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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Bloggers Unplugged

Recently Hannah at LovetoDineBlog set a challenge to food bloggers. She wanted to know what made us tick, how we started and what we most wanted. In the spirit of the challenge I decided to answer the questionnaire:

What, or who inspired you to start a blog?

Blogging was almost accidental. Having decided to go to Ballymaloe I had so many people asking for updates, that blogging seemed to be the most efficient way of keeping them all up to date. A former student had written that blogging reinforced her learning process and made revision, there are stiff written as well as practical exams, easier. So Bills Ballymaloe Blog was born, and attracted over 10,0000 hits whilst I was there. localandgreat.blogspot the current blog is the follow on.

Who is your foodie inspiration

Years ago a young Darina Allen had an afternoon TV show “Simply Delicious” in which she demonstrated how easy cooking could be, and above all that ‘Cooking Is Fun’. I bought one of her books and began to expand my repertoire, discovering on the way that she was right about the fun and, that I could cook.

Your greasiest, batter-splattered food/drink book is?

It has to be the amazing Ballymaloe Cookery Course which you can often find in The Works for as little as £9.99. This book works as it contains the recipes cooked for over 30 years by nearly 200 students per year. None of @this serves 30 but we’ve reduced it to feed four’ so the ratios are wrong and it won’t work. I have three copies, the obligatory grease spattered one, the signed by Darina version, and a new one that I will replace the first with when it finally falls apart.

Tell us all about the best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it, what was it?

I love Italian food and the food of the Amalfi Coast in particular. The small village of Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, in the hills above Sorrento is home to Don Alfonso1892 a Michelin starred restaurant where Alfonso Jaccarino cooks organic produce from his own farm or the seas immediately below it.
The tasting menu is incredible but my absolute favourite is the Lobster in Tempura batter with a reduced fish sauce. The freshest fish in a light and crispy batter with a deep sauce to accompany, I have it every time!

Another food blogger’s table you’d like to eat at is?

I am often tempted by Carol Adams (corpulent capers) descriptions of her food and share the love of good restaurants that she and Gomez Adams share on Twitter.

What is the one kitchen gadget you would ask Santa for this year (money no object of course)?

Janet would say that I have too many, my four favourite words are Bamix, Magimix, Kenwood and Gaggia but, if money really were no object it would have to be a blast chiller.

Who taught you how to cook?

I was largely self- taught and muddled along nicely for 30 odd years until I went to Ballymaloe where Darina Allen, Rachel Allen and Rory O’Connell honed my skills and taught me so much. So if anyone it was they, and the talented and dedicated team of teachers in school who developed my abilities and passion.

I’m coming to you for dinner. What’s your signature dish?

I make a mean chicken liver pate, learned great tomato sauces in Italy so a pasta main course with locally sourced meats, and a Vanilla Ice Cream with the freshest vanilla pods imaginable from old friend Arun @greensaffron and a Pedro Ximines sherry poured over it.

What is your guilty food pleasure?

Fish Finger Sandwiches on Braces’ XXX Thick white bread, loads of Heinz Ketchup.

Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn?
I really only got confidence in my cooking after I reached the national finals of Britain’s Best Dish and Ed Baines and John Burton- Race encouraged me to train.

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Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Bell at Caerleon, Great Gastropub

An unexpected visitor meant a major change of plans, and all for the good.

A knock on the door and my daughter’s partner stood there, calling in as he was passing. Since Sian lives in Hove and we live in Cwmbran “just passing” may seem unlikely, but Adie had been in Carmarthen seeing a client so on his way back he was actually passing.

Problem it’s lunchtime and I had not baked - so not even a sandwich was on offer.

This, however, was an opportunity not a problem. Ever since the Newport Food Festival Supper I had The Bell at Caerleon on my list of places to visit.

The Bell had provided starters and the Scotch Egg with Cider was to die for. “Fancy lunch in a really good pub?” I asked and we decamped for cars and the short drive to Caerleon.

