The food ghost and the best chips of my life

After three weeks of work experience I seem to have become a kind of food ghost, existing on a diet of Pret and M&S and Tesco Metro, with a helping of eating out which I really can’t afford. Not that I’m complaining.

Country bumpkin that I am, I still get a little bit excited about Pret (particularly their more-like-rice-pudding-than-breakfast porridge and their new rare roast beef baguette), and the  M&S food hall is, as I’ve said before, like getting a hug from my mum, even if I still haven’t quite adjusted to the incongruous sight of Cadburys and Cornflakes alongside the minibites and ultimate mash.

But none of this food really seems – real. It’s all so anodyne and plasticked and removed from anything vaguely arduous. Staying in other people’s houses and now at a B&B, I’ve no choice but to select the easiest thing, but it’s so dull dull dull. Especially Tesco. I hate the fact that, certainly in London and now increasingly in Cardiff , there’s one on every corner.

Each is equally tiny, with the same small and miserable selection of meals for one, drearily picked up by dreary food ghosts, sometimes with one of those miserably miniature bottles of wine for one, followed by a dessert. For one. All in several layers of plastic and at several removes from the field it should have started in.

I know I’m perilously close to food-snobbism, or worse still, poor-me-ism, but it’s just all so – sterile.

However. I was saved, at approximately 7.30pm on Thursday, April 15, by the best chips of my life.

I had just spent 5 hours outside the Oakington Detention Centre near Cambridge, helping to cover a rumoured “disturbance” there for the Cambridge News. It was a great experience but, also, as the April sun faded and the gates stayed quiet and closed, very, very cold.

By the time I got back to my B&B, I was frozen to the bone, absolutely starving and far too tired to make any kind of food decision. I did my dutiful ghost wandering around the Co-op, but somehow the prospect of a day-old chicken sandwich with a red reduced sticker slapped over the top didn’t fill me with joy.

My stomach was asking for only one thing. Chips. It wasn’t a want or a craving or even a fancy. It was, I swear, a genuine need.

So, having garnered a strange look from the man behind the counter in the Co-op for buying a solitary can of Grolsch (I’d just spent ten zombie-eyed minutes staring at the beer section trying to decide), I headed to the Viking fish and chip shop, next door to my B&B.

It smelt good. It looked good. It didn’t also sell Chinese and/or kebabs (a Crwys Road special). And, best of all, one of the options was ‘chips with homemade chilli’. I waited the five minutes extra, handed over my £3.10 (less than a Pret baguette, for a start…) and had to stop myself running back to my B&B.

I smuggled them in illicitly and there, on the floor of my bedroom, wantonly spread out the golden chips in their paper. God they were good. Covered in salt and vinegar, they were crispy on the outside and just the right balance of creamy and fluffy in the middle. Hot and satisfying and beautiful. And the chilli was gorgeous – chunky tomato and onion, good quality beef and spicy enough to need the calming stodginess of chips as a balm.

With nothing more than yesterday’s Cambridge News, a chip fork and the spoon from the morning’s coffee cup for accompaniment, it was perfect. At that moment, had someone offered me a Michelin-starred meal, you wouldn’t have moved me from my chips and my B&B floor.

This was food with a bit of soul and not a hint of plastic. Circumstance is all. So, tired and hungry and cold ghosts – abandon Tesco, and head to the chippy. It might just give you a smile like the woman above…

p.s. When I nipped outside to throw out my illicit chip paper, I went back to the fish and chip shop and raved about them to the owner. You can’t do that at Tesco. Although she did look a bit confused…

Carluccio’s Exclusive Launch Party – Review

Reposted from

Canapés and prosecco flowed generously on Thursday at the exclusive launch party of the new Carluccio’s caffe in Mill Lane.

Gabriella Perez serves arancini

Cardiff stars including the BBC’s Rhodri Owen packed the glossy new restaurant to see if the latest London- export would live up to the hype.

Sadly one star was missing from the celebrations – chef Antonio Carluccio himself, who had been taken to hospital after falling ill.

