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Monday, 29 August 2011

Tuscany comes to Ynysddu

A couple of old friends recently tied the knot and headed off to Tuscany for their honeymoon. As ever I was stumped for a wedding present. So I did the only thing I could, and offered to cook a meal for them. Given that they headed off to Italy it seemed only logical to cook Italian, my favourite cuisine, but to use as many local ingredients as possible.

So, it needed to be celebratory and memory provoking, and being Italian in style based around sharing and helping yourself in the company of good friends with good wines flowing.

Olives and Bruschetta to start. Monmouthshire isn’t famous for its Olive production so sadly these had to be bought in, but the bruschetta uses home-made bread and Oven Dried Tomatoes (I hour at 120c), originally purchased from local producers, step forward Ty Mawr Organics in Penpergwm. All this with a Billini –my version of the Bellini -  Prosecco and a Mandarin/Sicilian Lemon Cordial.

Then to table and two Antipasto, the first Chargrilled vegetables (Aubergine, Courgette, Fennel, Mushrooms and Artichoke Hearts), the second a wide selection of Trealy Farm Charcuterie (Bresaola, Air dried ham, Salami  and Prosciutto). The diners were wowed by the quality of the Trealy Farm meats and they were voted best course by at least one.

Simple Olive Oil rolls were served to accompany (500g Strong Flour, 10g Salt - I used Halen Mon Celery salt- 10 g fresh yeast 80 Olive Oil, 270 g Water).
Mains were Sicilian Meatballs in a Tomato Sauce with fresh Pappardelle pasta made in the Tuscan style just flour and eggs ( 400 g 00 Flour 3-4 eggs, no salt, no Olive Oil),

a Green Salad to follow and then Gnocchi with Cherry Tomatoes, Dolcelatte and Cream Sauce topped with crispy Pancetta. This is a simple recipe but delivers great flavour and a satisfied feeling.

Cook Gnocchi for 3 minutes then remove from the pan and into an ovenproof dish. Whilst the water for the gnocchi is boiling sweat onions or shallots in butter and add to the gnocchi in the ovenproof dish.

Pour in enough double cream to come 2/3 of the way up the gnocchi.

Scatter Cherry tomatoes over the gnocchi – a mix of red and yellow looks good, and cube some Dolcelatte and scatter over.

Lay strips of Pancetta over the top and bake in an oven at 200c until the cheese melds with the cream, the tomatoes split and spill their juices into the sauce and the pancetta is crispy and the fat has rendered into an incredibly unctuous sauce.

Add Grated Parmesan or better still leave that to the diners.

To refresh the palate a simple Insalata Caprese highlighted Mozzarella, rich ripe tomatoes and fresh Basil

Drinks wise ,a Chianti Classico accompanied the Meatballs and a Pinot Grigio the Gnocchi.

Desserts were a Lemon, Ricotta and Poppy Seed cake, recipe adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery, and a Vanilla Gelato. Here the Italian theme slipped marginally as diners were offered a shot of Pedro Ximines Sherry to pour over the ice cream (Amazing effect).

Coffee -Espresso naturally- was served with Chocolate Confetti with a Limoncello centre and a little digestif in the form of Finocchieto (Like Limoncello but made with the flowers of wild Fennel and only made during a two week period when the blossom is at its peak). This warming aniseedy/liquorice liquor at around 40-50% proof is served straight from the freezer and eases any feeling of over indulgence.

Did it evoke memories of Italy for the Happy Couple? Their smiles implied it might, and the cook? He was happy that not a scrap remained uneaten.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Perfect Ploughman's

In September Monmouthshire will host the All Wales Ploughing Championship near Shirenewton.

That means there will be a lot of hungry ploughmen in attendance and got me thinking about the Perfect Ploughman's Lunch. No I don't mean the old joke about a plate of fish fingers and tomato sauce - that's what Old Ted,our local ploughman has, but really good locally sourced ingredients for a tasty nutritious lunch.

