Thursday, 30 June 2011

Penguin Cafe

Last night we went to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), for the Penguin Cafe. A few days ago, the RWCMD opened its impressive new extension, which includes the Richard Burton Theatre and the Dora Stoutzker Hall. These are very welcome additional facilities for the students at the college, and for Cardiff’s concert-goers.

The building features a terrace looking out over Bute Park, and a Café Bar that does a range of good-value sandwiches, coffee and teas, and a limited number of special meals on concert nights. Last night they listed three meals on the board, including Swansea mussels, and a goat cheese flan; although we had already eaten. The café is not mentioned on the initial information literature, but from what we saw it looked a good place for a pre-concert meal; though a queue was evident and it was getting a bit crowded (so get there early to check it out).

Penguin Cafe were the first non-orchestral concert to be held in the hall. Arthur Jeffes and his eight fellow musicians are carrying on very much in the spirit of the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra, founded by Arthur’s late father Simon Jeffes. It’s sort of café-jazz classical-chamber folk music with a (post-) modern twist. You’d know it, even if you don’t think you do. Penguin Cafe have made a new album (a matter of life…) and played four tracks from that, seamlessly interspersed with old favourites. Several track titles reference beans. Here’s one of them, played by the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1989:

Tomorrow, Buffalo Bar (that’s a real café in Cardiff)!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Micro-bakeries and the Secret of Sourdough

I went around to Geraint Robert’s home in Dinas Powys this morning and, over fig and fennel loaf with coffee, found out what’s new in the world of micro-bakeries.

Geraint got hooked on baking while working at the Embassy Café in Cathays, Cardiff, after a customer donated some sourdough culture. He joined the Hungry Planet Co-op in Adamsdown earlier this year, and helped them set up a bakery in a converted garage to make sourdough loaves for their store and café: rye, wheat, spelt and gluten-free. This artisan bread is also sold in Milgi, The Pot, Roath Deli and other places in Cardiff.

Sourdough is a micro-bakery favourite, because it is not something that can be mass-produced. “It is made with yeast that is naturally present on the grain”, explains Geraint. “So you just start out with flour and water, and each day you refresh the mixture with more flour and water until you build up the yeast enough to raise bread”. The different strains of yeast and bacteria present in individual cultures make this the most artful strand of bread-making. “Even the Co-op and my home cultures may have different strains,” he says. It is the symbiotic relationship between the yeast and the lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria that is all-important. “Lactic acid bacteria give the sourdough its flavour. You can do various things to give the sourdough a stronger or gentler flavour.” One method is by varying the temperature during the proving stage: “Certain bacteria like cooler and longer fermentation, others prefer it shorter and warmer. You are trying to get a balance between flavour and yeast development for raising the bread.”

Geraint warns against the sourdough bread that is appearing in some supermarkets and sandwich bars. “They produce sourdough loaves that bear little resemblance to real sourdough”. Processing aids are used and the loaves are made quickly. "It’s not sourdough,” insists Geraint, because that involves yeasts from the atmosphere and artisan production. There can be regional variation due to the different yeasts present. A specific strain of yeast has been recognized, for instance, in San Francisco - a place where sourdough is taken very seriously. The Real Bread movement would like to see the term sourdough protected, to exclude inferior and generic products that merely mimic sourdough.

In addition to his work with Hungry Planet, Geraint has been teaching bread-making since April in his home kitchen. Courses on yeasted breads and sourdough are available, which he hopes to take fortnightly by the end of the year.

Geraint sees Bread Subscription Schemes as a way forward for micro-bakeries, and this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Further information:

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Gate, Roath

I saw John Grant perform at The Gate Arts and Community Centre in Roath, Cardiff, last night; a terrific gig. The Gate is housed in a 100 year old Grade II listed church building (formally the Plasnewydd Presbyterian Church). The concert was in The Grand Theatre, which used to be the upper part of the church. The original pews form seats up the back and sides of the theatre. There is also a Dance Studio and two exhibition spaces.

Food is available at The Gate in the Mad Hatters Café Bar. This is located in the original schoolroom, the oldest part of the building, dating from 1896. Mad Hatters was set up in 2001, as part of the activities of a local catering company of that name. There are a range of breakfast options, including American-style pancakes. At lunchtimes, they offer a range of sandwiches, baguettes, paninis, soups, salads, jacket potatoes and cakes, along with an extensive ranges of teas, coffees, smoothies, soft and alcoholic drinks. There is a sizable children’s menu (and a well-stocked toy box).

