The chic face of CarmarthenshireMarch 6, 2018

It’s where the super-cool fashion chain, Toast, was born. It has a Ginhaus stocking over 400 gins and a few doors up, a boutique apartment that’s the height of contemporary chic. It even boasts one of the best-stocked kitchen shops in the land. And on its elegant high street, there’s a heavenly chocolate emporium which crafts “extreme” chocolate wedding cakes over a metre tall and weighing up to 35 kilos. No, we’re not talking Chelsea or Clapham, but the market town of Llandeilo in the wilds of southwest Wales. What a find!

I visited Llandeilo while researching a feature on the food of Carmarthenshire for the March issue of Olive magazine, just out. Lunch is a crab platter inside the Ginhaus deli-cum-cafe, assembled from crab from Dash Shellfish in Little Haven on the Pembrokeshire coast, sourdough made by local baker Alex Gooch, and salady goodies from the deli counter. Shelves are crammed with gins from all over the world, including nine or ten Welsh ones such as Damhile In a lovely touch, owners Mike and Kate Kindred serve gins with fresh botanicals from Aberglasney Gardens nearby. Visit on a Friday or Saturday for fresh homemade pizza, topped with local ingredients such as Trealy Farm salami and Caws Cenarth cheeses.

After a stroll around the town’s shops (or a visit to Dinefwr Castle on the outskirts), the place for tea is Heavenly Chocolate Emporium, which not only produces artisan chocolates and freshly made gelatos (in over 300 flavours) but does a unique line in chocolate sculpting for wedding cakes. Bring along an idea, and chocolatier Tracey Kindred will miraculously turn it into a ‘story cake’ crafted out of chocolate. I spy Welsh dragons, saucy mermaids, houses…. It’s a time consuming passion – apparently the record time taken to sculpt one of these edible beauties is 38 hours, and that’s two people working flat out. I make do with the ‘ordinary’ cake, a pink and white confection served on a tablecloth to match. It’s as heavenly as cafe’s name. I love Llandeilo!

You can read my full article on Carmarthenshire’s food here.

Teatime at Heavenly Chocolate Emporium © Clare Hargreaves

Ginhaus deli, Llandeilo © Clare Hargreaves

Crab platter at Ginhaus deli © Clare Hargreaves

Gastropub in the Welsh wildsFebruary 26, 2018

Finding this misshapen pub, a former tollhouse, in the tortuous lanes of Carmarthenshire is part of its charm – it’s literally a hidden gem. But once you step into the stylish, dark-walled dining rooms of Y Polyn, you forget the outside world to experience Welsh gastronomy at its gutsy best. In many ways this place is an example of how the perfect gastropub should be: nourishing dishes made from quality, seasonal ingredients that are “cooked simply and with respect”. And decor that’s stylish, yet simple and unaffected (there are books to read if you want to). Maybe that’s no surprise, as owner Mark Manson used to be a restaurant inspector for the AA, so has tasted his share of fabulous (and maybe also some not-so-fabulous-) food. If there’s one thing Mark knows about, it’s hospitality, which he provides with warmth, in spades.

Mark’s wife, Susan, cooks. I’ve eaten there a handful of times, but most recently while eating my way across Carmarthenshire for Olive Magazine. For starter I try to order something I’ve not tasted before, but end up returning to Susan’s epic fish soup (pictured), rich, savoury, and amply pampered with croutons, rouille and Gruyere. For the next course I ask Mark what his most local dish is and he guides me to the Welsh venison ragu with homemade pappardelle. It’s actually a starter, but no matter (as that leaves more space for pud). I love its simplicity – the homemade on the top is grated toast (pangritata) with a bit of Parmesan – and the deep meaty flavours from the venison (dispatched by a local). Other dishes on the menu are equally scrupulously sourced, from the Roast rack of Presell lamb with lamb belly and potato terrine to the Chargrilled Welsh sirloin steak with braised shallots and beef dripping chips (a great touch). But those will have to await my next visit.

I round off proceedings with what has now become Susan’s signature pudding: baked egg custard tart, served with a radiant raspberry ripple ice cream and a rich raspberry coulis. If you try nothing else, this is the dish. Creamy, decadent and well worth navigating the lanes for.

You can read my full article on Carmarthenshire’s food in the March issue of Olive.

