Newport Food Festival 2023 – Reviewed

A Food Festival week in a tiny coastal Welsh town

A deep dive into local food, the farmers and land behind it.

Read the full Newport Food Festival 2023 project report

A Food Festival week in a tiny coastal Welsh town, a deep dive into local food and the farmers and land behind it. Here’s the festival week, recalled.

Day one,  the launch

Newport/ Trefdraeth boat club is mapped to be submerged in the coming decades by the rising sea.

Upstairs as the day waned and the tide rose, a local group of men harmonised folk songs ancient and new. Then Jim Bowen set the context for the food festival within the anthropomorphic climate catastrophe the world is entering. Why food security and farming matters now more than ever, how it can heal not harm the world and our countryside.

Then 13 lightening speakers shared 13 resilience stories. Some were from the village outside; Havards is the first community owned hardware shop in Britain, the community raised over £400,000 to buy it rather than loose it. An organic market garden two miles away feeding many in the town, run by child of the town returned with her partner, both successful by their second year. Multiple and varied stories from near and far added their spark to the path ahead, revealing the multifaceted colours of resilience.

Night fell on high tide, the view of the sea was replaced by reflections of the 50 invitees in the black glass. The evening ended with a vegan feast, networking, and a look at the festival week ahead.  When we left, uplifted by the galaxy of speakers, we found the car park submerged, reinforcing the dire context. Cars crawled through the rippling sea to the safety of higher ground, this time.

Day 2

Breaking down the barricades to well fed children

Processed, convenience, damaging foods dominate – children from all backgrounds fall victim to a high suger, salt and chemical dependency.  They turn up their nose at the humbler wholesome meals well intentioned parents prepare. There are exceptions, of course, but too often parents buy peace with sweets and crisps, avoid the meal battles surrendering to white pasta, avoid public shame by leaving demanding children behind when they shop. This is a health threat locally and globally additional to but reinforced by lack of money.

On Monday children packed into Jenny Chandler’s cookery session at the Trewern Arms, and were instantly captured by her. The secret of good eating, is cook it yourself. Make the magic, feel the ingredients with your hands, nose, mouth. Watch others experimenting, get drawn in. That this was unaccustomed shows in the deep reflective tasting of the burgers made by their own hands from local organic veg from the garden mentioned, and the wondrous pulse of Britain. The serviettes were empty and hands shot up for more.

After a break wherein Jenny’s cookery and food books flew off the table, it was the adults turn.

Finding the pulse

Jenny made dishes while talking: We learned about a traditional balanced diet and how this creates harmony within and without, in the body and in nature, its importance for mood and mental health. The core ingredient? Not leaves or roots, not meat or milk but the seed, the pulse. It was on the seed that civilisation grew tall. Seeds store future life. Wheat was key, but also rye, barley, oats, protein rich whole foods lasting through winters and lean years,. Also as horse power, the fuel of our transport and machinery before fossil fuels.

Seeds grow in Britain, not just the cereals but the pulse, the faver bean, peas, broad beans, field beans.  A cornucopia neglected.

On diet and cuisine, Jenny is homely and easy. Recognising the transformation that diet can bring to our lives, and the widespread need to wean ourselves of rubbish, there is no need for self denial or purism. Indulgence has always been part of our culture, our feasting. Meat grows magnificently on our grass, on higher lands. Animals belong in nature and animals eat each other, we are part of this chain.

She laughs at food demos’ fancy flourishes, complex procedures, exotic pinches of rare ingredients. She throws together native ingredients bought at humble prices. The seasons colour her culinary year, abundance is welcomed with open bowl. Let the ingredients shape the meal, allow the weather and land outside to shape the ingredients.

England’s beans are bulk grown for export to the middle east, we learned, some returning as falafel.  A million pointless miles we could short circuit tomorrow. The need to change diet is external and internal, global and gut. A healthy ecosystem is a rich variety of gut bacteria, a galaxy of plants and animals interacting. Each needs the other. We cant bring back a healthy gut biome and appetite overnight. They take time to grow, fed on the right foods, time to replace the sugar, salt and glutamate gut bacteria that demand feeding. Strict diets may trigger cravings and binging. Be gentle, take your taste buds to rehab.