In the evening, there are a wider range of meals, including salads, pasta, meatballs, and steak and chips. All the food is good value. The local community is well-served here. As you might expect, there is an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in the menu.

The range of bottled beers is good, ranging from locally-produced to Belgian beers. A number of interesting events are held in The Mad Hatters in the evenings, including the Science and Philosophy Cafés (1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month, respectively). On the last Tuesday of each month, there is a Jazz Café event.

Last night, John Grant played all of his album Queen of Denmark, some impressive new songs, and a number of songs from his back-catalogue with The Czars. He is no stranger to Cardiff, of course, as the video for Chicken Bones was filmed here.
Previous blog post about John Grant:

The Gate Arts and Community Centre. Keppoch Street, Roath, Cardiff

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Gwaelod Inn

This morning could almost have passed for summer, before the rain set in again this afternoon, so I decided to take the train to Taff’s Well for a walk up The Garth. From here you can look down on Cardiff to the south, and along the Taff Valley to the Brecons Beacons in the north.

After walking in this area, a visit to The Gwaelod y Garth Inn is hard to resist. This pub, which has been owned by Richard and Barbara Angell for five years, is highly rated for both its beer and food. The stone-walled building has recently been refurbished, but retains loads of character.

The Gwaelod was voted Cardiff Pub of the Year 2011 by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). There are typically six cask ales (Wye Valley and guest beers) plus cask cider (Gwynt y Ddraig) on tap. Today, I had a Wye Valley Bitter to help me recover from my exertions. There is probably irony in the notice ‘The Colourful Local’s Bar’ over the bar. This is a pub with plenty of locals, but it’s also very welcoming to strangers and there are plenty of them walking the hills hereabouts.

The Gwealod fashions itself as ‘The pub that went up a hill and came down a restaurant’ (a reference to the book/film about an Englishman who measured mountains, which was inspired by the village of Gwaelod y Garth; the one with Hugh Grant and locals who take rocks up to the summit when he's not looking).

Fish and seafood feature more prominently on the menu than is usual for a pub. I had mussels today (sourced from Ashton’s of Cardiff Market). Among the other dishes on the special’s board were Soft Shell Crab with mint and chili dressing; Lambs liver, mash and onion gravy; Black pudding, braised cabbage and bacon in a red wine jus; and Tuna steak and Lamb rump dishes.

Meals can be enjoyed in the bar and outside, with views over the Taff Valley, while there is a restaurant upstairs. The food has a distinctly Welsh flavour and ingredients are sourced locally. The beef comes from a nearby farm, for example, while the ice cream is from Wild Fig.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


“Recipes from around the world, food from around the corner” – this slogan sums up the philosophy of the Milgi Lounge on City Road, Cardiff. Coined in-house, I am told, this concise manifesto hangs prominently by the kitchen.

There is much creative riffing on world cuisine using local ingredients: Asian Tofu Salad, Blackeye Bean Burger, Cinnamon French Toast, Indian Scrambled Eggs, Mexican Bean Quesadilla and Milgi Falafel. Today's specials included Spiced Lentil and Spinach Soup, and Butter Beans and Tomato in Dill Sauce.

The food in Milgi is 100% vegetarian, so don’t go expecting steak and chips. The sausages on the breakfast menu, and with the mash, are therefore all vegetarian. Chef Simon is committed to 100% Vegetarian after customers voted meat off the menu in a poll last year. There is a Veggie Roast Dinner and currently a Thali Summer Sunday (two vegetarian curries and all the accompaniments on one plate). Sourcing is local, ethical and organic. Fruit and vegetables are supplied by Blaencamel Organic Farm and organic Calon Wen is the default milk.

The eclectic home-cooking vibe is complemented by the décor, which is quirky/hippy. A lounge area (settees and turntables) at the front leads past the counter to the café area. There's jolly plastic tablecloths, a mounted deer’s head (wood, appropriately), garish 1970s-style oil paintings, Russian dolls and other travellers-presents bric-a-brac. It’s cluttered, but in a pleasant, witty and homely sort of way.

Milgi opened in 2006 with the aim of bringing together food, drink, music and art under one roof. Actually, it’s two roofs now, because in the garden, along with outside beer-garden tables, is the magnificent Milgi Yurt. This cozy and surprisingly spacious tent is home to a range of events. Supper and Storytelling is on the third Tuesday of the month (guest storyteller and harpist tonight), for example, while the Supper Club is a sociable dining event with a different theme each month (June's is Murder Mystery). There is also Life Drawing in the Yurt and the Art Club (curry served).