But the cheerful staff did their bit to make sure the party still went on in style. They served Bellinis on arrival and kept copious amounts of canapés circulating to showcase the restaurant’s menu.

We were treated to bruschetta topped with tender beef carpaccio, king prawns wrapped in crispy pancetta and warm arancini, creamy risotto encased in crispy breadcrumbs and deep fried.

There were huge bowls of plump olives too, as well as mozzarella in balsamic vinegar and an entire parma ham which chef Robert Coles sliced while you waited and wrapped generously around grissini.

But the evening culminated in a special Italian-style hog roast, cooked outside by chefs braving the rain. With only just enough room to spare after all the canapés, we still loved the chunks of tender pork, served in salty focaccia with caramelised red onion chutney and rocket .

Chef Robert Coles carves parma ham

The restaurant was perhaps too full if anything, and the room had to be carefully navigated to avoid spilling Bellinis over other guests, but the food more than made up for it.

Managing director Simon Kosoff said the restaurant had only been open for a week but they had already been receiving good feedback.

He praised the city too, saying: “We think Cardiff is a vibrant and exciting place, and St David’s is at the centre of that. Tonight it’s a big party to say thank you to all the people who’ve made this happen, and a few friends as well.

Antonio is in hospital but he told me to send his good wishes to you all. It’s nothing serious and he should be out tomorrow.”

Carving the hog roast

The new Carluccio’s joins a host of Italian restaurants jostling for space near the new St David’s development, including Gio’s, Ask and most recently Jamie’s Italian.

But if the food at the launch is anything to go by, they should stand every chance of holding their own in Cardiff’s new Little Italy.

Food more than fuel – In praise of cricket teas

The cricket season is nearly upon us, so especially for Cardiff School of Journalism’s cricket supplement (edited by the wonderful Will and Tom), here’s a tribute to one of Britain’s best inventions – the cricket tea.

For most sports, food means fuel. Whether it be protein shakes, dubious muscle-building powders or, for the Olympians, three fried-egg sandwiches and a five-egg omelette for breakfast, none of the scientifically-proven meals eaten by today’s athletes would find their way onto a Michelin-starred menu.

Nor, of course, onto a cricket tea table. With its day-long matches and meal breaks, cricket is the one exception to sport’s food is fuel rule. The cricket tea is a centuries-old institution, and without it club cricket – or its players at least – would crumble.

Although there’s no hard and fast rule for the perfect cricket tea, a lot rides on its quality. Your club will soon be blacklisted if away teams are greeted by nothing more than a curled-up marmite sandwich and some lukewarm squash.

Up until recently, most clubs either had an official tea lady or an unofficial squad of teamakers – the players’ wives, who get a starring role in a Yorkshire cricket heritage project. Although some still do – Lisvane Cricket Club are currently advertising for a cricket tea caterer, at £60 a time – more and more teams have had to enlist the players themselves as chefs-in-chief.

But whoever makes it, the teatime staples haven’t changed much over the years. For sandwiches, egg and cress, cheese and cucumber and tinned salmon are all favourites, usually accompanied by pork pies and sausage rolls. Some more adventurous clubs have even introduced young pretenders like cold pizza and samosas.

Tacky is usually the order of the day. Buy-one-get-one-free Mr Kipling cakes, doused with icing sugar and nestling on a doily, are a must, and a huge multipack of Walkers crisps (with the prawn cocktail left until last) is a given.

And of course an urn should sit steaming in a corner, ready to make umpteen cups of PG Tips. It’s all very 1950s, and no-one – least of all the old-timers who are more interested in the tea than the score – would want to change it.

But the best teas, the really memorable ones, the ones which will make away teams squabble over who gets picked to travel to your club, take the kitsch classics and transform them into a gourmet meal.

Sliced white bread will be replaced by fresh brown or granary straight from the baker’s. Fillings will be generous – creamy egg mayonnaise will ooze out of the sandwiches, plastic wafer thin “ham” will surrender to crumbly butcher’s ham smothered in English mustard and the sausage rolls will be warm, with flakey buttery pastry and peppery sausages.

