Gastro green food from the Valleys

Jonathan Brooks-Jones reports on an eco-friendly festival in Pontypridd that should become a regular event

On the bank of one of the last remaining visible sections of the Glamorganshire Canal a free festival took place the other day to inform and empower the local community to take up a more sustainable way of living. Or more precisely, it was about sustainable eating. The Little Welsh Nibble sustainable food festival coincided with the Otley Brewery festival at the Bunch of Grapes pub, Pontypridd. The organisers, Richard Reast and Pontypridd Friends of the Earth chose the Bunch of Grapes as the venue because, as they put it, head chef Sebastien Vanoli “walks the walk” in terms of sustainable, locally sourced ingredients for the menu.

Under characteristically drizzly Valleys weather, the festival started with a tour of two local community gardens, the GROW project in Treforest and the Green Valley Centre in Abercynon. Both have about four acres on which to grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, including courgettes, peppers, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries, Jerusalem artichokes and kohl rabi, an extra-terrestrial-looking cultivar of cabbage. Both supply local gastro pubs, including the Bunch of Grapes.

The Green Valley Centre also supplies two local food co-operatives with seasonal fruit and veg, each with around 50 members each. They have also recently set up a box scheme which has grown to 40 members. The Centre even has permission to fish from the Cynon river, which runs down the garden’s east side.

What is remarkable about these places is the enthusiasm of the managers. When they were acquired both sites had been used for fly-tipping since the 1970s and were derelict. Much of the first year was spent clearing them to make ready for planting.

Today, the gardens are also engaged in a range of educational activities, providing opportunities for volunteers, horticultural and environmental trainees. Students of any age are welcome to conduct research into the area’s biodiversity, from primary school children to PhD candidates. Qualifications can be gained in woodland crafts, biodiversity and horticulture among others. They also provide space for local schools to use the outdoor ‘forest school’ to have the opportunity to learning outside, away from the stuffy classroom. The GROW project in Treforest even has plans to build a stone amphitheatre for the performing arts.

Throughout the Little Welsh Nibble festival were workshops offering advice on setting up food co-operatives, farmers markets, and discussions about sustainability and the work of Friends of the Earth.

Food co-operatives are straight forward to run and easy to establish thanks to the Rural Regeneration Unit which offers support and guidance to anyone wishing to set one up. It helps find approved suppliers who source their food locally as far as possible, and also in assists volunteers to find a venue they can use free of charge. The main requirement is for a small group of volunteers to give up a couple of hours a week to collect orders and payment from the customers, order the food and sort it into individual bags.

Food co-ops do not aim to simply take customers away from local green grocers. Where possible they work with mainstream retailers to support and promote the Welsh food industry.

One of the great benefits of the food co-op is that it addresses the alienation between people and the food they eat. Rather than picking up a broccoli in a cellophane wrapper that has flown thousands of miles to be with us, shoppers can go to their local community hall and, if they get there early, can see it coming off the truck having travelled just a few miles down the road.

The Otley beer and cider festival went on throughout the sustainable food festival, with an impressive (and dangerous) array of locally produced ales, from a small unit in Cilfynnydd. We were given a rare glimpse into the brewery and the brewing process whilst sampling their best-selling beer, O2, and smelling samples of fresh hops and malts. They favour American hops (for they give stronger flavours) and while this may detract somewhat from the sustainability of the beer, the brewery’s ethos reflects that of the festival.

Nick Otley and his nephew Matthew (who is Head Brewer) said they wanted “to do something different” when they embarked on the enterprise. They wanted to escape the stereotypical view of ale-drinkers as cardigan and slipper-wearing, pipe-smoking old men and appeal instead to a younger audience and to female drinkers as well.

They seem to be achieving their aims, the range on offer is certainly different: O-Rosie is infused with Rosemary, O-Garden, a clear wheat beer is spiced with roasted orange peel, coriander and cloves, and there is also a deceptively smooth O8, which stands for 8 per cent. And indeed, I saw many young women happily supping pints.

We were also spoilt with demonstrations from the Bunch of Grapes’ own chef, Sebastien Vanoli, Michelin-starred Franko Taruschio, formerly of the Walnut Tree, and celebrity TV chef Dudley Newbury, born just up the road in Ynysybwl. When I arrived back at the festival on Sunday (slightly hungover from the Otley brewery tour), I was just in time to taste some delicious fried goats cheese and carpaccio of beetroot, before watching the master chef employ a team of volunteers to make some incredible Lamb Rissoles. Click here to see the recipes for the lamb rissoles and the fried goat’s cheese with carpaccio of beetroot.

Another highlight was the Low-Carbon Cook-Off, a concept borrowed from an Eco-centre event This is Rubbish in which organisers feed people using food that would otherwise have been wasted. Two teams were quizzed on their knowledge of seasonal produce and sustainability, in order to win ‘carbon coins’. They then used their coins to ‘buy’ ingredients according to the carbon cost involved in the production or attainment of the foods. So, a locally grown potato is cheap – one carbon coin, whereas a tin of desiccated coconut, or a pack of jaffa cakes, which are carbon-intensive, costs 6 carbon coins.

Naturally, both teams went mainly for the more sustainable ingredients. The first team made a spiced rice dish with broccoli and carrot, while the second team made a frittata with peppers, courgettes and potatoes. I was lucky enough to be on the judging panel along with Franko Taruschio and Friends of the Earth volunteers. We agreed that the Fritatta was a clear winner. It was entertaining, but also showed that eating sustainably requires only a little strategic thinking, an awareness of seasonality. You also need an awareness of what is involved in processed foods, and how much environmental damage might be caused by them.

There are plans to make the festival a seasonal event. This would surely help encourage interest from the local community, including those not already converted to sustainability. It was noted during one of the discussions that almost everyone at the festival were there because they already had an interest in sustainable living and carbon neutrality.

This is the perennial challenge. How do you attract those members of the community who are not already engaged? The response from a member of Friends of the Earth was pragmatic. He said that progress could be made by targeting the natural audience for this kind of event and in time, as they share their enthusiasm and good experiences “those cells will grow”. It will take some time, but what’s the alternative? Does anyone have any suggestions?

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for

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