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Saturday, 29 October 2011

Great Start to the Festival

A large crowd was growing outside Newport’s Market Hall as we arrived and, smack on 7pm the doors opened and we streamed in.

A welcome glass of champagne or a soft drink was happily consumed as we studied the seating plan, noting that we were on Table 3. This turned out to be the Top Table and I had the pleasure of sitting next to the Mayor of Newport Margaret Cornelius.

The upstairs area of the Hall had been transformed into a dining area and decorated with the trademark Forks, some at ground level and others hanging from the ceiling.

Each table had three bottles of wine for 10 people and we were advised that soft drinks or coffee were available for people who did not want alcohol or wished to limit their consumption. In the meantime a refill of champagne was dispensed.

After a brief welcome during which it was stressed that the waiting staff had never done this before and that they were all unemployed. Two weeks of training had given them a skill which would hopefully convert into a job.

Then the starters arrived, cooked by the Bell at Caerleon.
Janet’s Grilled Flat Mushroom with Melted Perl Las cheese and a Walnut and Raspberry Salad was epic. A moist plump mushroom set off by the slight acidity of the cheese and with warm, crunchy but yielding walnuts and a sweet/sour raspberry coulis.

I had opted for the Scotch Egg in a cider infused crust and accompanied by a shot of Hallets Real Cider. The egg was simply the best I have ever had. A tasty sausage meat and an egg cooked to perfection, the yolk thick warm and runny – considering they had to produce around 60 of these to get them cooked to perfection was a triumph. Crispy bruschetta came with the egg and a salad with chef’s salad crème. Or at least it should. I didn’t actually get any crème and the salads were inconsistent, mine was 100% frisee, whilst the Mayor had 100% radicchio. That minor quibble did not, however, detract from this being one of the best starters that I have ever had and by far and away the best egg.

The Waterloo Hotel provided the main courses.
Janet had the Venison Wellington with a whinberry and port wine jus, celeriac and potato dauphinoise and honey carrots. Tender venison with a good pastry surround, a rich sauce and great vegetables made this a strong dish. The potato and celeriac dauphinoise was smooth creamy and unctuous whilst the honey glazed carrot delivered a big burst of warm earthy goodness.

Baked Gower Cod, with Laver Bread and a mussel, clam and vegetable Cawl was a description which did not do justice to the actual dish. A large pave of perfectly cooked Cod sat in a delicate light veloute with baby cockles in their shells and a couple of mussels removed from theirs and Laver Bread cooked into a crisp thin shard. Again the Cod was well up with the best ever, the flesh firm and dazzlingly white, the sauce creamy and the shell fish tender and toothsome. If there is a criticism it was the description of the dish as a Cawl. For a number on the table this had indicated a thin soup with lots of vegetables and a few bit of cod in the style of a traditional Lamb Cawl. The jealousy factor as they saw my dish went off the scale!!

Finally Gemelli produced their desserts. I can only comment on the one as both Janet and I had opted for it.

Specially created for the meal layers of delicate sponge soaked in Limoncello and with the lightest of Chantilly creams and a Limoncello top were surmounted by a stunning chocolate crown. To the side sat a wonderful Pannacotta and a small wild berry compote protected buy an art deco chocolate cage. Light delicate and packed full of taste this little gem provided a perfect finale to the meal. Gemelli is certainly a destination for me in the near future.

Three local restaurants showing what they did and did very well set the Food Festival off to a great start and possibly best of all some of the waiting staff had already found employment as a result of their training whilst others had obtained further training opportunities.

A great success.

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Friday, 28 October 2011

Newport - the excitement mounts

Just 24 hours till the launch of Wales’ newest food Festival in Newport and the excitement is mounting. Tonight we shall be at the Meal showcasing the talents of three local establishments, The Bell at Caerleon, The Waterloo Hotel and Gemelli’s, and then tomorrow it all kicks off in the Market, the Riverfront and on the streets.

Though the more established Cowbridge Food Festival is also on this weekend Newport has a strong line-up and should become part of the festival calendar.

I have booked to see two chef demos and will also be hitting the stalls pretty heavily.

The first demo is by The Pumpkin Patch (Lisa Fearn). Lisa is the owner of The Pumpkin Patch Cookery & Gardening School and also cooks on S4C's Wedi 3. Lisa is committed to teaching children to cook and will be running a series of workshops over the weekend. I will be seeing her adult demo and hoping to pick up a few tips and wrinkles.