But most of all, Mr Kipling will be abandoned in favour of homemade cakes. Light Victoria sponges, filled generously with buttercream and strawberry jam, will vie for space with rich chocolate cake and sticky brownies, and buttery scones will be served with clotted cream and tangy lemon curd.

At its best, a cricket tea encapsulates everything great about English cooking. At its worst, it will look like you’ve gone to Kerry Katona and asked her for her Iceland leftovers. Know which side your bread is buttered on, and make sure your team rises to the challenge this season.

The nation’s favourite chef – why mums will always be the best

Nigella, Jamie, Delia – at one time or another they have all been declared as the nation’s favourite chef. But in reality, we have always had the same number one. Our mothers.

It doesn’t matter if their speciality is a painstakingly prepared roast dinner or the dubious “baked bean surprise”. There’s nothing as comforting or reassuring as your mum’s cooking.

Some of it lies in the food itself. Warm golden soup, magically produced from the remnants of yesterday’s chicken; miraculously crispy roast potatoes which you’ve never been able to match, even after years of experimenting with goose fat and dripping and olive oil; steak and kidney pies, oozing with gravy. And of course, the desserts, especially Victoria sponges, filled with jam and buttercream and covered in icing sugar, twice as high as you could ever hope to make them.

Mum's perfect chocolate cake

Yet delicious as they all are, much of it lies in the memories. I loved standing on tip toe waiting to lick cake mixture off the spoon, or donning an apron three sizes too big and being allowed to cut out biscuits, even if I never could do it as neatly as mum.

But until recently homemade food was looked down upon.  “Shop-bought” cakes were the pinnacle of respectability, and the rough edges of a homemade pie looked passe next to the perfect shape of a pre-packaged one. Now though, the twin forces of the credit crunch and a turkey-twizzler-wielding  Jamie Oliver are sending us scuttling back to our mothers’ neatly- typed recipes, and homecooking is suddenly in vogue.

Except it turns out all those hours spent eating cake mixture and cutting out biscuits may not have rubbed off on us as much as we’d hoped. We are struggling to make the leap back from pasta and pesto to steak and kidney pie.

According to a new survey, we are losing the basic skills integral to traditional homecooking. In the ‘70s, two-thirds of women could make gravy from scratch compared with one-third today, and half of them knew how to make shortcrust pastry without needing a recipe. It’s just 16 per cent now.

All this has the “shame on you” faction running for the burning torches. If the supper you’ve whipped up after a long day at work doesn’t simultaneously save money, the planet and your children’s health then you may as well hand in the Cath Kidston apron now. Sensible as a frugal, healthy and downright old-fashioned approach to food is, there’s nothing to gain from turning it into yet another stick with which to beat  already over-stretched mums.

With a full-time job and errant children, it’s hard enough to get something half-decent on the table without trying to perform lamb cawl and bara brith gymnastics. We should preserve the things our mothers taught us, but it’s unrealistic to pretend we can still do them every day. Better to save the Cath Kidston apron and the  weighing scales for weekends.

So, this Mother’s Day, rather than feel guilty for not being Delia as well as Karren Brady, go and take refuge in a slice of your mum’s cake. Or take her a slice of yours – but don’t beat yourself up if it’s only half the height

Review – Mina Lebanese Restaurant and Cafe Bar

If you have only ever thought of Lebanese food in the context of strip-lit, sticky-floored kebab shops, the warm and welcoming Mina Restaurant and Cafe Bar will make you think again. Houmous and falafel are familiar names, but Mina, which has been running in the heart of Cathays since 1990, goes far beyond those to produce a huge range of dishes from this often-overlooked region.

For a Tuesday night, it was comfortably busy, with a broader range of customers than its student-ville location might suggest. Red-painted walls and glowing candles helped shut out the busy street and for once someone had figured out how to use the volume button on the stereo, leaving the background music at a soft hum to complement rather than drown out conversation.

