my wall it must be summer; if the village garden club show has happened, autumn cannot be far behind. This year I have been working flat out, so the show burst upon me. It was just as well that I’d not entered anything in the baking, because I was far too busy checking the dahlias for earwigs to worry about Victoria sponges and whether I could do a Helen Mirren and buy one from M&S.

I had all my preserves ready, though. I still had to stage a chutney beauty contest because I’d lost the ability to distinguish one from another, but apart from that I was done. The produce and wine section is always keenly contested, and I’d been nominated as the steward. This meant helping the judge – a local chef – by writing frantically, washing spoons, saying almost nothing about anything other than the weather, putting prize markers in the right place and keeping an absolute poker face whenever he approached any of my entries with his spoon (or asked me to taste something – er – surprising).

preservesThere were a lot of entries in our classes – from country wines to vegetable pickles, from sloe gins to lemon curds. And they all had to be tasted, assessed, judged – often requiring repeated tasting – and reflected upon. We were still working our way through the chutneys when the other judges and stewards had retired for sarnies, but I didn’t mind.

Of course there were some unfortunates: the jelly which hadn’t set, the still wine starting to fizz and ferment. But there were some truly wonderful things, produced by people with real talent, and our judge treated everything with proper respect.

I also got to taste one or two, and not just my own…

When we were setting up, I was helping place entries and came across something I’d not encountered before: bread and butter pickle. The maker said she’d found the recipe in an old book, and had no idea why it was called this, but it involved pickling cucumbers and onions and she’d added a courgette, all finely sliced, as well as mustard seeds and a little turmeric and, and… It was gorgeous. Its maker also said it was ‘like the pickle you get in McDonalds’ – oh no, it wasn’t. It was a million, zillion times better. Of course it won.

I’ve now done some digging around, and the name ‘bread and butter pickle’ won’t come as a surprise to any of my US friends – perfectly normal pickle (sniff). Wikipedia says that bread and butter pickles are sweeter than ‘normal’ dill pickles, with more sugar added to the brine, and with sliced cucumbers rather than whole ones. And b&b pickle is indeed cited as often an accompaniment to burgers, so our maker wasn’t so far off the mark in theory, even if she was blissfully miles away in reality. I’ve also found a recipe in an ‘old’ book over here – Reader’s Digest Farmhouse Cookery from 1980 – and there are numerous online versions. In the RD book it is given as a UK pickle, described as ‘countrywide’ and ‘an old country pickle’, but I can’t confirm that. However, it is delicious – and if anyone wants to have a go, our show winner had finely cut her cucumbers into long strips, which really worked.

marmeladesOur judge alternated between sugary preserves, less-sugary drinks, pickles, fruit liqueurs and chutneys, trying not to overload on sugar or vinegar (or alcohol, come to that). The sheer range was astonishing, even in the more specific classes – like the marmelade, for instance. There were plenty of recommendations for next year, and I made plenty of personal notes, mental and physical – scribbled on my hand. Principally…

there is no way I am going to resist making apricot vodka. Everyone should make apricot vodka. Make it, then hide it.

I always make sloe gin, and though mine is not particularly sweet it has won in the past (not this year, though). This year, I added blackberry whisky to my repertoire and somehow managed to save enough to have some for the show – it got lost at the very back of a cupboard; the first lot went alarmingly fast). Next year apricot vodka has to be marooned behind the bulk buys.

There were several entries (apricot vodka has a specific class), but the one which won was simply unbelievable. It was deeply golden, and had a depth of flavour and subtle maturity which made it stand out. The basic recipe given in the show brochure says to leave the apricots in the vodka for eight days, or maybe fourteen, or maybe twenty-two: the winner had definitely left them for longer. There are other recipes out there, but the show recipe is simple. The winner followed it apart from the timing (he’s saying no more), so I am going to experiment. Here’s the recipe, verbatim: ‘1.5 lbs dried apricots, 2 pts vodka, 1 lb sugar. Place all ingredients in a container, do not mix. Turn twice a day for 8 days, leaving the jar sitting on its lid for some days [!]. Strain and bottle. You can also use the same apricots for a second batch but this time leave for 14 days. If the vodka is too sweet for your taste after the first blending [?] use less sugar on the second batch and blend after the 14 days.’ As a food writer and editor, I’ve got some queries about this, but I’m going for it anyway. Watch this space… hic….

