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Friday, 31 January 2014

The Battle for the Dragon

Wales has a flourishing Culinary team, organised by the Welsh Culinary Association, and competing internationally. With the Culinary World Cup every two years and the Culinary Olympics every four as well as regular international competitions the team is one of the world's best.

Now in its 20th year the Association has varied this year's competition and, instead of challenging an international team, it is holding a Welsh event with teams from North, Mid and South Wales competing to win the prize of  a large Metal Dragon, and the kudos that goes with it.

The actual competition will take place in February at Coleg Llandrillo in Colwyn Bay and the three teams will each cook a lunch for 90 people before the Winner is announced.

Prior to taking on the Opposition the South Wales Team organised a tasting of their menu at the Celtic Manor Resort. Each diner would be given a score and comment card which would be used by the chefs to refine and tweak their offering.

The evening commenced with Prosecco and Canapes before proceeding to the dinner itself. Seated on large tables we had a chance to meet new people and talk food in general as well as having a lively discussion about each course as we scored them.

Two wines were served, both South African, a white and a red and fresh breads, a mini baguette, olive bread or caraway bread were available.

The menu had interested me as it used South Wales produce and was also seasonal in its use of vegetables.


The starter of Poached Mackerel, Pembrokeshire Lobster and an Umami Broth with Micro Herbs had an Asiatic twist with the juicy Lobster served in a pastry wrapper almost like a Vietnamese Spring Roll. Poaching Mackerel is not the usual treatment, pan frying or grilling would be more common, but it brought out the real taste of the fish and counteracted the richness of the Lobster. The Umami Broth split the table, some people not getting it at all though they were mainly those who tasted it first whereas those who sipped it after fish thought it perfect. A small chilled Risotto completed the dish - maybe there was a little Pearl Barley in there? Overall a great success at our end of the table.

The main course Usk Valley Saddle of Rare Breed Pork followed. Served Porchetta style a thin but very tasty herb stuffing lay just beneath the thin, crisp layer of skin cooked almost to a crackling. A Red Cabbage puree punched flavour into the dish and the vegetables of Cavolo Nero, spiced Carrot, grilled Chicory and a sweet crisp croquette of Potato and Celeriac completed the dish. If there was one issue it was that there could have been more of the Wild Garlic Jus, perhaps a small jug to accompany the dish, but the main reflected both the season and the locality and should do well in the final competition.

Finally the desert completed the meal.

A Chocolate and Ale Truffle with an Iced Ginger Cake Parfait, Vanilla and Lime Cream Cheese and a warm Black Velvet may have described it, but hardly did justice to the treat that arrived.


The Chocolate Truffle was dark and rich with an almost liquid centre, the parfait with crushed Ginger Cake spread through gave a creamy counterpart and the Vanilla and Lime Cream Cheese worked well with both the truffle and the parfait. The warm black velvet had a deep blackcurrant taste and a foam that offset it a little. One small criticism there was a harsh alcohol aftertaste to the velvet, but toned down a little it would be lovely. And, on a technical point, the plate was so cold that the smear had set solid so I don't know what it was, though I suspect blackcurrant and cassis.

Overall our table thought it a well balanced meal in which the ingredients shone through and the cooking was sensitive.  With a few small refinements the team should do very well in the Battle for the Dragon and it will take a culinary tour de force to defeat them.

As a fundraiser for the Culinary Association a raffle ended the evening, prizes donated by the main sponsors and many others, mainly food based but also a signed Newport Gwent Dragons shirt and one from the 2008 Wales team. Our table did particularly well with 6 of 10 winning a prize. Needless to say I didn't but Janet won a copy of Masterchef The Finalists, and seeing the photo of Dale and Larkin on the cover said "OOH! I met them at the Newport Food Festival" before promptly donating it to me!

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Thursday, 16 January 2014

An exciting year ahead

What I love about January is planning for the year ahead. There is a pleasure in reviewing what was achieved in the last twelve months, and looking for new experiences in the one that awaits.

Local and great has always been written with the emphasis on seeking out the best wherever I happen to be so I will be looking for new experiences in Wales, Ireland and Italy in particular but also anywhere that I pitch up.

Last year I had some brilliant experiences and met great producers and chefs, this year should be as good or even better.

Already some trips and events are musts: The Celtic Cook Off, Abergavenny Food Festival, Newport Food Festival, and the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine.

Three of them I managed to play a (small) but active part in whilst I missed the Ballymaloe Lit Fest, an omission that must be rectified this year.

