Thursday, 31 March 2011

Caroline Street (Chippy Lane), Cardiff

In the few hundred yards of pedestrianized Caroline Street (Stryd Caroline) in Cardiff:

(St Mary Street end on the right)
Charleston Street Bar & Grill – Kebab-King – Red Onions Fish & Chip Shop (est. 1971) – Tony’s Fish & Chip Bar – Dorothy’s Fish and Chip Bar (est. 1953) – Kebab Land and Pizza House – Morgan’s Fish Bar & Kebab House – Pipi’s Restaurant – Griller – King’s Cross (pub).

(Turn around, on the other side)
Duke of Wellington (pub) – Greggs – Capital Takeaway – Rosario’s Steak House – Edge (Thai) – Bella Italia – Mamma’s – kitty flynn’s.

Caroline Street is also know as “Chippy Lane.” If the media report a post-club fracas involving someone famous it will most likely have taken place in "Chippy Lane".

A survey conducted by Wales Online, as to what Caroline Street is really called obtained the following result: Chippy Lane 47%, Chippy Alley 19%, Neither, it’s just Caroline Street 27%.

Further reading:
(survey accessed 24 March 2011)

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

O'Neill's Trinity Street Cardiff

Sometimes, on rainy days like today, I get a craving for bangers and mash in a pub. As this was O’Neill’s in Trinity Street Cardiff, it was Irish Pork and Leek Sausages (three plump ones) served on Colcannon (Irish mash of potatoes, spring onions and cabbage) with a rich Red Onion Gravy. I washed it down with a Brains S.A.

Service was friendly and efficient. Portion size was excellent for the price, being £3.49 for the food. Nothing was over-arranged on the plate. O’Neill’s is a welcoming chain pub; a good place to relax. Christy Moore in the music rotation, old Guinness adverts on the walls. They have live music many evenings.

But what’s with the little blue “o’neill’s” labels? They get stuck everywhere - on the beer glasses (not good) and on the napkins (makes them difficult to open). It’s a fussy little detail in an unpretentious pub.

Irish food and Irish music - it’s almost an excuse to quote some Joyce (as if I need one):
“He halted before Dlugacz's window, staring at the hanks of sausages, polonies, black and white. Fifty multiplied by. The figures whitened in his mind unsolved: displeased, he let them fade. The shiny links packed with forcemeat fed his gaze and he breathed in tranquilly the lukewarm breath of cooked spicy pig's blood…
The ferreteyed porkbutcher folded the sausages he had snipped off with blotchy fingers, sausagepink.”

Pub website:
20-21 Trinity Street, Cardiff, CF10 1BHTel: 02920 371 26
(there’s also an O’Neill’s in nearby St Mary Street Cardiff)

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Pork and Fennel

At the weekend we ate pork shoulder with fennel seeds, which had been cooking all day in our new slow cooker. It was great (thanks to Chris). I had forgotten just how good this combination of meat and spice can be.

The joint is smeared all over with three tablespoons of Dijon mustard. Two tablespoons of fennel seeds are crushed in a pestle and mortar with a teaspoon of sea or rock salt, and rubbed into the mustard on the meat. Around 150ml of dry cider is added around the meat. Cover and cook slowly for 8 to 9 hours. Cook the crackling separately in a hot oven, along with the roast potatoes.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds are added to a wide range of roasted pork dishes, pork stews and casseroles, on grilled pork chops, and are a key ingredient in Italian pork sausages.

The distinctive flavour and aroma of crushed fennel seeds is due to their dominant volatile component anethole (which is the same chemical that flavours anise seeds and star anise). Harold McGee notes that most fennel seed sold commercially is from sweet fennel varieties. These have a sweet flavour (without the bitterness of wild fennel and non-sweet varieties), supplemented by citrus, fresh and pine notes.

Harold McGee, 2004. McGee on Food and Cooking, Hodder & Stoughton, page 415.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Food on Film: eXistenZ

Here's the restaurant scene from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). Cronenberg was well ahead of the game in depicting characters in virtual worlds so realistic that boundaries between the real and unreal become blurred.

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh find that there's more to this genetically modified reptile stew than meets/meats the eye. [warning: being Cronenberg, it’s pretty gross].
I hope you enjoy it very much….

Sunday, 27 March 2011


I had a lovely walk today, in the woods and country lanes between Dinas Powys, Wenvoe and Michaelston-le-Pit. Lots of spring flowers, birdsong and lambs bleating, and the sad sight of a bird of prey dead by the roadside. Not for a moment did I think about taking it home and cooking it, but Jonathan McGowan might have. In yesterday's Guardian Weekend he describes his experience of cooking roadkill. After years of experimenting (e.g., avoid badger and hedgehog), he now serves his dinner guests dishes such as two-owl bolognese, fox lasagne and frog stir-fry. Interesting:

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Braised Red Cabbage

I have been cooking Braised Red Cabbage for as long as I have been cooking. It was one of my Mum’s recipes. She noted it was cooked in the Viennese style. It’s sweet, gets better after reheating, and half of it can be frozen for another day.

I have cut and pasted this recipe from an archived html file from February 1997, which formed part of my first website:

Braised Red Cabbage
This is a popular Nottingham family recipe.

Ingredients: A red cabbage, 1 oz brown sugar, 3 tablespoons redcurrant jelly, 2 teaspoons salt, freshly-ground pepper, handful of dried sultanas, 2 oz butter, 1 large finely-chopped onion, 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, 3 bay leaves.

• Finely shred and rinse the red cabbage.

• Melt butter in heavy pan, add onion. Cook until soft, add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

• Add the rest of the ingredients. Stir. Cover.

