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Considering I was about to spend a week in Wales on a journalistic quest to try as many Welsh cider varieties as possible, I should have brought a raincoat, or at least an umbrella. Summer was waning quickly and gray, chilly autumn days would soon replace the sunny spells of July and August. Foolishly though, I’d left for the airport in a rush, leaving both behind. This being done, showers were almost certainly going to be in the forecast, and I worried about my decision to detour to the Really Wild Food & Countryside Festival, an outdoor event. Sure enough, the weather didn’t disappoint, leaving me cold and damp soon after my arrival in Pembrokeshire.

But I couldn’t decline the invitation when Brian and Julia Powdrill, proprietors of the Really Wild Farm Shop, urged me to attend the festival they founded six years ago in St Davids, a DSC03473 1medieval pilgrimage site and the smallest city in Britain.  As a travel writer, I’ve learned to adjust my plans on the road, and as someone with a weakness for unusual edibles, I’m powerless when challenged to eat something out of the ordinary.   Plus, I reasoned, a generous helping of warm food could only help me forget the soggy pair of socks I would almost certainly be wearing. So I decided to veer from my cider trail in order to spend a day on the coast. 

Brian, clad in a lemon yellow slicker, met me at the entrance and led me inside the enormous tent that had been erected to shelter vendors and attendees from the late morning rain. Wet sod squished beneath our feet as he explained the goal of the Really Wild Festival: to promote local and foraged foods, and to offer a place for people to learn about rural traditions. Excitedly steering me down the wide central aisle as he talked, Brian introduced me to a winemaker and DSC03452 1then his middle-aged son before leaving me with Nikki Sweet, who was doing a brisk business in her Toloja ciders. My cider quest, I happily noted, wouldn’t be sidelined after all. Nikki poured me little samples of Lancelot, a very dry, tawny liquid, Merlin’s Potion, a reddish cider made tart by the addition of rhubarb, and Drunk Dewi, a slightly sweeter cider conditioned (or naturally carbonated) in oak barrels.










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We chatted as the smooth, apple-flavored alcohol warmed me from within and Nikki explained the company’s small start.  “We collected most of what we needed off eBay and started with the odd farmer’s market. Now we supply 175 shops.”  I was impressed. While I consider myself more of a beer aficionado than a cider drinker, Toloja’s products were good, and their funny names—inspired by King Arthur’s Legend—clearly demonstrated Nikki’s flare for branding. To be honest, the only thing keeping me from buying a few bottles was the size of my backpack and my stubborn belief in traveling light.

I noticed it was already well past the lunch hour and decided then that solid food would be prudent before I tried any more local spirits. Catching a glimpse of the sky though another entrance to the festival tent, I estimated that I had about ten minutes until it started raining again so stepped outside to look for a quick meal. Scattered around a lush pasture with views toward Whitesands Bay, several other stands were selling coffee and tea, seaweed milkshakes, and the chance to “Wang a Wellie,” or heave a large rubber Wellington boot for a prize. Skipping the boot-tossing contest and walking past the pig racecourse, I pressed on a bit further and found myself standing hungrily in front of a grill crowded with patties of lean meat.

“Would you like a boarger then?” asked the woman behind the cooking surface. I nodded enthusiastically.

The wait wasn’t long, and when she handed me a paper plate sagging under the weight of a freshly-made sandwich, I knew I’d chosen well. As I took my first bite, Sarah Tarbutt began to tell me about Harmony Herd, her farm in West Wales where she raises Oxford Sandy and Black pigs crossbred with Wild Boar. I listened intently, munching on a simple yet satisfying combination of free-range boar, grilled onion, and blackberry sauce on a yeasty roll. My mind wandered as I thought longingly that it would have washed down well with Toloja’s Excalibur, a deceptively strong cider brandy. Then again, my taste buds didn’t need dulling. Tuning back in to Sarah, I learned that wild boars are notoriously aggressive animals, temperamental by nature and not particularly popular among farmers. The “boarger” on the other hand, left me feeling quite content and rather sleepy, so I wandered back into the Really Wild tent as the moisture in the atmosphere shifted from soft mist to steady drizzle.


A flash of yellow caught my eye as Brian flagged me down a few minutes later, wanting to introduce me to a radio host who had stopped by to record a short segment on this celebration of local food and rural traditions. We weren’t able to track the reporter down however, so after searching in vain for a few minutes, Brian left me at the Pen-lon Cottage Brewery’s table and disappeared back into the throngs of shoppers and eaters looking for elderflower wine, farmstead cheeses, or laverbread, an edible seaweed that’s mixed with oatmeal, molded into cakes, and fried. Things were beginning to wind down by this point, so instead of the customary splash of beer, brewer Stefan Samociuk poured me a generous half pint of his Ramnesia, a bottle-conditioned strong ale. I hadn’t encountered this malty drink on previous trips to the UK, but it was, in a word, exceptional. In fact, Pen-lon has won two gold medals at the Wales True Taste Awards, an annual ceremony created by the Welsh Assembly Government to recognize the country’s best food and drink. I wanted to linger and try all four beers, but Stefan was starting to pack up and I still had to drive back to my hotel. Fortune was on my side as he wouldn’t let me leave without taking a box of his craft beers. After putting up a weak protest, I accepted the package.