Just out of town The Bell is a real pub in the way that those in the centre cannot be, depending on hordes of office parties and Friday night “revellers”.

The Bell is serious, not just about food but also Beer – CAMRA rate it highly and Cider, an award winning Cider destination. Certainly cider would be on the menu along with food.

Settled quickly and with a pint of Hallets cider (6%) and brewed in Crumlin, I perused the menu.

The Bell offers lunch for only £9.95, two courses, and believe me choosing was hard so much good food on offer.

It had to be the Scotch Egg as a starter as it had so impressed me at NFF and I had recommended it to our visitor. A Gwynt y Ddraig Cider infused sausage meat, cooked to soft perfection in a crispy breadcrumb coating and a perfectly runny egg served with a little salad, bruschetta and a home-made salad cream, what’s not to like. Really good said Adie, the best I’ve ever had.

Janet didn't repeat her NFF experience where she had the Field Mushroom and Blue Cheese Salad but went with the chargrilled goat cheese and vegetable gateaux, served with three sauces (Balsmic Glaze, Basil Oil and Red Pepper Coulis) declaring it YUM (her highest accolade).

We all chose different main courses, and given the menu we could have chosen several times over.

Adie went for the Gammon with fried egg, Janet for the Rump Steak Ciabatta with Caramelised onions and for me it was Sausage of the day with Mash.
A good sized horseshoe of gammon topped with an orange yolked egg and chips was rated highly by Adie who announced that he would certainly eat here again and would also recommend The Bell to people who were in or visiting the Newport or Cardiff areas.

Janet’s rump steak cooked perfectly rare and served with a small salad and chips was equally well received and, at her insistence, I tried one of the chips. A crisp light golden exterior hid a fluffy floury interior which matched any chip I have ever eaten and made me wish that there was a Sausage and Chips option on the menu.

Three sausages on a bed of mash with carrots and beans on the side awaited me. I like the idea of Sausage of the Day, it implies a range of sausages will be used and that the same dish will vary each time you eat it. That has to be good.

Mine were quite coarse in texture with a good herby background and obviously “real butcher” sausages not the bland euro-snag that all too often appears. They matched the creamy mash well and the little onion gravy set the dish off

As it was lunchtime not too much alcohol was consumed, my Hallets was the only one but it went very well with both courses and is certainly a pint that I will try again. Hallets only make two ciders, the other being their Vintage which is aged a year before bottling. That has to be my next port of call.

So to sum up the Bell: Quite rightly described as a Gastropub, a good range of real ales and ciders on offer, pleasant surroundings and a menu that is seasonal and local, simple and well cooked.

Will I be back, you betcha and –with the amazing lunchtime deal - it might just have to be lunch again until the entre menu has been sampled.

Finally a recipe for Salad Cream.
Most pubs/restaurants serve mayonnaise or the ubiquitous Heinz so it was a real treat to find that the Bell made its own Salad Cream. Here is the recipe for Shanagarry Salad Dressing which we made at Ballymaloe:
2 eggs (free range if possible)
1 tablespoon of dark, soft brown sugar
a pinch of salt
1 level teaspoon of dry mustard
1 tablespoon brown malt vinegar
2 to 4 fluid ounces of cream
Boil the eggs for 7 minutes then cool in cold water before shelling.
Cut the two eggs in half and sieve the yolks into a bowl.

Add the sugar, a pinch of salt and the mustard. Blend in the vinegar and cream. Chop the egg whites finely and add some to the sauce. (any spare whites can be used to sprinkle over salads as a garnish.)

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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Cooperation in Abergavenny

It’s always good to see cooperation in food, small producers are not engaged in the ultra- competitive wars of the big supermarkets, they are not responsible to shareholders and have a love of the product not a commitment to profit. Of course without profit they would not remain in business but artisan production is a calling not a means to global brand domination.

