Cook the box with top chef Alexlouise Brown

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Alexlouise Brown (pictured) was trained by Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc, she ran her own pub-restaurant and her own catering company.

Now, she is sharing her passion for food by teaching people how to go back to basics and make delicious meals from scratch.

Once a month, the owner of Alex’s Supper Clubs hosts Alex Cooks The Box at her base in Pontypridd.

Riverford Organic Farms vegetable and meat boxes are the centrepieces of every session. The contents change every month – produce is seasonal and from Riverford’s network of farms.

Alexlouise, 35, has just a few days to come up with mouth-watering recipes which are simple enough to be demonstrated to and remembered by her visitors without a recipe.

Remember how our mothers and grandmothers created meals from available ingredients without ever looking at a recipe?

Alexlouise is taking cookery classes back to the future.

When I visit, the vegetables include wild garlic, cabbage, courgettes, carrots, rocket, cucumber, spinach leaves, purple sprouting broccoli, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. The vegetables are supplemented by Riverford organic meats and organic free range eggs, milk, and cream. The only non-UK fruit and vegetable ingredients are bananas – which, of course, have to be imported.

Alexlouise’s philosophy is simple: cook using organic produce and cook from scratch.

“Food doesn’t have ingredients, food is ingredients,” she says.

We’re greeted with a glass of prosecco or her own kombucha, a fermented tea which is slightly sparkling. Alexlouise has added berries to the probiotic drink. It’s refreshing and good for the digestive system.

As she expertly slices the potatoes into wedges and sprinkles them with garam masala and cumin, we talk about the toll food processing can take on ingredients.

Alexlouise shows us how to spatchcock a chicken within minutes. Her cooking doesn’t require complicated kitchenalia – just a roasting tin or two, a frying pan,  a saucepan, one sharp knife, a sharp grater, and a hand mixer.

As the chicken and potato wedges roast in the oven, Alexlouise sets to making us her mouth-watering mushroom soup.

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Solid coconut oil is heated to become liquid, and onions fried until translucent. If no vegetarians like me attend, Alexlouise could use lard. Then, Alexlouise grates in the mushrooms. Water, rather than stock, is added, and the soup is seasoned. It simmers until ready for hand blending and is served in tea cups with a dollop of sour cream and a square of homemade rosemary focaccia. It’s fresh and delicious.

We all marvel at how much taste Alexlouise packs into a simple soup.

Our six courses include a home-made coleslaw with soft-boiled eggs which lives on a different planet from the runny affair we buy in tubs in supermarkets.

The grater is king – carrots and cabbage are grated, mayonnaise is added, and everything is seasoned to perfection.

We are also treated to linguini with a tangy lemon and chilli sauce and a crunchy topping of cob nuts, a salad of leaves topped with a balsamic syrup and Indian paneer cheese griddled in Indian spices, roasted, spatchcocked chicken and potato wedges, and Alexlouise’s pudding, a caramelised banana fool.

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We’re shown how to caramelise sugar correctly – never leave un-melted sugar grains – and how best to coat the banana slices. Cream is whipped and Alexlouise assembles the pudding in champagne flutes, topped with an orange physalis berry on the rim of the glass.

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At the end of the three-hour session, we’re enlightened, full, happy, and determined to put Alexlouise’s simple recipes into action in our own kitchens.

The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed enough to reassure even the most timid would-be cook. Vegetarians like me are welcomed.

It’s the perfect foodie night out with friends or family.

 

‘Everyone wants to order boxes after the event’

Riverford Organic Farms franchiser in South East Wales Janet Mier, who is also at the Alex Cooks The Box night, says the sessions have inspired visitors to order regular vegetable and meat box deliveries.

“Some people who come along are already customers and have heard about the events through us, but others are inspired by the recipes and the produce and sign up,” she says.

“They see the quality of the produce and taste how good it is. We’ve been involved in the nights for a few months now, and it’s been excellent.”

Janet serves customers from Penarth and Sully to the Heads of the Valleys and Monmouthshire border to the east, delivering around 850 boxes a week.

To learn more about Riverford South Wales, see their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/RiverfordSouthWales/ and to order boxes call 01633 867661.