• Cook in moderate oven (or on hob) 45 mins to 1 hour.

• Dish improves if cooled and reheated. Freezes well.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Penarth Pier

There was an early vision of summer on Penarth Pier today: bright sunshine, kids with ice creams, shorts and sandals, waves on the beach below.

At the entrance to the pier is Tonys, who sells pizzas, other hot meals, and Thayer’s Ice Cream. On the pier itself are two snackbars. The first is Decks on Penarth Pier, specializing in fish and chips, bacon rolls and Joe’s Ice Cream (made in Swansea). Next door is Nicola’s Juice and Coffee Bar, run by Nicola Morgan with some help from her daughter, selling pasties, pies, sausage rolls, baguettes, cakes, and fishing bait. An impressive photo gallery of proud fishermen and the fish they have caught off the end of the pier is on display on the wall.

I had an excellent freshly-squeezed orange juice and a buttered slice of bara brith from Nicola’s Juice and Coffee Bar. She did me a good deal as it was the end of the loaf. Regulars seem to make use of the coffee/teas exchanged for gossip option.

Penarth Pier was built in 1894 and most of the pier is in good shape. Large ships embark from here; the Waverley (a steamboat) and Balmoral board from the end of the pier in the summer for cruises along the Bristol Channel. However, the Pavilion is in urgent need of renovation. The ambitious Penarth Pavilion Project has plans approved to convert the Pavilion into a multi-purpose hall, with a small cinema/lecture theatre, visitor centre, restaurant/bar, observation tower and Café. The funding is currently being raised and everyone hopes this terrific scheme can be completed in 2013.

The plans for the pavilion can be viewed in The Washington Gallery (there is also a good café) in Penarth.

To find out how you can get involved in the Penarth Pavilion Project visit:

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, St. David's, Cardiff

So, today, after (extremely hopefully) submitting a piece for the judging process in the Welsh Artist of the Year show at St. David’s Hall, I joined the queue for the free Crispy Kreme doughnuts.

I got my promotional box of a dozen Original Glazed, plus a paper hat and other branded material, heralding the opening of a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts store in St. David’s on April 19th 2011. It will be located by the double doors that cross from the older to the newest part of St. David’s.

My fondness for Krispy Kreme doughnuts is linked to memories of living in Georgia in the USA. After concerts at the Omni in Atlanta (we’re talking U2’s Joshua Tree tour, Paul Simon’s Gracelands tour...) we would stop off at the Krispy Kreme for coffee and doughnuts that would be consumed on the drive back to Athens. The shop had glass walls, so you could see behind the scenes and watch the doughnuts on conveyor belts going through the fat and having their glazing applied. They were a revelation at the time (after the heavy, stale doughballs with runny strawberry jam injected - the only type known in the UK then).

Krispy Kreme was founded in Winston-Salem, USA, in 1937 (it says here in the promotional literature). The first UK store was opened in Harrods, London, in 2003. The best-selling variety is the Original Glazed. My favourite is the Cinnamon Apple. The other varieties that will be sold in Cardiff are (I do like food lists): Chocolate Iced Kreme, Butterscotch Fudge, Strawberry & Kreme, Cookies & Kreme, Glazed Raspberry, Chocolate Dreamcake, Maple Iced, Glazed Cruller, Chocolate Iced, Chocolate Iced Sprinkles, Powdered Strawberry, Lemon Meringue Pie and Chocolate Iced Custard.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Terra Nova Café, Roath Park, Cardiff

Earlier this month, the Terra Nova Café opened in Roath Park in Cardiff. With the lovely spring sunshine today, I went for a walk around Roath Park Lake and had lunch there.

The original circular snackbar built in the 1970s is still there, housing the counter where you order and the kitchen area, as is the old outdoor terrace, but a new extension has been added. I ate inside it and found it a very pleasant environment in which to eat, being light and airy with glass walls giving panoramic views of the lake. The new building has solid green credentials, with solar panels and a grass roof. A further outdoor patio area has been included in front of the extension. The café project is a partnership between Cardiff Council and private investor Nic Lukaris.

The menu has an all-day breakfast; sausage, beans and chips, and related options; a curry option; sandwiches and salads. There's roast dinners on a Sunday.

I had one of today’s specials: a bacon and feta salad, with lettuce, olives, tomatoes and ciabatta, with a balsamic syrup drizzled over it (above). With a cappuccino, the total bill came to £5.40. It looked good, and it tasted good.

The Terra Nova is already a popular place. There was a queue when I arrived, but service was very efficient. Local artist’s work adorns the walls of the old part of the café. The new extension enables the building to be put to a range of uses. A fitness class starts in April, while salsa lessons, ZUMBA, walking groups, reading and chess clubs, art mornings and children's classes are also planned.

The Terra Nova Café is named after the ship which Captain Scott and his crew sailed in from Cardiff to the Antarctic in 1910 and, more specifically, the nearby lighthouse by the dam on Roath Park Lake that was erected in 1915 as a memorial to the expedition (The café is not to be confused with the prow-shaped Brains pub of the same name in Cardiff Bay).

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Keef's Bangers and Mash

What a great book ‘Life’ by Keith Richards is - the definitive rock and roll autobiography.

Keith likes “basic English nosh” and cooks for himself at home. On page 525 he gives his recipe for Bangers and Mash. His top tip is that sausages should be put into a cold pan to start them cooking (less chance of them exploding).

