We were all packed up and in the van, ferry bound.
There was just one last mission to complete before leaving Wales – to secure some creamy blue Perl Lâs cheese. We swooped with singular focus on several of the better supermarkets en route – Morrison’s in Caenarfon, Waitrose in Menai Bridge, even a supermarket in that town with the impossibly lengthy name – but Welsh artisan cheeses of any description were thin on the ground. In the end, I had to board my ferry cheeseless and (not for the first time) found myself pondering the harsh realities of modern food retailing, which mean that truly local food can often be one of the hardest things to find in your local shop.
The failure of that last minute cheese mission speaks of a situation that is by no means unique to Wales – visit any of the big supermarkets here in Ireland and chances are that you’ll find precious few of our fabulous farmhouse cheeses. That doesn’t mean to say that efforts aren’t being made on both sides of the Irish Sea to develop and promote good, locally produced foods. On the Welsh side, their True Taste national food awards, now in their tenth year, are very much part of that process, with the best of Welsh meats, cheeses, seafood, craft beers, ciders, baked goods and more being acknowledged at last month’s event in Llandudno, which I was lucky enough to attend. To my surprise, it was even possible to toast the winners on the night with local Welsh wines, as some white and sparkling wines made by Ancre Hill Estates were served.
The applause at the True Taste event was especially warm and the cheers rousing for local-food-hero-done-good, the Anglesey Sea Salt Company, who were double gold winners on the night. Their Halen Môn salt – harvested off the coast of the Isle of Anglesey – is prized by some of the top chefs in the world and you’ll find it proudly incorporated into other Welsh products, including the excellent Jones’ Crisps with Anglesey Sea Salt (and yes, if there’s a potato involved, you can always trust me to find it). The company also produces a range of flavoured salts, including an intriguing vanilla salt and one with organic spices which they recommend as accompaniment to roast potatoes. Needless to remark, I scored me some of that one.
The other local hero in evidence was Rachel’s Organic, maker of organic yoghurts and dairy products which are now widely distributed in the UK. Founder Rachel Rowlands was named True Taste Ambassador of the Year at the first Welsh national food awards ten years ago and returned this year as a sponsor.
There was, of course, much more besides, as I discovered both at the event and over several days of eating my way through picturesque North Wales. Landscape, climate and food-wise, it was, in a lot of ways, not that terribly different to Ireland. As I wandered around hill farms on the fringes of Snowdonia in the misty late autumn rain, I might just as easily have been directly across the sea in Wicklow, but for the lilt of Welsh accents and the fact that there are rather more sheep. For the record, Wales boasts the highest density of those woolly mammals in Europe, and the locals are justifiably proud of their Welsh lamb.
And in a country that is famously fond of cheese (especially in cooked form), it wasn’t surprising to find that they have cheesemakers who excel at more than just caerphilly (even if, as I discovered, the cheeses themselves are occasionally tricky to find). The immediately surrounding waters, meanwhile, are the source of some top notch seafood – Conwy mussels are a case in point – while I will leave it to Keith Floyd below to elaborate, in his own inimitable way, on the Welsh seaweed classic that is laver bread.
Nigella Lawson includes a recipe for Welsh cakes in her book How to be a Domestic Goddess. However, I was familiar with these simple, sweet griddle breads long before I ever got my hands on that book – having first eaten versions of them as a child. They were one of only two Welsh dishes that I was aware of from an early age (the other, of course, being Welsh rarebit).
The recipe here is fairly similar to the one you’ll find in Nigella’s book. There’s not much more to it than flour, butter, sugar, eggs, dried fruit, a bit of warm spice and a hot griddle. The key to good Welsh cakes (apart from the use of butter, naturally) is a light touch when it comes to handling the dough (and I’d have to say that I enjoyed some wonderful light and buttery examples while I was in Wales). It’s a satisfyingly simple classic.
- 250g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 0.5 tsp allspice (or try cinnamon or a smaller amount of either nutmeg or cloves)
- pinch of salt
- 125g cold butter
- 100g dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, currants or a mixture)
- 75g sugar
- 1 large egg, beaten
- demerara (or other) sugar for sprinkling (optional)
You’ll also need:
- A smooth griddle or cast iron pan
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, spice and salt.
- Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs.
- Stir in the dried fruit and sugar, then add the beaten egg and mix to a soft (but not sticky) dough.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.
- When ready to cook, place your griddle or pan over a medium heat.
- Roll out the dough to a thickness of around 1cm or a little less. Cut out rounds using a cookie cutter or glass – make the cakes big or small as you fancy and cook on the heated, unoiled pan for around 3-4 minutes each side or until golden.
- Sprinkle with a little demerara (or other) sugar if you like and serve warm (with butter, even better) or at room temperature with a nice cuppa.
- You can vary the fruit and spice as the mood takes you and there’s nothing (bar tradition) to say that you couldn’t add the likes of a little lemon zest or vanilla to these.
- Makes around 25 x 6cm round Welsh cakes