Tag Archives: Wales

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!

 

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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

 

 

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.

 

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…)

 

 

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.