Onto the land behind the food

We set out on a fine non raining Tuesday to explore a bit of the landscape of smallholders behind Newport.  Despite the financial and regulatory fist forcing farms into few giant intensive holdings, the mycelium of small holdings is spreading. Perhaps due to John Seymour’s influence, here they are dense enough for us to walk between them, with neighbours popping out en route to add to the resilience story. Small holdings around larger farms is the Welsh tradition.  The loss of people on the lanes and fields was a blip of the oil age, short lived it felt today.

Brithdir Mawr is 70 rolling acres between the river and the mountain, and one of Britain’s few surviving ‘intentional communities’. Which means you have to formally join it, adopt principles and rules, make contributions, go to the meetings.  Brithdir is off grid for everything, no water, gas, electricity or sewage services, only its own systems. The unusual one is electricity. Everywhere apart from a few remote islands and mountain tops, can access the National Grid in the UK. Brithdir chose to go it alone, and it is eye-opening to see how little generating equipment suffices, with a few lifestyle tweaks. The microhydro is the mainstay, with solar topping up especially in low rain summers.

The community of 20, rising up to 40 on volunteering weeks, is largely fed from the land. Several vegetable gardens supply the communal table year round, via larders full of preserves. Their tomato pesto is proverbial. We saw the multi coloured ranks of jars, an army ready to take on the winter and hungry gap. There are goats for milk, and sometimes pigs for meat while neighbours’ graze cattle on the acres and hay harvests are accomplished with tractor and horse sharing the load.

From our tour guide we absorbed the shared passion, the learning journey they are on, the step change of working as a community with its different decision making, the conviviality of the cooking living room and the wider impact this set up has on the stream of learners. Nearly every visit results in city escapees deciding to completely change their lives.  They are astonished to find that yes it is possible to live well within nature’s bounty in one place. This titanic planet destruction we are trapped on is not necessary. So many are leaping, there is a desperate need for more lifeboats, and practical educators!

We wandered the quiet road from Brithdir and passing a luxurious smallholding, out popped Ingar and Brian John. Brian was brought up in the county town of Haverfordwest with his father an old fashioned civic councillor, imparting on his son his ethic of civic responsibility. A legacy with repercussions.

Brian taught Geography at Durham University, married Ingar in Sweden, and took early ‘retirement’ back to Pembrokeshire to immerse himself in writing and local geology. History had other plans for him however. It needed his hand at the wheel.

The first energy crisis struck in the late 1970’s and Brian who had been at the founders meeting for CAT – Centre for Alternative Technology, founded Newport and Nevern Energy group which held a ground breaking energy show over 2 days and started one of the first bulk buys for home insulation which was not a thing at the time. Lorries rolled into Newport piled with rockwool for queues of insulation hungry home owners who had joined the club for the cut price deliveries. Mass home insulation saw the light of day in Newport. The Energy Group took on the abandoned Old School and started the first Eco centre. Young alternavistas wanted renewables not just insulation. Brian installed a mini wind turbine on the old school roof and argued like a terrier for its output, a few Watts, to be fed into the grid. The National grid had never heard of such a thing and said their engineers would be electrocuted. But the terrier wore them down. The first renewable was connected to the British grid thanks to the history harrier, Brian John or Giant Bron as my dyslexic son thought he was called. He then took on the National Parks planning system and I learned at his side to navigate the opaque high jump obstacle course to changing planning policy. This had repercussions..

When the UK was about to become a GM (genetically modified) food producing nation in the 1990’s, an organic farmer in Mathry started the fight back in Wales. Giant Bron strode in, along with a whole crew, scientists, political activists, more farmers, protesters, young people, retired people. The campaign was intense and 6 weeks long, as this was the planting window.  It won, and Brian went on, with the farmer and others to vanquish GM in all of Wales, then joined others to make the conditions for its growth ‘too arduous’ to continue, to quote Aventis a retreating GM seed conglomerate. Whether this battle was the key one or not, it was successful, the crusaders took the battle to the EU and changed rules there. We were sitting round the outdoor table in the glorious Autumn non rain.  The tour, released from the magic of mighty deeds in nearby lands and times,  resumed its way towards the next smallholding.