It was at the Celtic Cookoff that I met talented Cork Chef Kate Lawlor of No5 Fenns Quay. Kate represented Ireland in the competition and was close to winning, inight lunchdeed I had her as my favourite chef on the night.I hadn't realised when I travelled over that I would be asked to join the Judging Panel which included Joe McNamee the Irish Examiner food critic, Carmel Somers chef at Good Things CafĂ©, Veronica Steele the creator of Milleens Cheese, Virginia Sumison of Loch Fyne Oysters and Aoife Cox who blogs as The Daily Spud. With talented chefs representing Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man all using the best of West Cork produce it was a great evening and a must on the 2014 itinerary.

In December I was able to get toFenns Quay for a little light Lunch. I must return for both the Celtic Cook Off and to have dinner at Fenns Quay as Kate Lawlor the Chef representing Ireland in the Celtic Cook Off has a great reputation and is rapidly making the restaurant a must in Cork. We had a light lunch as the ferry beckoned but based on that experience Dinner is a defininate date.

Both the September Food Festival and the one day December festive food fair make Abergavenny a must go destination for anyone with an interest in food.

Aber, apart from attracting some of the top chefs for demos and masterclasses, having several hundred producers at the top of their game and a whole range of activities and experiences for everyone is pushing the edge of the food world.

In 2011 the festival hosted the world's first Raw Milk tasting. Milks and creams were tasted against each other with Raw winning on every occasion and the Raw Jersey Cream being an absolute standout. Quite why Raw Milk is not available to everyone I shall never understand - it actually tastes like Milk. We also gained an insight into the big dairy companies profit making activity with Cream.

All milk has a fat content that is Cream, Jersey and Guernsey cows in particular have high content 6-8% which is why their milk tastes so good. By skimming all the milk and only returning a  specific content of fat - say 4% or 1% the big dairies have the remaining cream to sell at a bigger profit, and the consumer gets a product that is less than it should be.

Add to that homogenising and spreading the fat content through the milk and you can see why drinking Milk is less popular than ever.

Abergavenny followed the tasting up in 2012 and, whilst not having a third tasting last year they brought a cow to the festival, another first.

One of my favourite experiences of the festival is the Rude Health Rants, the Hyde Park Corner of Food Festivals.

 In front of an open air audience in the Castle people with a passion have five minutes to rant about their likes and dislikes in food. Cyrus Todiwallah is always great fun whilst Paulo Arrigo from Franchi Seeds gave us an epic rant on why Italian food is abused the world over, especially in Motorway Service Areas. I was lucky enough to be asked to rant on Food Bloggers v Food Blaggers and you can see the rant here

Yes, I will be back in September and have a topic lined up.

October sees the return of the Newport Food Festival, growing yearly the event is firmly on the calendar and 2014 looks to be bigger than ever.

Though top chefs are attracted one of the beauties of the Festival is its community focus. Local schools and youth groups compete in the TeenChef and MiniChef competitions and get mentorship from some of the guest chefs, the Festival Supper gives experience to Catering students from Coleg Gwent, both in the kitchen and front of house, and there are hands on experiences for visitors.

I was asked to do two sessions of Bread making in the hands on demo area. Obviously you cannot do the whole process but 20 or so willing victims -er participants - made a White Yeast Dough which was stored in plastic bags in a fridge for them to collect and finish at home. It is a real pleasure to bump in to some of the people who took part and hear that they are still baking on a regular basis.

This year there should be more hands on events, and they are free!

Last year I missed the first Ballymaloe Literary festival of Food and Wine, and have been regretting it ever since.

With Ballymaloe having a world wide reputation a stellar line up has been attracted. Last year the highlight was, possibly Madhur Jaffrey and this year Yottam Ottolenghi and Rene Redzepi from Noma will be high on many people's lists though I am most looking forward to seeing Australian icon Maggie Beer and have already booked her lunch!

 Of course the Allen family will be well represented with Darina, Rachel and Rory O'Connell all playing a very active role and a fair representation of Ballymaloe Cookery School Alumni will be there including Thomasina Miers, Catherine Fulvio, Lilly Higgins and Caroline Hennesy.

When you add fermentation specialist Sandor Katz and gardener Alys Fowler you see how wide ranging the festival is.

 The media are well represented with critics, presenters and TV chefs like Tom Doorley, Ella McSweeny and Donal Skehan from Ireland and Tom Parker Bowles, Joanna Blythman and Simon Hopkinson from the UK.


Inevitably I will have missed many major figures from the list, but at Ballymaloe you really could not get to see all the stars of the show, there are after all only 24 hours in a day, and a two day festival does not allow you to each one.

I am really excited about the fest and more detail can be found here 

If you have the weekend of 16-18 May free there is no better place to be.

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