Mezze selection

More than a bit bewildered by the array of choices on the menu, we happily submitted to the guidance of manager Biar Darwish. He said a traditional Lebanese meal begins with mezze, the equivalent of Spanish tapas, and seeing our blank looks at the 21 different types on the menu, he suggested we went for the mezze selection.

It was gorgeous. The warak enab (vine leaves wrapped around a moist filling of rice and vegetables) struck just the right note of vinegar balanced with soothing rice, while the falafel were perfect: crunchy but not greasy with a delicious garlicky filling of chickpeas and tahini. Generous helpings of creamy homemade houmous and its aubergine-based cousin, moutabbal, were ideal for dipping, and we were glad of the refreshing lemony tabboule salad to cut through the garlicky stodginess.

Although many of the mezze were vegetarian, Lebanese cuisine prides itself on its meat and Mina is no exception. Again plumping for the more is more option, my guest chose the mashwi mwshakal. It combines three of the menu’s traditional Lebanese dishes: shish tawk, lamb mashwi and mina kofta. Each one could convert even the most ardent vegetarian.

The mashwi turned out to be chunks of tender, just-pink chargrilled lamb and the shish tawk was a revelation. Chargrilled chicken breast marinated in lemon juice and garlic, it fulfilled the menu’s promise to melt in the mouth. Food envy aside, my Mina lamb was good too. Slow-cooked in a “mild spicy” tomato sauce, it was perhaps more like a straightforward curry than I would have hoped, but it was warming, comforting and complex in flavour.

Mashwi Mwshakal

Mina is ideal if you are going for a meal with a big group of friends. Shared mezze are a great way to start, and with simpler dishes like grilled salmon, sirloin steak and pasta in a cream sauce on the menu too, there is something for even the fussiest guest.

Prices start at £10.95 for a main and £4 for a mezze starter, so it is a bit pricey, but for perfectly-cooked meat, tapas-style choice and the prospect of sticky, nutty baklava for dessert, it is more than worth it.

Reposted at Capture Cardiff

Bara brith and laver bread – On the hunt for Welsh treats in Cardiff

Starbucks has taken over Queen Street and it’s often easier to find a panini than rarebit in the Welsh capital, with traditional dishes nowhere to be seen. So, in the spirit of St David’s day, I went on the hunt to see if Welsh staples like cawl, bara brith and laver bread still exist in increasingly cosmopolitan Cardiff.

First on the list is the Bull Terrier Café in Cardiff market, one of the few places left in the city where you can still find a traditional Welsh breakfast. Along with Welsh bacon, sausage and egg, the proper version comes with oat cakes, cockles and laver bread, made from seaweed. Bread is of course misleading. Chef Lenny Morris said when rolled in oatmeal and fried the dark green seaweed mixture forms a crucial part of the Welsh breakfast.

Bara brith

He said: “Normally we’re lucky if we sell one a day, but it’s popular on match days, mostly with the Valleys bunch. The Aussies like to try it sometimes too.” Mr Morris buys his laver bread from Ashton’s fishmongers downstairs in the market, where it retails at £8.65 a kilogram. Director Nick Adams said: “It comes from the Gower and it’s very popular. We sell about 60 or 70 kilograms a week.”

At St Fagans National Museum, cake rather than seaweed is the order of the day. General manager of the restaurant, Damian Brown, said; “As well as sourcing all our food locally we do all our own baking on site and we produce a range of cakes including Welsh cakes, bara brith and shearing cake. Shearing cake is a traditional 1930s cake made from lemon and caraway seed. It had nearly died out but we looked through our recipe books and decided to revive it.”

Welsh cakes

Even far flung dishes from the New York Deli in High Street Arcade have a Welsh twist. Owner Harriett Davies said they source all their charcuterie from nearby Tongwynlais, and their Cardiff hoagie with leeks and cheese is one of their most popular sandwiches.