DJs provide the soundtrack for the Milgi Lounge - in the evenings when the place turns into a bar (and at other times via playlists). After enjoying the background music selection at lunchtime I checked out the website, which gives access to Milgi Lounge playlists and podcasts. I'm listening to the excellent Early June Playlist as I write this (“Lounge Chillout Downtempo”).

I enjoyed my sandwich and coffee today, and will certainly return to explore the meal menu and one of the events. Can’t believe it was only my first visit to Milgi. Six months blogging about affordable and local food in Cardiff, and I’m still only skimming the surface!

Milgi, 213 City Road, Cardiff CF24 3JD

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Fathers’ Day Pint: Y Mochyn Du

Sul y Tadau: Ges i beint o Gwrw Haf yn Y Mochyn Du.
Fathers’ Dad: I had a pint of Cwrw Haf (summer beer) in Y Mocyn Du.

Y Mochyn Du pub restaurant in Sophia Close, opposite the Sports Academy and SWALEC Cricket Stadium (and convenient for picking eldest daughter up off the athletics team coach), was once a lodge for Cardiff Castle. It was turned into The Lodge pub in 1994, which was renamed Y Mochyn Du in 2002. The pub’s name, meaning ‘black pig’ in English, is derived from a popular song from west Wales.

This is a notable real ale pub. They promise four regional Welsh ales on tap at any one time, plus guest beers. Tonight on draught were two Vale of Glamorgan Brewery beers - Cwrw and Cwrw Haf – and two beers from the Otley brewery in Pontypridd.

The food served in Y Mochyn Du features Welsh dishes (e.g., cawl, rarebit, laver bread and cockles, faggots, Glamorgan sausages), with locally sourced ingredients.

It’s a good place to go to practice Welsh – Welsh is spoken and Welsh learner groups meet there.

Y Mochyn Du, Sophia Close, Pontcanna, Cardiff CF11 9HW

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Wild Fig ice creams

When guests come to dinner, we like to serve up local food. Today it was a trip to the Wild Fig Café for some ice cream. Wild Fig Farm is located in Peterson-Super-Ely, in a dairy farm-rich area of the Vale of Glamorgan. In a car, you leave the village, heading away from Cardiff, and take the right turn up Groes Faen Road. The Farm Shop and Pick-Your-Own is a right turn a little way along this road. At the end of the track is the café and shop. There are also poly-tunnels for P.Y.O. strawberries and chickens (and plenty of eggs for sale).
Today, the shop was selling a full range of Wild Fig ice creams, in small (£1.80) and large (500g, £4.15) tubs and in cones from the counter: Vanilla, Blueberry, Strawberry, Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate, Cherry and Amaretto, Walnut and Maple, Crème Brulée, Gooseberry, Fig Compote and their signature flavour of Fig and Marsala. I particularly enjoyed the Walnut and Maple in a cone today. We bought big tubs of Strawberry and Blueberry to construct a pudding with meringue nests and fresh fruit from our garden.

At the back of the distinctively-purple-branded café you can look through a glass observation window into the ice cream making parlour, with its gleaming steel equipment. The ice cream is made using milk and double cream from the black and white pedigree cows at Ty Tanglwyst Dairy in Pyle, Bridgend.
The café sells a full range of coffee and teas, home-made cakes, and deli-style lunches. The shop also sells a range of home-made jams and pickles, local honey, Vale of Glamorgan bottled ales, local ciders, pasta and a range of other deli items.

You can buy Wild Fig ice creams during show intervals at the Wales Millennium Centre (vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, stem ginger and wild fig). I usually go for the ginger, but they are all delicious. Hint: regular concert-goers would like to see even more flavours for sale at the WMC!

Wild Fig Farm:
Ty Tanglwyst Dairy:

Note added July 2012:
The Café and P.Y.O. have now closed at the farm, although Wild Fig Ice Creams are still widely available in restaurants, theatres and at events in the Cardiff area.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Spiked Star of Bethlehem

A  pleasant evening walk along the lanes around Wenvoe (Vale of Glamorgan) last night, with the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society – led by knowledgeable naturalist and Wenvoe-resident Bruce McDonald.

The main attraction was the flora in the hedgerows. The Spiked Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum pyrenacium) is rare in the UK, being found in its greatest numbers around Bath in England. It is only found in Wales along a stretch of hedgerow near Wenvoe. We saw several flowering spikes of the plant (see photo), which has been recorded on this site for over 20 years. It is also called Bath asparagus and the young shoots are edible. It is thought the Romans may have introduced it into the UK as a food plant.

