Abergavenny Food Festival (or an extended Week In Pictures)

Picture credit: Abergavenny Food Festival

A slightly longer Week in Pictures this week given the fantastic Abergavenny Food Festival last weekend. So, where to start? Well, we only had the Saturday this year to enjoy the festival as we couldn’t get there on Sunday. Turns out this was no bad thing as doing two days last year was exhausting, so we just made the most of the time we had.

Picture credit: Abergavenny Food Festival

I said this last year, and I might have said it again last weekend several times, but I can never get over how huge the festival is and how much of the town it covers. I know they say it’s one of the UK’s biggest (and best, of course) food festivals, but when you’re used to your local town half full even on a Saturday morning at its busiest, it’s still a (very pleasant) surprise to see it so packed. Let’s face it, Abergavenny is a town of two halves really – there are some lovely shops and places to eat, and there are very many empty shops and units. In that, it’s no different from any other rural/suburban high street hit by out of town development, changing shopping habits and decreasing footfall. But, what marks Abergavenny out as different is the motivation and energy a small bunch of people have to really make a difference to the town, bring people in and get them spending and enjoying the place.

Picture credit: Abergavenny Food Festival

So, we got in there early on Saturday morning and spent some time wandering around the stalls, planning what we would come back to and try, what was on our list to buy. Then we’d booked ourselves in for a sourdough class with the baker Alex Gooch from Hay-on-Wye. I’d tried Alex’s bread at the Hardwick, and had always commented on just how fantastic it was – chewy, with a great crust and a real depth of flavour.

Organised by the local cookery school, The Culinary Cottage, it was held in the Priory Hall in the centre of town and numbers were kept to around 16 to ensure we all had plenty of time with Alex. Now, I’ll admit – I find sourdough complicated. I don’t really understand the process for the starter, nor the feeding schedule, the temperatures, the whole complex, time-consuming business. Fortunately, Alex choose to do sourdough flatbreads which for a novice like me, is just about manageable. We put our pinnies on, mixed our ingredients, made a fantastic mess with the runny sourdough and eventually corralled the lot into an oiled bag to take home to bake. We then tried Alex’s ‘here’s one I made earlier’ version of flatbread – and my word, it’s worth the effort. Topped variously with garlic oil, Hafod cheddar, pickled chillies, cumin and coriander, I don’t think I need I’ll ever be buying supermarket pizza again (I know, all the class…).

The next day – after a spell lying dormant in the fridge – I got my dough out, coralled it back out of its oiled bag and started rolling and cooking. It’s not the easiest to work with, still being quite frankly a bit sloppier than other doughs I’ve worked with, but with plenty (and I mean plenty) of the polenta that Alex recommended, and after a bit of trial and error – seven of my very own flatbreads! In bad blogger style there are no photos of this process because at this point I was covered in a mixture of dough and polenta and couldn’t have picked up the camera if I’d wanted to. So, you’ll have to take my word for it – they were delicious (I didn’t eat all seven – I did have the restraint to freeze some of them). Alex sent us all away with with our very own 11 year old starter which is now resting in the fridge before I recover sufficiently to attempt to resuscitate it and make some bread.

Back to the festival. We headed back over to the Castle area for lunch. More dough based products at the woodfired pizza stall? Yes, I was tempted but managed to hold back enough to go for Cafe Spice Namaste‘s goan potato curry with rice and onion bhajis, eaten in the sunshine by the castle walls.

After that we wandered around the market area and the brewery yard. We had to make beeline back to the bara brith stand, Baked by Mel. For my overseas or over-border readers, bara brith is a traditional Welsh tea-loaf, made with dried fruits, baked and eaten either as is or toasted, butter optional (but good). A great bara brith might look small but legitimately weighs around two stone. It should be dense in the best possible sense of the word.  I grew up on the stuff in North Wales, bought from the long-gone (and missed) Roberts’ bakery in Mold, requesting it to take back to university every term when I was a student. Since moving here however, I haven’t really found a good stand in. South Walian bara brith seems to be more cake-like, almost like a syrup sponge. Mel’s is different however. This is bara brith as it should be – chock full of fruit, and heavy as a millstone. Extra marks for the lovely packaging and Richard Llewelyn quote.

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After all that, it was time to head home, have a quick change and go back out again. The festival also runs fringe events outside of the main town festival site, and this year Feast with a Chef was bringing Michelin-starred chef Matt Gillan to our local village hall. Yes, previously only known for it’s monthly film nights and location for the start of local fell races (other runners will know what I mean when I say race starts have a peculiar, yet unmistakeable, smell of embrocation, fear and toilets), it was perhaps not an auspicious beginning to a night. But, greeted by a glass of Ancre Hill sparkling and with the promise of a Michaelmas feast things were looking up. The village hall was decked out in bunting, with long tables laid communal-style, and importantly, no lingering smell of runners.