 Alexlouise’s culinary career

At 15, Alexlouise went straight from school into a job in a kitchen after a work experience placement at 14. She washed dishes and prepared vegetables, but soon realised she could work her way up.

“If you stay in kitchens long enough and you learn, you will progress,” she says.

She went on to work in restaurants like those at the Celtic Manor, then worked under Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford. By the time she was 22, she was running her own pub-restaurant Y Draenog in Pontyclun.

A spell running her own catering company followed, then a move to Switzerland, the home of the hospitality industry.

Alexlouise catered to exclusive ski chalet clients like Prince Andrew, the President of Kazakhstan, the Saudi royal family, and billionaire businessmen and women.

When she returned to Wales, she began working at her other love, property development. Cooking went on the back burner for a while, but her love of food eventually drew her back to the kitchen.

She started her Alex’s Supper Clubs business, where a group of people visits her base in Pontypridd, each bringing an ingredient. Everyone cooks together.

Then came Alex Cooks The Box.

Now, Alex is also spreading her love of cooking by teaching families how to cook with affordable, fresh ingredients in Llanhilleth.

Maria Williams is a professional blogger, copywriter, and PR for small businesses. Go to www.wordsyoucanuse.co.uk.

 

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PICTURES: Images from Abergavenny Food Festival as thousands attend last day

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Crowds line the streets for Abergavenny Food Festival PICTURE: Huw John Photography

Thousands of people attended the third and final day of Abergavenny Food Festival  today to rub shoulders with world class chefs, join in with tasting sessions and sample the delights of the 220 stallholders along the bustling market streets.

Hemsley + Hemsley were pick of the day with not one but two interactive tasting sessions, showcasing recipes from their new recipe book to 160 attentive festival goers.

The Hemsley sisters weren’t the only ones doing it for the ladies; Observer food rising star, Olia Hercules gave a masterclass in traditional Ukrainian cooking, Gizzi Erskine talked recipes from her new book ‘Healthy Appetite’ and the first ladies of ‘cue, Hang Fire Smokehouse gave away some of their top BBQ tips to a full house.

Newly appointed Chairwoman of the Festival, Melanie Doel said. “Abergavenny food festival has truly established itself as the hub of food debate across Britain. For anyone in the food business, including all the top chefs, Abergavenny was the place to be this weekend.”

Heather Myers, Chief Executive of the Festival added, “A lot of hard-work and dedication goes into organising the Festival and it’s amazing to see that it has all paid off.

“We’d like to thank all the chefs and professionals involved in the masterclasses and demonstrations along with the thousands of people that came to see us this weekend. We hope you had as fantastic a time as we did. Next up is the Christmas Fair on the December 13 and of course, Abergavenny Food Festival 2016.”

Here’s a selection of the tastiest photographs from the festival from photographers Tim Woodier and Huw John:

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Chef Theo Randall PICTURE: Huw John Photography
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Crowds in the Brewery Yard PICTURE: Tim Woodier
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A visitor tries pulled pork PICTURE: Tim Woodier
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Hemsley + Hemsley were pick of the day
PICTURE: Huw John Photography
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Olia Hercules gave a masterclass in traditional Ukranian cooking PICTURE: Huw John

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Sizzling prawns PICTURE Tim Woodier
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Yottam Ottolenghi PICTURE: Tim Woodier
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Tomatoes on sale PICTURE: Tim Woodier
Le Manoir
Raymond Blanc in conversation with Sheila Dillon PICTURE: Huw John Photography

Sample some local gems at Abergavenny Food Festival 2015

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Abergavenny Food Festival’s night market

Tonight marks the start of the biggest event in my home town’s calendar – the Abergavenny Food Festival.

More than 30,000 visitors are set to snack their way through our streets, buy Monmouthshire produce, and sample the best of our hospitality.

If you’re coming, you will be met with a feast of a festival, but there’s so much on offer you might miss out on a few things which we locals benefit from all year round.

That’s why I’m going to tell you how to eat like an Abergavenny local, and show you a few foodie gems. I’ll also give you a few ideas on what to do to see the best of our town between sampling the delights of the food festival.

