Welsh wonder: It's time to reconsider the cuisine next door

Wales, with its damp green valleys, may not be famous for its food but bara brith is just the start.

Alice-Azania Jarvis
Thursday 25 August 2011 00:00

Each year, when the season announces itself, Bryn Williams heads home to shoot. In his native north Wales, game is plentiful; so much so that he sends his bounty back to London, where it is promptly put on the menu of his restaurant, Odette's in Primrose Hill.

"Wales really has so much to offer," he enthuses. "Just in terms of ingredients, it's fantastic."

It's a factor which has informed his career, first as a protégée of Marco Pierre White and then as a restaurateur in his own right.

"I come from a farming family – my father was one of seven siblings. I moved to London at the age of 20 and when I bought Odette's I knew it would be important – it's part of my personality. Welsh ingredients are good enough to compete on an international level."

Indeed, they should be. From its rain-soaked verdant uplands to the mountainous sheep farms and well-stocked coast, Wales offers plenty of scope for farming and fishing.

Oddly, though, the country isn't known for its national dishes. There's no Haggis or Tablet, no Lancashire Hotpot or Yorkshire Pudding. But look a little closer and you'll see that Welsh cuisine has plenty to distinguish it.

Cawl, a kind of soup-stew hybrid, is as much of a staple as you'll find anywhere in the world.

"It varies from one part of the country to the next, but every area has its own version," agrees Elisabth Luard, author of A Cook's Year in a Welsh Farmhouse. "I live in the uplands and instead of being served with chunks of meat, it comes with cheese."

Then there are Welsh cakes, cockles and bacon (served at breakfast, explains Williams) and Lavabread, a kind of dark, gelatinous purée made from boiled seaweed.

"And lots of baking," says Luard. "Anything from lemon drizzle cake to fruit bread, Wales is brilliant for baking." Williams agrees. At home in Denby, he remembers vividly his grandmother preparing bara brith ("speckled bread"), a dense kind of fruit loaf, glazed with honey and "speckled" with raisins, currants and candied peel soaked in tea over night. It's a treat which remains popular to this day; indeed you'd be hard-pressed to find a village in Wales where a local version of bara birth isn't served.

"From the outside looking in, people assume its all lamb, leek and beef, but in fact there's so much else to Wales," says Williams.

More than anything, though – more than the cakes and the cawl – it's the ingredients that distinguish Wales.

"The landscape is so rich," explains Luard. "In my area, you just wouldn't expect people to cook anything but what they grow. The raw materials are excellent. People make their own butter. I met a woman who cooks her potatoes in home-made butter and buttermilk. Buttermilk! There's a different attitude to food here: there's an understanding of traditions, but there's also a sense of innovation." It's with this – the richness of the landscape – in mind that Williams has put together a menu of Welsh-inspired dishes to prepare with me. The aim is to show me that Wales can hold its own in any culinary comparison and he is off to a convincing start.

Arriving at Odette's on a sunny morning, I'm greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread and the sight of an apron-clad Williams arranging broad beans, potted brown shrimp, sea trout and new potatoes on a tray, ready for our use. We're going to make two dishes, he tells me: a plate of wild sea trout (the trout fishing in Wales is among the best in the world) with crushed potatoes, broad beans, brown shrimp and confit lemon, as well as a loin of lamb – straight out of the Elwy Valley, with confit potato, baby gem, peas and mint.

We haven't even started cooking and already I'm salivating – not least because the raw materials look less like a pile of ingredients and more like an impressionist painting: all pastel colours and shades of green. They're ingredients which, Williams is quick to point out, you wouldn't find more than a few miles apart – if that.

"They're all seasonal and would all grow together. In general, you can abide by the rule that if they grow together, they go together. We bear that in mind as much as we possibly can. Some people say it's a gimmick, but it's not. The Italians, French and Spanish have been doing it for years, so why not us?"

The trout is our first course, so it's straight in the frying pan, skin-side down for five minutes, before flipping it over and taking it off the heat.

"If you do it like that, the skin all crisps up. It's delicious and very, very good for you." The potted shrimp is one Williams made earlier: "It's such a handy thing to have around the kitchen – I use it in so many things and it's so straightforward." Using a shop-bought version would be fine, too. Just make sure you scrape in the layer of butter along the top, says Williams: "That's where you get all the flavour." In a separate pot from the trout, he warms the shrimp, adding the cooked broad beans as the spice-infused butter gently melts.

The loin of lamb comes boned and wrapped in a thick, appetising layer of fat. Williams recommends visiting a traditional butcher in order to find a cut with its fat intact. When you get it home, peel back the fat, flatten and then roll and tie the loin in it.

While it's roasting, Williams prepares his peas, cooking them with miniature white onions in some pea stock. Along with potted shrimp, this is another staple in his kitchen.

"I like to keep things light and seasonal," he explains. "If you're using a lot of butter and so on, something like pea stock or a bit of baby gem lettuce can really freshen things up."

When they're done, Williams' dishes look fit for a king; a bite of the lamb confirms that this is, in fact, the case.

As Williams has said, they're good enough to compete on the international stage. So why don't we make more of Wales and its wonderful food? Williams is unsure. One day soon, though, he hopes to change perceptions by opening a pub near where he grew up. That way, he reasons, diners will be even closer to the source of their ingredients. "I get customers visiting Odette's who have come all the way from the north of Wales. They'll say to me, 'This is the best game I've had in years' and I'm there thinking, 'Well, you drove past where it was shot on your way down.' Instead of sending everything to London, I'd love to keep some of the ingredients up there; hopefully educate people about what they're got on their doorstep; make them realise just what's there."

It's a realisation that Luard (and her Welsh farm house's frequent guests) have already experienced: "It's a very good life. When people come to visit, I make them cawl and raspberry jam. They love it. It really is rather special."