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Michaelmas feasts are a tradition that we don’t seem to have widely retained here in the UK, but historically, it was the time after the harvest when farmers and tenants would pay their annual rents, often sweetening their landlords with the present of a goose. Hence, the traditional Michaelmas feast is goose-based, and apparently, goose is best eaten at this time of the year (rather than Christmas) as it is fat from feeding on the stubble of the harvest.

I’m not quite sure how they achieved it, but out of the small kitchen of the village hall came five courses of delicious food. Celery sorbet, seared tuna, the goose (all parts used except for the hiss), berry dessert – accompanied by local wines, beer and cider.

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We ended the night walking the couple of miles back home, walking off the sourdough, the bara brith, the goose, the Ancre Hill, and reflecting on just what a difference one idea carried out with energy, ambition and enthusiasm can make to a town.

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A Week in Pictures/Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

So, when I said this might be an occasional series, I should also have added occasionally late….this is last weekend when it’s virtually this weekend already. We spent our time in London in a craft beer haze – two beer festivals in two days.

We started the craft beer trail at The Antelope in Surbiton where they had over 60 ales, including Tiny Rebel from approximately half an hour away from here. They must have known we were coming… We also tried their own brew and some local beer from nano-brewery Park Brewery. Up next was Courtyard in King’s Cross – Green Man transplanted to London with beer and music, and The Wave Pictures as the house band. Slightly more industrial, urban backdrop to when we last saw them with Table Mountain framing the stage at Green Man, but no less great. Lovely selection of beer including the Limestone Cowboy from Cwrw Ial and Lemon Drizzle from the Waen Brewery.

Clockwise from top left:

  1. Croeso! A little piece of Wales in London
  2. The Wave Pictures at Courtyard, King’s Cross
  3. Y Buarth/Courtyard – look at the size of that beer tent!
  4. Ale and Cider Festival at The Antelope, Surbiton

A garden update: starting the unveiling, part 1

If you’ve been following Hidden Valley Wales for a while you’ll have seen our Big Garden Project slowly unfolding. When we moved into the house nearly two years ago (two years!) we inherited a very overgrown garden. It’s a traditional productive cottage garden with great shape and structure but large areas had been let go for a number of years. The spaces closest to the house were great with a small herb garden and mature borders, all surrounded by a flagstone terrace that wraps around the front of the house and provides a real suntrap for morning coffees, weekend lunches, evening glasses of wine…however, the further down the garden you move the wilder it got. As the garden is all to the front of the cottage it’s what we look out on every day so it was really important to us to get it sorted and make it as lovely as we knew it once was. Now I’m ready to start unveiling what we’ve been up to all this time, although you can see glimpses of it herehere and here.

I’ve tried to draw out the plan of the garden here so you can visualise it. Disclaimer: I’m no artist, as you can see, but hopefully me and my coloured pencils help you navigate your way around a bit. You can see there are a number of different areas within the garden as it all gently slopes down towards the stream at the bottom of the valley. I”m going to split this update into three I think to make it a little less wordy and difficult to get through. So, this is part 1: what I grandly call the top terrace. On the plan below it’s the section at the very bottom.

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Garden plan

The space closest to the house – aka the top terrace – is more formal with flower borders and the herb patch. We had less heavy work to do here – just some patching up of the grass with grass seed where we’d removed the geraniums which colonise every patch of garden they possibly can, tidying up the borders and the herb patch and keeping the terrace free of the weeds that spring up between the flagstones every time my back is turned.

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The herb patch with borders behind, January 2014
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And again, June 2015
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Herb patch with borders behind filling out for summer, June 2015
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Border before it got too jam-packed this year, June 2015

We inherited this amazing stone trough under the window which we’ve planted up this year with verbena and some summer-flowering bulbs. It’s a riot of red and pink. Garden colour schemes are not our strong point.

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Empty stone trough and old stable door which was swollen shut, January 2014
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Stone trough, July 2015 – yes, I know the verbena and lilies clash

I’ve also added a cold frame which might form the basis of another post, I don’t know, it could tip me and you over the edge of gardening dullness. Anyway, let’s just say that the terrace is a lovely spot for coffee drinking, reading, contemplating and wine drinking but mainly wine drinking.

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This beautiful valerian grows out of all the terrace walls

This year we bought some new garden furniture for the terrace to replace the broken old bench we’d used last year during the building project as we can now safely have nice things without the threat of them being covered in mortar, dust and general building crap. So, a really nice new set from Cox and Cox arrived this spring which we’ve been enjoying through the summer.