His recipe involves finding a butcher selling fresh sausages; frying up onions and bacon and seasoning; putting spuds to boil with a dash of vinegar, chopped onion and salt (and some peas and carrot if you wish); grilling or broiling bangers, with onions and bacon if in the pan, turning every few minutes; “mash yer spuds and whatever”; gravy if desired; and HP sauce.

At a party once, someone took the spring onions he was going to chop onto his mash. There was hell to pay.

On The Rolling Stones more recent tours, Richards has had a Shepherd’s Pie delivered to his dressing room before shows. Only he is allowed to break the crust.

His home-made Shepherd’s Pie tip is to put extra chopped onions on top of the cooked meat and vegetable mix, before the mashed potato topping is spread on, just before it’s put into the oven.

In her Complete Cookery Course, the Queen of English Nosh Delia Smith only gets as far as a vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie. A complete nonsense, as I am sure Keith would agree!

Keith Richards, with James Fox, Life (2010), Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Risotto: This Much I Know

I regularly make risotto. Last week was a bacon and butternut squash risotto. Here’s how I typically go about it.

1. Use a good stock. I make stock from chicken carcasses, with onion and carrot (freezing what I don’t use within a couple of days). Heat stock before adding it to rice.
2. Fry chopped onion, garlic and chunks of cooking bacon in olive oil/butter in a risotto/paella dish (or a large heavy-bottomed frying pan).
3. Use medium-grained risotto rice such as Arborio, which will retain a central chewiness, and not a grain that will turn your dish into rice pudding. The cooking method abrades starch from the rice surface which thickens the cooking liquid.
4. After the onion and bacon has been cooking for around 5 mins, add rice to the pan (and any dried herbs such as chopped thyme). I use almost a mugful for a very generously-sized family meal, and stir around (no longer than a minute) before starting to add liquid. I sometimes add a good splash of wine (if I have a glass on the go) to cook down before adding the heated stock.
5. Stir the rice as often as you can, to abrade the grain's surface, adding hot stock a little at a time (not all at once) so that more liquid evaporates and flavours concentrate.
6. Meanwhile, small cubes of buttercup squash are roasting with some butter (about 30 mins in a moderate oven), in a roasting dish covered by foil. Mix squash and any juices into risotto as rice is nearly finished cooking (I make mushroom risotto in a similar way – adding oven-cooked mushrooms and their juices).
7. Finally, stir in some butter toward the end of cooking. It enhances the risotto’s silky-creamy texture. Salt and pepper to your taste.
8. Have freshly-grated parmesan to hand. Some can be stirred into the risotto just before serving and more can be grated over the dish at the table.
9. A crisp salad and some crusty bread usually goes well.
10. That’s about as much as I know about risotto.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I thought the news about apples last week was a little sad. It was announced that sales of Gala apples had overtaken Cox apples for the first time. Gala was proclaimed “Britain’s favourite apple”.

The Gala apple cultivar is a hybrid (Kidd's Orange Red × Golden Delicious) that originated in New Zealand. It was first grown commercially in the UK in the 1980s and is now widely cultivated. It is firm and crisp, with a mild and sweet-flavour.

The Cox’s Orange Pippin, which it has supplanted in popularity, was first grown in 1825 in Buckinghamshire by the retired brewer and horticulturists Richard Cox. It has long been an iconic English fruit. It is a sweet crisp dessert apple, but less sweet and less bland in flavour than Gala. I prefer the Cox, as you might have guessed.

Most people now buy their apples in supermarkets. There will be a choice, if you are lucky, of four or five different cultivars. These may largely be imported; having been flown from, for example, Spain, the USA and New Zealand.

Brogdale Farm, near Faversham in Kent, is home to the National Fruit Collections. It is owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and maintained by the University of Reading. The Collection contains around 1,800 varieties (2,222 individual accessions) of apple, along with hundreds of varieties of pear, plums, cherries and bush fruits.

The genetic resources conserved at Brogdale can be used to help breed new apple varieties for the UK market, to keep up with changing public tastes and to meet the challenges posed by climate change. Over recent decades English orchards have declined in area, but the decline may be over. Consumers can influence the outcome, by buying local produce.

Michael Leapman in the Daily Telegraph:

BBC report:

The names of the 2,222 apple accessions in the National Fruits Collection:
(A-Z: All. Search: Apples)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

In the Days of the Comet

In London, where I have been at the Hayward Gallery to see British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet. The star of this show, for me, is Christian Marclay. His latest work The Clock is a 24-hour long montage of many thousands of film fragments that show clocks, watches or have characters reacting to a particular time of day. It works as a timepiece, being synchronised to local time. It is brilliantly edited, both visually and as a soundscape, and is really addictive - the hours fly by. The film ebbs and flows with climaxes around each hour as ticking clock plot devices come to a head. The midday section is particularly tense (and it's not just High Noon).

From a food angle, lunch starts on screen at 12.20pm. Mostly lunch is finished by 2pm, with a few acceptions (e.g., De Niro throwing his steak across the room in Raging Bull at around 2.30pm). Drinks become an issue around 2pm (i.e., are you going to drink all afternoon or are you going to do something about this?). Food is rarely show in movies at times outside of regular meal times.

Here's a BBC news item featuring The Clock:

Incidentally, the Hayward is crammed so full of art (around 40 artists are featured) that the coffee/snackbar that is sometimes situated inside the gallery is not open for this show. Fuel up before you go in!

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (until 17 April 2011):

Friday, 18 March 2011

Bellini’s Express, Cardiff

[I wrote this (unpublished) family restaurant review for a different purpose in November 2010]

The western arcade of the extended St David’s Centre in Cardiff is devoted to established chain restaurants. This section of the complex remains open after the shops close. We (two adults and two children) had an early Sunday evening meal at Bellini’s Express, the first restaurant encountered on entering the ground floor.