Secondly I will see Justin Llwywelyn who cooks at the Newbridge on Usk. The Newbridge has just become part of the Celtic Manor Collection having previously been run by Chris Evans. Justin has cooked for the Queen and was previously head chef at some highly prestigious kitchens in hotels.

Out on the streets I will, in particular, be looking for Elmtree Foods and Burren Bakery.

Collette Crewe started Elmtree in May of this year and is already gaining a huge reputation for her pies. I love the Porky Pear and Mrs K is a fan of Minty Mutton. Selling mainly through Farmers Markets, Collette is a regular at Usk though she also visits markets throughout Wales and the South West. One thing that I love about her approach is her use of Twitter to debate Pork Pies, with or without Jelly before settling on the final recipe. Clearly in touch with her market, Collette also sells through Sourc’d in Caerleon.

Another Usk Regular is Roisin from Burren Bakery. Roisin started producing great Soda Breads in her kitchen but has moved up production and now operates out of the Sugar Loaf Caterers premises in Abergavenny. Though straight Soda is her major product innovative use of ingredients such as Walnuts gives her bread an interesting and innovative flavour. I particularly like the Nutella based bread which would be the Irish equivalent of Pain au Chocolat and more of a breakfast bread than Stripy Cat the other bread and chocolate Irish classic.

The great thing about a locally based festival is that there will be small producers from Newport and the surrounds that I have not yet encountered but who will, I am sure prove to be Local and Great.

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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Felin Fach Griffin

A glorious late October Saturday and not a lot to do, sounds like the opportunity to have lunch out. Where to go for a memorable meal?

Well, often on trips to North Wales the A470 had led me past the village of Felin Fach, near Brecon and the well-respected Felin Fach Griffin, a country pub with rooms that features in Welsh Rarebits (hotels of distinction) and with a special connection for me in that the owners are Ballymaloe trained.

So, into the car and heading for mid-Wales.

On arrival a number of horse boxes were in the car park, their owners and contents slowly approaching having enjoyed a leisurely hack. On our way round to the front door we passed a number of crab apple trees groaning with fruit that would surely soon be converted to that deep pink rich jelly that goes so well with Pork, or with the addition of mint, Lamb.

Entering the bar we had to decide on drinks and to enquire whether we could be accommodated for lunch, not having booked. Whilst the driver opted for the non-alcoholic Orange Juice I contemplated a good range of beers. Though many looked good I chose the Waen Brewery’s “Tidy Pint” a particularly Welsh sentiment and one that did what it said on the pump, it was a tidy pint! Golden and lightly hopped a refreshing almost citrus flavour made this one to order again, looking at the website it was described as a 4% “session beer” and I would imagine that a good session would ensue.

The lunch menu offered a range of options on the a la carte and three levels of set menu so something for everyone. I noted the regular inclusion of Cornish ingredients, unsurprising as sister establishments the Gurnards Head (Zennor) and The Old Coastguard (Mousehole) are located there.

Shown to our table, and with a jug of iced tap water immediately provided, the Ballymaloe influence kicked in as a small board of Soda Bread and butter arrived along with hot cheese puffs.

Our starters arrived shortly after, for Mrs K a Caramelised Pear on Onion Brioche with Stawley Cheese and Almonds, for me Fried Lemon Sole with Potato Salad and Rocket. The pear was warm, sweet and sticky and contrasted well with the acidity of the cheese and the melding softness of the brioche whilst the almonds added a little crunch. I am not normally a huge fan of sole, finding it to be often too soft and flaky, preferring a more solid fish such as Monk or Halibut, but in its crisp, crunchy golden coat of breadcrumbs it was cooked to perfection and retained good texture. A bed of julienne cornichons and a good potato salad which incorporated some pickled cucumber and dressed rocket completed the dish and completed it.

For mains I had chosen the Hafod Cheese Ploughman’s with Homemade Pickles and Soda Bread – this surprised Mrs K as the menu had Roast Calves Liver and I am a total addict to liver, but I also love Hafod. The open Minute Steak Sandwich with Onion Marmalade Triple Cooked Chips and Leaves, was her choice and, as with the starters, we happily shared tasters.

A perfectly rare steak, topped with a fried egg, the crunchiest, fluffiest chips, a well-dressed mixture of salad leaves and a sweet, dark red onion marmalade with good bread made the Steak Sandwich one which I would definitely opt for on a future visit.

My Ploughman’s was so hearty that I could not quite finish the breads, having filled up on the main event. Three generous slices of the Hafod cheese came with a range of accompaniments. Hafod is a traditional hard cheese handmade by Sam and Rachel Holden on Wales’ longest certified organic dairy farm, Bwlchwernen Fawr.