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For The Love Of Cake

Abergavenny is the home of the coffee shop. There are dozens of them, along the main streets and tucked away in side streets and lanes. You will find the perfect latte or mocha for you. One of my favourites is For The Love Of Cake at 59a Frogmore Street. There is a vintage vibe, and one of its main selling points is the fact it serves Clam’s Handmade Cakes, which are a great local favourite. The cake business grew out of Clam’s coffee house which was established in Abergavenny in 1981. Now from its base outside the town, it has a team of 20 people making hand-made cakes.

The taste of the woodland, pasture, and heath land in Monmouthshire is the essence of the attraction of Skirrid Honey. Makers Les and Jill Chirnside, who are based near the slopes of the Skirrid mountain, have hives around Monmouthshire, and have been making honey for the past 25 years.

Honey is also available on the comb, hand cut from the hive and the by-products are used in candle making and polishes. The couple are also interested in supporting and encouraging beekeepers in developing countries; they do this by giving charitable talks and demonstrations to local groups to raise funds.

Look out for Ty Bryn Cider and apple juice made in the village of Grosmont at Upper House Farm, a working farm which has been farmed by three generations of the Watkins family. The cider is produced from apples grown in grazed orchards.

The juice, from many varieties of apples, some old like ‘Tom Putt’ and some more modern varieties like Dabinett, is pressed on the farm, where it is matured in traditional oak barrels. These are stored in a stone cellar that was built for storing cider back in the 1700’s.

Over the past few years their perry and ciders have won several awards including four consecutive gold awards for the sweetened sparkling bottled cider at the Welsh Championships.

Those looking for Welsh lamb should try Pen-y-Wyrlod lamb which comes from a flock of organic, slow-matured, pedigree black Welsh mountain sheep raised on a 20 hectare upland farm in the shadow of the Skirrid mountain. The lambs are born at the end of March and are fed almost exclusively on herb-rich organic grass until they reach full weight at around 9 to 12 months old.

Llanfoist is home to Sorai sauces, dipping sauces which use chilli to make sauces in a variety of strengths, from mild to hot. And Llanvetherine’s White Castle Vineyard, run by Robb and Nicola Merchant, has wines which are perfect to complement local produce.

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A White Castle Vineyard wine

The five acre vineyard was planted in two phases, May 2009 and May 2010, with six varieties, with a total of 4500 vines. The varieties are Pinot Noir, Regent, Rondo, Seyval Blanc, Phoenix and Siegerrebe.

If you are a tea aficionado, make sure you try Chantler Teas.

The Abergavenny company offers a wide range of high quality loose leaf and herbal teas from around the world. These include well known and occasional rare varieties of teas, such as oolong and white for the discerning tea drinker. Chantler stocks over 40 different types of loose leaf tea including green, white, Oolong and black teas.

Find out about more produce local to our area at madeinmonmouthshire.com.

Take a step back from the crowds and walk from Homes of Elegance around the base of the castle towards the Castle Meadows. Along the way, you’ll discover the Abergavenny Community Orchard.

Abergavenny Area Community Orchards and Gardens CIC was established in September 2011, to take forward community fruit and vegetable growing projects in the area. The group’s long term vision is to establish a series of community gardens, orchards and allotment sites, throughout Abergavenny and its neighbouring areas, serving each neighbourhood and providing people with the opportunity to grow their own food, with all the benefits of exercise, enjoyment and personal sustainability that brings.

If you walk along Tudor Street, which runs parallel to the main street, outside the police station you’ll also see a vegetable bed grown by the Incredible Edible Abergavenny group. The community organisation is an initiative which aims to plant fruit and vegetables in public places for anyone to help themselves. Find out more here https://www.facebook.com/incredibleedibleaber/info?tab=page_info

If you’re looking to walk off the treats from the festival, and get some fantastic views, take the Blorenge mountain road and park near Keeper’s Pond, or further up the mountain at the Foxhunter car park. From either of those, you could walk to the trig point on top of the Blorenge, and look back down over Abergavenny for some excellent views in good weather.