Before arriving we met a new orchard with apples for sale at the unmanned roadside table. Out popped the owners, another farmers daughter returned home with her partner. They had availed of a Wales only planning policy, One Planet Development. This relates back to the skills I learned from Brian John, where following his footsteps I proposed the policy to the Pembrokeshire planning inspector at the public enquiry. The enquiry is run like a high court case, with expert witnesses, the planning inspector as the judge and barristers in full regalia trying to crush the little team I had mustered. They beat us by fair means and mostly foul. But the team of expert witnesses I brought along had presented a conclusive case that the planning policy we sought, then called low impact development, was the answer for nature, climate, resource conservation, beauty and housing need. As the legal route was now blocked one of the expert witnesses, Tony Wrench, a practical man and ex councillor, went ahead to build an exemplar home anyway, at Brithdir Mawr, and lived in it with his wife peacefully for years until it was ‘spotted’. Then there was a 10 year battle by the planning Authority to enforce its demolition which failed and engaged the global news media. To resolve things, the new policy unique to Wales was born, and here we were viewing one of its recent beneficiaries. The orchard owners were completing their home, only possible because of the policy, they shared with us their happiness at being able to live and work as they had always dreamed. All that battling the system and winning resulted in a sustainable happy home coming. They were not the only returnees we would meet this week, with a home and rural business because the policy.

Opposite was a microbrewery on an organic farm, celebrating 10 years of success. The two – orchard and brewery had a symbiotic relationship.

We left the road on a public footpath through the orchard and over an ancient oak ringed hillock to the final small holding of the day to learn the benefits of regenerative mob grazing by the family’s longhorn cattle and poultry. Both parents had returned to their neighbouring family villages of Newport and Brynberian met and bought a ruined church at auction. The tour lunched by their new hempcrete barn whose mass walls stored carbon, heat and cool, sound.  Sheeps wool insulation was being installed, the building smelled sweet – the countryside embodied. Robin tugged up a chunk of grass roots to illustrate how mob grazing stimulates a deeper mass of roots, more productive grass as it is only lightly grazed before the herd moves on, emulating wild grazing habits. The roots make the earth bouncy and strong, resistant to heavy hoofs, wet and drought. Insects and small animals thrive in the earth and the sward above ground but below the grazing level. Wet areas of reeds had receded, replaced by stronger grasses. Improvements from the husbandry were tangible to wildlife and to productivity.

Our day had led us on a path through a lifescape: land, people and nature dynamically entwined. We had heard first hand how individuals and local action is part of and sometimes leads historic change. Far from a sideshow or a rural backwater it is a driver of fresh ways of doing things. We had not yet visited a farm feeding the population at large. This was about to be remedied.

The evening saw the Royal Oak, Newport upstairs room fill with audience for Dylan Robert’s talk on his family’s Llwyngwair farm, best known locally as Carningli Dairy.

There are endless meetings about the need for us to eat from sustainable nature loving farms, and they always end up bemoaning the gap between what the poor or now ordinary people can afford and the cost of producing sustainably.  The sustainable food remains niche because of its price, or is it that food is too cheap? Or accommodation too dear to leave money to eat? Is it our culture or some technical, regulatory of fiscal failure? The conversations gyre and gimble. The mass intensive boys win the price war and nature and our health lose. These meeting attendees should have been here this evening.