Ooo matron (or the love of sausages)

What is it with Brits? When it comes to humour, most of us dearly love a double-entendre or anything scatalogical. When I was doing stand-up I sometimes felt that I could abandon my act and say ‘bottom’ for 20 minutes, and get the same hysterical response. Mind you, I was never brave enough to try it, not even at the midnight show at the Comedy Store.

So it’s probably best to confront all the Carry-On style double entendres immediately. This post is about sausages. That’s right, sausages: ‘An item of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork or other meat encased in a skin, typically sold raw to be grilled or fried before eating’, to quote the OED, and absolutely nothing else. OK?

We’re very lucky round here in that many of the butchers take pride in their ‘item[s] of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork’. Perhaps it’s not surprising; there’s a long-established tradition in Britain of local pig-rearing and smaller-scale butchery. Admittedly the small-scale butchery nearly disappeared, but, like some other food traditions – decent breadmaking, for instance – care and attention are again being given to pork products, and on a satisfyingly artisan basis.

Bewick cottagerAnd, even if we haven’t all quite got back to the point where there are piglets playing about while we hang out the washing, the tradition of small-scale pig-rearing is also beginning to reappear.

Some of my friends, for instance, have a pig-sharing thing going on – one rears the pig, the rest share the expenses and will get a share of the haul. But it’s not for me, despite the fact that I do have an old pigsty available. First, the neighbours would probably object, especially the Chapel next door; second, the pigsty is now a garden store and I’d have to clear it out if I wanted to keep a pig. Third, I must admit to being a bit nervous around pigs: I’m no Lord Emsworth, and they are big. One farmer I know had an enormous evil-tempered sow straight out of Celtic myth, and she scared even him (the sausage maker got her in the end; while it would be exaggerating to say that his village put the bunting out, many people were relieved – she’d been prone to escaping).

And, of course there’s that other reason: I can get good sausages and bacon easily, and  without all the fuss, bother or inevitable deterioration in neighbourly relations. The Spar shop in my village houses an award-winning sausage maker; there are multiple delicious choices at the local farmers’ markets and even the local Co-op does a good selection in their premium range. I’ve tried many of the flavouring options available and am currently coming down in favour of cracked black pepper sausages, either from local producers Oinc Oink (a happily bilingual name – there’s no ‘k’ in modern Welsh) or Ynysgyffylog. They’ve got enough punch to stand up to all sorts of other ingredients and are perfect for when I want exactly that impact but without the garlic of my local butcher’s best Toulouse-style sausage (itself ideal in cassoulet). And when I can’t get any of those, largely down to bad planning on my part, I get the Co-op’s Lincolnshires. Very good, very sage-y, as a good Lincolnshire sausage should be.

Ever since I discovered a tasty recipe in an old copy of Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter I’ve done much more than simply bake / fry / grill sausages and serve them neat, as it were (I did adapt the recipe, which was from 1974 – tinned carrots? I think not…). A good sausage is a good sausage, no matter how you cook it – and a bad one will always be a disgrace, much more appropriately found – and left – in CMOT Dibbler’s tray in Ankh Morpork than in my sandwich / bake / ragout / salad. Their potential is enormous, as indicated by all the /// alternatives. So here’s my latest recipe, a warm salad. The weather isn’t summery enough for a cold one. Yet.

saladWarm potato and sausage salad
Serves 2

The recipe uses cooked sausages. I bake mine, while I’m cooking something else, at about 180 degrees, 160 degrees fan / GM 4 for approximately 30 minutes (depending on their thickness). I then let them cool completely. It’s the spuds that are warm, not the bangers…

200 – 250g new potatoes
6 well-flavoured sausages, baked, chilled
3 sticks of celery
2 banana shallots or 1 small red onion
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp Greek yoghurt
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
a little salt
lots of black pepper
a large sprig of parsley, chopped

Chop the potatoes into chunks no bigger than 2cm, and put them in a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the cold sausages into slices and put them in a large bowl. De-string the celery sticks and chop them up too, then add to the bowl as well. Cut the shallots in half and remove any greenish centres which can be bitter, then slice them into rings and add to the bowl as well.

Test the potatoes and check that they are just tender, then drain them well. Add them to the bowl and then quickly add the mayo, yoghurt and mustard. Add a little salt and turn the salad over carefully with a wooden spoon; the potatoes should not break up, but everything does need to be covered in the dressing. Add lots of black pepper and a good handful of chopped parsley and stir gently once more, then put it onto warmed serving plates. Serve immediately, with chunks of bread.

