The doors are open, the rules have changed and we are all able to meet again. But, just as we have had to learn a new set of behaviours as Wales has wrestled with the pandemic, we now have to make sure we do not fall foul of post-COVID etiquette. My father used to say that a convoy travels at the speed of the slowest ship and in any social group, friend, colleagues or extended family, we tend to reset our behaviours at the pace acceptable to the most nervous. Rightly so, but it does provide us with this summer’s key challenge: how to meet up to share food with friends whilst accommodating the most gung-ho and the most cautious?
One answer, of course, is to meet out of doors, and given the vast list of stunningly beautiful places we have throughout Wales, the location of your al fresco meal should not be a problem. Indeed, it could inspire your choice of food but I am always conscious of the rule of never taking lower quality food to a place where very good things abound: on a recent trip to New Quay, the standard of the fish and chips at the Lime Crab deterred me from potching about with damp sandwiches and their halloumi would almost, but not quite, end my love affair with meat. Perhaps the ideal is to pre-prepare and transport your staples and top up with local treats. Our expanding network of farm shops throughout Wales means no-one has any excuse for transporting the untransportable: like dogs, quiches can suffer in hot cars, so though I am an inveterate maker of the food real men are not supposed to eat, I’d rather swing by a place like the Moody Cow just south of Aberaeron than unleash an unappetising deconstructed crumb and custard combo on my unsuspecting friends. A propos of keeping food cool in transport, by the way, kudos to the Welsh Cheese Company. I recently received a gift of one of their taster boxes, which not only contained both of my favourite Welsh cheeses (Black Bomber and Perl Wen, since you ask) and a box of those Cradoc’s Pear and Earl Grey Crackers (best thing to come out of Brecon since Gerald of Wales) but were wrapped in sheep’s wool to keep them cool. So sustainable, and a talking point for my sheep farming friends.
Back to our outdoor gatherings. We’ve probably all modelled ourselves on a mixture of Enid Blyton, Wind in the Willows and Downton Abbey, the way to go if you fancy creating a ‘Little Glyndebourne Beyond Wales’ and have what my mother called ‘staff’. Most of us are better off taking our al fresco eating cues from the Vikings. Think of yourself not so much as Ratty with a wicker hamper but Erik Bloodaxe with a cool box. The Welsh Homestead Smokery’s Sea/Môr Laverbread Seasoning give even the most pedestrian poultry a lift: combine flavour with theatre by letting our guests tear it apart with their bare hands and fill rolls with succulent shreds.
What rolls, though? For those who have been lockdown sourdough heroes, there’s no debate but I am a fresh yeast baker by heritage and conviction: a friend once noted my home smelled of proving dough, free-range children and books. It’s all about the flour: Talgarth Mill has a good range with virtuously low food miles. You could theme your flour to your venue but if you fancy taking Roman style rolls to Segontium, remember that spelt takes a bit of getting used to. I started using sea-salt in dough for the texture and the Halen Môn flavoured salts give subtle distinction to any bread.
You would never catch a Viking making a tomato chrysanthemum but keeping them on the vine keeps up the wild eating feel. Never forget that the smaller a vegetable, the more likely a child is to eat it, except cucumbers, where size matters in the opposite direction.
Keep the raider motif going to the last by sourcing your pudding locally, great ice-cream. If you’re headed north or south, you will pass Llanfaes Dairy, with its boggling selection and ice-cream laboratory. And what better way to celebrate a summer reunion than with a scoop of Gooseberry crumble deliciousness? I’ve never appreciated my friends so much in the fabulous places we can eat together here in Wales.