Juliet (8) was more impressed with the wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) that were growing in profusion along a length of grassy verge. Small and intensely flavoured, many were consumed. Later in the year, we may be back here blackberrying.

Among the other plants encountered were burdock (Arctium lappa), historically used to flavour drinks; yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a herbal medicine; and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), used as a cough suppressant and to flavour sweets. There was a mallow, but you need to go to the Gower to find the Marsh Mallow of sweet-flavouring fame.

Other plants growing wild in hedgerows you might also enjoy eating around this time of year are dandelions (e.g., young leaves in salads and sandwiches), elderflowers (e.g., edible and good for wine making), raspberries, redcurrants, stinging nettles (e.g., soup), and wild rose flowers. In fact, the closer you look at old hedgerows, the more you see them as a potential food store.
Cardiff Naturalists’ Society:

Further reading: Richard Mabey, Food For Free (HarperCollins)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Cardiff Arcades Project

The Victorian and Edwardian Arcades in Cardiff are home to many of the cities most interesting shops. The best delis, cafes and coffee houses can generally also be found there, including Café Minuet, Crumbs, The Plan, The New York Deli, Garlands, Dragon's Kitchen, Madame Fromage, Wally's Delicatessen, Fresh and more besides (all visited or to be visited on this blog).

Amy Davies has been on a mission to photograph the historic arcades and the people who work there. From the Castle, High Street and Royal Arcades, down to the Morgan and Wyndham Arcades, she has documented the great architecture and the great characters that make the arcades so unique. She has just started a website for her photos and interviews. If you're at all interested in Cardiff, you should bookmark it:

Amy also has an exhibition of her arcade photographs opening next week in Big Little City (2nd June to 18th July), on the top floor of The Cardiff Story, in the Old Library building in The Hayes (10am-5pm Mon-Sat; 11am-4pm Sunday). Entry is free.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Barenaked Beers: Artisan Brewing Co

The Artisan Brewing Company was started in a garage off the Kings Road in Canton, Cardiff, by Simon Doherty three year’s ago. Under the brand-name Barenaked Beers, he makes a range of distinctive continental-style lagers. There’s a varying seasonal selection, including Munich-style Helles Lager, Kolsch, ALTbeer, Bavarian Wheat, Chocolate Wheatbeer, and even a smoked lager. Simon likes a pure product, which could pass German Beer Purity Laws. Grain is imported from Germany and the hops are traditional.

The complex chocolate, coffee, spice, banana, malt, biscuit, and other flavours found in the various beers arise from the combination of grains, hops and yeast, rather than from added ingredients. Simon tells me it’s mainly down to the grain: “The supplier in Bamburg has a list of grains a hundred long, a bit like coffee beans – in the process of drying and processing something is changed to give it a different character. You can mix different grains to get pretty much any style beer you want”.

Bottles of Barenaked Beer can be purchased from the brewery on Saturdays between 12-7pm. On the first Saturday of the month you can also get a BBQ there. The MicroBeer Fest with live music that used to be held at the brewery now takes place in a nearby courtyard (due to a Noise Prevention Order). The next one of these events is on Saturday 18th June (12 noon to 9pm). Six local bands will be playing and entry is free (see their website for further details). The beer is also sold in independent bars in Cardiff. Gwdihw sell Barenaked Beers on draught. You might also find them in the Milgi Lounge.

Simon has had his setbacks this year, including a trademark dispute with Pepsi Cola and the withdrawal of some investors, but he is positive about the future and plans to expand the brewery by the end of the year.

Read my full interview with Simon Doherty in the 2011 South Wales Food & Drink Guide, which will be published later this year.

Artisan Brewery Co, 183A Kings Road, Cardiff CF11 9DF

Friday, 10 June 2011


My survey of budget lunches in Cardiff city centre continued today, with a visit to Baguette-Me-Not on St Mary Street. There is an impressively good range of breakfasts and sandwiches here, with an emphasis on large portions and good value. Grilled meats a speciality. The 20-piece breakfast (“probably the best 20-piece breakfast in Cardiff”) can be yours for £5.95 – and if you manage to finish it you get your next one half-price. This is the no-nonsense end of the Cardiff breakfast/baguette/panini spectrum.