(And then steal any left-overs…)

 

 

To ramson or not to ramson…

Ramsons – aka wild garlic, stink bombs or stinking nanny (I kid you not), correctly Allium ursinum, has been, for the past couple of years, the hot fave trendy wild food. Think forgaging, think ramsons: that’s been the message in some quarters.

ramsonsThe plants are easy to identify (even easier once they’re in flower), they’re easy to gather and they’re prolifically present in hedgerows and woodland – and my garden – just about now. And now’s the perfect time, because the leaves are still young. Plus it’s the start of the hungry gap, the time when stored fruits and vegetables have been used up and the new season is yet to get going.

The recent popularity of wild garlic is nothing new; it’s been a useful herb for time out of mind. And that extends to more recent history too; the leaves were frequently collected and used during WW2 as a substitute for the flavouring previously provided by onions.

But – and I’m saying this as possibly the most enormous fan of all things allium since the Roman invasion of Britain – ramson leaves often leave me underwhelmed. Either they’re too strong or too slimy or they look revolting once cooked or they’re tough or – well, they can really, really dominate everything else. I recently slung some in a Thai green curry to see if they could hold their own, and they could. Roger Phillips almost left ramsons out of Wild Food – two sentences, no recipe –  and I’m coming round to the point of view that he might have been right.

That’s despite the fact that wild garlic is so common round me that the air can take on a distinct and powerful garlic scent – smell – at this time of year. Places are even named after it: Crafnant near me, just outside Beddgelert, means ‘valley of the wild garlic’…

But it goes against the grain, leaving such a prolific resource untouched. I’ve found two uses I do like, and like very much. The first is a wild garlic oil, made by steeping some young leaves in olive oil for a few days.

The second use is more traditional:  with fish.IMG_8576 Gerard, after all, said the leaves made a good sauce for fish but fit only for those with ‘a strong constitution and labouring men’. I’m not the latter, and I probably haven’t got the former, so I use it to wrap round the fish instead.

Salmon wrapped in ramsons
serves 2

5-6 ramson leaves, young and fresh
2 fillets of salmon
1 slice of lemon, and a squeeze as well

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees conventional, 180 degrees fan, GM 6. Spread out a piece of foil big enough to wrap the salmon generously. Put two of the leaves on the foil, cut the slice of lemon in half and put a piece on each leaf. Then put the fillets – head to toe, slim end next to fat end – on top of the leaves. Tuck more leaves between the fillets and lie two on top. Then pull the foil up around the fish and squeeze in some lemon juice. Bring the foil over the top and fold the sides together into a loose, but well-sealed,  parcel.

Put the parcel in an oven-proof dish and put it in the oven for 15 minutes. Carefully unwrap the parcel – the steam inside is hot – and check that the salmon is cooked, which will depend on the size of the fillets: they should be opaque all the way through and not transparent. Reseal and return to the oven if necessary for a few more minutes.

Once cooked, unwrap the fish and remove the leaves from the top and middle. Carefully lift the fillets from their parcel and off the lemon and bottom leaves, and put them on a plate to cool. Serve with a green salad (without ramsons, unless you’re addicted), sauté potatoes and lemon mayonnaise.

Spring on a plate.
It’s not that I haven’t tried other things, as often recommended. Ramson pesto: too strong by half, takes ages before everything you eat afterwards stops tasting of garlic. Ramson leaves in salad? Use one, and make it tiny; otherwise, ditto. Ramson leaves added to saute potatoes? If you’ve ever had burnt garlic, you’ll know the risk. Let’s just say I contemplated leaving home. And had to wash everything. Maybe I just have access to very strong wild garlic…

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.

The elephant in the foodie room

I can’t ignore this one any longer, and I’m not apologising if it turns into a rant (though I’ll try and control myself, honest, keep my red flag furled and my barricade-building tools firmly in the shed).

Sometimes the world of food writing can seem a little precious. Obviously there are some great exceptions, from food campaigners to bloggers who push eating well on extremely little money, and they’re brilliant. But it really hit me in the run-up to Christmas this year, reading reviews and flashy ‘best-buy’ comparisons in the media, that many food writers appear to operate in an exclusively well-off, middle-class, home-counties bubble full of exclusive restaurants and exotic ingredients. And yet there is a massive food story going on at present which many people are failing to cover. It’s not glamorous, it’s not going to inspire an elegant table setting or chic contribution to a dinner party. But it’s everywhere; nowhere is immune, even my own community here in beautiful, picture-postcard Snowdonia.

