Friday, 30 March 2012

Plastic Bags, Local Shops and DPVC

In October last year, the Welsh Government introduced a scheme whereby retailers must charge 5p for each single-use carrier bag. This has dramatically reduced the use of environmentally-damaging plastic bags and, because the money can be donated to charity, is also helping good causes.

Here in Dinas Powys, a number of local shops have Dinas Powys Voluntary Concern (DPVC) charity boxes on their counters for the 5p bag charge. From October 2011 to February 2012, a total of £250 was collected from these boxes and donated to DPVC. Additional donations have also been made in the boxes, along with money found in the street with no identifiable owner.

The DPVC collection boxes can be found at Valley View Fruit Stores, Mark Griffiths Family Butchers, the Village Stores, TH & L Jones Chemists, The Green Room, Bank of Flowers and Happy Embroidery.

These stores are supportive of the same aims as DPVC. For example, Jan and Tony Mapstone, of Valley View Fruit Stores, and Mark Griffith the butcher deliver to those in the community who are elderly or less mobile, while the chemist collects prescriptions for those who find going out difficult.

I wrote the above for Depend, which is published by DPVC. The newsletter is delivered to every house in Dinas Powys (I have just delivered my bagful to the Murch Crescent area). 

The bag charge money will help DPVC, for example, operate a minibus/ambulance for getting the elderly and infirm to the shops and hospital. DPVC are based at the Resource Centre, Murchfield Community Hall, Dinas Powys. DPVC are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.

There is a new website, where you can find out more about DPVC activities. You can download the Dinas Powys Community Directory and soon you’ll be able to read the rest of Depend (navigate to Media, Downloads):

DPVC have also recently joined Twitter: @DPVC

In addition, I tweet about Murchfield Community Hall activities: @murchfield

A previous blog post concerning DPVC:

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Tesco Express Dinas Powys: Day 100

It’s over three months since a Tesco Express opened in Dinas Powys. Has it had a devastating effect on local shops? Well, no. There have been no shop closures as a result of Tesco opening in Dinas Powys to date (in fact, the empty unit vacated by Lifestyle Furniture on Cardiff Road in the Day 1 post is now Dinas Vets).

This is not to say that the opening of a Tesco Express (or other ‘corner shops’ operated by major supermarket chains) won’t have detrimental effects on local shops in other communities. In this series of posts, a main theme is to examine why the impact differs in different locations. What factors enable independent shops and major retail chains to co-exist?

One thing to consider is how well the major is performing. Anyone who regularly walks past this Tesco Express is likely to tell you that it is nowhere near as busy as equivalent stores in Penarth or Cardiff. It does not get the footfall in this location, nor the customers through its door, to seriously flex its competitive muscle. It has impacted Spar, Valley View Fruit Stores, Mark Griffith Family Butcher, and others mentioned in the Day 1 post, but seemingly not to the extent that it threatens retail diversity.

It’s probably worth noting that Tesco Express has also had some setbacks during its first 100 days. In January, some freezer units broke, resulting in food being binned. In early February, an awful smell pervaded the store, caused by external drains. Notices in-store apologized for the smell, saying that the situation would be rectified as soon as possible. Apparently The Royal Oak, previously on this site, had a similar problem; possibly exacerbated by pub food fat. This month, the drain odour issue returned, with possible sewage notes. Customers for a while were not loitering in the aisles, and some were walked straight in and out again through the doors prominently displaying the perfect 5 Food Hygiene Rating certificate. Welsh Water and their contractor have been frequent visitors to the area (and the smell has not been confined to Tesco). The drains and sewers that run up nearby Murch Road have not been upgraded since the original houses were built. Major development has since occurred (e.g., Windyridge, Murch Crescent), and their are plans to build an additional 340 new houses on the site of the St Cyres school annexe at the top of Murch Road (at the end of the antiquated system that flows all the way down the hill to the Tesco Express at the bottom).

Local shops can adapt flexibly and quickly to changing situations (in ways that chain stores offering predictable stock cannot). When a local hardware store closed a couple of years ago, for instance, Valley View Fruits Stores started stocking more pet supplies and hardware items. They have continued along this route, by stocking non-food items you can’t buy in Tesco. Meanwhile, the Spar is starting to look as much like an off-license as a convenience grocery shop.

Customer loyalty to locally-owned and independent shops is obviously a key factor that enables them to co-exist with major retailers. Customers in Dinas Powys have largely remained loyal to those long-established shops where they are known by name, and where the shopkeepers will go the extra mile for them when it comes to ordering and delivering. Corporate loyalty cards are just not the same thing. I’ll return to this, with specific examples, in future posts that focus on the importance of local shops in a community.

