Thursday, 16 February 2012

St David's Day

Saint David

St David is the patron saint of Wales (for the benefit of my American followers, he is to us what St Patrick is to the Irish).  In life, he was a Bishop during the 6th century and it is said that he died, aged over 100 years of age, on Tuesday 1st March in the year 589 AD.  He was buried at St David’s Cathedral Pembrokeshire, where his remains are said to lie to this day.  He was canonised by the Vatican in 1120 and subsequently became the patron saint of Wales.   

In Wales St David’s Day (March 1st) is celebrated widely, and especially by school children.  The girls dress in traditional costume, a black tall hat with white lace below the brim, a shawl and an apron.  The photograph left shows me wearing my ‘Welsh Costume’ (now there’s a valleyism for you!) aged about 4 or 5, the group photograph on the right is the rest of my class!  School children also get a half-day holiday in honour of St David. 

We also wear either a leek or a daffodil, both of which are the National Emblem of Wales.  Mostly people wear pins or brooches, but it’s not unusual to see real daffodils, or even leeks worn by some, especially if March 1st falls on a Rugby International Saturday! 

There are many legends associated with St David one being that during battle he advised his soldiers to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their Saxon enemies; allegedly this is why the leek is one of the National Emblems and worn to mark his day! 

The other, more obscure legend refers to corpse candles which are said to appear to warn of a death, much like the Banshee in Irish folklore.  According to legend, in response to a prayer from David asking that his people have a warning of their death, people living in Wales would be forewarned by the appearance of candles when and where the death could be expected.   

For those inclined, more information can be found here : 

The Flag of St David

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Valentine's Dinner

Valentine’s Day.  The day that comes once a year to let us show our loved ones how much they mean to us.  Yeah right! 

I show my love with every meal, and for his part, hubby shows his love with the countless little thoughtful things he does for me.  The cups of tea he brings me in bed after a particularly sleepless night; the middle of the winter trips to the beach when I need to top-up my mermaid blood being just two.

For Valentine’s Day though I want to make us something special, something that we’ll really enjoy.  We both really like Italian food, especially antipasto platters so I thought I’d start us off with that.  I’ll put together a pasta bake that can sit quietly in the oven while we’re making our way through the antipasto and then we can finish off with a raspberry pannacotta.  The red of the raspberries will be perfect for Valentine’s Day!  I know I ought to make the pannacotta, but I’m going to buy them this time – it’s my day too after all!

So to start with we’re going to have an assortment of antipasto – our favourite bits and pieces!

Two types of salami, Milano and Napoli
Parma ham
Sun dried tomatoes
A generous handful of rocket (arugula) scattered over my lovely olivewood board.*

For our main course, I made ahead of time the lovely beef cacciatore that we enjoyed so much recently ( ) thinking that it would be perfect as a pasta bake.  For convenience I cooked the pasta ahead of time and assembled the dish so that it could be popped into the oven when we were ready for it.  
To go with the pasta bake I thought I’d make my hubby’s favourite starter/side – asparagus wrapped in Parma ham.  I know asparagus is out of season now, that it’s been flown in from goodness knows where – but it’s Valentine’s Day and if my Valentine wants asparagus, then that’s what he’s going to get!
This is a really lovely starter or side dish and a simple assembly job.  Just wrap 3 or 4 asparagus spears in Parma ham and lay on a baking sheet.  I allow 2 bundles per person.  Once they are all on the baking sheet, drizzle with a little olive oil (garlic olive oil is nice too), especially over the tips, and then grind a little black pepper over the bundles.  Cook at 200oC for approximately 10 – 15 minutes – keep your eye on them as they will go from done to ruined in a short space of time!
For the pasta bake, that will need 30 – 35 minutes (or a little longer depending on how cold it was going into the oven) at 200oC.

*The olivewood board was something that we’d both fancied having for a while and spotted it in an Italian delicatessen when we were on our travels in Windsor last summer.  Saw it, wanted it, had to have it ...... had to carry it around with us all day too!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Faggots Sir Benfro (Pembrokeshire Faggots)

I love faggots, I grew up on them.  These are what you’d call proper traditional Welsh fare.  My mother and both grandmothers used to make them, although the making of them wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed as a child – being not dissimilar to a bloodbath (!); the results were always enjoyable!   For the uninitiated, faggots are similar to meatballs.  Big meatballs, made with liver instead of beef. 

My father tells me that when he was a young man going to rugby matches, this was what he used to have from the market stalls; the ones from Neath market being the best!   

Traditionally these are always served with mushy peas and lots of gravy.  You can buy canned mushy peas, which are convenient; but I much prefer them made from soaked dried peas.   

The recipe I have given you below is the one my mother always used, and the one  I have always used!  I like it with the strong flavour of ox liver, but if you prefer to start off with something milder use pig liver – that’s what my mother uses, I just prefer ox liver! 

  • 3lb liver
  • 2 large onions
  • Approximately ½ large sliced loaf of bread (you may or may not need more depending on consistency so have a whole loaf at the ready!)
  • 4-6oz suet
  • 4tsp dried sage
  • 2tsp salt
  • Black pepper to taste
You will also need a food processor! 