The difference between a Bellini’s and a Bellini’s Express? Tablecloths, basically. There is a similar menu, but the Express aims for a café-style ambience with marble-topped tables and more informal décor. At the back, the kitchen is fashionably on display – although the high counter obscures most of the culinary action.

Drinks arrived promptly: a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and orange juices. Tap water (with ice and lemon) was supplied on request. The modest wine list, with bottles mainly in the £14 to £24 price range (extending up to £295 for Dom Perignon), would suit most tastes; although only one beer (Peroni) was on offer.

We had plump marinated olives and garlic bread for starters, and shared an ample green salad with our main courses. From our table, we watched people coming and going through the arcade doors; so not the most glamorous location in Cardiff then.

I had the Tortelloni Giganti di Argosta. On an oval plate, three large pasta parcels, filled with sweet lobster meat, sat in a slightly pink tarragon cream sauce containing prawns. One giant prawn rested on top, which warranted a fingerbowl. This was a pleasing dish, although personally I would have liked a bigger hit of tarragon.

My partner had the Calzone Kiev, consisting of spinach, garlic, tomato and chicken pieces in a folded pizza. It looked substantial, but was apparently “not as good as the pasta and meatballs” eaten previously at a different Bellini’s.

Eldest daughter ordered Spaghetti Carbonara, which contained tasty chunks of bacon. This was better than the version I make at home, in that only the yolks of the eggs were used in conjunction with cream and cracked black pepper. I will have to revise my methods.

The youngest ordered from the Bambino menu, a refreshing change from typical nuggets and chips options, with a range of pasta and pizza. She predictably ordered pizza with cheese and tomato, and was not tempted by additional toppings. The Bambino meal also included a drink and a vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For dessert, I had Torta di Formaggio. A drizzle of limoncello syrup on the cheese cake was matched by a counter-drizzle of strawberry syrup on the plate, with token slices of strawberry. Coffees rounded off an enjoyable family meal.

Service was efficient, although the profusion of staff attending table seemed a recipe for confusion. We made use of an online offer (Bellini’s free pasta or pizza dish offers are worth looking into before visiting).

St David’s is indeed busy after the shops close and before the evening entertainment begins. However, a similar cluster of restaurants, including Bellini’s, can be found down the road in Cardiff Bay, with waterside views and an atmosphere more to our taste.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Food on Film: I Am Love

I have just caught up with the wonderful I Am Love (io Sono l'Amore; 2009) on DVD. It was directed and written by Luca Guadagnino, and produced by Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Emma, a Russian woman who marries into an aristocratic Italian family. She excels at playing her role, in a palatial villa in Milan, as wife to the Patriarch (Pipo Delbono) and mother to Eduardo (Gabriele Fezetti) and Alegra (Marisa Berenson).

However, Emma has an awakening when she eats food prepared by the talented young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who has become friends with her son after a rowing race. The son is helping Antonio to finance a restaurant in the countryside, and so the chef is asked to prepare a meal at the villa. While making arrangements for this meal, Emma is taken to the idyllic setting where Antonio grows his vegetables - a Garden of Eden - and they start a passionate affair.

The renowned chef Carlo Cracco and his sous-chef were advisers on set and prepared all the food seen on screen. In a restaurant scene, Antonio prepares Leghorn style-cod, a traditional Italian dish of cod and tomatoes. He deconstructs it, in the style of modern "molecular gastronomy" with a tomato foam. Elsewhere, he experiments with a dish of aubergine and elderflowers. In the “awakening scene” (below), Emma is eating "Prawns with ratatouille, and sweet and sour sauce".

In the villa kitchen cooking scene (second below), Antonio shows Emma how to make a Russian salad with a blowtorch. This is actually one of the signature dishes of Carlo Cracco, in which the salad is enclosed in a sugar parcel. Franco in this scene is in reality a chef in Cracco's restaurant (Ristorante Cracco in Milan), where Edoardo Gabbriellini worked for two months learning to handle food like a chef before filming began.

The climactic dinner scene revolves around a special mixed-fish Russian soup called oucha (ukha), which Emma has described to Antonio.

Guadagnino channels classic Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, but viewed with a modern sensibility, to give the film a distinctive and stylized feel. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux makes scenes glow with ephereal painterly light. The music is by US composer John Adams (the first time his music has been used on a soundtrack), which greatly enhances the film’s operatic and fairytale qualities.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Flavour, Cardiff

Flavour Coffee Shop is the small, unpretentious, orange-themed sandwich bar on the corner of High Street and Castle Street in Cardiff.

The manager and his staff are very friendly and the service is good; it’s the sort of place regulars can ask for their “usual” baguette. Business is take-away, although there are three stools at a narrow window table with a good people-watching view directly across to the entrance of Cardiff Castle. It’s a popular sandwich stop for local office and shop workers, so expect it to be busy at lunchtimes. They also deliver to offices.

There is a good selection of cold fillings, including unexpected combinations (e.g., beef and stilton; peanut butter and sweet chilli chicken; prawns, chicken and bacon) and vegetarian and vegan options, plus hot baguettes with bacon or sausage. There’s a choice of white or brown baguettes, which are crusty rather than soft. The standard baguettes are a very reasonable £2.50, with gourmet baguettes up to £3.50. Panini’s are similarly available with a wide range of tasty fillings; best value being the meat and vegetarian panini of the day (£2.50). Flavour also do a good range of breakfasts and a warming soup option in the winter.

