Never before have we entered a decade with so much uncertainty. The potent cocktail of Covid, climate change and political and economic uncertainty makes for a gut-wrenching backdrop to our daily lives. Louisa Harry-Thomas looks into where that leaves the
future of Welsh food and drink.
The last decade saw us decipher multiple media messages, on issues from veganism to ethical farming, from #metoo to mental health, from buying local to Deliveroo. We discovered smashed avocados, craft gins, pop-ups and artisan bakeries. Sometimes the
messages were confusing. Contradictory even. But despite all that, the fact is that Welsh food and drink is growing.
Thanks to projects like Cywain, which helps food and drink start-ups thrive, the industry is now worth more than £7.4 billion. Exports are increasing and we have more than 17 protected food products, from Carmarthen ham to Conwy mussels. Wales’ perception
as a quality food producer has never been stronger.
Looking longer-term through the 2020s, David Morris, the Welsh Government’s Deputy Head of Food and Drink, says his main concern is trade. He told us: “One of the key challenges for us is whether we have a trade agreement with Europe. Forty per cent of our production in Wales is exported and, of that, 90 per cent goes to EU countries. For some sectors, like lamb and shellfish, if we don’t get a trade agreement there will be real concern.” Another issue, he points out, is Wales’ dependence on migrant labour, which means employers will need to continually work on developing and retaining staff or invest in automation.
One Gwendraeth Valley farmer, whose business Charcutier won awards for its traditional meat products, and now develops technology for the alternative protein business, is Illtud Dunsford. His view is that, “we’re faced with two challenges - either to develop agricultural technology that can be commercialised at home and abroad, or to focus on
environmental opportunities for land management.” He accepts that Wales has always been strong in niche and premium production and believes this will remain, but he also believes technology like cultured meat has a key role to play.
He explains: “We face a global population set to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050. We already exceed a number of planetary boundaries in the production of food. Whatever our food future, we have to consider its global impact and the coming decade especially will pose significant challenges.” This is also the view of Dr Sarah Beynon of Bug Farm Foods in St David’s. She says: “Innovations in the food and farming sectors to reduce our impact on the environment are essential to help us feed a growing human population.” She
believes that harnessing the protein from insects that can be farmed vertically on the by-products of other industries, with very low feed and water requirements, will help us develop sustainable, nutritious and delicious food innovations over the next 10 years and beyond.
For Matt Swarbrick, ‘optimist and tea maker’, who farms 80 acres with his family at Henbant, near Caernarfon, he believes Welsh farming sits poised on the edge of something quite amazing. He explains: “The Welsh meat industry is probably the closest in
the world to sustainable farming, because animals are primarily grass fed, farms are small, and we have a strong sense of community and remain relatively close to agriculture. Due to our small size we have the ability to change, if we have pride in what we do, stop using artificial fertilisers and go pasture fed.” His pasture-fed beef sells out every time it becomes available, but interestingly, Matt prefers to use the term ‘regenerative’ farming to ‘sustainable’ because he says, regenerative practices don’t just maintain the status quo; they make everything stronger: they build soil health, biodiversity, communities and health.
Another industry which believes the future is bright is the Welsh seafood industry, which has launched a ‘Port to Plate’ campaign to boost home and export sales and to tell the story of fishermen and cockle pickers, and of the seasonal variations in the Welsh catch. Mandy
Walter who runs Cardigan Bay Fish with her husband Len in St Dogmaels says: “I attend local markets, and I tell people about Welsh seafood and give them ideas on how to cook simple, tasty dishes from fresh local produce. I see people who are fed up with the supermarkets, who are thinking more about what they buy and are becoming more adventurous.”
For producers like James Wright, MD of Aber Falls Whisky Distillery, in Gwynedd, who has always focussed on using sustainably sourced local ingredients, the 2020s will see the opening of a new visitor centre which he believes will tap into consumer interest in food and drink provenance, and “act as a sustainable hub for other Welsh food and drink producers to showcase their offerings”. He believes that across the next decade, “food and drink producers will have to adopt a long-term view” and says, “we are doing this by working more with local businesses to encourage tourism.”
But how can small producers compete with the power of the supermarkets. We asked Dr Ben Reynolds, an expert in urban regeneration and the man behind seven successful Swansea Bay street markets. He says: “People are becoming more conscious of their purchasing power and using that for good, which is great, but more people need to have the money in their pockets to do that. We’ve become used to artificially low prices from the supermarkets but if you want real, artisan food it does cost more. Ultimately, we need to create and sustain well-paying jobs locally so that a wide range of people can afford quality food made by local producers. We need to support smaller artisan producers to ensure money is recirculated in the local economy, which further boosts spending power.”
On the dining front, the statistics show that more of us are choosing to spend on eating out. Restaurateurs like Welsh-born Tom Simmons, who opened his first restaurant in London three years ago, are now establishing eateries in Wales. He opened Thomas in Pontcanna in February and says: “Great ambassadors like Gareth Ward at Ynyshir Hall are helping create
more of a buzz around the food scene here in Wales and more people are wanting to eat better food.” Like other Welsh chef proprietors, he sees this demand continuing, and hopes to open other Welsh eateries in future, saying people want “straight-forward cooking, not scents and foams” with traceability and sustainability key.
But making it pay as a restaurateur is tough, as Tamsin Ramasut, Proprietor of Bangkok Café in Cardiff comments: “Small independents are treated by Government in the same way as the big chains, in terms of taxation and due diligence. Lots of independents want to offer high quality food, and we use local suppliers, but there needs to be some high level thinking as to how to support the small independent sector to flourish.”
So when we are out and about in Wales, what are the up and coming trends we can expect to see in delis and on menus? Gourmet Gorro, a leading Welsh food and drink blogger, says it’s going to be seaweed. He reckons: “With the umami oomph and salty hit that seaweed
brings to food, I expect it to become an increasingly mainstream feature. Take the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s award-winning Welsh Sea Black Butter and Barti Spiced rum, which is infused with Pembrokeshire seaweed, and Gareth Ward’s Welsh
Wagyu Rib with Shiitake and Seaweed at Ynyshir.”
Who better then to sum up than Cenarth-born food trends expert Sophie Colquhoun. Speaking at a recent farming innovation conference at Builth Wells she announced that the top four trends looking to the future are: ‘conscious consumers’ – with plant based
eating growing 20% year on year; ‘transformative technologies’ – think Amazon Fresh; ‘enhanced experiences’ – try Ed Sykes’ Kitchen Garden Restaurant at Llys Meddyg, Pembrokeshire; and ‘reinvention/ recycling’ – as executed by Matt’s Café, Swansea.
What’s for certain, is that - Covid aside - the 2020s will be tasting good.
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