Begin by making the breadcrumbs in the food processor, and start with half a loaf of bread.  Tip these into a large mixing bowl. 

Then peel and cut the onions into quarters and finely chop in the food processor.  Add to the breadcrumbs in the mixing bowl and season with the salt and pepper, add the suet (I use 6 oz) and the sage and mix everything together well. 

Wash the liver and blitz in the food processor, then add to the mixing bowl.  Mix everything together and check the consistency.  If it seems too wet for your tastes, chop up another 2 or 3 slices of bread in the food processor and add that – until you are happy with the consistency.

I’m like Goldilocks with faggots – not too dry, not too wet – just right! 

The traditional way of cooking them is to make them into balls with your hands.  That’s not how I do it!  I tip the whole lot into a roasting tin to cook, cutting into squares once they are cooked and cooled. 

They will want approximately 30 to 40 minutes at 200oC.  Just keep an eye on them after 30 minutes. 

For the benefit of my followers in the US, mushy peas are soaked dried peas, cooked until they become very soft and collapse.   The gravy is the brown beef gravy made from meat juices – or, as is often the case in my house, instant gravy!  If you can’t get instant gravy, some rich beef stock would do – you just want something to moisten the faggots and bring the whole dish together. 

These freeze beautifully and re-heat happily in the microwave too.  How convenient is that! 

The ones pictured on the right, were re-heated in a griddle pan, wrapped in bacon.  Liver and bacon are a delicious combination.

I hope you enjoy this taste of Wales!

I would like to dedicate this recipe to my lovely late Father, who loved a good feed of faggots, peas and gravy.  Gone, but never ever forgotten xxx

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Poached Eggs

I don’t want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs (or poach them in this instance!), but this is such an easy way to poach eggs that it deserves to be shared. 

It came about because I’m a bit of a farty with poaching eggs in pans of boiling water – I’ve never been able to do it properly (!) and I’m far, far too impatient to wait for an egg to poach in a poacher or a poach pod.  

One day I tried doing it this way, and it was such a roaring success that I’ve been doing it this way ever since.  It takes as long as the toast takes to cook so have everything ready to roll! 

Firstly, fill and boil a kettle. 

Then smear a deep frying pan with a little oil and break the eggs into the pan.  Put on the hob (stove) to cook and then put the toast into the toaster.   

As soon as the egg whites are beginning to set (i.e. the bottoms are completely white in the pan) pour in the boiling water gently.  Spoon the water over the yolks to set them as you like them.  I like mine runny so I turn the heat under the pan off as soon as the boiling water goes in.  If you like your yolks set, spoon the boiling water over the yolks until they are cooked through. 

Butter the toast and lift the eggs from the pan with a spatula – you may need to separate the whites though.  I’m not very keen on the whites so I always cut most of them away – I use a cookie cutter.

Linguine with Parma Ham, Rocket and Chilli

I had rocket and parma ham in the fridge leftover from when I ‘customised’ our pizzas on Thursday night.  I knew without a doubt that this was how I would use them up!! 

This is a really delicious pasta dish, and unbelievably quick to prepare as it takes only as long as the pasta takes to cook! 

When I worked this was one of my most repeated dishes! 

For two people: 

200g linquine or spaghetti
1tsp or so garlic olive oil
6 slices of Italian prosciutto or Parma ham
1 red chilli
2 big handfuls of fresh rocket (arugula) 

Parmesan cheese to  taste, at the table. 

Cook the pasta according to packet directions. 

While it is cooking; wash, de-seed and chop the red chilli and cut the prosciutto or Parma ham into strips.  Wash the rocket thoroughly. 

Drain the cooked pasta and return to the hot pan.  Add the garlic olive oil, the chilli, the ham and finally the rocket.  Toss everything together and then dish up into heated pasta bowls, seasoning to taste with black pepper and an avalanche of parmesan cheese. 

Finally, and most importantly ...... apply to face!!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Sunday Tea at Mam's

Before going any further, perhaps I should do a little translation and explain the meals we take during the day.

They may have the same names as the meals others are used to, but in the mining valleys of Wales (The Valleys) they have a very different meaning! 

Breakfast : this is the meal we take first thing in the morning, the same as everywhere else; but this is where we part company!

Lunch : this is the meal we take mid-day, but only if it is a light lunch – soup, salad or sandwich.  If we eat a cooked meal we call it dinner; if it’s roast meat with vegetables then it’s a big-dinner.  Irrespective of what we call it, or what we eat, the time is always called dinner-time. 

Dinner :  this is a hot meal taken at mid-day, or dinner-time as we call it.  On Sunday’s it’s A Big Sunday Dinner, or just Sunday Dinner – but only if we’re having a roast meat, veg and gravy dinner! 

Tea : not the dainty finger sandwich and fancy cake beloved of tea shops.  In the Valleys, Tea is our evening meal.  If we’ve only had ‘lunch’ then it will be a cooked meal, but if we had ‘dinner’, then we’ll have a sandwich, soup or something on toast for tea.   

“What are you having for youer tea tonight?” a friend might ask, to which the response could be either “nothing much, we had ouer dinner at dinner time” or “I’m making dinner tonight ‘cos we only had lunch today”. 