Today, I had a Coronation Chicken baguette and a good-sized latte (total bill £4). I was hungry when I went in, and felt full all afternoon.

Flavour, 34 High Street, Cardiff CF10 1PU

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Barcode Wales: Science at the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, talked about the Garden’s science projects at last night’s meeting of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.

The garden opened in May 2000, near Carmarthen. It gained a molecular biology laboratory last year. Its flagship science project is called Barcode Wales. Dr Vere told the meeting that the aim of the project was to DNA barcode all the native flowering plants in Wales (1,143 species). The project is due to be completed by the summer and will make Wales the first nation to achieve this biodiversity goal.

The DNA for most species is extracted from herbarium specimens, supplemented by field collection. Two genes (rbcL and MatK) act as a unique species barcode. Once the data has been published, it will be made available for numerous applications, including forensics and the identification of plants used in food and herbal mixtures. A current project is identifying what flowers bees visit, by identifying the pollen collected. As part of the funding for this project, the public can select a Welsh plant and sponsor its barcoding.

The Welsh Rare Plants Project at the Garden provides the scientific research needed to conserve the most threatened native plant species in Wales. Current projects involve wild cotoneaster, endemic whitebeams, spreading bellflower and wild thistle.

A National Nature Reserve (Waun Las) is situated adjacent to the gardens. Grassland management and restoration is a key goal. A species-rich area of grassland, for example, was successfully transplanted from a school playing field that was being redeveloped into the reserve. This National Nature Reserve is of particular importance, according to Dr Vere, because it is also a working organic farm. The reserve is therefore a model of how agriculture and biodiversity can co-exist. The farm has Welsh black cattle and two breeds of sheep. Meat from the animals is used in the Garden’s restaurant and is sold to the public.

The Garden also grows its own food in a series of trial allotments. These also contribute to the Garden’s extensive education programme (schools and adult lifelong learning). One horticultural project involves looking at the medicinal properties of tea plants, in particular identifying the bioactive component that suppresses Clostridium difficile (a bacterium that causes infections within hospitals).

The centre-piece of the Garden is the largest single-span glasshouse in the world, holding an important collection of Mediterranean flora. Over 12,500 plant accessions can be found in the Garden. A new arboretum will focus on temperate woodland trees (e.g., from South America); while a library, archives and herbarium have recently been established. The Garden is also forging many international links. Dr. Vere noted valuable exchanges with South Korea, where the new national botanic gardens has been modeled in part on the Garden (and will include three domed greenhouses like the one in Wales).

The National Botanic Garden of Wales has therefore come a long way in a decade. In its fourth year there was a financial crisis that came close to shutting the place down, but since then the Garden has gone from strength to strength. A third of its funding comes from the Welsh Assembly, a third from visitor income and a third from other sources such as fundraising and corporate hire. Dr Vere stressed the important contribution made by students and volunteers.

This was the last in a series of talks, held annually over the winter months at UWIC, organized by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society (founded 1867). The summer is devoted to outdoor field meetings, which include a day on the Gower (26th March), a birdwatching and spring flower walk around Cardiff Bay (16th April), a trip to the limestone pavement habitat of Penwyllt (15th May), and a walk on Coryton roundabout (M4 Junction 32) to survey the orchids (6th June).

For more information on the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society (CNS) and details of how to join:

For further information on the National Botanic Garden of Wales:

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A Mess of Pottage

A delicatessen of gourmands ate a hill of beans...
I have a fondness for collective nouns. This profuse vocabulary for groups of things has its roots in a rural past of hawking (hunting with birds), huntsmen, gamekeepers, fishermen and poachers. Here are some of my favourite food-related terms (NB. some of these are no longer commonly eaten!):

A shoal of bass (or fish generally)
A catch of fish (deceased)
A singular of boars
A drove of cattle
A sheaf of corn
A clutch of eggs
A sclerosis of fast food
A trip of goats
A husk of hare
An army of herring
A drift of hogs
An ostentation of peacocks
A nye of pheasants
A quantity of smelt
A wedge of swans
A sounder of swine
A spring of teal
A hover of trout
A fall of woodcock

Source and further reading:
James Lipton. An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition (1993). Penguin Books.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Sugarswirlz, Cardiff

On my way to hear Noam Chomsky talk about the current crises in the Middle East at the St David’s Hall this morning, I stopped to buy a couple of cup cakes from Sugarswirlz.

Sugarswirlz opened in the Dominions Arcade, Cardiff, about two months ago. They sell cup cakes (and nothing else). Some of the flavours are deliriously over the top. Not the obvious place for high drama. However, owner Sally Dodd and shop assistant Terri Mammett have had an eventful couple of weeks; last Wednesday they had to contend with a rampaging shopper and, on the following day, a nearby fire.

On 2nd March, on being told her favourite cup cake flavour had sold out, a woman started trashing the shop (before staff could tell her they would make some more). She smashed glass display panels, threw cup cakes around, and assaulted Sally by pulling her hair. She fled with her two screaming children and, as far as I know, has not been identified. The cost of damage was estimated at £400.

It was a big local news story. As a TV crew were filming in the shop the next day, a fire alarm went off. They tried conducting an interview a few times, but the alarm kept going off. Eventually the arcade was evacuated due to a fire in a nearby building.

When I was in the shop, there was a slight accident involving a child and some chocolate topping, which left the owner completely unfazed. “People come in here and smash things up, that’s nothing!” They can laugh about it now, but at the time it must have been pretty frightening. The main feeling is concern for the woman, as she obviously needs some form of help, and her two boys.