The Holdens only use the raw (unpasteurised) milk from their 65 Ayrshire cows to make Hafod. Ayrshire milk is rich in butterfat and protein, widely regarded as being ideal for cheesemaking. The unique combination of creamy organic Ayrshire milk and traditional cheesemaking techniques give Hafod its buttery, rich and nutty flavours - almost a supercharged Gouda.

Balance is important in any dish, even one as simple as a Ploughman’s and this had balance. Crisp sweet slices of apple were offset by a sharp home-made Piccalilli, destringed celery gave an earthiness contrasting with the rich fruity chutney and again a really good dressing enhanced the salad leaves. If I had one criticism it would be the lack of butter to spread on the soda bread, oh and the Soda Bread is more of a Wheaten Bread – Soda usually being made with white flour.

Despite the obvious attractions of the Dessert Menu

I was elegantly sufficed and decided to move to Espresso though Mrs K ordered the Bakewell Tart and chose the Plum Sorbet to go with it. Thin, crispy golden pastry held a sweet layer of jam, a moist frangipane and almonds scattered over the top had toasted during the baking. I was afforded a very small taster on which to base an opinion though the rest of the dish disappeared before I could get a photo – except for a very small piece of tart and a few sorbet swirls on the plate.

Was it good, definitely, would I go back, undoubtedly, was it value for money? Absolutely!

And this winter the three hotels are offering an amazing value offer of a Winter Escape, one night’s Dinner Bed and Breakfast from £140 at the Griffin or £125 at the Gurnard’s Head or Old Coastguard per couple!

Next stop the Gurnard’s Head!!!

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Saturday, 22 October 2011

Seeking, Sourcing, Sourc'd

Good food begins with good ingredients. How often have we been exhorted to find a really good butcher or fishmonger and develop a relationship with them? And how often are we told to develop a relationship with a greengrocer? The finest fillet steak or halibut can be cooked to perfection but poor accompanying vegetables will let the dish down.

We can’t all benefit from living in close proximity to a really good market or The Village Greengrocer in Castlemartyr (arguably the finest in Ireland) but vegetables of a superior quality to those in the average supermarket are an essential for good food.

I was thinking of making a gourmet piccalilli, with Christmas coming, and wanted to get the best ingredients I could, so after reading from Elmtree foods that their epic pies and local honey could be found in Sourc’d in Caerleon I decided to pay a visit.

Right on the outskirts of the village the shop, conveniently, had parking outside making the trip an easy one. The Greengrocers (and more) is run by David Saunders who describes himself as a “Purveyor of high quality fresh fruit; veg; welsh free range eggs; speciality breads & larder provisions. Local where possible, at supermarket prices or better”. An exciting description and one I wanted to put to the test.

The shop is small but packed with really good produce and laid out so you can see things logically laid out, the salads are together, veg and fruit have their own areas and potatoes have a special place to themselves.
Certainly everything on offer seemed to be very fresh and of outstanding quality, touch and smell tests confirmed this to be the case.

I was delighted to find Romanesco on offer, the amazing pyramidal cauliflower (well there’s a big debate about whether it is cauliflower or broccoli – or a strange hybrid of both) but it is my favourite vegetable for both taste and appearance. This would make a very good start to the piccalilli, now for other ingredients.

Small pickling onions, some small enough to go in whole - others halved or quartered, lurked next to their bigger brothers and cousin the shallots, and were cheaper than those which I had bought in a market last week. A chilli and a couple of courgettes joined them in my basket along with a couple of peppers – should make a good pickle.

But, it’s not just veg that fill this greengrocers, relevant other ingredients are available from organic, gluten free pasta through organic vinegars to the afore-mentioned honey and assorted pickles.
Locally baked breads from Wrens in Newport lay on a table in the middle next to the free range eggs and a basket of white duck eggs lay next to them. As I love scrambled eggs, especially duck, half a dozen naturally went into the basket.

Though my visit was fairly quick, and very focussed, the experience and in particular David’s friendliness and obvious enthusiasm, means that I will return to do my usual veg shopping on the weeks that I am not in Farmers Markets.

Caerleon has a little gem (no pun intended) and well worth a visit to a shop which is both Local and Great.

That Piccalilli recipe
1Romanesco, cut into small florets
1lb small (pickling)onions, sliced
5 shallots, finely diced
25 g salt
1 courgette, diced
1 Red Pepper diced
500 ml white wine vinegar
250 ml malt vinegar
1/2 redchilli, seeds removed, chopped
300 g caster sugar
25 g turmeric
50 g English mustard powder
3 tbsp cornmeal

Combine the cauliflower with the onion and shallots. Sprinkle with salt, cover, and leave on one side for 24 hours.