Supper : not for us dressing up in our diamonds and jewels for a fancy three or four course meal at supper time.  We get into our pyjamas and nighties for supper, which is taken shortly before bed-time and will be something like a bowl of cereal, a single-round of bread sandwich or cheese and a cracker.  Invite us out for ‘supper’ and we’ll turn up in our dressing-gowns expecting cocoa ......... and an explanation! 

As for Mam, well, as the name would suggest she’s the mother/mother-in-law of the family.  The Matriarch; capital M; stand to attention and mind your p’s and q’s.  Mam is very much the head of the family.  Picture, if you will, a stout woman of imposing presence, if not of stature; clad in a voluminous white apron and arms folded under an impressive saucy-postcard bosom.  Frosty of face and sharp of tongue, she has a heart of sheer gold.  Her children will quake under her steely gaze but her grand-children will adore her.  Her starched white apron will repel any stain that dares to contemplate the merest possibility of thinking about desecrating its gleaming whiteness and chill the blood of husband, son or daughter as they see her determined approach.  Her grandchildren however will find comfort being enfolded in a cuddle on her lap, corner of the very same apron being used to wipe away tears or clean grazes, while a sweet would always appear from the pocket.  Mam rules the roost. 

Back to Sunday Tea though.  An occasion in and of itself, it follows a proper roast dinner – Sunday Dinner.  Anticipated all week, and, done properly, will produce enough leftovers to last until at least mid-week in various guises! 

Sunday Tea at Mam’s is a big tradition here in the Welsh Valleys.  It’s almost a legal requirement for families to return to Mam’s on Sunday for Tea!  Traditionally, the table would be laid with a crisp white cloth, and Mam herself would be wearing a fresh apron!   

Tea itself consisted of a big plate of sandwiches, usually sliced meat from the Sunday joint and a plate of cake, usually Bara Brith, Teisen Lap or Welsh Cakes, there might be a rice pudding or jam tarts for the little ones. 

If there was a special celebration the ante would be upped and a plate of salmon and cucumber sandwiches laid out.  These would be made of tinned salmon* mashed together with black pepper and malt vinegar!  The cake would usually be a jam and cream sponge and there might even be a trifle.  Mam’s best lace or embroidered tablecloth would come out, along with the best china.  Mam might even ditch her apron in honour of the celebration!  But woe-betide the child who dropped one of the best plates!  We children were usually handed an older plate, part of a broken set, or even a melamine plate! 

*Poached salmon only made an appearance at posh weddings, where old dears would be heard to loudly exclaim “duw there’s posh, poached salmon”! 

(In proof-reading this, hubby has just told me that he was 25 years old before he ate salmon that hadn’t come out of a tin!) 

When I was growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s Sunday Tea was nothing short of an ordeal!  Households had started moving away from the traditional Sunday Tea described above and embraced the new delights that were appearing in shops.   

In our house it consisted of tinned fruit and condensed milk (usually a tin of Ideal Milk), with bread and butter on the side.  Remember, this was the 60’s/70’s – canned fruit was NOT good; think soggy strawberries, fruit cocktail with hard squares of unidentifiable fruit and vibrant red cherries that had absolutely nothing in common with the real thing!   This would be served up every Sunday evening, without fail.  The only variation my mother permitted would be the type of fruit, and these were rotated military-wise; tinned peaches, tinned pears, tinned strawberries, tinned raspberries (better than the rest, but still not good!) or tinned fruit cocktail – the work of the devil!  Strangely, tinned pineapple, which is actually quite good, never made an appearance! 

I used to look forward to the odd Sunday when we had visitors, then at least we’d get a rest from “fruit and Ideal” and have salmon and cucumber sandwiches and maybe even a nice bit of home-made cake, or even a trifle if it was a special occasion! 

I can’t describe to you how ecstatic I was when my mother discovered packets of Dream Topping in the mid 70’s.  Mixed with milk they made a huge improvement on Ideal Milk with tinned fruit, it almost made it palatable!  Later still we had Angel Delight – a revolution in Sunday Tea Time! 

In my family the days of returning to Mam for Sunday Tea are long gone.  Like a lot of families, long working hours saw an end to the tradition somewhere around the 90’s.  These days Mum finds it too much; in fairness, she is nearly 80!  Occasionally my sister or I will host a Sunday marathon with what my cousin calls an endless procession of food!  We usually invite my aunt and uncle to join us too.  Lunch usually starts somewhere around 1.30pm and can sometimes be a roast or cooked lunch, but is increasingly a help-yourself buffet.  Somewhere around mid-afternoon the first of desserts will be served, often a trifle – a big family tradition!  A little later we’ll cut into the sponge, usually a raspberry jam and cream Victoria sandwich, but sometimes a chocolate cake.  Finally, around 5.00pm we’ll bring out the cheeseboard, complete with bread, crackers and chutney.   

Like Mam, I’ll usually be wearing one of my aprons and sturdy of frame I preside over the table.  Like a true matriarch, I have perfected my steely glare that often chills the blood of those foolish enough to cross me.  Grandma would be proud!