But for a real choice of Welsh classics, the best option is Garlands eatery and coffee house in Duke Street Arcade. According to owner Ian Davis, their most popular Welsh dish is lamb cawl, which accounts for five per cent of their sales and takes two days to make. The chef roasts and boils lamb bones to make a rich stock and then adds winter vegetables to make the traditional hearty broth.

Welsh rarebit

They also make Welsh rarebit in the traditional way. Mr Davis said: “It’s not cheese on toast, it’s baked cheese. We mix cheese, beer and mustard together and grill it for speed, but traditionally it wascooked in an Aga.”

The small café, popular with first language Welsh speakers. also sells laver bread as part of their veggie breakfast, alongside Glamorgan sausages made with leeks and Caerphilly cheese. Mr Davis said: “It is good food, and it is always nice to make things which are just part of your heritage. My grandmother made all these things – we should not be the exception. The question is not why do we cook Welsh food, but why everyone else doesn’t. We don’t want to be a tacky Welsh-themed café, but in Cardiff you should expect Welsh cooking as the norm.”

The end for blueberry muffins?

Starbucks, take note. Seaweed may not be for everyone, but with classics like Welsh rarebit and lamb cawl making a comeback, half-fat lattes and blueberry muffins will have to watch out.

Celebrating Wales for St David’s Day – A Trip to St Fagans National Museum

The grounds of St Fagans

Inside the 17th century smithy, a blacksmith hammered away at a strip of metal glowing from the heat of the forge. Sparks flew off the hot iron as a hinge slowly took shape beneath the soot-darkened beams – and Cheryl Cole stared out from a copy of the day’s Metro nestled in the corner.

The mix of eras is typical of the modern, hands-on approach of St Fagans National History Museum, Wales’s most popular tourist destination.

Founded in 1948, the open air museum is set in the grounds of St Fagans castle and is home to more than forty cottages, shops and workshops covering the last six centuries of Welsh history. Transported from across Wales and rebuilt at the site four miles from Cardiff, these historic buildings attract more than 700,000 visitors a year.

I wasn’t expecting very many of them to be around on a chilly February morning. But the beautiful green site was far from quiet, even at 10am, and tourists jostled with schoolchildren to stare at the smithy and his forge. Across the street, an old-fashioned shop bell jangled incessantly and the children peered up at huge jars of sweets. I avoided a class of chattering six-year-olds and ducked into the low doorway of 18th century Nant Wallter cottage.

Magali Davies in Nant Wallter Cottage

Once my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, Magali Davies , a heritage worker, gave me a tour. She said: “Around 12 people would have all lived together here. The walls were made from clom, a mixture of clay and straw; it kept them warm but made it very dark.” The blazing fire and dark-timbered beds made the house feel as if the long-dead owner had just left, but once I noticed the rabbits hanging from the wall I made a speedy exit and wandered back down to the reconstructed village at the centre of the site.

Here the centuries are most impressively brought together. A fully-furnished 1930s post office from Blaen-waun, Carmarthen, stands next to an 18th century cock pit, while a huge 18th century tannery, which once would have polluted the air, stands just behind a working pottery and kiln.

But best of all is the 19th century Gwalia stores and restaurant. Navigate the narrow stairs and dusty Lyons crates and you come to an old-fashioned tearoom, which sells proper cream teas and homemade cakes.

Resident blacksmith at St Fagans

With a café and restaurant in the main visitor centre too, the hardest task during a day at St Fagans is choosing somewhere to eat. I settled for a slice of thickly-buttered bara brith, made by Katrina Lloyd, the museum’s resident baker. She said: “I’ve worked here in the Derwen bakehouse for 20 years. My mum did it before me and then I took over, baking bread seven days a week.”

St Fagans is very much a living museum, with a long-serving community of enthusiastic staff. It makes history accessible without being patronising, instead relying on the excitement of watching a potter throw clay or a blacksmith make sparks to inspire children and entertain adults alike.

Showing the whole of Wales in miniature, a trip to St Fagans would be the top of my list to celebrate St David’s day.

Reposted from CaptureCardiff.