The next day, rinse the vegetables and pat dry. Sprinkle the courgette and pepper with salt, and leave on one side for 20 minutes before rinsing and drying with a clean cloth. Combine with the cauliflower mixture.

Boil both the vinegars with the chilli for 10 minutes, before straining through a sieve. Discard the chilli.

Mix the sugar with the turmeric, mustard powder and cornmeal. Moisten with a little of the warm vinegar - enough to make a paste.

Combine this paste with the rest of the vinegar, and bring back to the boil. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until thickened.

Tip the vegetables into the mixture, combine well, and leave to cool a little. Pot the piccalilli into sterilised preserving jars, and store in a cool place. It should be kept for at least 1 month to mature.

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Monday, 17 October 2011

Food Fest feast

Friday morning brought a smile in the post, well two actually as it contained the menus for the Newport Food Festival Feast and a request to make our selections.
The feast kicks the festival off and starts by showcasing the best of local chefs. The Bell at Caerleon provide the starters, Waterloo the mains and the desserts have a very Italian feel thanks to Gemelli.

Chef Robert Sands is producing award winning food at the Bell, one of Wales up and coming gastro-pubs. The choices for the feast come straight from their dinner menu and reflect local produce, especially the amazing Gwynt y Ddraig cider which crops up several times. Hearty starters but unlikely to prevent the mains from being devoured.

The Waterloo is a boutique hotel in Newport which offers arrange of eating styles from light bites and lunches through the chargrill and on to the cunningly named La Carte menu – made you think twice didn’t it. Reviews on various websites suggest that the food is well worth a try and the Feast offers a chance to try it out. I was particularly impressed by the Cheeseboard though some great classics such as Hafod could be added to make it even better.

Gemelli is a little piece of Italy in Newport and I like anywhere that states on its website “When you are here you are family”. Gives you a good feel about the place, its aims and the likely level of food and service. The dinner menu looks to be well constructed and with Tagliatelle con Aragosto e Capesante (Tagliatelle with Lobster and Scallops to you) on the at the heart it would get my vote any day. But it is their desserts that feature on the Feast menu and Italians do great dessert.

So what do we choose? Luckily with two of us going and a choice of three dishes in each course we can cover most of the menu.

Starters: for me the Scotch Egg – an overlooked gem of British culinary tradition, done well with good ingredients this eggy/meaty marvel is a meal in a couple of mouthfuls and with a free range egg and a proper sausage meat surround it is hard to beat. Mrs K loves Perl Wen cheese (and Perl Las the blue version) so the Mushroom, Perl Las and Raspberry Salad was not only the obvious but, she would claim, the only choice.

Mains: The Gower Cod and Laver Bread with Mussel Cockle and Vegetable Cawl stood out for me. I love my seafood and, being allergic to Lamb, don’t exactly get to try much Cawl. A chance not to be missed. The Venison Wellington was the choice for JT and I am sure that I will get the occasional taste so as to compare it with the version cooked by Wes Harris at the Charthouse.

Finally dessert and the only course on which we both agreed. It just has to be the Colourful dessert which combines Limoncello, Pannacotta, Marscapone and Florentine Sponge with a host of other ingredients and flavours
Overall an attractive menu and one which should get the Newport Food Festival off to a flying start.

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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Books For Cooks

I often turn to cookbooks to improve upon the meals that I cook or to gain inspiration for new dishes, sometimes because I will have seen a chef in action or eaten their food.
At the recent Abergavenny Food Festival I was able to see two of the rising stars of British food, Niamh Sheilds and James Ramsden in action. Both were cooking from their recent books, Comfort and Spice and Small Adventures in Cooking respectively. Both books are part of Quadrille’s New Voices in Food series. I had already purchased both and was pleased to see that the recipes were as straightforward as they seemed from the books.

Niamh is virtually entirely self-taught, well apart from school home economics lessons, and her mother did not cook so what is in the book is entirely from Naimh’s own experience.
Each recipe has an introduction explaining the background to the dish, where it was first tasted and often why it has significance to Niamh. Some interesting facts are also included such as Pansies are a good source of vitamins A and C.
Divided into sections such as Brunch, Long Weekends, Lunch and Sugar and Spice the book offers a comprehensive range of dishes that most cooks could manage. Punctuated throughout are Passion recipes. These are Niamh’s favourites and, having cooked a few myself, I see why. My absolute favourite –to date- is the Overnight Roasted Pork Shoulder with a Spiced Apple Relish. Combine this with Blaas, the rolls made only in Niamh’s home town of Waterford and you have an amazing lunch.

