North Wales

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Duration: 1 hour

Giles Coren embarks on a journey across Britain to discover how our landscape, history and climate shape what we grow and where we grow it.

Giles and the team head to North Wales, where food is about making the best of the basics. Giles follows in the footsteps of the Welsh drovers who walked cattle hundreds of miles to market, while Alex Langlands heads to Snowdonia to meet some of our hardiest sheep. James Wong learns what it takes to farm leeks on an industrial scale and the team discovers what makes Welsh sea trout so incredibly special.

  • The Droving Journey

    The Droving Journey

    Giles travels through the rugged terrain of North Wales using some of the droving routes that still criss cross the country. The movement of meat on the hoof started in earnest in medieval times and the drovers were remarkable men who once walked livestock to the markets of the Midlands and the South. Growing cities and an increased appetite for meat made this a lucrative trade, rising to a peak in the 19th Century until the expansion of the railways made it redundant. Giles starts in Anglesey and heads for Oswestry, a market town on the Welsh / English border. On the way he discovers how cattle were once swum across the treacherous waters of the Menai Strait and learns that the best way to avoid blisters is “bloneg” – otherwise known as pig fat.

  • The Food that made North Wales...

  • Welsh Black Cattle - Beef

    Welsh black cattle are a truly native breed. They’re thought to be descended from the cattle that roamed the Welsh hills before even the Romans arrived. The unforgiving landscape of North Wales was good for breeding these hardy animals but historically few were destined for Welsh tables. For farmers, cattle were a currency, to be traded and sold. They were known as the “black gold from the Welsh hills”. Farmers would sell their animals to drovers who would fatten the animals up on the lusher grasses of the Midlands and the south before taking them to market. Ironically, the English upper and middle classes came to live on Welsh beef while Welsh farmers scraped by on subsistence diets, using the cattle to pay their rent rather than put meat on their dinner table.

  • Leeks

    Leeks

    If there’s one vegetable that’s truly Welsh then it’s the leek. They’re as embedded in Welsh history as they are in the soil. Leeks became so important to the Welsh diet that Hywel Dda, one of the early rulers of Wales, recorded their cultivation in the laws he published in the tenth Century. The association is thought to have started with St David who was said to have lived on bread, water and leeks in the 6th Century. From this came stories of them being worn into battle against the Saxons and even the French. Even Shakespeare referred to the wearing of a leek by the Welsh as an “ancient tradition”. Now leeks are being farmed on an industrial scale in one of the few pockets of prime agricultural farmland in North Wales. The harvester here can process up to seven tonnes of leeks a day. Those sold in Wales are left with more ‘flag’ (the green bit at the end) than those going to English supermarkets. The ‘flag’ is used in traditional recipes like mutton and leek cawl, a kind of Welsh stew.

  • Welsh Mountain Sheep - Lamb

    In North Wales, the landscape doesn’t lend itself to large scale arable farming and sheep are one of the few farmed animals that can make the most of Snowdonia’s steep and rocky slopes. Traditional upland breeds like the Welsh mountain sheep are smaller and hardier than their lowland counterparts. They use the whole mountain in harmony with the seasons. In winter and spring they graze the valley floor, using the best quality grass to see them through to lambing, then they move up to the mountain peaks for summer, roaming freely within what’s known as a ‘heft’, a patch of land that they’re born and bred to.

  • Menai Mussels

    The Menai Strait is the stretch of water separating Anglesey from mainland Wales, known for its ever changing and often treacherous tidal currents. The unique topography of the strait makes it perfect for mussel farming and this is now the UK’s biggest mussel farm providing around three quarters of our farmed mussels. Seed mussels are found using sonar or helicopter survey and transported to the shallow reaches of the Menai. First, they’re left exposed to the air for long periods at low tide to allow their shells to harden. They’re then dredged by boat and moved to the mid levels where they can spend more time under water. In the final stage, the mussels are moved out beyond the reach of the tides so they can feed constantly and fatten up in the rich waters of the Strait. Science, technology and sheer hard graft have turned this underwater world into one of the richest bits of farmland in Wales. The fleet here harvest 11,000 tonnes of mussels a year, most of which end up in Europe.

  • Saffron

    Saffron

    Welsh food has a history of triumphing over adversity, but it’s rooted in the basics rather than the exotic. In one small corner of North Wales, however, is a crop that’s more often associated with sunnier climes. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world at a staggering £4,000 a kilo. It’s harvested from the stigmas of Autumn crocuses and it can take between 150 and 200 flowers to produce just one gram.

    Most Saffron is now grown in Iran and Morocco but it has its roots in Britain as well. England was the dominant producer in the 16th Century, with the Essex town of Chipping Walden becoming so famous for the spice that it changed its name to Saffron Walden. By the 19th Century British Saffron was in decline, but it can still be grown here. Caroline Riden started growing saffron in 1985 and somehow manages to nurture it in the wet clay soil of the Welsh borders.

  • Sewin

    The waters of the Dovey valley are rich fishing territory and prince amongst these fish is the Sewin. This is the Welsh name for a sea trout. The Sewin is a mysterious fish, and not only because it’s so shy that it has to be fished for at night, casting the line into invisible black pools, hoping for the best. It’s exactly the same species as a freshwater brown trout but something happens which makes it decide to head out to sea to feed. It returns to the river to spawn, bigger and better fed than its brown trout siblings. Seeing them together you’d never believe that the two could have come from the same batch of eggs. Sea trout exist in many rivers around the UK, but its here in Wales they’re rooted into the culture and the language. They’re more resilient than salmon, highly prized by the Welsh and little known elsewhere.

Credits

Presenter
Giles Coren
Presenter
Giles Coren
Presenter
James Wong
Presenter
James Wong
Presenter
Alys Fowler
Presenter
Alys Fowler
Presenter
Alex Langlands
Presenter
Alex Langlands
Executive Producer
Lisa Ausden
Executive Producer
Lisa Ausden
Series Producer
Sarah Gibbs
Series Producer
Sarah Gibbs

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