Michelin stars and farmers’ markets end Wales’ food desert image

Economic and health benefits will flow if changes taking place in the way we think about food are followed across Wales, says Rhys David

It may only be a minor triumph, but Wales is clearly is no longer seen as the food desert it once was. For several years a modest four restaurants in Wales have boasted Michelin stars – two of them in the Wye and Usk Valleys  gastrofood cluster –  and to these has now been added the Parkhouse Club in Cardiff where top chef, Roger Jones, owner of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn has been recruited as a consultant.

Even more important is public perception. According to a survey reported in an article by Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University in the journal Rural Geographies, two thirds of Britons said that food and drink influenced their holiday choice. The West Country, Wales and Scotland emerged as the top three gastro destinations in the UK. Many rural pubs up and down Wales, and some of our leading hotels and restaurants must be doing a good job.

Food is, therefore, important to Wales, as its inclusion in the list of sectors that are now at the centre of Welsh Government economic policy also recognises. It became the focus, too, of a much wider debate, as a conference, Sustainable Food City: Cardiff, recently made clear.

The conference, jointly organised by the Soil Association, Cardiff University and Better Organic Business Links focussed on Cardiff’s participation in the growing food cities movement, which aims to get policy-makers more committed to supporting healthy and sustainable food production in order to combat food poverty and to tackle diet-related ill-health.

All this is, of course, a world away from Michelin stars and the food preferences of the wealthy but there are connections, as Professor Morgan’s article make clear. He identifies three important ‘foodscapes’ that have opened up in recent years in Wales, overturning the preference for quantity over quality, and price over provenance, that have characterised the Welsh food culture.

Recent decades have seen a seemingly remorseless process in which food production has become increasingly industrialised and globalised, so that consumers cease to have any connection with the processes or geographical location of the food items available to them at home or while eating out. The emergence of what has been termed gastro food, much of it locally produced, is evidence of a growing middle class revolt.

In Monmouthshire, where more than a score of eateries now lay claim to serving fine food, the inspiration was the Italian chef, Franco Taruschio, at the Walnut Tree at  Llanddewi Skirrid. His example has patently encouraged others over a period of time to seek to emulate his success. Linkages have been established with local producers of fresh ingredients and the area’s reputation has more recently been underpinned by the successful Abergavenny food festival.

Another revolution – though one still far from complete – has been in a very different sphere, school food. Here the example Professor Morgan points to is Carmarthenshire, one of the first to use its school food purchasing both to promote health and well-being and to bring wider local economic dividends by helping local producers to win a larger share of the county’s public sector food market. The council has made special efforts to involve small local producers in its sustainable food strategy, seeking among other things to include them as second and third tier suppliers in the supply chains of large contract holders.

As a result, the article notes, all fresh meat, bottled water, fruit juices, bacon, eggs and sliced meat are sourced in Wales. All of the ice cream, about half the bread and a significant proportion of the milk are sourced within the county, and so too, as far as possible, are fresh vegetables.

The final example quoted of the ways in which consumers are being reconnected with food producers with a personal knowledge of how and where the food on sale is produced is farmers’ markets. Riverside in Cardiff, the biggest farmers’ market in Wales, now has more than 40 stallholders and draws suppliers from a wide radius. One of its initiatives has been to develop a plot of land that can be used to develop horticultural produce for the market and to equip local people with the necessary growing skills.

All of these developments, however, will need to gain stronger and wider traction if they are to secure across Wales the economic, employment, social, environmental and other benefits they promise. Monmouthshire, for instance has some strong local producers, such as Trealy Farm, which provides top quality charcuterie, and Pen-y-Wyrlod, a renowned lamb supplier. But according to Professor Morgan, primary producers such as these need to collaborate with each other to a greater extent to ensure quality produce and continuity of supply. For their part the restaurants will need an ongoing stream of top chefs so as to be able to survive the inevitable movement of stars. The public sector will need to offer its support both in developing the food chain and in the training of professionals.

Equally, it could be added, other parts of Wales with no less potential than Monmouthshire to develop a quality food sector, need to examine what has been done in the Wye and Usk Valleys to see how it might be replicated. The economic benefits in terms of increased tourism, inward investment and greater local satisfaction are patent. It is no co-incidence that Monmouthshire house prices are among the highest in Wales as a result of its perceived attractiveness as a place to live.

Carmarthenshire’s example also deserves to be followed across Wales. “From a rural development perspective, the Carmarthenshire experience is instructive on two counts”, Professor Morgan notes. “First, it illustrates that local authorities have finally woken up to the fact that they have a formidable power at their disposal – the power of purchase – if they have the professional skills and the political leadership to deploy it properly.”

The farmers’ market movement, if it is to grow, faces the difficult task of securing a broader base of suppliers but this again suggests there are opportunities that are currently going begging in Wales. South east Wales suffers from a chronic shortage of small primary producers with suppliers travelling from Cardiganshire and Powys to the stalls in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium on the West Bank of the Taff each Sunday. Unless the supply side constraints can be overcome it will be difficult for additional farmers’ markets to be added to the existing sites in Wales. Here again Professor Morgan sees a role for Government support for local primary food producers.

There is clearly something here to build on which does chime with the zeitgeist as more and more people express an interest in where food comes from, how it is produced and processed and how, sustainably, it is brought to our tables.  “Although small producers have been written out of the future of rural areas on countless occasions… the key problem is not being small but being lonely… There can only be a viable future for small producers if they specialise in quality produce and if they are part of something bigger than themselves,” Professor Morgan concludes.

The biggest change of all, he adds , will be needed in the ‘mindscapes’ of the key food system actors: “the farmers and producers who need to master the art of collaboration among themselves; public sector procurement managers who need to distinguish low price from best value when they go out to tender; consumers in all walks of life who need to appreciate that good food does not come cheap and regulators who need to ensure that the food system pays its way and is not allowed to externalise its social and environmental costs by passing them on to others.”

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA. He writes on business and economic affairs.

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