Welsh food and bluebells

bluebell woods 034Yesterday Sarah and I headed for a bluebell wood just outside Crickhowell – a couple of miles from Abergavenny. We found the bluebells and they were truly spectacular even on a damp greyish day. But on the way there and back we also found masses of delicious food. I’m sorry if this piece is a bit like a puff for the Welsh Tourist Board, but we just found so much good stuff in such a short time.

To get to Crickhowell we drove through Hay-on-Wye and remembered just at the right moment that Thursday is market day. The fish stall had some sparkling fresh tuna and I got 5 generous steaks. Last night that became the star of a fresh tuna Salade Nicoise. I boiled some new potatoes and green beans (bought later in the day at Crickhowell) and tossed them with some baby gem and capers in a mustard & honey vinaigrette. I then soft boiled some of our neighbour’s hen’s eggs, quartered them and arranged them around the plates of salad. I seared the tuna steaks so they were still totally pink in the middle and plonked them in the middle of each plate of salad. Really delicious and simple.

Anyway, back to the market at Hay. So, after the fish stall I picked up a couple of marmande tomato plants at an organic veg stall (my son’s seedlings are looking disconcertingly dead so I thought a couple of fallback plants was a good plan) and a bag of mixed leaves including plenty of wild garlic and some mustard leaves.

On to Talgarth for lunch at The Bakers Table. If you don’t know this excellent café and working mill  and you live within reach of the Welsh Borders be sure to search it out.. We shared an excellent tapas plate. Both the Welsh brie (something I’d normally be suspicious of being a confirmed Brie-de-Meaux addict) and the parma ham were really very good as were their own breads (we bought a couple of loaves to take home). Having found that the parma ham came from the local butcher we stopped there next and bought 10 slices cut to order for an unbelievably reasonable £1.68. It turned out that the lady who runs the deli side of the business had been on the staff at our local farm shop in Herefordshire the day Sarah nearly gave birth to our daughter there 11 years previously. It’s a small world in the Herefordshire/Wales borders!

Anyway, from Talgarth we made our way to the bluebell woods at Coed-Cefn which luckily we didn’t have to pronounce. What a place. And then we had an hour at Tretower which combines a medieval manor house with a Norman castle and a beautiful garden.

Another food stop at a butcher’s in Crickhowell where I meant to just buy the veg for the Salade Nicoise, but was seduced by some deliciously dark looking welsh topside. The colour was such that you knew it had been properly hung – the ’28 day beef’ sign was much more than the marketing ploy if feels like sometimes. And finally a couple of Scotch eggs (from the Handmade Scotch Egg company) and pot of fantastically good home-made yoghurt made with milk from their own cows, at the Church Barn Farm Shop at Whitney-on-Wye.

We are so lucky to live where we do with so much delicious and real food. Hip Hip Hooray for Herefordshire and the Welsh borders!


We have a permanent quandary in the cafes: Should we give our punters lots of variety or should we concentrate on consistency? Would you like to be surprised by Goan fish curry or would you like to be comforted by perfect salmon fishcakes? On the whole chefs like to pursue novelty and variety but as time goes by I’m becoming more interested in something being perfect than I am in it being new or different. So, having flirted with many fish dishes and, indeed, many different kinds of fishcakes, we have now plumped decisively for these stunningly delicious salmon fishcakes with home-made tartare sauce. They’re on the menu at both Michaelhouse and All Saints every day. I eat them fairly often and they’re great every time.

A perfect crust, quite a moist inside, only just enough egg to nearly set the mixture when it cooks, with a balance of smoked and fresh salmon and plenty of fresh dill. Equally important: home-made tartar sauce i.e. mayonnaise with capers and gherkins and (in our case) lots of chopped parsley.

You’ll note that I specify the numbers of grams of salt. This might seem pedantic and even a bad idea given that smoked salmon can vary in its saltiness. However, in the context of this mixture the saltiness of the smoked salmon is a small variable and in our experience at the cafes you get a much better result by weighing the salt accurately than by seasoning, mixing, adjusting, tasting, seasoning, tasting, adjusting etc. That’s partly because you don’t want to overmix the fishcake mix and also it’s hard to evenly distribute a small addition of salt to a relatively thick mixture. Also, not everyone not wants constantly to taste a mix with raw egg in it.

In Hereford we use smoked salmon trimmings from the Black Mountains Smokery – a remarkable and somewhat leathery product with a strong smokey flavour that’s absolutely perfect for this dish although slightly overwhelming eaten raw on its own.

We serve the fishcakes and tartare sauce with a simple green salad and for me that makes a perfect meal.

These quantities make 20 fishcakes i.e. enough for 10 people – if you aren’t cooking for that many people then freeze some prior to the final cooking.

800g salmon fillet (offcuts are fine but they must be very fresh)
50g butter
400g smoked salmon trimmings
1.5kg potatoes
2 dsp English mustard
2 eggs, lightly beaten
60g (one good-sized bunch) fresh dill, roughly chopped
5g salt – a full teaspoon
150g fresh white breadcrumbs

  1. Cook the fresh salmon in foil in the oven until barely cooked (i.e. the middle of the fillet is just going opaque – about 15 mins at 180C). Any juices remaining in the foil should be mixed in with the fishcakes. Discard any salmon skin.
  2. Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until tender, drain and put through a potato ricer (or mash with a masher if you don’t have a ricer).
  3. Melt the butter in a pan and warm the finely chopped smoked salmon trimmings in the butter.
  4. Mix the riced potatoes with all the other ingredients except the breadcrumbs.
  5. Make into fishcakes about 120 grams each (before being breadcrumbed) about 10cm diameter. Lightly breadcrumb each fishcake. A full portion would be two fishcakes.
  6. Fry the fishcakes for a couple of minutes on each side to brown them and then transfer to a very hot oven for a further 6 minutes or so until piping not right through. Serve straight away with a dollop of tartare sauce.