For those who like to do their walking on the flat, drive to the nearby Goytre Wharf (south of Abergavenny on the A4042) where you can stroll along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal as barges and boats drift past. There’s also a little peace to be had away from the crowds in Linda Vista Gardens, also on Tudor Road.

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A map of the festival

What’s on at the festival:

Tom Kerridge, the Hemsley sisters and Olia Hercules, will be joined by over fifty foodies who will share their culinary passion and expertise, demonstrating everything from baking to foraging, tea tasting to cooking up cultural delicacies.

Raymond Blanc will be appearing in his capacity as President of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. In conversation with Sheila Dillon from BBC Radio 4’s Food and Farming programme, Raymond will explore the roots of his passion for produce, dread of waste and respect for the land. He will reveal how early lessons learned from Maman Blanc have guided him throughout his career as chef and restaurateur – and how only by understanding that food connects with every part of our lives, can we truly secure a future for our food.

Be amongst the first to get your hands on the much-lauded new book by celebrated chef and author, Yotam Ottolenghi. NOPI: The Cookbook. Yotam, alongside his head chef, Ramael Scully, will bring the inventive NOPI ethos to the festival, pushing culinary boundaries.

The Festival line up also boasts Bake-Off champion Frances Quinn guiding you through her unique style of baking; exciting new London trio, The Groundnut Boys demonstrating recipes from their African Heritage with a contemporary twist and Festival favourite Cyrus Todiwala who has been changing perceptions of Indian cuisine since his arrival in the UK from Goa in 1991.

Alongside household names are some demonstrations with a difference; Jon Old from the Wasabi Company will talk visitors through how, from a secret location in the UK, they grow one of the world’s most expensive crops and Mitch Tonks, renowned for his radical career change from accountancy to fishmongering, will be demonstrating recipes from his book The Seahorse, inspired by Italy and the South West of England.

In addition to food, the festival boasts a number of cocktail, foraging and alcohol master classes.  James Chase from Chase Distillery will expertly guide you through spirits, wines and ciders, while author and forager by day, Andy Hamilton presents ‘Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails’ showing you how you can make delicious cocktails from a hedgerow near you.

Heather Myers, Chief Executive of the Festival said: “This year’s line-up is our biggest and best to date and definitely the most varied.

“Whether you want to come along and explore the market, sample produce from over 220 hand-picked stallholders, or watch demonstrations from some of the finest chefs and food adventurers today, there really is something for everyone.”

Local success story Samantha Evans and Shauna Guinn from Hang Fire Smokehouse came to the Festival last year as stallholders and return this year on the bill, since winning BBC Radio 4’s Food and Farming award for Best Street Food 2015.

Sam said: “It’s incredible that just one year on from our first appearance at Abergavenny Food Festival, and just two years since starting this business, we will be standing where our inspirations from the food industry have stood. We’re looking forward to both feeding the Festival goers our brand of Welsh slow and low BBQ and being a part of the Festival over the weekend.”

Shauna added: “This Festival is the highlight of the foodie event calendar and we’re delighted to be included in all aspects of the programme, for the first time, as we share the alchemy of meat smoking.”

Alongside the bursting programme, Festival favourites return including the Night Market, transforming the Lower Brewery Yard into a magical place to eat, drink and hangout. New for 2015, the Festival will introduce the Meat Market, where you’ll find a selection of the best meats and butcher demonstrations Wales has to offer. The new Craft Brewery will create a relaxing area to sample some of Wales’ best-loved craft brews and ciders.

With parties on both tonight (Swing Time at the Castle) and tomorrow (Party at the Castle) evenings, visitors can experience music, dancing and food in the enchanted atmosphere of Abergavenny’s ancient castle.

The Artisan Kitchen School gives a unique opportunity to receive expert tuition first hand, taking your creations home with you. Children can show off their culinary talents at the Food Academy with a weekend of free hands on workshops for over 320 children and activities to tempt the most budding mini-master chef.

Fast becoming an institution of the Festival, Rude Health Rants are back for their seventh year in a row. The team, led by co-founder and chief ranter Nick, are a proudly outspoken gang who aren’t afraid of standing up for real, honest food.