Dylan’s family have farmed here for three generations. He shows photos of his grandparents and their cattle at the shows. He and his father now farm, with a small team. Visiting his farm earlier in the year demonstrated the affection between the cattle and humans, they stroll over to inspect their visitors and enjoy a rub. They wander in to be milked at will attracted by a few nuts as a tipple. They are mainly grass fed, only indoors in the wet of the winter to protect the grass. The grass is stitch sewn, no ploughing, no pesticides or herbicides. The milk is not homogenised or sterilisied or standardised it has cream on top. It is only pasteurised. Dylan started a milk round during covid, realising then the importance of the milkman’s call. How was it that some people just happened to be at the door every time they delivered at the same time? He hoped to sell 300 bottles a week. He misjudged. The number has risen steadily. He now sells 3000+ bottles a week in summer, 2000 + in winter with fewer visitors. 1 litre glass bottles with wide necks for washing, each cost £1.50 delivered, less to the shops and restaurants. All are sold within 10 miles. This is a significant proportion of the population.

What are the rewards? The van is a loved icon, everywhere it goes people wave with a surprised smile as if recounting a friend. Dylan’s children going on the round, ask, why is everyone waving? Do you know them all? It is the human ecosystem reborn. Community. Dylan tells us it makes him feel proud.

Wild inventions

Wednesday saw over 20 people trapse up from Newport to the lower slopes of Carningli where a couple left their vetinary jobs to raise children and live off this beautiful land between the mountain and the town. Their life has been embattled as some wealthy home owners nearby decided to try to drive them out. The cost has been great in money, time and emotion to the young family. Despite this their venture is an icon of solutions and inventiveness using scrap and cheap materials to meet human needs. The tour goers meet the attitudes and personality behind technical wonders the home spun house, made of all sorts of materials, a biodigester creating gas for cooking out of humble garden weeds and waste. There is fun and inventiveness round every corner. The family harvest from the wild, turning weeds into meals to supplement the poultry, veg and honey they produce. The mountain meadows are north sloping. Their opponants said there was no chance of living off this land. They are proving that hard grazed thin soil can turn to abundant wild productivity in a decade.

It is time to open the gates to the wider community of small producers, via the Food Fair. Markets of individual traders, usually outside was the traditional way to shop, then there were market halls, and permanent food shops, greengrocer, butcher, baker and general store, and in the last half century global trade and supermarkets bulldozed all but a vestige of our shopping heritage.  Oil powered and oil doomed. It is vital to pick up the threads of the forever ways and weave something that will last again. What it will be only time and our efforts will reveal.

27 stalls were coming to sell local foods, all the essentials and some indulgencies. Then a yellow storm blew up, with gales and floods so producers travelling from other counties cancelled, others set out and turned back.  We lost charcouterie, wine, sheeps cheese, tea blends, cider and gin. Rum made it, and we kept all the essentials as they were from nearby – the breads, meats, eggs, cheese, flour, preserves and also innovative birch sap syrup and seaweed savouries and cakes, and the dedicated coffee blending ladies and Syrian cooks.  And mountains of organic vegetables. A fast redesign of the hall eliminated gaps.

The market fair was ever a time to socialise as well as shop. The hall committee on the stage refuelled the tea cups.

Producers took turns to leave their stall to tell the story of their endeavours. Audiences shared their journey, the childhood influences, life changing decisions, the emerging bond with the trade and its characteristic moments. Then the children of this journey, the foods that shine with their provenance, sustain and delight. There was also the political dimension, they are up against the combined might of money, chemicals, adverts and political heft. A far different thing to screen entertainment. The audience is vital to the stories’ sequel.

All stalls did well and some basics like the bread and meat sold out before the afternoon. By evening a troupe went to the other end of town to Llys Meddyg for afters: a chocolate and wine tasting session.

We were now at the last phase of the festival week, filling missing elements, planning the future and unwinding with a party.

We still had beef and veg farms to visit, and more for children as it was half term.

Friday’s family day started with a tour of Nevern Valley Veg, picking up their produce for the day’s meals.