The Tesco Express in Dinas Powys, during its first 100 days, has therefore not had the negative impact on retail diversity that some of its critics feared. On the plus side, it has enhanced the food choice available in the village. Will the multinational corporation’s head office be content when it sees the turnover figures for this store? If not, how will they respond? I’ll keep you posted.

See also:

Tesco Express Dinas Powys: Day 1

Tesco Express Dinas Powys: Day 25

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Six Bells, Penmark

The Six Bells in Penmark is only a couple of miles outside Barry and you can see Cardiff Int. Airport from its car park, but it’s definitely in the rural Vale of Glamorgan. Over the road from the pub is the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin (dating from 1200) and nearby are the remains of a 13th-century castle. The village (population a little over 500) is surrounded by prime agricultural land.

With a traditional bar at its heart, The Six Bells retains its role as the village pub. However, a modern dining room extension at the front is in marked contrast; and it describes itself as a “village pub and restaurant.” There is also a modern function room at the back and tables for outside drinking.

Food can be enjoyed in the bar and restaurant. The menu offers familiar pub favourites, some alternative starters and main meals, and daily specials: soup (vegetable on the weekday lunchtime we visited), pie (turkey and leek), curry (chicken madras) and fish (haddock). Main courses come in at around £9 (up to £14 for rump steak).

For starters, I chose the Smoked haddock and spring onion fishcake. This was attractively presented, with a drizzle (I blame Masterchef) of sweet chilli sauce (also drizzled on my last pub meal starters – is this a pattern emerging?). The sauce was not necessary for the flavour however, because these excellent fishcakes could easily stand of their own, with their strong yet soothing smokiness.

My partner had the Deep fried brie, which was served with a cranberry relish. The brie was pleasingly runny and the casing crunchy. This was one of only a few vegetarian dishes on the menu; there was also a sun-blushed tomato and pesto tart and a risotto. Good options, but limited choice. More surprising was the lack of salads or lighter meals on the menu.

For my main course, I went for Chicken Madeira in a cream and mushroom sauce. The chicken breast was expertly cooked, as were the vegetables. I opted for the new potatoes: a good choice and they were the pick of the vegetables on the plate. There could have been more richness (maybe more Madeira) in the sauce, but maybe I am expecting too much from pub food these days (the bar has definitely been raised).

My partner had the Supreme of salmon, which came with sautéed potatoes. A generous amount of salmon was cooked so it developed a crust, and was moist and full-flavoured. It was served with a citrus sauce, which I was told could have been stronger in flavour and more plentiful on the plate.

I had read an online review in which someone thought the portion sizes at The Six Bells were small. The chef may have once taken the small plate gastropub route, but I don’t think anyone could complain about the portion sizes they currently serve.

We can recommend The Six Bells. There’s a pleasant atmosphere, friendly service and good food. However, the food is not as adventurous or distinctive as you might expect from some reviews of a few years ago; although we did go for lunch rather than an evening meal.

The Six Bells is a Hancock’s pub, which means it is owned by Brains and run under their Hancock’s brand (Brains purchased Hancock’s in 1999). Therefore, Hancocks HB will usually be the beer of choice at the bar.

This post forms part of a series, which during 2012 will feature village pubs from around the Vale of Glamorgan. Events in the Vale this year include the National Eisteddfod (August at Llandow), not far from some decent hostelries. Meanwhile, there are several pubs handy for the Vale’s excellent Heritage Coast walks and beaches. And, as the outer limits of our holiday destinations this year are likely to be Tenby and the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons, we’ll be making the most of the great attractions on our doorstep (including the country pubs!).

The Six Bells, Penmark, Barry, CF62 3BP, Vale of Glamorgan
Tel: 01446 710229

See also:
Blacksmith’s Arms, Llanmaes

Plough and Harrow, Monknash

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wales the True Taste

Wales the True Taste (Cymru Y Gwir Flas) is a brand founded by the Welsh Government to promote food and drink products. A key part of this initiative is the annual Food and Drink Awards. At the 2011-12 awards, held last October in Llandudno, over 1,000 entrants competed in numerous categories. Winning an award allows a producer to use the Wales the True Taste logo (gold, silver or bronze), which has become a mark of excellence within the Welsh food and drink industries. Award winners also take part in a range of promotional activities, such as the showcase held last night (20 March) at ffresh restaurant and bar in the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC), Cardiff Bay.

ffresh is the first restaurant to become a Wales the True Taste partner. They have a commitment to sourcing Welsh products, with around 30% of ingredients coming from Wales the True Taste partners. For their annual spring showcase, ffresh invited some of their Wales the True Taste suppliers to exhibit and served a range of taster dishes from the restaurant menu that feature award-winning Wales the True Taste ingredients.