The “cup cake lady” wanted Sweet Tooth Fairy Cakes, a truly unique cake, with multi-coloured butter-icing topped with candy floss. This morning, I went for a Marshmallow and a New York Cheesecake with Flake (all cup cakes are £2.20 each). There was a big choice of flavours (I’ll probably try the Strawberry or the Raspberry next time), and plenty of Sweet Tooth Fairy Cakes (as advertised on the sign near the entrance of the arcade).

I can see why children (and anyone with a sweet tooth) love these cakes. A light, fresh sponge is weighed down with loads of gooey topping. It’s all the sugar rush you want, and more.

Now, what can we do about the Middle East Noam? Well, for starters we can boycott shops that continue to sell food grown on illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank…

Original local news story:

Boycott Israeli Goods Campaign:

Friday, 11 March 2011

Food hygiene in Cardiff eateries: zero-ratings and top marks

Yesterday, as a result of inspections made implementing Cardiff Council’s food hygiene rating system that came into force last October, it was announced that eleven food premises in the city had been zero-rated. Based on food hygiene criteria issued by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a zero rating is indicative of habitual bad practice that could potentially lead to contamination. “Urgent improvement is necessary” for those businesses.

Some of the businesses named may surprise you. They are: The Haraf Restaurant in Grangetown, Oasis in Grangetown, Bar Sicilia in Canton, Deshi Hat in Canton, The Old Library in The Hayes, The Unicorn in Old St Mellons, The Woodville Fish Bar in Cathays, Uncle Sam’s in Cathays, The Café in Butetown, Morgan’s Fish Bar in Caroline Street, and The Plan Café Bar in the Morgan Arcade.

The Guardian and The Independent have previously listed The Plan in their Top 50 snackbar and coffee shops in the UK surveys. However, I was much less impressed when I eat there recently (Blog for 2 March) and it didn’t make my Top 10 Cardiff eateries listing. The Old Library is also in a prime location and not the sort of place you would expect to fall foul of these ratings, which assess basic food hygiene such as checking food temperature, expiry dates on packaging, and dirty work surfaces.

Food premises are rated on a scale of 0 to 5. Following inspection, businesses are sent a certificate and a sticker that they can display. Rating 1 is “major improvement necessary”, rating 2 is “improvement necessary”, rating 3 is “generally satisfactory”, and rating 4 is “good”.

A 5 rating is indicative of “very good” food hygiene. Establishments in Cardiff with a 5 rating include Aberconway Snack Bar in Cathays, Bosphorus in Cardiff Bay, First Cafes Ltd (who run The Hayes Island Snack Bar), Le Monde, Market Deli, Nandos, Wally's Delicatessen, Yangs Chinese in Grangetown, and Zync in St Mary Street.

You can find the rating for any food business that has been inspected in the UK for yourself using the FSA website. For example, type “Cardiff” or the name of your meal destination for tonight into the search box at:

Main source and further information:

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Hayes Island Snack Bar refurbishment

No sooner had I listed The Hayes Island Snack Bar on my Top 10 independent snackbars (it's a Cardiff institution that scores highly on bringing character to the city) than the shutters were put up. There has been some online speculation about whether the snackbar has permanently closed. However, a spokesman from First Cafes, who own the snackbar, reassurred me this afternoon that The Hayes Island Snack Bar was merely being refurbished.

The building itself dates from 1911 and a cafe has operated from it for the past sixty years. This is the first refurbishment since the one in 2000, and it had been scheduled for some time - to take place after St David's 2 had been completed. Today, the Grade 2 listed building was being inspected prior to work being done.

The snack bar is due to re-open in the second week of April. Most of the refurbishment will be to the kitchen area. The coffee machines will be upgraded (to supply all the lattes and so forth) and more refrigerators are being installed. The building will also get a coat of paint. 

A Posh Burgers van, operated by First Cafes, is currently operating outside the snackbar. This will keep the staff in employment and it provides a continuity of service.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Thé Pot, Cardiff

I was in North Cardiff today, registering with a casting agency (for more supporting artist/extras work), so I took the opportunity of visiting Thé Pot (I assume théy are joking). It’s a surprisingly small licensed café on Crwys Road (not far from Cathays Cemetery).

Owner Natalie opened Thé Pot three years and two months ago. From what I saw today, the place is thriving. On the website, she says the style and décor are influenced by café culture in Paris and San Francisco, two cities close to her heart. It’s homely, with none of the overdone quirkiness of some recently-established city centre cafés.

They do a good selection of (all-day) breakfasts, sandwiches, light meals, coffee and cake. I had the Welsh Breakfast, which consisted of laverbread, a light Glamorgan sausage (a local vegetarian sausage), crispy bacon, two fried eggs and two thick pieces of toast. The laverbread was cooked in a round cake and was much better than I was expecting. Latte came in a funky cup with a complimentary biscuit.

There was some lively conversations going on all around, and it was a comfortable place to have lunch by yourself (reading or using the free WiFi). I got to say hello to one of the stars of one of my favourite TV programmes Alys (on which I was an extra), who was at the next table.

On some evenings, the tables are pushed aside for live entertainment; the next event sounded promising, being “an evening of chilled Welsh funk/music/comedy”.

I can recommend the good-value home-cooked food at Thé Pot. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxing. Arcade Fire was playing at just the right volume in the background and I took away a complimentary Paper Aeroplanes CD; a local band who support independent coffee shops and cafés. You can’t argue with that.

A brisk walk around Cathays Cemetery rounded off a most enjoyable lunchtime.