'Bryn's Kitchen' by Bryn Williams is published by Kyle Cathie; 'A Cook's Year in a Welsh Kitchen' by Elisabeth Luard is published by Bloomsbury.

Bryn Williams' Roast loin of lamb with confit potato, peas and lettuce

(Serves two)

2 loins of lamb weighing 600g in total, boned and rolled
1 gem lettuce
1 onion
1 sprig mint
100g fresh cooked peas
50g butter
500ml lamb stock
300g duck fat
100g smoked bacon (cut into strips)
1 large potato

Pre heat oven to 160 degrees celsius.

Season the lamb with salt and pepper, heat a frying pan to a medium heat with some vegetable oil and colour the lamb all over, then place in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or until ready. Leave to rest for 10-15 minutes.

Peel and cut the potato, place in the duck fat and cook for 30-40 minutes until soft, when ready place the potato in a warm frying pan and colour on both sides. In another pan on a medium heat, add some vegetable oil and cook the bacon until golden. Add the onions and cook for a further two minutes. Cover the bacon and onion with lamb stock, bring it the boil and simmer for 2 minutes, then add the cooked peas, bringing back to the boil, as well as the butter, then the lettuce and mint and season with salt and pepper. When the butter has melted and made the stock shiny, remove from the heat.

Serve the lamb sliced with confit potato and the peas on the side (recipes for which can be found at ind.pn/waleslamb)

Bryn Williams' Wild Sea trout with crushed potatoes, potted shrimp, confit lemon

(serves four)

4 x 150g sea trout (pin boned, skin on)
400g new potatoes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Broad beans (cooked)
100g brown shrimp
100g unsalted butter
Pinch of mace
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 lemon zest and juice

Prepare the lemon confit in advance (see below). Wash the potatoes and place in cold water in a heavy bottomed pan. Season with salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes or until ready. When the potatoes are ready, drain off the water.

Return to the dry pan and remove any excess water.

When dry, crush the potatoes with the back of a fork. Season with salt and pepper, olive oil & to bind. Keep warm.

Score the skins of the sea trout with a sharp knife.

Season the flesh of the fish with salt and pepper. Place in a warm frying pan, with a drizzle of olive oil, skin side down and cook for 4 to 5 minutes.

When skin is crispy, turn off the heat, then turn the fish over in the pan to gently warm the underside.

Melt the butter without boiling it, add the mace, cayenne pepper, brown shrimps, lemon juice and zest and stir well, add the cooked broad beans and keep warm.

Serve the trout on top of the crushed potatoes with the shrimp and beans spooned over.

Top with the lemon confit.

Lemon confit

15 organic lemons, cut into 8 slices
1kg sugar
1 litre water
2 vanilla pod (split down the middle)
2 star anise
2 cloves garlic

Place the sliced lemons in a saucepan with and cover with cold water and enough salt to make it taste like sea water, bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and allow to cool over night, then remove from the water and set aside. In a clean saucepan, bring a litre of water and the sugar to the boil, add the vanilla pod, star anise and garlic. Place the lemons into the saucepan, remove from the heat and cook for 12 hours on low.

Elisabeth Luard’s Cawl with Lamb

From A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Kitchen

1kg neck of lamb or bacon joint, on the bone
3-4 big fat leeks, rinsed
12 peppercorns
2-3 carrots, scraped and chunked
1-2 turnips, peeled and chunked
1-2 parsnips, peeled and chunked
6-7 smallish potatoes, scrubbed and chunked
Large handful of spring greens or cabbage or turnip tops, shredded
Parsley, finely chopped

Wipe over the meat and chunk the white part of the leeks, reserving the tender part of the green tops.

Put the meat and chunked white leek in a large pot with 11/2 litres water, the peppercorns and salt (if using bacon joint, omit the sat.)

Bring the pot to the boil and skim off the grey foam that rises. Turn down the heat, cover and simmer for an hour or so, till the meat is soft and the broth well flavoured. Leave to cool, then skim off the fat (save it for making fried bread).

Add the carrots, turnips and parsnips to the pot, topping up the broth with enough water to cover everything generously, and return to the boil.

Turn down the heat and leave to bubble genly for 20-30 minutes, till the vegetables are tender.

Add the potatoes and cook for another 20 minutes till they soften. Stir in the spring greens and bubble up for another 5 minutes – don’t let the greens go mushy. Stir in the reserved leek green, sliced into fine rings. Taste and ass salt if necessary.

Serve in deep bowls with a generous sprinkling of chopped parsley. Bread and butter and cheese are the traditional accompaniments.

Welsh Cakes

From A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Kitchen

500g self-raising flour
5-g butter, diced small plus extra for greasing
125g sultanas and/or raisins
125g caster sugar
2 eggs

Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips as if making a pastry. Mix in the fruit and sugar. Fork up the eggs with their own volume of water (measure with an eggshell) and work the liquid into the flour mixture till you have a soft but still rollable dough – you might need a little more water

Tip the dough onto a well-floured board and roll it out to the thickness of a couple of £1 coins – about 5 mm. Cut into circles with a shell-edged biscuit cutter or sharp-edged teacup

Gently and thoroughly heat a griddle or a heavy frying pan. To test whether it’s hot enough, sprinkle the surface with a pinch of flour – if it toasts golden within 4-5 seconds without burning, the heat is correct; if it smokes and blackens immediately the metal is too hot. Wipe with a buttery cloth then slip the cakes onto the hot metal. Wait till the underside is browned and the surface begins to look dry, then turn them gently and brown on the other side. Allow 6-8 minutes in all

Eat the cakes warm, spread with salty Welsh butter – or not, since there’s butter in the mix already. Store in an airtight tin and freshen them up in the toaster

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