To start the event, there were short speeches from Janet Davies, from the Board of the WMC, and the Welsh Government’s Deputy Minister for Agriculture Alun Davies AM. Shaun Hill, the Michelin-starred consulting chef at ffresh further extolled the importance of Wales’ world-class food and drink products to the country’s economy and culture. Shaun thinks there is room for expansion in the high-end restaurant sector in Wales, and would like to see more chefs in Wales “getting the credit” for serving Welsh products.

My first taster was Wye Valley asparagus risotto with Hafod cheese. This was a creamy and very satisfying dish. Peli Pabo goats’ cheese and beetroot salad was next, with small balls of the fresh soft cheese nestling on attractive salad leaves. Hafod cheese is made by Sam and Rachel Holden on Wales’ oldest certified organic dairy farm, Bwlchwernen Fawr, near Lampeter (Gold winner in the cheese small producer category). Peli Pabo Garlic and Herb Goat’s Cheese is produced by Y Cwt Caws on Anglesey (Bronze winner in the same category).

My next dish was Welsh Venison Centre faggots, mash and peas. The faggots had a meaty density and a rich liver flavour; just how I like them. The Welsh Venison Centre in the Brecon Beacons was a multiple award-winner in the 2011-12 awards, for its Venison haunch steak, Welsh rack of lamb, and Welsh belly of pork.

The fish course was fillet of Welsh seabass, Puffin potato cake and salsa verdi. This is wild Welsh line-caught seabass (from Pembrokeshire-based South & West Wales Fishing Communities Ltd.). The nature of the product and the skillful cooking (crispy skin and perfect timing) ensured this was a treat; seabass with a full-on fishy taste (and totally unlike a farmed seabass I had recently).

Puffin Produce Ltd grow potatoes and other vegetables (e.g., leeks, cabbage) in Pembrokeshire. Their red-skinned Rudolph Potato won gold in the Vegetables category of the recent awards. They are bred to be so tasty that you don’t need to add butter or salt. As well as being on the menu, Puffin had an attractive display of their vegetables on show, which included Rudolph potatoes, small Maris Pipers and gigantic baking potatoes.

The final dish was bread and butter pudding with Baravelli’s lemon and Brecon gin marmalade. This was my first chance to taste the marmalade that won the Wales the True Taste Product of the Year in the 2011-12 awards for Mark and Emma Baravelli (The Little Deli, Llandudno). A small blob was sitting by the side of the pudding on some crème fraiche, so its intense sweet-tangy flavour could be savoured alone.  

Among the exhibitors, The Carmarthenshire Cheese Company were promoting their Boksburg cheeses. The Bronze-winning Boksburg Blue was a very creamy, relatively mild though very tasty, soft blue cheese. I particularly liked the Boksburg Smoked Cheese, which had a striking depth and complexity of smoky flavours.

Gorno’s gourmet Italian sausages had some fine-looking examples on display and cooked up some samples. My favourite was the Piccante Calabrese. The Black Mountain Smokery displayed some classy smoked food gift hampers, which included their Bronze-winning traditional smoked salmon. Capital Pâtés & Terrines of Caerphilly had some interesting pâté flavours (and colour combinations).

Subzero° Ice Cream (with chief ice cream maker Kevin Jenkins) displayed a range of their ice cream desserts, made in the Rhondda mainly for the catering industry. I finished my highly enjoyable evening’s browsing with a small cone of their rich Gold-winning Luxury Vanilla Dairy Ice Cream.

The ffresh showcase highlighted some of the great food products of Wales. Many more companies, large and small, that supply high-quality artisan foods can be found via the Wales the True Taste website. In conjunction with retailers and restaurants that source locally, these products are becoming more accessible and more widely known. Now is a good time to be exploring the food of Wales.

ffresh restaurant and bar:
Holden Farm Dairy:
Y Cwt Caws:
The Welsh Venison Centre:
South & West Wales Fishing Communities Ltd:
Puffin Potatoes Ltd:
Carmarthenshire Cheese Company:
Black Mountain Smokery Ltd:
Capital Pâtés:
Subzero Ice Cream:
Wales the True Taste Food and Drink Awards:

Friday, 9 March 2012

Pieminister: Courgette and Chickpea Filo Pie

British Pie Week is drawing to a close. This is one of the more successful British food weeks, in part because it has transcended its promotional origins (Jus-Rol Pastry, General Mills) to take on a life of its own. There are pub pie promotions, for example, and various pie-making competitions around the UK.