Niamh’s passion for food has led to her being listed as in the top 10 food bloggers in the UK, she writes as Eatlikeagirl, and just this week the Observer Food Monthly Awards saw her crowned as Food Blogger of the Year.

James Ramsden attended Ballymaloe Cookery School (as did Rachel Allen, Thomasina Miers and many other key figures in modern cooking) and he now runs successful Secret Supper Clubs – pop up restaurants to you.
His book contains as many Speedy Supper dishes as longer slower ones and what comes through them all is simplicity, they are manageable and not excessively technical.

Again there is a lot of information given about each recipe, my favourite being about the cook book that was so desirable that it was used as a form of currency, or as a bribe! (But you’ll have to buy the book and find it yourself. With sections such as Preserves for the Pantry, Exploring the Cheap Cuts and Corner Shop Capers, and advice on Prepping, Sharp Knives and On Making Mistakes, this is not just a book of recipes but an introduction into James’ small world of cooking.

Most recipes have helpful addenda at the end Tart, Tweak and Tomorrow offering ways to improve, alter or reuse them, and helpful advice on technique - de-seeding Pomegranates, peeling Tomatoes and Making Goat’s Curd cheese.
Both books are currently well high on my “turn to” list and in use most days for inspiration or just a damn fine read.

Another little Gem from Quadrille is Keep Calm and Cook On by Lewis Esson.

This is one of those handy little books that combines both really useful tips:
“To sterilise your kitchen cloths and sponges – microwave them on high for a minute”, or “Don’t just season your salad dressings, season the salad itself before dressing it”
and lovely little quotes:
“The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook” (Julia Child), “Cauliflower is nothing but a Cabbage with a college education” (Mark Twain)
Notebook sized, but with just under 200 pages, this will appeal to most cooks, from the beginner to the most experienced. Wit and Wisdom are served up in bite sized pieces and are easily digested. At just £4.99 this is THE Christmas Stocking Filler for the cook or foodie in your life.
Comfort and Spice and Small adventures in Cooking are £14.99 each and widely available Keep Calm and Cook On is released in November.

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Newport - New Food Festival

Newport is the latest city to stage a food festival, and the last weekend in October will see the inaugural event.

What it will not be is Abergavenny 20 miles south, Newport will be developing its own culture and basing its roots firmly in the city.

Most events will be focussed on the Indoor Market and the streets between there and the Riverfront.

Community and Sustainability are the watchwords for this new and exciting festival, indeed amongst the aims are:

We want to promote local and regional food and drink, so that people buy local so that we retain local expenditure and grow businesses.

We want people to learn about food, where it comes from, experience different cultures and tastes, understand how to cook and ensure we live a healthy lifestyle that is affordable and easy to engage with.

We want our event to raise awareness of food waste in terms of packaging, leftovers and how we can reuse some food items.

We want people to travel sustainably to our food festival where other transport is available, other than the car.

We want people to share experiences and spread the message that you can act sustainably

Raising the awareness of food is clearly paramount to the Festival and the local ties are strong. Both MiniChefs and TeenChefs will compete for a title. Mini Chefs are from local Primary Schools and the TeenChefs are teams of four from the Youth Service.

Early encouragement to eat healthily and well from real unprocessed ingredients is a major plank of the campaign against obesity so it is very encouraging to see this.

The Festival kicks off with a Festival Feast based around recipes from local chefs and eating establishments but here again there is an educational element as some unemployed people are given the chance to learn about food and then assist in the kitchen and front of house to gain real experience that could well lead to a job.

170 tickets are available for the Feast and well over half have already been sold so, if you want to go, book quickly and join us in the Indoor Market on Friday 28th. The menu has been designed by chefs from three local pubs and restaurants at The Bell Inn, The Waterloo Hotel and Bistro and Gemelli and will showcase Newport’s culinary talent.
A full programme of events, chef demos and entertainment has been lined up for the weekend:

Details of the exhibitors are still coming in but certainly a couple of my favourite producers will be there, Roisin from Burren Bakery – amazing traditional soda breads, and Elm Tree Foods pies of great distinction and regular True Taste Award winners. In Elm Tree Newport may be developing a serious rival to Cardiff’s Clarks Pies. Call in, try one and judge for yourself.