Y Polyn fish soup, Y Polyn, Capel Dewi, Carmarthenshire © Clare Hargreaves

Welsh venison ragu, pappardelle, pangritata, Parmesan; Y Polyn, Capel Dewi, Carmarthenshire © Clare Hargreaves

Y Polyn, Capel Dewi, Carmarthenshire © Clare Hargreaves

Baked egg custard tart with raspberry ripple ice cream; Y Polyn, Capel Dewi, Carmarthenshire © Clare Hargreaves

Carmarthen’s foodie secretFebruary 20, 2018

Polish food might not be the first thing you’d expect to find in the capital of Carmarthenshire, in West Wales, but Polish-run Karm’en Kafe, in the side streets of Carmarthen, is proof that unlikely surprises can be delicious. Here, alongside Carmarthenshire’s typical Cawl (lamb and roots soup), you can find Polish classics like Placki (potato and onion pancakes) and Zapiekanka Polish-style open-faced sandwiches liberally doused with tomato ketchup. I was lucky enough to stumble across this unusual eatery while researching a foodie piece on Carmarthenshire for Olive magazine.

Like so many of the world’s most successful businesses, Karm’en Kafe started “by accident.” It’s owned by Kasia Strykowska, who came to Carmarthenshire to be with her husband Tad who got a job here as an ENT doctor. Kasia was trained as a nursery teacher, but couldn’t get a teaching job in Carmarthen because she didn’t speak Welsh. She decided to open a cafe, and happily found tiny premises on Bridge Street, just off Carmarthen’s main square.

It’s a simple spot, at lunchtime offering sandwiches and panini from Kasia’s homemade breads, along with pizzas, soups and tagines. For tea there are blockbuster cakes (I tried her Lemon Polenta, and if you want Polish, Kasia often makes Karpatka, a choux pastry pie which she says is “in the form of the Carpathian mountains”.) Her cinnamon rolls (pictured) have become legendary. But as much of a draw as her cakes is Kasia herself – a gentle soul who makes everyone welcome. Tad, who helps out whenever he can, is equally delightful.

Occasionally Kasia runs special Central European lunches, serving small dishes at around £6 each. But the thing that really caught my eye was her Gourmet Dining Club, held once a month on a Friday evening. Guests sit in the tiny dining area downstairs (admire the hand-painted wall mural as you eat) and get a three-course meal for £22 per head. A recent menu included Rosal Chicken broth with home-made pasta for starter, and Slow-braised feather-blade beefsteak for main. You choose your pud from the cake stand or fridge. Stonking value I’d say – anyone want to join me at the next one?

You can read about Karm’en Kafe, and other Carmarthenshire food treats, in the March issue of Olive, just out.

Kasia Strykowska with her best-selling cinnamon buns at Karm’en Kafe in Carmarthen © Clare Hargreaves

East Devon’s secret food addressesJanuary 17, 2018

I posted last week about the lovely Pig at Combe, near Honiton, which featured in my piece on the food of East Devon in the current issue of Olive magazine. Two gastropubs that are hidden in the lanes of this beautiful region also merit a visit if you’re down that way: the Five Bells at Clyst Hydon (pictured below) and The Jack in the Green at Rockbeare. Their chefs, Ian Webber and Matt Mason, both trained at Gidleigh Park nearby, and are producing some great dishes drawing on East Devon’s rich larder, including Matt’s Smoked salmon and prawn roulade starter, pictured below, which uses edible flowers from nearby Maddocks Farm Organics.

If you want something more casual, grab a funky cocktail or wood-fired pizza topped with homemade charcuterie at The Rusty Pig in quaint Ottery St Mary whose owner Rob Rea used to work at River Cottage. Try out the local crab (inside a crab-shaped home-made bread roll) at Otterton Mill – and pick up a bag of flour that’s been stoneground in its ancient watermill to take home. Or perch among the deck chairs on the beach at pretty Beer (pictured) and enjoy some locally caught fish with chips. Endearingly old-fashioned Honiton has some good eating spots too, and to capture them, enroll on a Food Photography course at nearby Otter Farm, run by the charismatic Mark Diacono (also ex-River Cottage). If you want to make a weekend of it, you’re in luck: on Coombe farm nearby there’s an adorable shepherd’s hut (pictured) that you can book through AirbnB.

You can read my full Olive feature here.

Five Bells, Clyst St Mary. © Clare Hargreaves

Salmon starter at The Jack in the Green, Rockbeare. © Clare Hargreaves

Shepherds hut Airbnb at Coombe Farm near Honiton. © Clare Hargreaves

The beach at Beer. © Clare Hargreaves

The Country House reinvented: The Pig at CombeJanuary 8, 2018

Majestic yet relaxed and stylish but not stilted, The Pig at Combe, Devon, housed in a gorgeous honey-hued Elizabethan manor, is the latest addition to The Pig Hotel litter. I’ve visited a few Pigs, but this one, hidden in the Otter Valley near Honiton, is definitely my favourite. Dan Gavriilidis is a whizz in the kitchen, drawing on ingredients that are either plucked fresh from The Pig’s kitchen garden or from producers within 25 miles of the hotel. I adore the unstuffy bare-wood-floored dining room (pictured), with its elegantly mismatched mix of antiques, stag antler chandeliers and plants. Dishes – flavoursome yet simple – seem sensibly priced. Do try the local Red Ruby beef, from Piper’s Farm, which I ate both as tartare and as slow-cooked featherblade.  If you want something even more laid back, grab a wood-fired flatbread/pizza in the old garden folly (pictured) – and walk it off with a tour of the red-brick-walled veg patch (pictured).