Thé Pot, 138 Crwys Road, Cardiff CF24 4NR

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Top 10 Indie Lunches in Cardiff (Guardian Guest blog)

My food blog has decamped to The Guardian for the day (below without photos):
[We've had guest blogger Stephen Nottingham on the go around Cardiff for the last few weeks on the hunt for the perfect sandwich. Here he reviews his top ten city centre independent snack shops and lunch stops].
Cardiff city centre is a great place to lunch. In addition to the too-numerous-to-mention UK-wide chains, there are many independent sandwich bars, cafes and restaurants that offer distinctive food that can be enjoyed on a budget. These one-off outlets contribute greatly to the character of the city. Here are ten of the best.
1. The New York Deli
Established by New Yorker Harriett Davies in 1990 and situated in the High Street Arcade, The New York Deli offers a wide range of baguettes, bagels and hoagies. You'll find a very friendly welcome 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday – and now also on Sundays. Eat in or take away. Be warned, some of the hoagies are "for the very hungry".
2. Crumbs
Situated in the attractive Morgan Arcade, Crumbs was opened by Judi Ashley in December 1970. It is Cardiff's oldest vegetarian restaurant. The solid pine tables and many of the menu items have been consistent for four decades. Large bowls of salad a speciality. Eat in and take away lunches.
3. Servini's Snack Bar
This traditional family-run cafe opened in its present Wyndham Arcade location on St David's Day 1996, after around 15 years in a nearby location. Famed for all-day breakfasts and hot baguettes, it also serves fresh pasta meals, burgers, salads and jacket potatoes. Eat in and take away, and fully licensed.
4. Café Minuet
Music lover, chef and former owner Marcello Genesi recently retired after running this Italian restaurant in the Castle Arcade for 24 years. New owner Nadine Lodwick has worked there 20 years, knows the much-loved recipes, and will continue the tradition. Good value, considering the high quality of the food.
5. Fresh: The Baguette Bar
Fresh in the Royal Arcade is the place to go if you're busy and want an interesting take-away sandwich. With so many baguettes and panini filling options (including plenty for vegetarians), you'll want to return.
6. Dizzy Llama
The Dizzy Llama in Churchill Way is a good place for a quiet lunch for two. Owned by Rhys and Tammy, it opened in December 2009 and bills itself as an independent Welsh International restaurant. It offers an interesting range of dishes and is included for its good-value 2-for-1 lunchtime deals.
7. 10 Feet Tall
10 Feet Tall (bistro café bar) is celebrating its third year on Church Street. It offers a distinct, quirky, kid-friendly environment, and quality food. Look out for lunchtime meal deals.
8. WOW
WOW Bar's daytime menu includes breakfasts and thick-cut sandwiches. WOW Deli is a couple of doors along Churchill Way – look for the bread stacked in the window - and does take-away lunches.
9. Pillars
This Cardiff institution on Queen Street has been a favourite lunch stop for shoppers on Queen Street for over 30 years. Good-value meals are served in a large basement, from cold and hot buffet counters. Expect to queue.
10. Hayes Island Snack Bar
The snack bar in The Hayes has been serving tea and bacon rolls for the past sixty years. Currently operated by local caterers First Cafes, it's an unmistakable Cardiff landmark.

Monday, 7 March 2011

British Pie Week

It may have escaped your notice, but this week is British Pie Week (“one of civilisation’s greatest culinary inventions”). Every week seems to be devoted to some foodstuff these days, sponsored by a major manufacturer of said foodstuff (Jus Rol, General Mills Berwick Limited, in this case). It’s all good P.R.

So, what’s on offer during British Pie Week. Well, there’s the announcement of the British Pub Pie Awards (winner: The Queen’s Head Inn, Cumbria). Each day, there is a pie of the day; today’s being Blue Cow Pie (with pastry horns), something which will be lost on anyone who didn’t read Desperate Dan in The Beano when they were a child (yes, British Pie Week is one of the more bloke-orientated food promotion weeks). Then there’s plenty of delicious pie recipes (just remember to use Jus Rol flaky pastry instead of making your own) and handy tips on making pies at home.

I approve of British Pie Week, and will endeavor to make my own by the end of the week (watch this space!). In the meantime, here’s Heston Blumenthal’s take on the traditional pie.

Stephen Nottingham added on 10 March:
Here's my contribution to British Pie week: a family-sized home-made Chicken and Mushroom Pie (made with Jus Rol pastry!)

British Pie Week 2011

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Roast lamb with ginger, honey, cider and rosemary

I did the weekly roast dinner today and cooked a shoulder of Welsh lamb. I cooked it in the manner suggested by Gilli Davies in Celtic Cuisine (Graffeg, 2008; page 102). The meal turned out well and was enjoyed by all. However, I won’t be using the recipe again. It’s always instructive trying new recipes, especially when elements of it don’t work for you.

The recipe:
Peel an inch-long piece of fresh ginger and cut it into slivers. Make cuts in the lamb and insert ginger and fresh rosemary. Mix 1 oz melted butter and 2 tablespoons of clear honey and pour over the lamb [the ingredients listed include salt and pepper, which are never bought into play in the recipe – add them here]. Put the lamb in a roasting tin and pour over half of a measured 9 fl oz dry cider. Loosely cover in foil and roast in a moderate oven (190°C/375°F); allowing 25 minutes per pound. At ¾ stage remove foil and continue cooking, basting frequently with juices (add more cider if necessary). Remove joint from pan. Discard fat on top of juices [most of it in this case – kept for next week’s roast potatoes]. Pour in rest of cider and deglaze.

I served this with roast vegetables – a tray of roast potatoes (goose fat) and a tray of roast baby carrots and fennel (olive oil), some cabbage, and some freshly-made mint sauce; we opened a nice Rioja.