A particular bargain is the baguette-of-the-day, which varies daily (no predictable Subway timetable here). Today’s special was Chinese Chicken: plenty of chicken pieces in a surprisingly pink mayonnaise nicely flavoured with five-spice. The baguette was crusty and fresh, so definitely no complaints for £1.99.

There is some seating inside and tables on the pavement outside, by the perpetual road-works. However, most trade seems to be take-away.

And to drink? Well, that was a free bottle of cold Lipton’s Iced Tea, given away at the top of Churchill Way. This is becoming like a busking spot for food promotions. You can keep up with what’s been given away daily by following Cardiff twitter accounts.
39 St Mary Street, Cardiff CF10 1AD

Note added Oct 2011: Baguette-Me-Not closes.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Dinas Powys Voluntary Concern

At the annual Dinas Powys Voluntary Concern (DPVC) garden lunch today. A very British garden lunch (with some Welsh touches) of fruit punch; crustless sandwiches of smoked salmon, ham, egg, and even marmite (I accidently took a bite of one); sausage rolls; little tomatoes; prawn vol-au-vents; quiche; bara brith; strawberries and scones. Food you can mingle with.

DPVC is a charity founded in the village in 1971. The aim is to coordinate the activities of volunteers, in particular, to help the elderly and disabled in the community. DPVC operate a minibus/ambulance to enable people with mobility problems get to the shop, hospital etc. A new minibus has recently been acquired. There have been a few teething problems, so the Annual Award for Best Volunteer went to all the minibus drivers and their assistants.

The DPVC are based at the Resources Centre at the back of Murchfield Community Hall (where I work part-time as coordinator). From there, they publish a Community Directory and the community newsletter DEPEND, which is delivered to every household in Dinas Powys. A Good Neighbours scheme is organized from the office, involving volunteers and home visits. A range of fundraising events are also held and community events organized.

For more information on Murchfield Hall and a contact number for DPVC:

Friday, 3 June 2011

Hayes Island Snack Bar re-opens

When trams trundled through The Hayes in Cardiff they would stop at the building in the middle of the traffic to pick up and offload parcels. This shed was built in 1911, and has been run as a café for the past sixty years. It is currently operated by local catering company First Cafes.

The snack bar has been closed for the past couple of months for renovation, while a First Cafes Posh Burgers van has been serving customers in The Hayes. The snack bar has now reopened. It serves the same menu, including excellent value breakfasts, sandwiches, bacon rolls etc. The place has been thoroughly modernized inside, and the food does look more appealing as a result.

With outside seating giving a good view of the giant TV screen, it's a good place to catch up on the news and sport headlines on a sunny lunchtime. It's sure to be a popular spot during next year's Olympic Games (which start with a game of woman's football in Cardiff).

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Cardiff

With two teenagers and a seven year-old on a half-term day in Cardiff undecided about where to eat, the Gourmet Burger Kitchen (or gbk) in the Cardiff Library Building seemed a good compromise, being located near to the trendy St David's Centre shops that the girls like to browse.

The first gbk was opened by three New Zealanders in London in 2001. There are now around 55 gbk in the UK, including two in Cardiff (the other is in Mermaid Quay). Since the Hard Rock Cafe in Cardiff suddenly closed in 2010 (there's a story there, but I don't know it), gbk has become the highest-profile high-end (i.e., expensive) burger restaurant in the city.

This was a first gbk trip for me. My previous experience of burger cusine meant that I was not expecting much in the way of culinary delights. However, there was plenty to enjoy here. My avocado bacon beefburger came in a decent toasted bun, with good quality ingredients throughout. I was thinking the avocado wasn't adding much, until a couple of mouthfuls near the end when its creaminess alongside the bacon and beef made it all worthwhile. The teens had cheese and bacon, and a chickenburger, with some additional shared fries and BBQ sauce.

The menu allows for a great deal of flexibility in constructing your burger, and there are two sizes to choose from. There are interesting vegetarian options on offer (ingredients include puy lentils, sweet potatoes and aubergines). Among the novel beefburgers are the Blue Cheese and the Kiwiburger (beetroot, egg, pineapple, cheddar...); the latter raises money to save the Kiwi. New Zealand chef Peter Gordon is a consultant on the menu, so there is some serious thought behind the novelty.

The children's menu defeated the youngest (I ended up eating her lolly - and regretting it). The teens shared a large milkshake that got a big thumbs up. The coffee was good.

So, a good choice on the day. Total cost £38. I am not a big beefburger fan, so probably won't be returning often, especially when I thought about what that money could buy in my favourite Cardiff eateries, but I left with a greater appreciation of burger cuisine.