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WALES: THE TRUE TASTE OUR FOOD CULTURE -By Wynfford James, agri-food director Welsh Development Agency.

July 10, 2007 7:15 PM

The Lloyd George Society is not exclusively devoted to the study of the career of David Lloyd George, or to considering aspects of Welsh, British or international politics, although it is fair to say these are our main interests. The Society invites guests to its weekend schools from a range of professions and specialisms. Wynfford James' article is based on a talk given at a meeting of the Lloyd George Society held in February 2003.

It is copyright and no part of it may be reproduced without the permission of the author or the Society.

The WDA took over the responsibility for the food sector back in 1999 from Welsh Food Promotions - when it was felt that food should become a part of mainstream economic development.

Our role in the Food Directorate is twofold - it is to develop the agri-food industry and to market Welsh produce. But before I talk about Wales' food industry today, I would like to give you a historical perspective on our food industry to date…

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, Wales had a very rich food culture, and our 'great houses' were famed for their fine banquets with lavish entertainment from travelling bards.

But since the Second World War the perception of food from Wales has not been the best - too often the tag a 'culinary desert' was applied. However, in the last twenty years there has been an increasing awareness of the kind of food available, and its use has become appreciated in hotels and restaurants in Wales, throughout Britain and abroad. Welsh foods are also being increasingly sought by the manufacturing industry and by retailers and consumers.

For a small country Wales has a very diverse terrain and so of produce - from the land and the sea. We have a long coastline, fertile pastures; great areas of moor land and rugged mountains. The sea, rivers and land produce a huge variety of foods, and now we are really waking up to how these products can be used to their best in catering, retailing and in food manufacturing.

Our coastline varies from the wild cliffs of Pembrokeshire and the Llyn Peninsula to the large bays of Cardigan and Carmarthen and the vast estuaries of the Mawddach and the Severn.

Through history numerous species have been fished and gathered, and our coastline's rich resources have attracted more and more sophisticated fishing fleets.

In the interwar years the ports of Swansea, Cardiff and Milford Haven were home to great fleets fishing for hake. But over-fishing and competition from Spanish fleets led to the decline of this fishery, and by the 1960s only small fleets remained, fishing for prime species such as Dover sole, plaice, turbot, brill, and ray. These are still landed in reasonable quantities, but with EU fishing policy, foreign boats take much of the catch, sending it directly to their home markets, particularly Spain.

As the larger ports declined, numerous small harbours have become hives of activity with small boats fishing for prime species, particularly bass. This fish was totally undervalued until a decade ago when it became fashionable in restaurants. There were under-fished stocks of bass all around the coast that now provide considerable income for many fishermen. Other fish that have become more important in recent years include monk, John Dory and red and grey mullet.

Unfortunately over the years the amount of salmon and sewin in Welsh rivers has declined, as has the quantity caught in our estuaries. But some rivers still have reasonable runs of these migratory fish, mainly sold to local catering outlets, particularly good restaurants and country house hotels, giving a local colour to menus over the spring and summer. Trout farms throughout Wales enjoy similar markets and beyond, particularly to the Midlands. But they also provide angling facilities for locals and for tourists as an extra income earner.

Many of the boats in the small ports also fish for crab and lobster over the summer months, plus scallops and queens in some areas. The value of the catch can be significant as continental buyers pay top prices. Similarly these markets are hugely important to the mussel, cockle and oyster industries.

The husbandry of mussels has become a significant business in Bangor, and now this port accounts for about half the total landings of mussels of all UK fisheries combined. The immature mussels are dredged and relaid onto best growing areas in the Menai straits, known as 'lays' where they quickly grow to market size. Though the majority of them are exported (about 8,000 tons annually) to the huge continental buyers, several hundred tons a year are sold to the domestic restaurant market.

At low tide the high tidal movement uncovers vast areas of rock and sand, exposing the cockle beds of Penclawdd and areas around Carmarthen Bay, particularly Laugharne and Ferryside. Unfortunately recent problems have meant production of cockles is limited to the latter two areas, keeping local markets supplied but not the lucrative export markets.

Laverbread also arises from the cockle industry. This seaweed puree made from 'laver' is the same species used for nori in Japan.

Laverbread became a staple part of the diet in mining communities of South Wales in the 19th century, and was sold to the Derbyshire coalfield area, where it was found to be beneficial to thyroid metabolism, and a cure for goitre. It was also eaten in many of the spas throughout England. It is still widely appreciated as a local food, but is also being used by creative chefs in restaurants through Wales and beyond.

Moving from the sea onto land, estuary salt marshes around Wales flood during spring tides giving growth to a range of plants grazed by sheep over the summer months. In recent years the culinary value of these 'salt marsh' lambs has been realised - salt marsh lamb has been widely lauded by top chefs including Rick Stein during his recent Food Heroes programme.

Lamb is by far the best-known produce of Wales, but our varied terrain means that the locality where lambs are reared significantly affects their taste and quality. Lamb from the Brecon Beacons, the Radnorshire moors, the Berwyns and the mountains of Snowdonia have individual characteristics, and present niche marketing opportunities.

