NORTH WALES: Despite the Conquest of Wales by Edward I (aka Edward Longshanks) around 1277, Wales, I believe, only pretends to have been conquered – particularly North Wales.
Attempts to stamp out Welsh, a language with 6th Century roots, failed. In 2011 it was given official language status in Britain. Children learn the language in school. Rob Lewis Jones, my VisitWales guide, speaks fluent English, but his first language is Welsh. He automatically greets locals in Welsh, as a courtesy, before slipping over to English.
With the typically musical undulations of the ancient language, tongue-twisters like, “Now we’re off to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch,” challenge me, but leave him unfazed.
Failure to emulate him when we stop at the above mentioned village railway station prompted me to video-capture the pronunciation for my YouTube site http://bit.ly/11SatlM. The town bears the longest place name in Britain, and one of the longest in the world.
The English translation is, “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio with a red cave.”
Locals just opt for LlanfairPG. I’ll do the same.
Digesting the challenging local language is only part of our travel ‘menu’. Culinary Wales is to be key for the next 10 days. With that mind, I’m bound for Conwy Castle in North Wales.
It’s a favourite of mine for two reasons.
Not only is Conway, my maiden name, the English version of Conwy allowing me a hint of kinship, but the well-preserved castle ruins offer a real sense of what King Edward I’s world might have looked like.
True, the ancient walled town is very much a tourist attraction, but on this October weekend it is literally teeming with visitors and locals.
Tents strung out along the waterfront beginning near castle foundations shelter over 100 North Wales food merchants, musicians, and artisans congregating to celebrate the annual Gwledd Conway Fest.
I start by sampling the cheeses I yearn for, or can’t afford, in Canada. Gorwydd Caerphilly, Smoked Cerwyn, Bodnant’s Cheshire, Stilton. The list goes on – and so do I.
Stuffed marinated vine leaves here. ‘Glam Lam’ there. Chick-Shish, assorted South American coffees, fish and chips, cream scones and tea, home baked breads, our cups runneth over.
Speaking of which, I spy a table of Inn Keeper’s Tipple. Can I resist this blueberry whisky liqueur? No contest. For the equivalent of $11 a stash finds its way into my backpack. Danzy Jones, another Welsh whisky liqueur, but this time with a hint of rose hips and herbs, tempts me. “It’s great as a hot toddy,” I’m told. Reluctantly I settle for a sample.
Wandering up the twisting, hilly streets I come across Kevin, a ‘knight falconer’ from Cymru Falconry Friends. Perched majestically on Kevin’s leather-protected wrist is Angel, an impressive European Eagle Owl.
Like Geraint, the Caernarfon Castle falconer I interviewed for YouTube, Kevin reminds me that centuries ago hunting birds (particularly falcons) were nature’s efficient grocers. Instinctively, they were precise hunters. With training, they faithfully delivered fresh meat daily to their masters.
In the 21st century, most of their work involves practical eco-friendly pest control, or – like today – preening for admiring audiences.
Tentatively stroking the majestic owl’s elegant plumage, Diesel, the Peregrine Falcon with the feather-shaped hearts on his chest that I’d admired at Caernarfon.
His handler, Geraint, had described an abused rescued eagle, and falcons abandoned by wannabe Harry Potters. Caring for these birds clearly takes love, patience and respect. The full video interview is online at http://bit.ly/1yaAjhD.
After a day of ‘grazing’ and gazing around Conwy, it is time to move on.
With Christmas on the horizon, an invitation to tackle some holiday baking with Chef Catherine Metcalfe in her “Getting Ahead for Christmas” class at Caffi Florence, Loggerheads Country Park, in Mold, is on the agenda.
I’ve made my share of family Christmas cakes – particularly the weighty dark old-fashioned ones well laced with brandy.
Chef Catherine turns out to be a vivacious, entertaining, young advocate of Dickens-style forbidden mincemeat pies, cakes, and puddings.
[Chef Catherine Metcalfe, left. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
Surprisingly, her ‘mincemeat’ dried fruit and peel mix is, despite being steeped in brandy overnight, lighter (well, by degree!) than my Canadian purchased mix. Even the addition of dark treacle (available in specialty stores in Canada) doesn’t overwhelm the house specialty, Marianna’s Christmas Cake.
Her Christmas pudding is rather a revelation. Marinating the fruits overnight in stout is the key, instructs our chef.
Efficiently she pats the mixture into pudding bowls, but pauses for emphasis while pleating greaseproof paper over the sweet treats: “Even if you don’t like Christmas pudding, you have to have some. It’s a rule!”
Grinning wickedly, she also reminds the class that although the puddings are now sealed, periodically feeding’ the Christmas cake (and perhaps the cook) with brandy is still required. Definitely a girl after my own heart!
I’m not a marzipan fan, I tell my instructor.
“Try this recipe without almond essence,” she advises.
She is right. Much better.
Here it is:
One allergy alert: the recipe contains raw egg.
225 g ground almonds
100 g castor sugar
100 g icing sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Sieve icing sugar. Add almonds and castor sugar. Add lemon juice and sufficient egg to bind into a ball. Knead until smooth.
All Chef Catherine’s recipes are online at www.caffiflorence.co.uk Take a look at her Mincemeat recipe. It takes some time (what specialty baking doesn’t!), but I think it’s worth recommending. It does call for suet, but it’s vegetable, and differs from the old style used in the past.
This is just a taste of my dine around Wales. There’s to be a ‘second serving’ in the weeks to come. I hope you’ll join me. This is definitely a digestible sort of destination in body, mind and soul.
In the meantime, Lechy da i chai yn awr ac yn oesoedd. Good health to you now and forever.
If you go:
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is founding editor and publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter and writes a monthly travel column. Follow her on Twitter @YouTravel.