Monmouthshire and the area around has some of the UK's best produce and combining them into a simple but classic meal gives real pleasure.

At the heart has to be bread, the major source of carbohydrates, and I do not mean that pappy cotton-wool supermarket stuff but some real honest bread with taste and texture. Something you can really get your teeth into - in a good way.

Monmouthshire has good bakers, including the excellent Wigmores of Monmouth who still use traditional methods of baking, one of the last bakeries in Wales to do so. They use high quality British flour with locally sourced and traceable produce.  Available through their shops and cafe and also in Farmers Markets and Farm Shops their bread is really good with the superb Cobber Cob being my favourite. No matter how I try and use proper Cobber Flour I cannot match it but I guess that's what 100 years of baking experience does!

Roisin at Burren Bakery makes seriously good bread too. Soda Bread from her native Ireland is all that a good soda should be. Soft and well textured with a great crispy chewy crust it is good before she makes it even better with additions of Walnut and Honey, Raisins or Herbs. This is definitely what an Irish ploughman would be having for lunch.

So a good start with the breads, now for the cheese!

Though I cannot track down a specific Monmouthshire Cheese maker much of the Blaeafon World Heritage site lies in Monmouthshire and is home to the Blaenafon Cheddar Company. Susan Fiandr-Woodhouse makes an exciting range of cheeses including an award winning Goats cheese. She also combines local produce such as the excellent Reverend James Ale into her flavoured cheeses. One of my favourites is Pwll Mawr which is aged underground at the bottom Of Big Pit a former coal mine and now part of the National Museum of Wales, and I am a huge fan of the Smoked Cheese which is treated by Black Mountain Smokery in Crickhowell just over the border in Powys.

Of course over the border the other way ids Gloucestershire and the home of both Single and Double Gloucester cheese. Diana Smart makes both and they are regularly available in Usk Farmers Market. The cheeses, which are made from very old recipes, are equally lovingly cared for, from the mild smooth Single
Gloucester, which is made from the evening milk, which is skimmed and added to the mornings whole milk, (and for which they have the PDO) to the mature full flavoured whole milk Double Gloucester, and the strong hard Harefield, which can be used as an excellent substitute for Parmesan.

So a good selection of local cheeses to go with the breads for an excellent locally sourced Ploughman's.

Of course you need really good butter and I source mine from Abergavenny Market -  local farmhouse butter.

What's a Ploughman's without Pickle? A cheese sandwich! So local pickles are an essential.

Rhian Short runs Usk River, a pickle company also used by chef Wes Harris at the Charthouse restaurant. Where possible ingredients are sourced locally and all recipes are rich in ingredients prepared by hand from scratch with no bulking ingredients, ready made or artificial additives. Ingredients which are not available locally are sourced for their quality and food miles are taken into consideration when choosing suppliers. Quality red and white wine vinegars, sugars and whole spices are used.

Ham is often key to a good ploughman's and I will be including it in my bumper feast. Again the thin flaccid over pink tasteless supermarket hams should be avoided to get true taste. Trealy Farm do a great Air Dried Ham but for everyday use it is hard to beat Abergavenny butchers HJ Edwards. Whether it is the sliced ham or the really good Ham Hocks that they sell it will be ham that tastes like ham should and has texture. Another favourite is NS James in Raglan where again the quality is superb.

Some vegetable accompaniment is essential so what about really great tomatoes from Ty Mawr Organics or Whitebrook Organic Growers?

and an apple or two for a healthy dessert?  Breakwell’s Seedling, Frederick, Monmouthshire Beauty and St Cecilia are all Monmouthshire heritage apples with great taste.

Obviously with that fruit growing heritage the ploughman's has to be washed down with a Cider, or indeed a Perry. Wern Ddu Wines and Perry offer a good range of Ciders, Wines and Perry's though other local vineyards include Sugar Loaf, Parva and Ancre Hill.