My contribution to the blogosphere during British Pie Week 2012 is an attempt at a Pieminister Courgette & Chickpea Filo Pie, from the recipe in Pieminister: a pie for all seasons (Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon, 2011; pp. 94-95).

The recipe calls for onion wedges and courgette slices to be cooked up in olive oil in a large frying pan. Garlic, freshly chopped rosemary and thyme, and some chilli flakes are added, followed by a drained tin of chickpeas and halved cherry tomatoes, chopped rosemary and thyme, and some balsamic vinegar. This is all added to an ovenproof dish, with olive oil-brushed filo pastry - “scrunch it up loosely so it looks like a rose” – on top. This is an instruction that invites creative expression.

In my hurry to get started, I cut the red onions up too finely. The recipe calls for wedges of red onion, which effectively match the size of the courgette slices and halved cherry tomatoes. I’ll get it right next time, as I will be doing this surprisingly tasty pie again. During the summer, I will ramp up the fresh herb content with a selection of thymes from the herb garden (only the rosemary out there at the moment). I’ll also get more artistic with the filo.

The recipe suggests that the pie is good with hummus. They’re right. I served the pie warm with some cooled home-made hummus (another tin of chick peas, tahini paste, crushed garlic and the juice squeezed from a big lemon) and a green salad.

I was going to say that most pies made this week will be meaty, so I thought I would do something a little different by cooking this vegan recipe. However, before posting this I noticed that Nicki of fame (Cardiff foodie website and blog) has also cooked this very pie, and appears to have done a better job of it than me! So, instead, I’ll say this is one of the easiest recipes in the Pieminister cookbook to cook, and it is deservedly popular.

After just a few recipes, I am inclined to think that Pieminister: a pie for all seasons is a good cookbook, in that you quickly start trusting the recipes to deliver for you.

See also:
Pieminister: Homity Pie:

The Pieminister book:

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Sherman Cymru, Cardiff

Sherman Cymru theatre reopened its doors last month, after a major redevelopment that took around two years to complete.

The main differences are the metal-clad exterior, which extends the building, and the completely transformed lobby. Instead of a stepped and cramped area between the two theatres, the new lobby is one big open space; even creating room for additional informal performance (as at the open day and the Elektro Kif street dance show). A long and shiny new bar replaces the inadequate old wooden (bottles only) one. In the main auditorium, the seats have been reupholstered and are much more comfortable.

However, the café has disappeared. Previously, the Sherman had a cosy (albeit narrow) café area in the window. This was a welcoming space, off to the right of the entrance, which functioned as a local community café; a homely meeting place in an arts centre environment. The big echoing expanse of the new lobby is nowhere near as inviting as a place to eat. Sherman Cymru may find it harder to attract people in for coffee in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the food itself; although the choice appears to be more limited now the café is part of the café bar. There is still a focus on freshly-made, locally-sourced vegetarian food.

The lunchtime menu (12-3pm) features soup (two attractive options the lunchtime I visited) and multi-seeded baguettes, characterized as Vegan (e.g., Hummus, red onion and tomato), Vegetarian (e.g., Goat cheese, tomato and basil), and Omnivore (e.g., combinations of salami, chorizo, or ham with cheddar, brie or goat’s cheese). I went for a Tomato, Olive and Fresh Basil Baguette with a coffee (£5.25 total). The baguette was made to order, came promptly, and was one of the freshest and most enjoyable baguettes I’ve had in Cardiff for a while. Good bread and simple quality ingredients; served with coleslaw and salad (a fork but no knife). Prices for baguettes start at a very reasonable £2.95.

In the evening (5-9pm), the only thing on the menu is tapas. The onus is on food that accompanies drink. There may also be some cake to have with coffee. On the evening we ate, a group at a table were looking at the only copy of the menu; so we waited a good few minutes before it was returned before starting to order. They advise ordering food 45 minutes before a show starts.

We went for the three tapas dishes for £9.95. These were served with sliced baguette. The best of the three was the Champinones Ajulo, small button mushrooms in olive oil with lemon, garlic and sherry sauce. We could happily have used more bread to mop this all up. The Albondigas con Salsa Rojo were grainy-textured lamb, beef and coriander meatballs in a tomato, bay, basil and red wine sauce; the lamb flavour cut through and they were pretty good. Patatas Ali-Oli, new potatoes in parsley and garlic mayonnaise were fine, if a little ordinary in a Hellman’s sort of way.