Lamb also varies throughout the season, from the light, pale spring lamb to the herby savour of autumn mountain lamb and the distinctive stronger taste of hogget. This provides many marketing opportunities to keep the good name of Welsh lamb high in the public eye.

Welsh pastures rarely suffer from lack of rainfall and so provide ample grazing for cattle - dairy and beef. The success of Welsh Black cattle as a breed has been significant in recent years. The quality of the meat is held in the highest regard amongst butchers and top chefs, even though it may not be as commercial as other breeds and crosses. The tenacity of some farming families has kept this breed established and herds are now increasing significantly across Wales. But farms have equal success with the main breeds as Friesians and Herefords, and farm assured Welsh beef is highly regarded, and the pride of the numerous independent butchers throughout Wales.

As with many of the regions of Britain, Wales always had a tradition of pig farming, mostly on a domestic scale, as the pig was a great provider of a wide range of cured meats for winter months. Cured local hams are still available from rural butchers, but the most notable producer is Albert Rees, whose cured Carmarthen ham now holds a fine reputation across Britain. This dry cured ham is considered an equal to Italian prosciutto.

Poultry has a long tradition in Wales, the Pembroke turkey considered by many the finest for the festive season. Many of today's country estates also provide high yields of game, including pheasant, partridge, mallard, woodcock and snipe. Wild venison today comes predominantly from Brecon and Margam.

West Wales has one great natural advantage for agriculture. The influence of the Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild, the south part of Pembrokeshire rarely suffering from frost. This means that crops can be produced several weeks ahead of the rest of Britain. Before the days of massive vegetable imports from Africa and South America, farms could make a fortune from early new potatoes. South Gower has a similarly mild nature, as does the Vale of Glamorgan, and the Vale of Clwyd. The crops include new potatoes, cauliflower, swede, parsnip, carrots, broccoli, courgettes, leeks, and a significant volume of fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants.

The nature of the terrain in most parts of Wales is not conducive to large scale farming, as in other parts of Britain and Europe, and this has turned out to be an advantage in many cases. The changes in agricultural policy in the early 1950s encouraged high yields and large scale; but against this the Soil Association held many of its former meetings in West Wales, a founder member being the Rowlands farm near Aberystwyth, now famed for the Rachel's Organic dairy brand. Similarly other farms remained traditional, and when the organic movement began, many farms were ready to take advantage.

Similarly when milk quotas forced smaller producers to reconsider their position, it actually pushed many to look for value added from their output. Cheese production was a natural progression and this has been one of the most interesting developments of all. Today Wales produces over 50 cheeses, many of which have won at the prestigious British Cheese Awards.

Another great national asset is water, the supply of which seems endless, as wet summers have become a thing of the present. Welsh water supplies the main cities of central England from the great reservoirs of the Elan Valley, Lake Vyrnwy and Llyn Cywedog. Natural springs are abundant in Wales and over a dozen have been used for up-market bottled water for the retail and catering industry. The iconic blue bottle Ty Nant, now in red as well, can be found in most countries of the world.

It is most prominently displayed in a great wall of colour in Dean and Deluca, New York's finest food store that's favoured by serial killer Hannibal Lecter, immortalised by the Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins. It is also seen in James Bond films and London Fashion Week.

There are currently around fifteen small vineyards producing wines of every vintage in Wales. Though it's mooted the Romans brought vines to Wales, there are full records of wine production near Barry in the early 20th century. Most vineyards were planted in the 1980s and hence the vines are mature and the quality of the fruit makes pleasant, light wines, mainly white from German grape varieties. Mead, liqueurs, country wines and now the first whisky production from the Brecon distillery give a wide range of drinks with which to celebrate the fine food from the country.

There are so many foods from Wales I haven't mentioned - but I hope I have given you a taster of the history of our food culture.

Today Welsh food and drink enjoys a good reputation. Extensive branding research carried out over the past few years told us that consumers see Welsh food as being grown or produced in a natural and clean environment and as "tasting as it should". From this research we moved to develop what is seen as a credible positioning for the food and drink industry in Wales. "Wales: The True Taste brand".

The Agency markets Welsh food and drink under this brand at home and abroad and the profile of our produce is growing year on year. Our extensive trade development work is ensuring that more and more Welsh products are appearing on the shelves of retailers across Wales, the UK, Europe, and further afield.

The brand is also being delivered through Wales' first ever True Taste Food and Drink Awards. We have 37 winners who are currently being widely promoted to the industry and consumers. We already know that the awards' brand, which is appearing on winners' packaging, is already proving a major advantage when it comes to finding new markets for Welsh products.

Alongside the brand development and promotion there is heavy investment into the industry - the processing and marketing grant scheme alone has resulted in over £30 million in investment into the industry in the past 18 months. The scheme is encouraging Welsh processing companies to develop their businesses and to add value to our raw materials - so ensuring more of that value remains in Wales and is reinvested into Wales.

We really have so much to be proud of here in Wales, and at home our food culture is developing apace. Last year we had over 50 food festivals across the nation - this would have been unheard of five years ago. We now boast five, Michelin starred restaurants as well as 285 restaurants and cafes recognised in national food guides. Wales' Culinary Team returned from its first ever Culinary

World Cup in Luxembourg laden with awards - so much for that 'gastronomic Desert' that A. A. Gill talked about.