All in all local producers can provide the Perfect Ploughman's Lunch and can more than satisfy the appetites of all those competing in the ploughing match.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Steer A Course For The Charthouse

Just a few miles from Abergavenny The Charthouse is a restaurant run by Wes Harris, a chef who has worked with all the local chefs and started his second restaurant last year. The previous one achieved high praise but his business partner pulled out.

Disappointed Wes considered leaving the industry but a period working with Matt Tebbut at The Foxhunter reignited his passion and, when the Charthouse came on the market Wes moved in , and a good job too.

With a new menu a couple of weeks ago and plans for a lighter lunch menu it seemed like a good time to visit, and a day out with an old friend gave the perfect reason to do so.

We arrived for a Wednesday lunch as walk ins and were warmly welcomed by Simon the Manager. A drink and the menu were delivered to comfortable chairs and we set about the decision process.

The emphasis is on local, seasonal and fresh with a good selection of appetisers, starters and mains and a strong showing in the fish and shellfish department. Although it was Wednesday and a country location a number of other diners, mainly walk ins like us arrived and around 10 settled for lunch.

We were offered Still, Sparkling or Tap water, not an option always given and settled for Tap, a large carafe with Lemon slices and sensible tumblers to drink from.

Big plus points were given to the sensible table layout and comfortable chairs and the modern tasteful decoration, the basket of fresh vegetables displayed in a niche inspired thoughts that this would be good food indeed.

My Weight Watching companion opted for a Main and Dessert, choosing the Madgetts Farm Chicken with baby tomatoes and new potatoes.

 I went for the pan fried Calves Liver with a buttery Mashed Potato and smoked Pancetta,

Both mains were amazing, real depth of flavour and presented well. Though "counting the points" my companion declared that it would be rude not to have dessert, and anyway Peaches are fruit so don't count.

Accordingly Roast Peaches were ordered whilst I had the  Chocolate and Caramel Tart.

The pastry for the tart would have had Mary Berry rolling on the floor in ecstasy, thin and crisp it held an amazingly soft caramel with an unctuous dark chocolate topping. A small jug of double cream completed the dish. "How are the Peaches" I asked "Too busy eating" responded the sometime dieter.

A good organic coffee rounded off a memorable lunch. The Comment Card filled by my companion was full of praise and she suggested that we return for Dinner one evening.

There was an ulterior motive for selecting the Charthouse for lunch.

I will be doing some filmed interviews for this blog and the Monmouthshire County Council Website in the run up to the Abergavenny Food Festival and Wes Harris will be one of the interviewees. He has done demonstrations in the Tithe Barn in the run up and will be doing another in the Market Hall at 2pm on Sunday. Wes really does believe in Local and Great using only good ingredients from local producers such as the woman who provides Salad ingredients and turns up wit a boot full of veg from which he takes his pick.

It will be good to interview him and to show how good Monmouthshire produce and food really is. Watch this space but, in the meantime visit the website and book your table - special offers during the Food Festival period. I certainly will be back!

To read more about Wes' demo -and others, at the Tithe Barn follow this link  

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Nicely Spicy

Take an Indian from London with a love of spices and cooking, transplant him to the Ballymaloe Cookery School, add an Irish girl and what do you get?

Green Saffron Spices of Midleton County Cork.

Arun Kapil combined his loves to produce some of the finest and freshest spices and blends available. As Arun says “We specialise in the highest grade, farm-fresh whole spices and proprietary blends of exceptional quality for home and professional kitchens alike”.

Arun uses members of his family who still live in India to comb the country to locate the finest spices available and oversees the grinding and blending to ensure authentic taste and great quality.

This means that Green Saffron spices are fresh! There is a massive difference between their vanilla pods and those from proprietary or own brands bought in supermarkets. Basically the freshness is the difference, supermarket spices have probably been warehoused for up to 3 years before you get them and have a shelf life of up to 18 months, Arun recommends that his are kept for no more than 3 months!!