So I was very pleased to be told of a small event hosted by Sugarloaf Catering at their base in Abergavenny. Just a few local producers, getting together to show, and sell their wares. The degree of cooperation showed there was extremely impressive, each was incorporating each others produce in their own offerings.

Sugarloaf is owned by Mark & Claire Coulton and has traded since March 2005. Mark has over 20 years experience as a chef and met Claire in the early 1990's while working for Franco Taruschio at the celebrated Walnut Tree Inn. So a good local connection there for a start and an indication of the quality of the food that they make.

Their food philosophy is encouraging “We support the local economy where possible so if we can't buy a product from a local producer we will buy it from an independent local retailer” said Mark.

In addition to catering for functions and events Sugarloaf make ready meals of quality for people who want to eat well but are pushed for time through their Chef in a Freezer function. Certainly the Smoked Haddock Fishcake – made with Black Mountain Smokery’s fish, was extremely good and the Roast Salmon variety is an award winner.

They also run Supper Clubs with a themed basis and I am looking forward to the next on with a Murder Mystery theme to be held in the newly refurbished Old Sessions House in Usk. Is there a better setting for a murder theme than an old court house?

So, mulled Apple Juice in hand I headed into the main hall.

Immediately I met Roisin from Burren Bakery. I had enjoyed her Porter Cake at the Abergavenny Farmers Market and was keen to renew my acquaintance with it, as was Mrs K who had lost out last time. The cake uses Stout made by Tudor Brewery who were on the next stall.

Tudor is very much a family business, a microbrewery set up in Abergavenny, continuing a century old tradition of local beer making. The Tudor name is taken from Tudor Gate, the medieval town entrance.

The beers are all named after local mountains, Sugarloaf, Skirrid and Blorenge with each bottle having a silhouette of the mountain on the label.
Sugarloaf is a dark beer with a smokey base whilst Skirrid is a medium strength (4.2%) session beer. Blorenge is lager like but with a citrus taste that makes it clear that it is a pale beer and definitely not a lager.

Black Mountain is the stout used in the Porter Cake and a very good drop it is. Taste wise somewhere between Guinness and Beamish, not as metallic as a Guinness and with some of the flowery hint in a Beamish. I had to sample all of the beers and bought a pack of the Black Mountain for both culinary and drinking purposes. Again there is a silhouette of mountains on the label but, as we approach Christmas, a small Santa and Sleigh can be seen flying over the mountains.

I carried my last drops of Blorenge to Nicholas Snell’s stall. Nicholas is a Private Chef who also acts as a Master of Ceremonies and Professional Butler, so get Sugarloaf Catering to provide for your event and Nicholas to manage it, stress free!!

Nicholas had a small selection for tasting some rather fine Vanilla Shortbread, in which the vanilla was subtle and the thin, crispy crumbly shortbread melted in the mouth.

He had also made some Cheese biscuits, again crumbly and with a good cheesiness, certainly Cheddar and Parmesan featured though other ingredients remained a secret despite rigorous questioning!
These were teamed with cheeses and both Roisin’s Soda Bread and Usk River’s pickles. Clearly Nicholas can partner food which suggests a very professional approach.

Rhian from Usk River had a full range of pickles for sale including the award winning Pearlilli my current favourite. Deciding that a serious pickle tasting was in order I managed to test them with biscuits, Soda Bread and some hastily snaffled fishcakes. I can report that they went well and the Tomatorama came close to usurping Pearlilli in my affections.

Held the day after the Royal Welsh Christmas show the get together suffered slightly as some of the intended exhibitors had sold out of product in Builth Wells and were unable to attend, though those on show were very good and a number of purchases were made by visitors.

It is really pleasing to see producers actively cooperating and supporting each other, with initiatives such as these the local food scene can only strengthen.

If you missed out make sure you get to the Abergavenny Christmas Fair on 11th December where most will be exhibiting along with the cream of artisan producers.

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