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Terrace, January 2014, complete with our broken blue bench
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Terrace, July 2015, with Cox and Cox garden furniture set. The stable door has been replaced with a glass door to make the most of the views.

We also got this little bench to go on the top area of lawn as it’s light enough to move around easily to catch the sun in the mornings.

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Bench, modelled by Hodges

Actually, there is still more work yet to do here. We have a project round the side of the house which is for another day (year) – we removed an old shed here and have yet to completely decide what to do with the space. More of that another time. Also, the borders that I said were mature? They’re actually mature to the point of being jam packed – the rampant geraniums need thinning out and the crocosmia need dividing so that’s something for this autumn and winter. I also have a large empty space in the border where we’ve repaired the fallen-down wall which needs something.

Still, for this year, we’re delighted with what we’ve achieved. A great spot to sit, drink wine and look out at the rest of the garden and the mountain beyond.

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View from the garden. I staged the white horse…

Next up: part 2 and the vegetable patch!

Green Man /Dyn Gwyrdd 2015

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I’ve been in a post-Green Man funk all week. Three days of music, ale and food have left me feeling a little bit bereft now it’s all over. But, what a weekend.

Personal highlights for me were Television, Courtney Barnett, Super Furries, Teleman (again), The Wave Pictures. There is so much good stuff at Green Man that line up clashes inevitably arise – The Wave Pictures and Television being one, so we caught just the end of The Wave Pictures on the basis of, really, when am I likely to ever see Television again? Slowdive and The Fall were others that got away. For the sheer joy of being there – Seazoo on the Green Man Rising stage were infectious in their enthusiasm, their audience and their lo-fi pop, Sweet Baboo and The Pictish Trail brought duets and comedy to the Walled Garden, and one that came to life live rather than the recorded version was H Hawkline.

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I also tried to make the most of the wider festival this year, going to readings and comedy in the Babbling Tongues tent. Gwenno bilingually interviewing Gruff and Huw from Super Furries and making a highly professional job of it was fantastic, as were their anecdotes about meeting on top of a train to Bala (‘it was a very slow train’) and turning down a million pounds from Coke for an advert. Mojo should have got Gwenno to interview Mark E Smith in their slot with him – their interviewer happily admitted they’d drawn straws in the office for the privilege and he’d got the short one. Mark E Smith certainly lived up to his reputation on that score. Nell Frizzell talking to Grainne Maguire about her ultimate playlist reminded me how seldom we get to hear women just talking to other women about music.

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The Green Man ale tent was even better than last year, seemingly with more stock meaning that popular ales weren’t selling out on the first day.  It was great to see Pamplemousse from the Waen Brewery and good old JPR Pale Ale from Grey Trees that we normally just buy in bottles, on tap.

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Oh yes, it rained. It rained from Thursday afternoon to Monday morning with approximately 4 hours of sunshine in between. It rained so much it almost made me feel guilty for getting to go home at night, get dry and warm, sleep well and go back the next day in clean clothes. First timers at Green Man might not have realised they were surrounded by mountains, so low was the cloud overhanging the site all weekend. Super Furries playing Hello Sunshine precipitated the biggest downpour of the weekend on Saturday night and we sat there: midnight, the rain pouring down, dripping off our noses, watching five grown men in furry suits and I thought ‘yeah, I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now’. 

Countdown to Green Man

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Framed Telegramme Paper Co gig posters above my desk

Following on from my last post about the Abergavenny Food Festival, we’re also on a countdown (four sleeps!) to Green Man. On only ten minutes from here means that I can get to experience all that’s best about festivals without all the bits I’m really not cut out for. And first on that list would be the camping. I’m not a great sleeper at the best of times (hello, 3am!) and under canvas, on an airbed, in a field with hundreds of others would pretty much guarantee a fully sleepless night with ensuing grumpiness the following day. So, we get to come home, sleep in our bed, have a shower, stretch out the aching limbs after sitting in a field for three days, and really it’s a perfect way to do a festival.

After last year’s Green Man I bought these two posters as a memento from the lovely Telegramme Paper Co – the orange one is Sharon Van Ettan and the other is Deer Tick (who weren’t playing there but were on tour in the UK last year). I got these framed and up on the wall recently over the desk in the upstairs hallway. They’re lovely pieces of art in their own right – beautifully designed, printed and on thick, heavyweight paper. A world away from the bluetacked posters I used to have on my teenage bedroom wall.