Incidentally, I photographed The Pig while attending the excellent two-day Food Photography course at nearby Otter Farm, taught by founder Mark Diacono and visiting pro photographer Patricia Niven. Do look up Otter’s courses which I can highly recommend.

Read more about The Pig at Combe in my feature on the food of East Devon in the latest issue of Olive magazine, just out.

© Clare Hargreaves

The Pig. Flatbreads in The Folly. © Clare Hargreaves

The Pig. Dining room. © Clare Hargreaves

The Pig. Kitchen garden. © Clare Hargreaves

Foodie finds on Devon’s Exe EstuaryDecember 28, 2017

A few years ago, if you’d tried to find a meal on Devon’s Exe Estuary you’d have been lucky to get anything more than fish and chips. Now, the shores of this magnificent finger of water south of Exeter offer everything from gourmet luxury at Michael Caines’ newly opened Lympstone Manor (pictured) to Red Ruby beef burgers served in a shack made from recycled pallets called The Pig & Pallet in Topsham. Other food stars include Exmouth-made Copper Frog gin, Dart’s Farmshop and, in the middle of the estuary, a floating restaurant-cafe called the River Exe Cafe where chef Chris Dayer dishes up whatever fish has just been plucked from the waters all around (pictured). Getting there in a small boat that bobs through the waves is part of the fun – you feel like one of the Famous Five on a nautical picnic.

Topsham, with its lanes of Georgian cottages and dreamy views over the estuary, has to be my favourite (It’s already gone onto my ever-growing list of lovely places I’d like to move to). For foodies, the draw is its high street of small independent shops (including the lovely Cooks Aweigh kitchen shop) which feels a world away from nearby chain-bound Exeter. Nip into The Café for homemade pistachio and lemon cake, or into Country Cheeses, one of a trio of cheesemongers originating in Tavistock. I nibbled some Sweet Charlotte, Country Cheeses’ own Emmental-style cow’s cheese. “Charlotte may be called sweet but she has quite a bite,” the woman serving warned me. She was right.

For places to lunch or dine, it’s hard to beat The Salutation Inn. Here, Michael Caines protégé Tom Williams-Hawkes produces top-notch fodder both for the coaching inn’s evening restaurant and its casual daytime Glass House cafe. When I visited, the great-value set lunch included a choice between Dart’s Farm Red Ruby beef and tarragon gnocchi, with crème brûlée and coffee ice cream (pictured) to round off proceedings.

Back on the waterside, there’s wood-fired pizza and wine on offer in the cellars of Pebblebed winery which began in 1999 as a half-acre community-run plot and now has 25 acres producing some seriously good bubblies. Sign up for a tasting and tapas in the cellars, or for a tour of the vineyard at nearby Clyst St George. In the season, you can even help harvest the grapes – a wonderful community shindig.

For a taste of the old Topsham, stop at the Bridge Inn, on the fringes of the town near Dart’s Farm (spot the Red Ruby beef cows which go in the Pig & Pallet’s burgers). The inn has scarcely been touched since the 18th century and is famous for hosting the queen’s first outing to a pub, in 1998. Its oak-panelled bar is decked with threadbare bunting celebrating the monarch’s coronation. Sadly though, no-one remembers exactly which monarch it was.

You can read about the food of the Exe Estuary, and of the rest of East Devon, in the latest issue of Olive magazine, just out.

Lympstone Manor © Clare Hargreaves

River Exe Cafe © Clare Hargreaves

River Exe Cafe. © Clare Hargreaves

Pannacotta with coffee ice-cream. The Salutation Inn, Topsham. © Clare Hargreaves

Topsham High St. © Clare Hargreaves

The Goods Shed, CanterburyDecember 21, 2017

Stressed out by the Christmas supermarket food shop? Fed up with the queues at the checkout? If you live in Canterbury, you can actually enjoy the experience – by heading toThe Goods Shed. This is a beautifully converted railway goods storehouse which now houses a foodhall where you’ll find everything from locally reared turkeys and game to fresh vegetables, cheeses made by Cheesemakers of Canterbury (pictured), and Kentish wines. Part of the fun is speaking with the stallholders and enjoying the magical atmosphere. It’s also satisfying knowing that you are getting the freshest produce while helping a range of small producers.

If you’ve done your shop, or want a break, head upstairs to the bare-floor-boarded restaurant, pictured, whose talented chef Rafael Lopez produces a fabulous range of seasonal dishes that draw on the ingredients downstairs. So you’re talking food yards, not miles. The focaccia is so good, it’s a meal in itself. Can’t wait to go back!