When I was about thirteen, I remember asking my father about the lack of younger people in the part of Sutherland that was so dear to us. Ever political, he took care to explain the economic situation in detail, much of which I don’t remember clearly. But I do remember his closing statement, almost something of a cliché, but true nonetheless: you can’t eat scenery.

Living somewhere beautiful is no barrier to deprivation. Turn your back on the beautiful views and look at the increasingly run-down council estates; go off the main road and explore some of the ex-slate-mining towns and villages which the newer road has bypassed. We tend to think of economic deprivation as being an urban problem, but it isn’t. Recovery? What recovery? There isn’t much of one in some of the places I know well. And this is where the food banks come in.

food bank hoursEighteen months ago there was one official food bank in North Wales, in Mold. Now we are further into this alleged economic recovery we are apparently having, and strangely they have increased in number, and are continuing to do so. Food banks now cover more of Flintshire as well as Wrexham, Caernarfon, Denbigh, Welshpool, Bangor and even the jolly holiday town of Barmouth. And those are just the ‘official’ ones.

There are many other community- and church-based ones, such as one in Pwllheli. Some have a web presence (like the splendid Telford Crisis Network), but more do not and rely on word of mouth. Some are purely individual, prompted by highly-motivated people, such as one which sprang up in Rhyl recently. Their contribution isn’t quantified but, bearing in mind that Trussell Trust food banks alone fed nearly 350,000 people in 2012-13, it has been estimated that they have helped over 500,000. The Trussell Trust pulled out the number of children from their stats: 126,889 kids were fed by their food banks in the same period. These figures do not include this Christmas season, when some anecdotal evidence I’ve been given points to even more use.

I find it depressing that there are members of the current administration who decry the existence of the food banks which, according to them, are unnecessary and have a ‘political agenda’. There have also been comments about the banks supplying exotica, so let’s look at the typical shopping list recommended by the Trussell Trust (I was given a copy when the Barmouth bank started collecting outside local supermarkets, but it’s on their website). Powdered milk, sugar, a carton of fruit juice, bottled pasta sauce, tinned soup, baked beans, tinned toms, tinned sponge pud, tinned rice pud, cereals, tea, instant coffee, rice, pasta, tinned meat or fish, jam and biscuits. Pretty wild, huh? And it’s also been reported that some people have been returning those items in their boxes which require heating up. They can’t afford it.

Now I’d like to think about the reasons why people end up – at the end of their tether, having tried everything else and often deeply ashamed – using food banks. Yes, there are more food banks, so more people are using them (that’s the ‘reason’ given by some members of the government for their increasing use), but a food bank is not something that’s set up on a whim, nor can someone in need just materialise at a Trussell Trust food bank and demand some tins of rice pudding – they have to be referred. Right, here goes: benefit delays bring 29.69% of people; low income, 18.45; benefit changes, 14,65; debt, 9.52% – and so on. The full list is on the Trust’s website.

Presumably the Red Cross have a political agenda too, since they’ve also been organising food collections in the UK in the run-up to Christmas. The last time they were involved in large-scale food aid here was during WW2. Just saying.

I’m lucky, and I know it. It’s not that I’ve got lots of money – I haven’t; I’ve spent years working around the book trade and that does not bring you great riches, even when augmented by freelance journalism – but if I want a delicious bar of artisan chocolate from the farmers’ market, if I want to test the latest blend from a local coffee roaster, I can afford it. I’m sensible, though. I don’t see this as meaning that I have to miss out on anything, except possibly roast peacock stuffed with truffles, but sooner or later Lidl will add that to their frozen foods alongside the lobster. I am lucky. And it’s no great loss to me if I add a tin or two of soup to my basket, or buy something I normally would not, like powdered milk.

Just one final word before I get off my soapbox and back to cooking. In the 1920s, Joseph Rowntree didn’t contribute to the soup kitchens in York (another place long combining picture postcards and poverty), despite his wealth. Instead, he set up his Trusts to try and do something about the root causes; check out the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s website for more up-to-date information on the whole issue. So while things like food banks will always be a sticking plaster, I take the view that the sticking plaster is necessary. People can and will be very generous (on one collection day before Christmas, the Tesco Extra shop in Talbot Green couldn’t cope with the amount being donated, for example; some people gave whole trolly loads to the Pontyclun food bank), but it doesn’t mean you should lose sight of the underlying wound…

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.