So, five days to go until Green Man and the weather has a bit of work to do to dry the fields out and get some sun shining. They’ve already published their day by day running order but I’m trying to put off organising our ‘schedule of bands and stuff we want to see’ as I like to do that over our first beer when we arrive. The we can argue over whether it’s The Fall or Television on Saturday night before Super Furries (Television for me), and Courtney Barnett or Father John Misty on Sunday night (Courtney for me, but I’ll probably find myself on my own for that).

Now all we need is some sunshine!

Holiday to-do list – an update

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Mowing paths in the field

Holidaying in Wales in July is always going to be dicey weather-wise. All this green doesn’t happen by accident. And rained it has, not every day, but probably half the time we were here. Still, we had a great two weeks in the cottage and garden, getting on with projects and taking some time to explore more around the area than we usually have opportunity to do during the weekends.

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Chimneys and blue skies from the back of the house

But, how did I get on with the to-do list I so optimistically posted at the start of the holiday?

  1. Weed large bed of ground elder doom – spectacular fail on this one. Not only did I not weed it but the weeds are now literally laughing at me every time I walk past.
  2. Try at least two new walks in the area Done! We had a number of fantastic walks including a great 6 miler around Talybont on Usk reservoir, ending up for lunch and a tremendous selection of real ales at the Star Inn. We also did an extremely wet (did I mention the rain?) walk up Table Mountain, just outside Crickhowell, where we were dry for approximately 10 minutes of a 3 hours walk. Ordinarily there would be spectacular views from the top but not that day.
  3. Try out kayaking on the river Wye Done! We hired a two man Canadian kayak from Wye Valley Canoes in Glasbury and did a 5 mile kayak down the Wye to Hay. They then pick you up so you don’t have to do the hard bit and paddle upstream, and transport you and your kayak back to base where we had a lovely lunch at their River Cafe next door. Thanks to Jane and her labrador for the lift! We’re now planning our next, longer outing on the river.
  4. Deadhead flower beds  Done! Admittedly this was a quick and easy one, but a nice meditative pastime to tidy up the flower beds.
  5. Cut back geraniums  as experiment to see whether they reflower Done! Zero signs of regrowth so far.

So, not bad really and the ground elder bed was always going to be a long term project. The Mexican Marigolds I sowed back in spring are now coming on well, after being really slow to germinate I have around 5 decent plants to go in and hopefully zap the ground elder with their noxious smelling roots. That’s the theory anyway, I’ll keep you posted.

Now it’s back to work and just being here at weekends, trying to get things done. We have a few nice milestones in the diary coming up though – Green Man in just three weeks time. Anyone else got ways to get through the post-holiday blues?

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Pinks and purples

A little blog redesign

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Edward Thomas’ poem ‘The Lofty Sky’ as painted onto barn at Tair Ffynnon/Garden in the Clouds, Brecon Beacons

One of the things I’ve spent a few hours doing this holiday (it has rained A LOT) is to do a little update for this blog. I updated the theme a few months ago (to Hemingway) but I just wasn’t really feeling the blocky layout – it felt a bit too masculine, a bit too stark perhaps. So, I switched it to Nucleare, another free WordPress theme, and I’m really happy with the fresh, clean layout.

It was easy to switch themes over but in the process of doing so I realised I had been using categories and tags pretty much interchangeably. Apparently, that’s not quite the thing. It seems categories are ways in which to bunch posts together by theme – and so to use more sparingly – and tags are more specific and therefore can be used more plentifully. So, I spent a fairly boring hour assigning categories to all my posts – here, I couldn’t find a quick or easy way to do that except go through each post and manually add a category. As a result, I hope the blog is more navigable – I’ve edited down the categories from about 15 original and slightly random ones (heating anyone??) to four main ones:

  1. Cottage – here I’ll group all the posts about the house, the renovations, the interiors. Over the coming months I’ll chart the process of the refurbishment we’ve been going through here so there’ll be plenty of befores and afters coming up. And yes, there might be more about heating.
  2. Garden – the garden project continues as well as continued growth of the dreaded ground elder. Hopefully there’ll be more pictures of vegetables flowers than weeds as we continue work outside.
  3. Wales – as I continue to explore this ‘new to me’ area of the Brecon Beacons and south Wales I’ll highlight some of the best local places and sights.
  4. Words and Music – I was a little unsure about this category as it feels like a bit of a catch all but essentially here’s where the free time stuff goes when I’m not working in the cottage or garden.

Finally, I’ve also become possibly one of the last people to get with Instagram so there’s now a button on the right sidebar and the bottom of the blog where you can follow me there.

I hope all this makes Hidden Valley Wales a bit more readable, all feedback appreciated!