To find out more, read my review for Olive magazine here. And let me know when you visit, as I’d love to hear how you got on.

The Restaurant at The Goods Shed © Clare Hargreaves

Asparagus mousse with fresh langoustine © Clare Hargreaves

Cheesemakers of Canterbury © Clare Hargreaves

Tempura courgette flowers with herb salad © Clare Hargreaves

Backwell’s bountyDecember 4, 2017

When it comes to food, Backwell, to the southwest of Bristol, has been pretty much a backwater – until now. The gorgeous honey-stoned Georgian mansion that is Backwell House, is putting the village firmly on the regional food map, a welcome addition to Bristol’s burgeoning food scene.

The food, masterminded by chef Ross Hunter (previously at The Stone Mill in Monmouth and The Swan, Almondsbury) makes ample use of the vegetables grown in the nine-room hotel’s walled garden and is served in its deliciously stylish wooden-floored dining room (pictured). I tried the Pressed pork starter (pictured) from pigs that had been reared just down the road.

The dish that steals the show, though, is Ross’ Strawberry cannelloni dessert (pictured), tubes of Chantilly cream wrapped around with shiny red fruit jelly, served with Cheddar Valley strawberries and meringue – a take on Eton mess that’s fast becoming a signature dish.

It’s not just the food you come for though. This is a relaxed boutique hotel that oozes fun and contemporary style in much the same way as The Pig. Part of that fun comes from some deft upcycling – like the downstairs cloakroom sink fashioned from an old suitcase. Another highlight is the modern artwork on the walls (loaned from a Bristol gallery) which you can buy, and the funky bar that’s fashioned out of recycled floorboards from the old kitchens (try the Espresso Martini cocktails). The best feature of all in my opinion is the huge drawing room with its comfy chairs in which you can cuddle up in front of the fire under the deer antler chandeliers and enjoy its shabby chic vibes.

This is a great place to escape for the weekend – go while you can still get in. You can read more about it in my review for Olive magazine here.


Margate’s delicious revivalNovember 15, 2017

Margate, on Kent’s northeast coast, was once a fashionable bathing resort but after the war slipped into decline. But over the past decade it’s seen a revival, largely thanks to the opening in 2011 of its seafront Turner Contemporary gallery. “Merry Margate” is merry once again: vintage shops are breathing life into its pretty squares, decrepit boarding houses are being restored and opened as stylish places to stay (bag, if you can, one of the boutique B&B rooms at The Reading Rooms , and its Dreamland amusement park has been returned to its former glory. Margate is so cool, the trend-spotters are dubbing it Shoreditch-on-Sea.

Happily the resort’s revival extends to its cafes and restaurants, as I discovered while researching an On The Road feature about Kent’s northeast coast for Olive magazine. We’re not talking fancy Michelin places, but edgy eateries using local ingredients. One of my favourite finds was Bottega Caruso deli-cafe inside Margate’s Old Kent Market, whose homemade pasta you can see pictured here. Also fun is Hantverk & Found, a pocket-sized gallery-cum-cafe in the Old Town run by Hackney migrant Kate de Syllas; I loved her  Seafood pastilla, packed with local crab (pictured). For ethically-produced chicken and posh burgers (with sweet potato fries – pictured) Roost , opposite the old Lido, is the place, while for views of the harbour (pictured) you can do no better than visiting Cheesey Tiger, a diddy restaurant-takeaway specialising in cheese, located at the end of Margate’s Harbour Arm stone pier. My article is in the December issue of Olive, but you can also read it online here.

The Sportsman, SeasalterOctober 31, 2017

This year Stephen Harris celebrates 18 years at the stoves of The Sportsman at Seasalter near Whitstable in Kent, a pub whose rambling exterior and bleak location belies the exceedingly fine cooking that awaits within and now commands a cult following worldwide. Stephen has just published his first cookbook too, so you can find out some of the secrets behind his simple but stylish dishes. I tried the restaurant’s tasting menu while researching an On The Road feature on the northeast Kent coast for Olive magazine. The menu is supposedly a mere nine courses, but when you include all the initial bouche amusement (pictured) and delicacies with coffee it’s actually 12, including, hurrah, two puds. Given its proximity to Whitstable, which has farmed oysters since Roman times and even has an oyster festival , the molluscs kick off proceedings – natives au naturel if you come in winter when they’re in season but mine were poached (pictured). Other highlights were the firm-fleshed slip-sole in a foraged-seaweed butter and the stupendously good homemade breads and home-churned butter (rightly honoured as a course on their own). You round things off with a soufflé as light as the clouds scudding across the steely skies outside (pictured). My article is in the December issue of Olive, on sale now.