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Jon Gower : Provenance in Sustenance

The song of the yellowhammer, a gorgeous little bird which makes canary yellow seem a little dowdy is often rendered as “A little bit of bread and no cheese.” Hearing one recently made me think of the food my grandparents ate, which was almost exclusively bread, sometimes some cheese and then, two or three times a week some cawl, with all its inherent goodness. This last was made with vegetables they grew in the garden and this in the village of Pwll, near Llanelli, where its inhabitants were known locally as gwyr y bone because of their thrifty habit of not only eating cabbages but also polishing off the stalks as well. This basic, pretty much peasant fare didn’t do either of them any harm as they both lived well into their nineties.

Now the bread was delivered in a van by Peter the Bread – which wasn’t the best nickname in the parish – from a bakery two miles away. Food may have changed an awful lot since then, with more choice and range but the older generation were eating locally and sustainably long before these became official watchwords. One of the additional joys of eating locally, as we’re all encouraged to do, is knowing who makes the food. I was talking to a friend one day about the fact that we have many fine bread makers in our Cardiff neighbourhood and he told me that one had started a micro-business literally in the house next door. Which is only a few hundred yards from my own front door so I gave the chap a ring to see if I could pop round. Tom, our very-local-baker apologised brightly, saying that when he’s baking he’s simply too busy to talk.

Tom Parkinson comes from Bolton, or, as he playfully refers to it ‘from Warburton country.’ He makes the bread in a small room off of his kitchen, specialising in sourdough. He got the 120 year old starter from the One Mile Bakery where he took lessons, itself only a few streets away. On Saturdays he sets up his Sour Tom’s stall outside the Railway pub in Llandaff North. So I met him there, where he had arranged loaves, some foccaccia and dark browns slabs of ginger cake, which turned out to be not dissimilar in texture to sticky toffee pudding and deliciously so. He told me how he gets up at 3.30 in the morning to bake 30 loaves and up to seventy pastries such as chocolate babkas as well as various kinds of brioche. There is joy in creating something by yourself, he maintains, even though the hours are long, especially when you consider that he has a full time job as well, and in the winter it takes an hour and a half for his oven to warm up.

As a customer there’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from knowing the person who makes the food we eat. My youngest daughter has an adult taste in food and very much favours things such as strong blue cheese. One of her favourites is Tysul Blue, a mild and nuanced cheese made in Llandysul by Mark Jones. He got involved with cheese after leaving school after ‘A’ levels, although his first job was nothing more complicated than cutting huge blocks of cheddar into smaller blocks. After being made redundant he started to learn more about dairy products whilst working for the Carmarthenshire Cheese Company and, later on with Caws Cenarth. At the time he might not have imagined himself winning gold in the International Cheese Awards. He makes his batch of 100 kilos of cheese from 600 litres of local milk, sourced from the Llaeth Cymreig co-operative and his skill at harnessing old traditions to the modern marketplace has led to a plethora of prizes and, in turn, to his becoming a judge in the World Cheese Awards and the Great Taste Awards.

So, Tom and Mark. Who complement each other as surely as bread and cheese. Knowing the makers is one of the additional benefits of eating locally. It embeds you more deeply in your community as you make friends with the makers, a simply delicious arrangement.

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