Tartare sauce

We use pasteurized egg yolks for this as we feel cautious about serving uncooked fresh egg in the cafes, but at home I would use ordinary fresh eggs. If you can find the pre-sliced gherkins designed for sandwiches they make your life a bit easier as they need to end up very finely diced – about 1mm cube.

These quantities make 600ml of tartare sauce which will keep happily in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

50g pasteurized egg yolk (equivalent of 3 egg yolks)
2 tbs white wine vinegar
1 tsp English mustard
600ml sunflower oil
50ml tepid water
150g capers, drained
150g gherkins, very finely diced
150g flat parsley, chopped

Put the egg yolks vinegar and mustard in the blender and whiz until smooth. Keep whizzing whilst slowly adding the sunflower oil and then the water. Add a bit more or less water until you have the desired mayo consistency. Stir in the capers, very finely diced gherkins and finely chopped flat parsley.


Bridget’s sauce with sea trout, new potatoes and samphire

Sarah’s Mum Bridget was a great cook. Her prime cooking years were the dinner party years of the 1960s and 70s. A couple of times a week she and Jim would either entertain or go to friends’ houses to eat. These were the days when a dinner party involved four courses and a choice of puddings so a massive amount of cooking was done – and that was in addition to cooking proper food every night for the family.

This recipe – fish baked in foil with wine – was, I think, one of the most popular ways to cook fish in those years. Bridget cooked it often and it was always delicious. Since Bridget’s (much too young) death Jim has become a great cook and, now that he lives next door to us, we often benefit and he’s made this dish for us a few times. So, a couple of weeks ago I plucked up courage to give it a go myself and I’ve now done it twice: once cooking a whole seat trout and once using the same method for individual seat trout steaks. The bit I have trouble with (because I’m cack-handed and am unable to wrap presents) is wrapping the fish in foil without tearing the foil. However it’s not a disaster if you do tear the foil as long as you’ve got the package sitting in something that will contain the juices. You can either cook the foil package in the oven with the foil package sitting in a baking dish or, in a fish kettle on the hob.

It’s a dish that cries out for new potatoes and either asparagus (in May/June) or samphire (June to September). If you’ve not used samphire before you’ve got a treat in store. Sometimes called ‘sea asparagus’ it’s a delightfully weird-looking vegetable that grows wild in coastal areas particularly Norfolk and Brittany and is now also cultivated in Israel year round. It’s more often sold in fishmongers than greengrocers. Don’t bother with pickled samphire which (to me) looks and tastes horrible. You need to pick through the samphire and pinch off any hard brown bits at the bottom of the stems and then boil it very  briefly – no more than a minute – in a large pan of boiling water and then toss in olive oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.

Seat trout with Bridget’s sauce
(salmon also works well)
serves 6

1 whole sea trout (approx 2kg), gutted or 6 good sea trout steaks
200 ml white wine
2 bay leaves, torn in half

50g butter
50g plain flour
400ml whole milk

1. Put the fish in a foil with the bay leaves and wine. To do this lay the foil (the wide foil designed for turkeys is easiest to use) on whatever you’re going to cook in i.e. either roasting tin (for the oven) or fish kettle (for the hob). Be sure to leave lots of spare foil to wrap with. Lay the fish carefully in and add the wine, bay leaves and two halves of lemon and then pull the edges together to form a parcel. If you’re using the fish kettle add half a cup of water to the bottom of the kettle underneath the parcel so create some steam.

2. If baking, then bake at about 180C for about 20 minutes (longer for a whole fish) until the fish is just cooked. If cooking on the hob, steam for about 10 minutes (again, longer for a whole fish) until the fish is just cooked. For those like me who are not highly experienced fish cooks there is no substitute for putting a knife gently in to the thickest part of the fish and looking to see if the flesh has gone opaque – which means it’s cooked.

3. When the fish is just cooked, carefully pick up the foil parcel and, forming a spout with one end of it, pour off the cooking juices. Dont’ waste a drop – it’s these juices that will make your sauce unutterably delicious. If you’ve cooked the fish on the hob then make sure you also collect the water from the bottom of the fish kettle.Meanwhile leave the fish keeping warm while you make the sauce.

4. In a smallish saucepan, make a roux with the butter and flour. Warm the milk (in a jug in a microwave is the easiest way). Slowly add the cooking juices to the roux whisking all the while to keep it smooth. Add the milk whilst still whisking. When all the liquids have been added continue to simmer for a couple of minutes to make sure that the flour is properly cooked. Adjust the seasoning and consistency, adding more milk if necessary. Serve at once with the fish and with your new potatoes and samphire.

I’m not generally a great believer in serving at the table (I find it much easier to put food on plates straight from the pans you’ve been cooking on) but a whole fish looks so lovely that it’s worth serving it at the table so that your eaters get a chance to enjoy the sight.