On the way to the parking area, my stomach emitted a rumbling appeal just as I walked past the Little Welsh Deli booth. For a moment, I hesitated, unsure of my need for more calories this close to dinner. My stomach protested louder than my brain as I exchanged a few pounds for a chewy oatmeal flapjack. Commonly seen in bakeries across the UK and often eaten for breakfast, this sweet snack was just the thing I needed. I don’t think it lasted more than 30 seconds in the car. Brushing the crumbs from my sweater and squinting through the rain as I slowly followed New Street through the center of St Davids, I reconsidered my earlier concerns about the wet weather. I wasn’t wrong to anticipate gray skies and the occasional cloudburst in this Celtic nation, merely shortsighted. Whether or not I remember to pack a raincoat on my next trip to Wales, I definitely won’t forget to bring one thing with me: a healthy appetite.

Really Wild Food & Countryside Festival
St Davids, Wales
July 29 and 30, 2011

© Ben Keene

Malt, music, and a map of Ben's travels:


Published in in good taste
Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Hay-on-Wye in Autumn

Hay-on-Wye is a small Welsh market-town that straddles the Welsh- Anglo border and sits huddled within the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is nothing out of the ordinary, except that it’s positively groaning with the weight of its many thousands of second-hand, specialist and collectors’ books. This is a town literally packed with words, and come June every year, the bibliophiles arrive in their droves for the annual Literary Festival, booking up the quaint B&Bs and draining the tearooms of Earl Grey as they pore over the multitude of bookshops and gather to hear the greatest literary minds of the year speak.


However, I went to Hay-on-Wye in mid- September, and not during the festival. The crowds were gone. The campsites were empty. And the books that are left still sit, waiting to be browsed by men with beards and backpacks and women in dusty velvet skirts; they are crammed into shelves, into piles, beneath tables and into boxes wherever you turn, as if desperate to prove right the sign that welcomes you as you cross the bridge above the River Wye: “Welcome to Hay-on-Wye: Town of Books”.


It was Richard Booth that created this concept of a town of books, when in 1977 he declared himself “King of the independent nation of Hay-on-Wye”, presumably with his three- story landmark bookshop, it’s fittingly quirky palace. In doing so, he transformed the tourist economy of this sleepy little town, and now you can find “040Towns of Books” in countries across Europe.  Indeed, Hay-on-Wye’s international influence can be seen in its recent successful bid to be twinned with Timbuktu in Mali, Africa- beating cities like York and Liverpool for the honor. A fitting twin when one considers that Timbuktu is the oldest home of the written word in all of Africa, and the two towns lie on exactly the same line of longitude- a fact Hay-on-Wye is keen to emphasise on its tourist maps, on which the numbered bookshops are intercepted with an emblazoned compass screaming “Timbuktu due south!”.

IHay-on-Wyet is not Hay-on-Wye’s world status or festival that upholds its reputation as a literary Mecca, rather, it’s the array of bookshops, and manifest love of literature. Its narrow streets are adorned with old- fashioned signs declaring “Books Bought and Sold Here”, and are only interrupted by little cafes and adorably kitsch shops full of floral bunting and wool. It would be too much, if it weren’t for the redeeming presence of the weight of thousands of books.

THay-on-Wyehe Hay Cinema Shop, for instance, one of the town’s oldest bookshops, opened 1965, houses over 20,000 volumes across the two floors of the converted cinema. At the base of Hay Castle, one finds a rather small, humble looking sign declaring the meagre courtyard area an “Honesty Bookshop”- one can find a number of these around Hay- in which the books are lined up around the crumbling walls, protected by awnings and plastic bags, and money is left in a small box- usually between 50p to £1. Bookends only stocks books under £3. Some shops overfill, and so have passageways and alleyways opposite, heaving with shelves, and with no one on duty- they just trust their customers to pay, and not cheat the system.

The Children’s Bookshop is a treasure trove of all your favourite childhood memories, whilst the magnificently n039amed and even more magnificently decorated Murder and Mayhem specialises only in detective fiction, crime and horror. There’s a poetry bookshop, a shop full of faded maps, junk shops and antique shops filled with wartime magazines. In short, there’s enough here to keep you browsing happily for several days, and to ensure your suitcase will return home considerably heavier.

©Leah Eades

Photos by Anna Broster. More of her work can be seen on her flickr.


Published in individual
Thursday, 31 August 2006


Hiking toward the summit of Pen Y Fan, third tallest peak in Wales, the burden of keeping up with long-legged leaders forced my head down as I gasped for air. It wasn’t until I got to the summit that I finally looked around. That’s when it happened – I became captivated by the net-like pattern across the valley slopes. Also likened to spider webs or embroidery work sewn into the hills, the pattern is formed by hedgerows – the patchwork quilt of ancient people of the Bronze Age that has survived Norman occupation and the more recent accommodation of modern farm equipment.






Published in interest

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