The tables in the lobby seem drinks-sized rather than food-sized, which is underlined by the disproportionately large plates used for the lunchtime baguettes (tapas plates sit just fine). Seating is spread out, in contrast to the previous communal café experience. I wonder if the brand new space, despite its fine architecture, wouldn’t benefit from more clutter at lunchtimes! Notice boards, acoustic screens or room dividers, for example, could help create more intimate areas.

I’ll be making frequent trips to Sherman Cymru (as I did before the redevelopment) for the outstanding programme of plays and shows, but I probably won’t be eating there as often.

Sherman Cymru:

My review of Electro Kif at Sherman Cymru for Buzz (24 Feb 2012):

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Blacksmiths Arms, Llanmaes

One strand running through this blog during 2012 will be a tour of village pubs in the Vale of Glamorgan. Some have become fairly well-known outside the area, for example, The Plough and Harrow at Monknash, while others have not. There are some hidden gems.

The village of Llanmaes lies just north of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr) in the heart of the Vale of Glamorgan; it’s the other side of the B4265 to Llantwit Major (and a footpath from that road means it is an easy walk from Llantwit Major). Llanmaes has a 13th Century church dedicated to St Cattwg (St Cadoc) and a pub: The Blacksmiths Arms.

The food is traditional, with some original twists. There is an oriental influence, and a creative use of cheese and nuts.

We often skip starters at pubs, but not here as they sounded so intriguing. The choices included Venison & Chilli Pate and Breaded Camembert Wedges.

I had the Stilton and Mushroom Knot. Crisp filo pastry parcels (literally knotted) sitting in a Chinese restaurant-style sweet chilli sauce prepare your taste buds for something oriental, but when you bite into them you get a hit of creamy Stilton with mushrooms and walnuts. The parcels shared a plate with salad leaves with a dark balsamic drizzle. This was an entertaining plate of food (in a good way), and a substantial starter.

My companion went for the Ginger and Lemongrass Chicken Sticks. These were skewered chicken breast fillets marinated in ginger and lemongrass, served with salad leaves and a Caesar dressing. The dressing came in its own pot (there was much more than required). The flavouring on the chicken was subtle; and apparently it could have been stronger.

Main courses on the current menu include Sirloin and Ribeye Steaks, Pork Medallions, Steak and Ale Pie, Stuffed Chicken Roulade, and Stilton and Vegetable crumble. There are also fish dishes, including Piri Piri Salmon Fillet, Whole Sea Bass, and Garlic and Ginger Swordfish Steak; salads as main courses; and interesting pasta and noodle dishes, including Hoi-Sin Beef and Teriyaki Chicken.

I went for Lamb Shanks with Vegetables and Minted Braising Liquor from the today’s Specials Board. The lamb was melt-in-your mouth. Not a youngster this time of year, but I really liked the slow-braised muttony flavours coming through. The rich minted gravy was a dream, especially concentrated on the greens under the shank (was that flipper shape deliberate, I wonder). The tomato added colour, rather than taste, while the vegetables served in a separate bowl – batons of carrots, peas and mange-tout - were fresh and well-cooked.

My companion had the Mushroom, Cranberry & Brie Wellington. This vegetarian wellington dish was an original creation. The golden puff pastry contained sautéed mushrooms, spinach, cranberries and hazelnuts, topped with Brie. This was served with a bowl of chips – good crunchy pub chips - and a share of the vegetable bowl.

Desserts include Wild Fig ice creams.

There is an admirable policy of sourcing locally and seasonally. Main courses peak in the £8 to £12 price range.

A good range of beers can be found on the handpumps; The Blacksmiths Arms has an entry in the Good Beer Guide 2012. There’s a pleasant seating area out front (the road’s not busy; it’s a quiet village). Yes: I’ve noted it as a potential summer pint stop off (handily just off the B4265)!

The interior has been remodelled, but with a good feel for what a traditional pub should be. The word ‘gastropub’ is bandied about on the website (not my favourite word; I like a pub to be a pub). However, there are locals at the bar and it certainly feels like a Vale of Glamorgan village pub. It’s probably referring to the creative spin the kitchen puts on their dishes.

The Blacksmiths Arms do Sunday Roasts, Tuesday is Steak Night, and Thursday is a themed night (each month food from a different country's cuisine is served). You get the impression the chef likes his work.

Next stop: The Six Bells in Penmark.

The Blacksmiths Arms, Llanmaes, near Llantwit Major, CF61 2XR, Vale of Glamorgan
Tel: 01446 795996

See also:
Plough and Harrow, Monknash