My conclusions:
1. Ginger does not really work in this context. I will stick with my usual method of inserting slivers of garlic, plus rosemary, into the meat.

2. Cider does not really match lamb. I will stick with red wine.

3. Mixing butter with honey adds too much fat (lamb being a particularly fatty meat). Just drizzle honey straight over surface of lamb, possibly with a little olive oil.

4. Honey can be difficult in deglazing situations, as it easily burns. I scooped out some pan juices and made gravy with more cider in another pan.

The lamb was moist and tasty, but the combination of ingredients that looks good on the page did not give enough added value for this cook.

Friday, 4 March 2011

I am an omnivore

I am omnivorous. I’ll eat anything, me. Others are pickier about their food. They say you are what you eat, so here are some terms that define one by diet.

Best to say these words out loud, slowly rolling them around your mouth, to fully savour them.

Baccivorous (feeding on berries)

Canivorous (dogs)

Carnivorous (meat, flesh)

Equivorous (horse flesh)

Frondivorous (leaves)

Fructivorous (fruit)

Gallinivorous (poultry)

Granivorous (seeds, grain)

Herbivorous (plants)

Hominivorous (humans)

Lactivorous (milk)

Larvivorous (larvae)

Leguminivorous (beans and peas)

Lichenivorous (lichen)

Lignivorous (wood)

Mellivorous (honey)

Merdivorous (shit)

Nectarivorous (nectar)

Nucivorous (nuts)

Offivorous (offal)

Ornithivorous (birds)

Oryzivorous (rice)

Ossivorous (bones)

Panivorous (bread)

Pinivorous (pine kernel)

Piscivorous (fish)

Pomivorous (apples)

Ranivorous (frogs)

Sanguivorous (blood)

Source: Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany, Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2003.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Welsh Referendum

Today we are voting in Wales. The 3 March 2011 Referendum concerns the law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales. The Welsh Assembly can pass legislation in 20 devolved areas or fields, which include Health and Education (but not defence, tax or welfare benefits). Field 1 concerns legislation on Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry and Rural Development; while Field 8 concerns Food.

A NO (NAC YDW) vote will maintain the status quo, under which the Welsh Assembly must apply to the UK Parliament in Westminister, London, for agreement on any legislation it passes in the 20 devolved areas.

A YES (YDW) vote would mean that the Welsh Assembly would not need to go through the costly and time-consuming process of getting Westminster's agreement for each piece of legislation. It would streamline Welsh politics and give the Welsh Assembly a degree more autonomy.

All the major political parties in Wales support a YES vote. A range of fringe groups hope that voter apathy will discredit the referendum.

I've voted YES, and this morning the turnout at the Community Hall where I am the coordinator has looked very respectable.

Stephen Nottingham added on 4 March 2011:
The YES vote was 63.5% (517,132 voters) and the NO vote 36.5% (297,380 voters). 21 of the 22 counties in Wales voted YES (and the result in the other was very close). The turnout was 35% overall. Here in the Vale of Glamorgan the turnout was just over 40%.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Plan, Cardiff

The Plan Bar and Café has been running in its prime location - a divide in the centre of Morgan Arcade - for nine years now; four years with the present décor that brings out the best in the building (such as the wooden floors). The owner is David Nottingham (no relation). He’s created a light and airy space, ideal for people-watching in the arcade. There are tables downstairs and upstairs.

Breakfasts finish at 11am, and then the lunchtime menu kicks in. Prices start at £5.40 for baguettes, £5.85 for jacket potatoes, and £6.95 for salads. I had a beef baguette with horseradish, which came with an uninspiring salad. The baguette seemed to contain no horseradish, and it was nothing special.

I had no complaints about the coffee, however, which is something The Plan is renowned for. I had an excellent latte (complete with decoration). They do a range of specialist coffees and teas. The café is also fully licensed.

The Plan is listed among the “Top 50 Coffee Shops in the UK” in The Independent and in a similar Top 50 café survey in The Guardian. This raises expectations about The Plan that can be difficult for it to live up to. [note: please read the subsequent comment below by Trevor the head barista, who explains why The Plan deserves their place in these award listings]

At the till, my bill was found to be a little short of the minimum needed for a promotional CD that was piled on the counter.

I wanted to like The Plan more, but today I thought the food overpriced. If the kitchen raised its game to match the quality of the coffee then this place would be brilliant.

The Plan, 28 Morgan Arcade, Cardiff CF10 1AF

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Servini’s Snack Bar, Cardiff

St. David’s Day in Cardiff: the parade, live music, dancing, inflatable daffodils and flags. Watching all this activity made me hungry, so I headed for Servini’s Snack Bar in the Wyndham Arcade for one of their renowned all-day breakfasts.

It was 15 years ago today that Servini’s first opened in the Wyndham’s Arcade; having been at a nearby location for around 15 years prior to that.

It’s a family-run traditional café (manager Melvyn Bishop) noted for its breakfasts and hot baguettes. They also do a range of pasta dishes, burgers, large salads and jacket potatoes. I go for the full breakfast (bacon, sausage, egg, toast - opting for the mushrooms rather than beans or tomato) with tea served in a Servini’s mug (£5.60 total).

Today, there were daffodils on the tables. Servini's is Eat in or Take away, it has newspapers to read, plenty of seating inside and also outside in the covered arcade, and the premises are fully licensed.

I left fully satisfied and ready for more St David's Day activity.

Servini’s Snack Bar.
6-10 Wyndham Arcade, Cardiff
Open 8am to 4pm Mon-Fri (to 4.30pm Sat)