Saturday, 25 April 2015

Welsh products in The Ark of Taste

The Ark of Taste is SlowFood’s catalogue of disappearing local food culture. On board The Ark are breeds of domesticated animal, cultivated plants, and artisan food products and techniques, all in need of recognition and protection to prevent them from disappearing.

Many local products and traditional production methods have suffered due to competition with cheaper, mass-produced, year-round-imported food items, such as those mainly sold in supermarkets. Farmers, producers and restaurant owners are fighting back by promoting local food systems based on heritage breeds and varieties, sustainable and seasonal production, local food sourcing and regional cuisine.

The Ark of Taste brings together small-scale, quality food production from diverse cultures and traditions worldwide. It draws attention to the existence of an extraordinary heritage of animal breeds, fruit and vegetable varieties, fish and seafood resources, cheeses, breads, and numerous artisan products, all of which are at risk of extinction within generations given present trends. Administered by the SlowFood Foundation for Biodiversity, it invites everyone to take action to help protect the items in The Ark. This can involve buying and consuming artisan products, supporting their producers, or taking part in various campaigning initiatives.

The Ark of Taste currently (25 April 2015) has 2431 products on board from all around the world (see

For a taster of these, ‘The Food Programme’ on BBC Radio 4 is currently featuring stories of some Ark of Taste products (e.g.

On board The Ark are 83 products from the UK.  These are mainly rare animal breeds (21); artisan cheeses from specific localities (10); localised fish and shellfish (10); fresh fruit and dried fruit products, including nuts (11); and vegetables (9). Also included are cured meat products, cereals and flour, baked products, spirits, pulses, seaweed (dulse) and honey. Further details of these 83 products are given on the SlowFood UK website (

There are currently 5 Welsh products (6%) among the 83 UK products in The Ark of Taste: a cheese, two animal breeds, a rare apple variety, and a seafood. The following information on these products is mainly gleaned from the SlowFood UK website:

1. Artisan Caerphilly Cheese
Traditional Caerphilly is a hard, crumbly white cheese, with a short maturation period, made using unpasteurised milk. It has long been produced by hand, on small family-run farms, as a means of using and preserving surplus milk. When sold in local markets, it was typically in the form of 5 or 10 lb truckles. From the 1830’s onwards, it became associated with Caerphilly because of its popularity among the town’s mining community.

Today, it is in competition with a very different young cheese product, also called Caerphilly, which is mass-produced using pasteurised milk and sold more cheaply in supermarkets. Traditional Caerphilly cheese is now produced by only a limited number of creameries in South Wales, such as Caws Cenarth. A small quantity of aged Caerphilly is also available from artisan producers.

2. Badger Face Welsh Mountain Sheep
The Badger Face Welsh Mountain Sheep is a low-maintenance Welsh mountain breed. It has two sub-types, both being relatively small and hardy: the Torddu (black belly) and Torwen (white belly). This breed produces milk, wool and high-quality meat having an excellent flavour. Although a very old breed, it was first officially recognised in 1976, when a small group of farmers in mid Wales, who were breeding the sheep, formed the Badger Face Welsh Mountain Sheep Society.

Pedigree flocks are relatively small and mostly kept by smallholders for their unique characteristics. They are slow to mature. Small-scale producers, such as Hebsnbadgers and Llwyn-on, are promoting it as a Slow Meat product.

3. Bardsey Island Apple
A medium-sized, sweet and juicy, pink eating apple with a unique lemon aroma, the Bardsey Island Apple is a very rare variety. The mother tree grows by a house built by Lord Newborough in the 1870’s on Bardsey Island, where it is continually ‘pruned’ by salt-laden gales.  The trees produced by grafting from it are resilient and disease-resistant, requiring no chemical spraying.

The SlowFood UK website relates how, in 1998, ornithologist Andy Clarke brought several apples from the tree to local fruit grower Ian Sturrock for identification. He, in turn, took them to the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale, where the Bardsey Island Apple was declared a new variety. The variety is grown by Ian Sturrock & Sons of Bangor and other small-scale producers in North Wales, where it has spearheaded a resurgence of interest in old and almost extinct Welsh Varieties.

4. Pedigree Welsh Pig
The Welsh Pig was first referenced in the 1870’s, and the Welsh Pig Society (formed 1922) played an important role in increasing numbers and developing its commercial characteristics. The pig is white with lop ears, a curly tail, and a long body. It is hardy and thrives in both indoor and outdoor conditions. The breed has a traditional pork flavour, and produces high-quality, well-developed hams, with a desirable ratio of meat (70%) to fat (30%). Although it has characteristics that could be of valuable to the modern pig industry, numbers have continued to decline due to competition with commercial breeds. Small producers, such as Kilvrough Welsh Pigs on the Gower, rear Pedigree Welsh Pig non-intensively.

5. Penclawdd Cockles
Penclawdd Cockles are removed from the low-tide sands of the Burry Estuary, near Swansea, by pulling a flat cart (once by donkey, now a tractor) with a metal scrape to expose them for hand-picking. A government decree in 1965 only permits licensed gatherers to take cockles, within limited quotas.  They are sold at local markets, either boiled and peeled or untreated. The cockle industry in Penclawdd has suffered due to water pollution and mismanagement of stocks, though there has been a recovery in recent years.

Many of the traditional products in The Ark of Taste have helped shape local cuisine. Protecting these products helps preserve the recipes, knowledge and history surrounding them, which may also be at risk of being lost.  This is certainly true of Penclawdd Cockles. ‘Welsh breakfast’ is a traditional local breakfast that includes cockles fried in bacon fat, laverbread and fried eggs, for instance, while the Swansea Cockle Festival is celebrated every September.

In ‘The Taste of Britain’ (2006, HarperPress), Laura Mason and Catherine Brown explored the traditional foods of Britain. The section on Wales includes further information on Caerphilly Cheese, Welsh Mountain Sheep, Penclawdd Cockles and other traditional foods closely identified with parts of Wales, including Glamorgan Sausage, Laverbread, Sewin (sea trout), Welsh Black Cattle, Aberffraw Cake, Welsh Cakes and Teisen Lap (fruit cake).

By this point, you will have realised that there is room in The Ark of Taste for many more products of the type described above, from countries all around the world, which would benefit from inclusion.

One of the many aims of the newly-established SlowFood South East Wales group (see links below) is to research and identify further Welsh products for potential inclusion in The Ark of Taste.

Previous posts on Slow Food in South East Wales: