Sometimes, getting lost is the fastest route to finding your favourite new food places. Bitten goes off the grid in darkest North Wales, and comes back with much more than bacon.
Imagine this. You’re a softly beautiful corner of North Wales, but you don’t have the sublime grandeur of Snowdonia, or the castles and sandy coves of the coast. To make things worse, there’s a four lane dual carriageway that screams through your parish, diverting tourists and their cash away from your quiet villages and country lanes.
How do you fight for your place on the holiday map? It’s a challenge for the cash-strapped councils of Flintshire and Denbighshire, tucked into Clwyd’s northeastern hinterlands. With the Clwydian Food Trail, they’re putting their money where their mouths are. And, Bitten believes, it could be the best move they’ve ever made.
A few weeks ago, heading home after a day in the mountains, Bitten – driven by some primeval urge to get off the grid (and to find a toilet) – took a left turn off the A55, destination unknown. Even our sat-nav scrambled to find a GPS signal. That’s just how gung-ho and crazy we are.
What followed was nothing short of a Damascene conversion – in the form of one of the best meals we’ve ever had in the country – the White Horse at Hendrerwydd, a ramble through Ruthin (if ever there’s a town with its mojo back, Ruthin’s it) and a conviction to come back and devote all our attention to the the drive-through counties.
Getting lost is great. We heartily recommend it.
Few places capture North Wales’ industrious yet engagingly spin-free approach to food production better than Patchwork Pâté. There is, they proclaim with every brightly coloured carton that leaves their Ruthin factory, another way. A Clwydian way.
Posterchild of the region’s resurgent food scene, Patchwork Pâté’s vibrant, rich and distinctive pâtés are modern British classics. They might be shipped out to delis from Speyside to Southampton, but there remains, still, a delicious vestige of the kitchen table enterprise about them. That’ll be the the DNA of its founder, Margaret Connor, which runs like a glinting seam of Welsh gold through everything they do.
A force of nature, Connor is ebullient, driven, engaging. She kisses Bitten on both cheeks as we hunker down in her staff lounge – all black leather sofas and dim lights: “honestly, darling, this isn’t a porn set, trust me…”
We do, of course. Why wouldn’t we? This woman’s work has been the highlight of our cold table spreads for years. We’re talking chicken liver pâtés here, just so we’re clear.
Forget everything you know about business strategy and ruthless, Dragon’s Den-style focus. Patchwork’s origin story is a tale of a woman with not so much a plan per se, but a deep rooted desire for a different life. And of a determination to make it so. Somehow.
“It came from nowhere,” she says, “I lived in London. Got divorced. The women in my family were content to get married and lie on sofas all day. Not me. I dreamed of a new life, living amid mountains and lakes.”
And, after a fashion, she did – although Connor’s dyslexia made for an audaciously refreshing relocation strategy: “I opened a map and looked for wiggly blue lines and tightly packed contours.”
It led her to an aborted attempt at living amid the hippy holes of mid Wales, before Connor and her three children settled in a rented cottage in Denbighshire.
“I was this strange woman from London, a single parent in the 70s. I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms,” she admits, “the women thought I just wanted to sleep with their men.”
But she proved her mettle, doing odd jobs for a local farmer; carrying bales, milking cows, driving tractors. “Between mucking out and milking, I was looking for a place to live,” she says, “somewhere to put down roots. I never for a second thought I’d made the wrong decision.”
Her search saw her scurry 2,000 miles around the little lanes of North Wales before the farmer revealed there was the perfect family home, just around the corner, waiting for her to move in. A cosmic alignment that, Connor believes, vindicated everything.
“It was some kind of test I suppose,” she laughs. “I was accepted. I was in.”
The house, a rambling, clinker-build shooting lodge, remains home to this day. Only the acreage surrounding it has grown. “I was blissfully happy, but I knew I needed to earn more money. Not that it bothered me, I’ve always known how to do that.”
She has. Connor headed up a mini outworking empire of knitters – industriously churning out designs for the likes of Paul Smith and a who’s who of Kings Road cognescenti. Easy, when you’re in Sloane Square. A challenge when the mountains of North Wales separate you and your knitting circle.
“I thought about doing patchwork quilts, but reckoned I could only make two a year. But at least the name stuck!”
The solution? Connor wound her way, circuitously, to it via a succession of very-close-but-no-cigar enterprises.
I asked one of my suppliers, who ran the Ponderosa Cafe on the Horseshoe Pass, ‘what do you need?’ As it happened, they needed pâté. I said, ‘yes, I can do that’. Then I put the phone down and thought ‘F∗ck. What’s pâté?”
“I knew I had to do something that I could make myself. The knitters around here were hopeless. They were obviously knitting when they were menopausal and watching horror movies. Dropped stitches everywhere.”
She settled on chutneys. But they didn’t fly. “So I asked one of my suppliers, who ran the Ponderosa Cafe on the Horseshoe Pass, ‘what do you need?’ As it happened, they needed pâté.
“I said, ‘yes, I can do that’. Then I put the phone down and thought ‘F∗ck. What’s pâté?’”
This before Google.
Grabbing an old recipe book, and diverting the last £9 from her housekeeping, Connor whisked up a chicken liver, brandy and herb concoction, and she was off and running. To this day, the pâté remains Patchwork’s biggest seller.
“Ponderosa loved it,” she says, “I got my extra fiver a week, and all was good until the auditors came in and said ‘no, you can’t make things externally’. So I lost the contract, and had to find a way to sell it into butchers and delis.”
Paralysed by an uncharacteristic, but crippling conviction that she was out of her depth (‘I thought they’d take one look at it and say it was dog food’) it was new partner Jenny that gave her the final boost of confidence, and secure a handful of contracts in Llangollen.
“Survival is what drives me. The vision was to live here, the rest was to find a way to make it happen. It could have been breezeblocks, it could have been pâté. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you believe in what you’re doing with all your heart. The rest is easy.”
It’s been easy, too, to keep her happy band of Patchwork people together – employees rarely leave. Bitten, if we’re honest, doesn’t want to either.
“Scaling up was hard,” Connor admits, proving that, cosmic ordering aside, building a business isn’t just a dash of wishful thinking and luck. “People are quick to pounce if you get it wrong. We experimented with introducing the spices at a different stage of the cook – exactly the same ingredients, but boy did our customers complain!”
Fact is, Connor made exceptionally good pâté. It might have been a career curveball sent from above, but her passion for excellence, her commitment to creating something with love and integrity, and her sheer, unshakable conviction that this is where she should be, right here, right now, are ingredients every bit as important as the earthy game livers or peppered mackerel. Ingredients folded into every slab of the yummy stuff.
“Of course we’ve had plagiarists. They all come out of the woodwork when you’re successful. That’s the only bloody good thing that’s come out of this recession,” she laughs, “all those crappy businesses find out that you can’t just be a carbon copy, you have to do something original. Something from here…” she says, pounding her chest.
Yeah, on the whole, we’re sure Connor could have chiselled out a great breezeblock. But we’re glad the gods introduced her to pâté.
Five growing kids, a hefty shopping bill and a bin full of waste food at the end of the week – a combination that made Simon Hughes go back to the future.
“The kids just weren’t into veg, so we started going to farm shops and suddenly they couldn’t get over the taste. I thought, ‘I need to spread the word!’” he says.
A few adverts on Facebook later and he was doing more than that – delivering £20 boxes of farm-fresh fruit and veg to a scatter of customers throughout Denbighshire.
“It just took off,” he says – a combination, he believes, of a lack of local shops, and a solution for time-strapped mums. “When I grew up, we used to have door to door deliveries of everything, meat, fish, veg. It’s like we’ve gone full circle.”
Now, instead of filling up at farm shops, Simon’s Vegbocs has encouraged livestock farmers to go back to the soil: growing crops for him to hawk around the expansive county.
“We’re at 70-odd families a week and growing,” he beams. “I guarantee to buy the farmer’s new crops, so there’s no risk to them, and they get another route to market.”
And the best bit: “my food lasts a full week, unlike the tasteless supermarket stuff.” That and its harvested-that-day nutrients: a fact seized on by Sport Wales, one of Simon’s new customers – keen to fuel up the country’s athletes on made-in-Wales goodness.
“It’s hard setting up on your own,” says the former concrete factory worker, “but I wouldn’t change things now for the world.”
“It’s not enough that we’re good, we want everyone to be good,” Cafe R’s Silas Jones is in a reflective mood. We’re tucking into a terrific burger made from Rhug estate beef and mustardy Y Fenni cheese, so we’re happy.
“Look at Ludow,” he says, “It’s hard to get a bad meal there. That’s what we’re after here. If someone has a bad experience, they’re not coming back. The days of supermarket-bread sandwiches and Nescafe are very much over.”
They certainly are at Jones’ bright, modern bistro tucked into Ruthin’s smart Craft Centre. The coffee’s roasted in Denbigh, the hot choc’s from Hawarden, the beer’s from Mold. This isn’t a cafe, it’s a testament to the turning tide around these parts.
“I was in the Peak District recently. It’s no more beautiful than here, but the offer is there. That’s what we have to work towards.”
How, we wonder, between bites?
“Our landscape is soft and subtle. How do you package that and sell it to people in a really simple way? Food has to be at the heart of it,” he believes.
Enter the Clwydian Food Trail – an initiative aimed as much at food-focused tourists as the area’s producers. A chance for butcher to meet baker – and bed and breakfast maker.
“We all met up – 70 odd businesses – with the area’s hospitality people. Pretty much every single one of us got a new order. For tourists, that means that when they go from pub to cafe to village shop, the experience is everywhere.
“Look, no-one said this is going to be easy,” he adds, “we had a lot of catching up to do. We’ve just got to get out and tell people about what’s happening here.”
Ruthin Craft Centre
“We used to go for a beer after lessons, and it was bloody awful,” says Welsh teacher, cum IT expert cum nano-brewer Alyn.
“I said to the landlord, I could do better than that. And he said, ‘if you brew it, I’ll sell it.’
A few aborted attempts later, and Alyn’s makeshift brewery was cooking up bubbling cauldrons of malty, golden goodness. When Bitten calls, a hoppy, intense IPA (I Presume Ale – named after Denbigh’s most famous explorer, H M Stanley).
There’s another – John The Thumbs: named after a four-thumbed 14th century thief. Try saying that after a couple of bottles. Next up? An ale for the Denbigh Plum Festival on 3 October (the town’s applying for protected designation of origin for its unique varietal).
“I’m not a micro brewery, I’m a nano brewery, I brew no more than eight barrels a week,” Alyn says. But they all get snapped up – shipped out to purveyors of only the finest ales, from Bala down to London.
“I could get bigger, but what’s the fun in that,” Alyn says. “The beer’s my pension fund. How good is that?”
“It would be far easier to buy our cakes in, but I couldn’t do it. I’m in this because I love good food. I want to show this beautiful region at its best.”
Bitten is sharing tea and cake at Afonwen Antique Centre’s Edenshine Cafe. If we’re honest, cafes attached to vintage showrooms elicit thoughts of UHT milk pots, cream teas with blister packs of fruitless jam and microwaved bowls of lasagne.
But not all antique centres have the quiet, but steely determination of Afonwen’s Janet Monshin-Dallolio steering a course away from the soulless soup and sandwich brigade.
“There was a time, not long after we first opened 25 years ago, when Brewer’s Fayre was everywhere, and everyone went there. But close your eyes and you could have been anywhere. I could have given in then, but we stuck it out,” says Janet, who runs the upscale shopping complex, based in an old tweed mill, with her family.
At the heart of it is the restaurant’s poised and confident celebration of all things local. A celebration that began way before Olive magazine first penned the word provenance.
“We never thought of ourselves as ahead of out time,” she says. “We just stuck to our guns because we knew that local was better. Now, with farm shops and producers cropping up everywhere, buying locally is so much easier.”
“We talk about our philosophy on the front of the menu, and when customers comment on something they’ve enjoyed, it’s great to be able to direct them to the source to buy it themselves.”
It’s working. Customers are milling about, a silk painting artist draws a crowd of home crafters, families are tucking into braised steak and ale pie (meat from Davies butchers in Denbigh) sausages from Morgans butchers in Caerwys, and Flintshire rhubarb crumble.
“We’re dragging tourists away from the traditional places – I know that. But we really do have something special to offer here. Competition is tough. Money is tight. I know that a coffee and a cake won’t change the world, but if you really care about it, it makes a difference.”
Afonwen Antique Centre
Nr. Caerwys, Mold
AUTHENTIC THAI CUISINE
Stop at Loggerhead’s busy little garage and you’re in for a big surprise. For this is one of a select band of stockists for the most authentic Thai cuisine this side of Laem Chabang. Bitten’s tucking in to a rainbow-hued platter of Prawn Penang – chunky king prawns, a sauce studded with al dente bites of broccoli, carrot, courgette. It’s, quite frankly, amazing, and about as far removed from your takeaway take on Thai as Bangkok is from Bangor.
“We cook it slowly, no hurry. I make sure that all of my staff are happy to cook here” says founder, Dtoi.
And if they’re not? “They can’t cook! I give them a little massage, sort out their aches and pains, and say to our stockists ‘the food will have to wait. Maybe tomorrow’.”
We’re not sure, but we doubt that’s how they do it in Subway.
“It’s very important to me that food is cooked with love” Dtoi says. That, and authentic Thai curry paste, North Wales spring water and a judicious eye for balancing heat with flavour. No mean feat. But Dtoi’s merry band manage it just fine, and with delicious results.
Authentic Thai Cuisine
Other great Clwydian treats to try
Tweedmill Shopping Centre
Following a £4million investment, Tweedmill’s new food hall is a shrine to all that is good about North Wales produce now – star of the show is Denbigh’s excellent butchers, Glyn Davies: “You can see the lamb eating the heather on the hills behind us,” says Tweedmill’s Louis Jones.
Dangerous Food Company
Fiery and fruity chillis and jams, enough to bring life to any delicious buffet.
Chilly Cow Ice Cream
Dairy with extra attitude, Chilly Cow’s artisanal ice-cream owes its extra creamy goodness to the full butter-fat deliciousness produced by their herd of Swiss Brown cows.
Little Welsh Cheese Company
Jo Smith might be relatively new to cheese-making, but her nutty and tangy mature Cheddar, and silky smooth Gouda show she’s definitely made the right career-choice – although she runs a pretty smart B&B too, should you wish to stay awhile longer.
For more information, and more food recommendations, visit foodtrail.co.uk