I first came across Arun at Ballymaloe Cookery School where he came in to do a demo on spices, and to give us a detailed insight to the production process. Aruns infectious joy at working with and explaining spices came over - which was just as well as he set and marked art of the final exams! He also cooked a wonderful Gingerbread – the best I have ever tasted – with a delicate flavour and an awesome stickiness. I had to buy some of the blend at Midleton Farmers Market where he has a stall every Saturday. Green Saffron give the recipe for really fragrant and tasty food with every pack of spice bought, including the Gingerbread and Mulled Wine!

Arun also sells curries made from his spice blends and I soon swapped my usual market breakfast of an organic bacon roll for a fresh curry and rice!

Green Saffron Spices are used by some of the top chefs in both Ireland and London and Arun guested on Richard Corrigan’s “Cookery School” on Channel 4 where he taught the semi-finalists as well as being an RTE regular.

Last December Arun came to the Abergavenny Christmas Food Festival where he was an instant success and has been invited back to this September’s food Festival to give a tutored tasting. Saturday at 3 in Trinity Hall is the place to be – if there are any tickets left!  If not you will just have to visit the Green Saffron Stall to buy the amazing fresh spices and blends and maybe indulge in one (or more) of the puddings, Christmas and otherwise, that he has on offer.

If you can’t wait that long visit the website and use the mail order. 

But don’t just take my word for it, these chefs have all said great things about Arun Kapil and Green Saffron Spices

“The best, freshest spices I’ve ever used. Fantastic”. Richard Corrigan

“Your green cardamoms and saffron are simply superb” Joel Robouchon

“Green Saffron’s spices have such an incredible flavour; they give food a whole new dimension” Rachel Allen

Here are a couple of typical recipes, go online to buy the spice blends then amaze family and friends with the resultant curries.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Two Step Wonder Curry
Serves 6-8 people



6 large cloves of garlic, crushed or blitzed

90g/3oz or 3 fat inches of ginger, grated or blitzed with skin on

300ml/½ pint (or 2 small pots) natural, plain yoghurt

1 Packet of GREEN SAFFRON Tikka Masala SACHET 1 Marinade Mix

½ lemon, zest and juice

2tblsp sunflower oil (any type of general cooking oil really, - not sesame!)

1kg/2lb of chicken meat (white, brown or a mix of both), diced

How to start making your meal:

1. Combine all the above ingredients, mix well, cover with a damp tea towel and set aside for a least two hours (or over-night in the fridge)



60g/2oz ghee, butter, clarified butter, or 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

450g/1lb onions, chopped

6 large cloves of garlic, crushed or blitzed

30g/1oz or 1 fat inch of ginger, grated or blitzed with skin on

1 Packet of GREEN SAFFRON Tikka Masala SACHET 2 Tomato mix

2 tins of tomatoes

2tsp sugar (this helps bring out the spices)

How to finish making your meal:

2. Heat the ghee, butter (or clarified butter, oil) in a large casserole dish or saucepan on medium heat.
3. Next, add the chopped onions, garlic and ginger and sweat until soft.
4. Then add the Tikka Masala SACHET 2 Tomato Mix and toast for a couple of minutes (don't worry if  the mix looks a little dry at this stage, it will all come good)
5. Add the tomatoes and sugar, turn down the heat to a medium simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.
6. Then, remove from the heat and whizz this spicy tomato sauce in a processor, liquidiser or with a hand blender until smooth (or as smooth as you like)
7. Put the pan back on the heat, set to medium, add the whizzed up tomato sauce also add the chicken and all its Marinade Mix from STEP 1, stir well to combine the two.
8. Turn the heat down to low, cook for about 20 minutes (stirring occasionally) or until the chicken is just cooked (turn the heat down further if the sauce starts to spit mad, or feels like it may burn)....Simple!

Serving Suggestion:
Sprinkle with freshly chopped coriander and serve with Indian Basmati rice.

