Sausage containing no meat, ‘5-minute potatoes’ that take well over an hour to cook, and bread that’s actually seaweed, Phoebe Smith is hot on the innovative culinary trail in the Vale of Glamorgan…
By award winning travel writer Phoebe Smith
It started – as all the best Welsh adventures do – on the beach. Or, more accurately wandering amid the saltmarsh alongside the Ogmore River before it spills out to sea on the Glamorgan coast. Beside me, sand dunes rose and fell like silted waves while sea birds cawed overhead. Yet I wasn’t looking at any of that. Instead my eye was trained on something much smaller. I was hunting for leaves, but not just any leaves, I was looking for the distinct glossy green, spinach-like oval specimens found on sea beet, a plant used like the leafy green veg it resembles, and tastes particularly fabulous when whipped up in a pancake or omelette. Or so I was reliably informed by my bush-craft guide Sasha Ufnowska.
I was in the often-neglected Vale of Glamorgan, a near-diamond shaped county sandwiched between Bridgend to the west and Welsh capital of Cardiff to the east. Though perhaps more well-known now for candy floss on Barry Island and Gavin and Stacey, the area has a history of farming dating back thousands of years – with excavations revealing a feasting site that lasted from the Bronze Age until at least Roman occupation.
Foraging was the natural way to be introduced to the produce in this part of South Wales. And over the course of the morning Sasha introduced me to samphire (great in pasta – they even sell it in Sainsbury’s); sea purslane (best pickled then served on top of cream cheese); mayweed (makes the perfect ‘camomile’-like tea) and the aforementioned sea beet.
It had been what she called a ‘foraging treasure hunt’ in an area she lovingly refers to as her larder, though she is quick to point out that she sees foraging not as survival. “It’s about introducing wild flavours into your existing diet,” she explained.
It was wonderful to find ‘treasure’ in plain sight when others walked past without realising its potential. And that theme continued as I explored further.
I began with a food tour called Welsh Tapas and Tasting – an idea born out of local Sian Roberts’ love for traditional Welsh dishes and the desire to shine a light on the innovative food offerings in Glamorgan.
We started with a brunch at the Forage Farm Shop, the latest venture of the Penllyn Estate on the outskirts of Cowbridge, that also launched amid the throws of the first lockdown.
“The farms’ been in my family for the past 200 years,” said owner Tom Humphrey as we feasted on a hearty brunch of eggs, sausages, tomatoes and all the trimmings, sourced from the farm or as locally as possible. “My grandfather was a cow obsessive with focus on high numbers, but we’ve changed all that. We’ve diversified our stock, moved to low density cattle and free-range chickens, as well as turning over 500 acres for wildlife and habitat.”
From there we went to visit Nick Craddock who, along with his son Joseph, makes Vale Cider using their own small orchard a couple of fields away, they even hand wash the apples individually themselves. The result was several varieties of the apply drink which each tasted more akin to wine than any mass-produced cider I’ve tasted.
Then came the highlight – Welsh Tapas –courtesy of Chloe Francis-Oakley at Cobbles, a place which prides itself on sourcing ingredients from local producers and, over the last two years, has seen custom thrive. “People have really focused on eating local and supporting independents, which is fantastic as it’s what we’ve always been about,” she explained as she put down dishes of lava bread (essentially seaweed); Glamorgan sausage(traditionally never made with any meat but is actually cheese, potato, leek and breadcrumbs) and Welsh Rarebit (a cheese on toast with mustard whose name, it’s theorised, came from being cooked for a short amount of time and the fact that it was a bit of a snack). She calls this menu ‘Bwyta bach’ aka ‘small eats’, inspired by her love of Spanish food.
Putting a Welsh twist on something classic was a theme that continued that evening, when I arrived at my accommodation in the Goodsheds in Barry. Formerly a railway storage area, over lockdown it was transformed into a Shoreditch-style urban hub with serviced apartments to overnight in, all independent Welsh street food stalls, a coffeeshop, rooftop bar (I recommend the Barry Island Iced Tea), a Michelin-starred restaurant, and a husband and wife new start-up tap room and bar.
It was the latter where I ended my day, sampling owner Claire and Tim Whalley’s Barry Island Gin – another ‘accidental lockdown creation’ - which is made here in the Vale (by a master distiller at nearby Hensol Castle - who also make tasty gin) and features botanics from their own garden. Since its launch in 2020 it’s won a Taste Award and now is shipped all over Britain by fans of its flavour.
Inspired by all the local producers who valued low food miles and sustainability as key factors in their business plans, the next day I set myself a challenge – to create two classic Welsh dishes (Rarebit and Tatws Pum Munud aka 5-minute potatoes – which, in-keeping with Wales’ sense of humour when it came to naming recipes, actually take 20minutes to prep and over an hour to cook) using only locally sourced ingredients from the Vale.
I began at the Cowbridge Farmer’s Market where I hunted down most of the fresh produce required as well as cheese, bread and a cake for dessert. For seasoning I headed to Awesome Wales –a zero waste store in the town which sells vegetable stock by weight so you only buy what you need. With more condiments (mustard and butter) required I went to the Forage Farm Shop, picked up the ale for the rarebit from Tomos and Lilford Brewery – the only microbrewery in the Vale, Welsh flour and meat from Slade Organic Farm shop and, after much searching, admitted defeat and resorted to the supermarket for the Worcestershire sauce.
Despite the driving I had to do to track down the items, it made the resulting meal very easy to stomach, knowing that the food miles were minimal.
My trip ended, as every good trip should – with a glass of wine in hand, on a visit to the oldest vineyard in Wales – the Glyndwr Winery in Cowbridge. There owner Richard Norris had welcomed local volunteers to help harvest this year’s grapes.
Among them was a nurse and her husband who had come for the first time to enjoy the fresh air, a man called Richard had been volunteering for 26 years for the socialising, and a woman called Lesley Parker, who runs a horticulture therapy group called Growing Places and was there for the fourth time with some of her clients.
It just shows that, much like the foraging I partook in at the start if my Welsh adventure, the Vale of Glamorgan is hiding many treasures in plain sight, ones that leave a great taste in your mouth – in every sense.
Author: Phoebe Smith
Wild Spirit Bushcraft by Sasha Ufnowska - Wild Spirit Bushcraft (bushcraftcourses.co.uk)
Loving Welsh Food by Sian Roberts - Cardiff & Wales Tours - Loving Welsh Food
Forage Farm Shop & Kitchen, Cowbridge - Forage Farm Shop & Kitchen
Vale Cider by Nick Craddock - Vale Cider - Award-winning Welsh Ciders and Cider Gifts
Welsh Tapas at Cobbles - cobbleskitchen
Goodsheds - Goodsheds – Goodsheds Barry
Craft Republic - Home | Craft Republic (wearecraftrepublic.co.uk)
Hensol Castle Gin Distillery - Hensol Castle Distillery
Tomos & Lilford Brewery - Tomos & Lilford Brewery
Slade Farm Organics - Slade Farm (sladefarmorganics.com)
Cowbridge Farmers Market - Cowbridge Farmers Market
Glyndwr Vineyard - Glyndwr Vineyard
Photos Credit Phoebe Smith