There is no doubt that this year’s lockdowns have been tough beyond measure for pretty much all of the food sector and sadly, for some firms and restaurants they have led to final orders. But with the announcement of the coming vaccines there is reason for cautious optimism, for spotting green shoots breaking through a somewhat blasted landscape. I was struck only this week by a piece in the Western Mail that announced the opening of not one, not two but five new restaurants in Bridgend and that in a town that wasn’t previously known for leaving customers spoilt for choice. For my next column I think I’ll go visit, have a staggered five-course lunch to find out more about their collective optimism.
I found reason for a little more optimisim on my only trip out of the city during lockdown, when I found myself sheltering in a cattle shed near the small cove of Porth Colmon on the northern rim of the Llŷn peninsula. I was talking to a local fisherman, Siôn Williams, who plies a ten mile stretch of sometimes very choppy water along this rocky coast. A photographer from the Times had visited Sion earlier in the year and, like him was facing an uncertain future. They put their two heads together and came up with a scheme to take fresh crustaceans from north Wales’ waters to new customers in London. It shows both resilience and invention, two of the many requirements of this testing period for us all.
Many of us have found ourselves enjoying a new meaning to “local” during lockdown, as we plump for shops round the corner: it’s salutary to think that I last set foot in a supermarket in early spring. Recent years have seen a proliferation of local craft breweries and bijou producers right throughout Wales as well as attendant food festivals such as the ones in Caernarfon and Abergavenny. It’s a great way of getting to know the country, its regional tastes and differences just as you might by reading poetry about different places or be like rock climbers, who get to know the landscape very well by hanging off it by fingertips.
The same is true for food, not that eating it should be that dangerous, unless you have allergies or are preparing fugu, or poisonous Japanese blowfish. You can get to know the place you live more thoroughly, and deliciously through the food you eat. An example. Our local bakery gets the honey they use from hives in Thornill, just a few miles away as the bee flies. The salad they use comes from one of the green lungs of the city, from Bute Park and tastes a little different from lettuce that has racked up the air miles before reaching the supermarket shelf, safe in its suffocating plastic wrap. Fresh, like small is beautiful. And if you consciously decide to thoroughly explore Welsh foods you’ll find it’s a delightful way to get to know the lay of the land – let’s call it taste-bud tourism. From savouring the hard cheeses of Snowdonia to delighting in the apple-burst ciders of Monmouthshire, from slathering butter over the sourdough loaves of Hay-on-Wye to boiling Pembrokeshire potatoes that seem always new, as spring enters the soil along with the sun.
I’d also go so far as to suggest that you can also acquire a decent Welsh language vocabulary by simply reading the labels on various jars and bottles, once you know that “Llaeth y Llan” means “milk of the parish” or the beer know as “Brenin Enlli” means “King of Bardsey.” That intriguing fact might then lead you to learn the story of the last King of Bardsey, Love Pritchard, who was crowned on the narrow isthmus that connects the two parts of the island.
And if you are lucky enough to stand on the island one day you might see a small boat in the distance, pushing out to open water. In it might be Siôn Williams, one of the many people who work so hard to bring us our food. And wish him well. And you might pause to realise how so many things around us are so intimately connected.