Alternative Suggestions:
As a vegetarian option try using potatoes and cauliflower to make up the same weight as the meat, then add peas just at the end and cook enough to heat then through.

Try replacing the chicken with 2 lbs. of stewing lamb, but cook the dish for about 1 hour (in part 8) or just until the meat is good and tender.

Dahl Makhani

One Pot Wonder Curry
Serves 4 - 6 people


1lb/450g white (Spanish) onions, peeled and finely chopped

5oz/150g ghee, butter or clarified butter

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or blitzed

2 red chillies, deseeded, finely chopped (alter according to your heat tolerance!)

3 fat inches ginger, grated or blitzed with skin on

1 packet of GREEN SAFFRON Dahl Makhani Spice Mix

8oz Puy lentils

24floz/700ml vegetable stock (or water)

1 can cooked kidney beans (approx. 10oz), drained and rinsed

4tblsp pouring, single cream

Coriander, finely chopped

How to make your meal:

1. In a thick bottomed casserole dish or saucepan, sweat the onions, garlic, ginger and chillies in the ghee along with your packet of GREEN SAFFRON Dahl Makhani Spice Mix for about 10 minutes or until the onions are soft.
2. Add the Puy lentils to the dish or saucepan and stir around over a gentle heat for a couple of mins, as if you’re making a risotto.
3. Next, add the stock (or water) and stir again to combine all the flavours and ingredients.
4. Bring to the boil, then immediately turn the heat down and simmer over a gentle heat with the lid on the pan for about 40mins or until the lentils are the texture and have the ‘bite’ that you want.

Don’t forget to stir the pot occasionally to prevent sticking. Also add more stock (or water) if you’re worried the meal is getting too dry...
5. Add the kidney beans and cream, stir and simmer on a gentle heat for about 5 mins.
6. Finally, sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve immediately …simple!

Serving suggestion:
Serve with Indian Basmati rice, Indian breads and riata.

Biryani - medium
Two Step Wonder Curry
Serves 4-6 people


1kg/2lb of stewing lamb, diced

5 large cloves of garlic, crushed or blitzed

2 fat inches (60g) of ginger, grated or blitzed with skin on

¼pt/125ml (or 1 small pot) natural, plain yoghurt

1 green chilli, finely chopped (or use a red chilli if a green one isn't available)

2 medium sized onions, chopped

1 packet of GREEN SAFFRON Biryani SACHET 1 Marinade Mix

½ lemon, zest and juice

Nice handful of mint leaves, chopped

How to start making your meal:
1. Combine all the above ingredients, mix well, cover with a damp tea towel and set aside for at least four hours (or overnight in the fridge)



1 tbsp. ghee, oil, clarified butter or butter

2 pints of water

1 packet of GREEN SAFFRON Biryani SACHET 2 Rice Mix

300g/11oz Indian Basmati rice, washed thoroughly and drained

How to finish making your meal:

2. Heat the ghee, oil (clarified butter or butter) in a large pan or casserole (so long as the one you choose has a tight fitting lid), add all the meat and marinade from Step 1 and cook on medium for about 25 minutes. Then set aside - it's not needed until later (see part 5 below)
3. Meanwhile, put the water into a large saucepan, add the Biryani SACHET 2 Rice Mix and the rice bring to the boil and cook uncovered for 10 minutes.
4. Strain the remaining water from the rice into the meat mixture and stir thoroughly.
5. Spread the rice in an even layer over the meat.
6. Put the lid on the pan or casserole and place on a high heat for 5 minutes.
7. Then turn the heat to its lowest setting and cook gently for 30 minutes, keeping the lid on and not stirring at all!
8. Remove from the heat and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before taking to the table, lifting off the lid and allowing everyone to get the full, fragrant Eastern aroma......simple!

Serving Suggestion:
Sprinkle with a little freshly chopped mint and serve with GREEN SAFFRON Riata.