Naomi, brought up two miles away on a veg growing small holding returned to her parents’ town with Richard. They now have permission to build an eco home on their 7 acres with the OPD policy mentioned. Their field supplies a range of organic veg to families and shops five miles around, a density that allows them to progress to a strong electric cargo bike for deliveries. Their holding is dedicated to feeding nature as well as people, using habitat to lure in predators – frogs, barn owls, mice, birds, bats, bees to control their pests and to pollinate. Richard related how the white barn owl roosted in their barn and disappeared for its nights hunting when they arrived,  but now spends his nights hunting within sight as their field has grown so abundant in prey. The holding uses the river to irrigate and the sun to pump its water up to the crops. An electrical engineer upgraded a flimsy leisure garden solar PV system to a heavy duty pump and inverter system.

Young adults manned the apple pressing, dinner making, cake making, collage and bird feeder creation tables, and children circulated and joined in at will. The youngest ones made full use of the halls giant floor space. Parents, children, onlookers, cooks  sat down together to eat the fare, another entirely plant based meal and I saw no rejections among the 21 children around long table.

Back in the hall, the food for the children cleared away, Myfanwy cooked for the evening. It was meant to be simple, but being her, ended up sumptuous another plants only mini banquet. She co-runs rebel kitchen feeding the thousands on the streets all over the UK at climate and other protests.

Carwyn Graves arrived and drew a large crowd to set our efforts into the context of Wales food history. He shared the hidden historic traditions and local dish names, that were once everywhere in Wales but went unsung as they were just ordinary until they vanished to the remote corners where he found the traditions still live in practice or as memories. The stories are collected into his latest book. Unfortunately the batch he brought sold out within minutes.

Now was the part of the festival I hoped and feared the most, the community meeting to plan ahead.

I prayed this would not just be a one week jolly but lead to something more permanent, I had no way of controlling the outcome. It was led by Jess Seaton and Cris Tomos who has inspired so many community owned initiatives Despite the conversation wandering down channels with turbulent counter currents it was brought back to a vote on one of the proposals put forward:

Everyone voted for a community purchase of the town whole food shop whose failure to sell was putting the business at risk of closure. There was hope to grow its local food ethos, and add more cooking and teaching to extend the food festival achievements.

The meeting  wanted to extens the appeal of sustainable local food socially, breaking free of its rich niche confines.

Fishguard food festival organisers reported on the neighbouring town’s food festival, taking place concurrently.  It was a huge success.

Relationship and collaboration was the way forward from here, using our knife and fork to recalibrate the economy and landscape.

So the following day a group – most had been on several tours, went on one final one up Carningli the Vaughans long hord farm. Robert shared his family history farming since the 1700’s, and we met the awesome cows, calves and bull herd, responding to our presence from a little distance. They made humans feel small and temporary with their shaggy ancestral aura of a mammoth bison cross. We enjoyed the no punches pulled nitty gritty life of farmer and herd, laughing on the mountainside

We had heard of the nutrient dense flavour and purses came out, but demand was growing faster than the slow growing ancient breed. there was none for sale.

So the week ended with a party at the Trewern where there was music, ten folk musicians taking it in turns to lead and two bands. Another networking opportunity. I found a team for a new community growing garden we are starting in the county town.

This was one village sized town’s festival. Zoom out and discover it is not unique, Fishguard had food festival at the same time, over two weeks. This, its first festival, was incredibly successful, 400 at its food fair, a sold out cinema to learn about sustainable sea farming a packed hall for the finale banquet prepared by students under the guidance of Alex Heff Wales renowned chefs. Its secret was the determined combined efforts of the town, as with all their multitude of festivals that define the town and have lifted it clear of the depression and dereliction that have claimed so many rural towns as shopping habits change

Zoom further out and discover the food festivals of Aberteifi, Abergwaun, Hwlfordd and Arberth (also called Cardigan, Fishguard, Haverfordwest and Narberth). Abergwaun’s was running concurrently over both English and Welsh half terms. It was its first and was spectacular with high numbers. It had the shared power of the towns’s organisations behind it, the Rotary club, the Chamber of Trade the school, the Round Table.

Narberth’s in September draws nearly half its 1000’s of attendees from outside the county.  Haverfordwest’s in August sees fills the town’s central shopping streets, the shops spilling out onto the streets along with guest stalls and performers.  Cardigan’s earlier in August embraces the river as well as land based food.

The thousands attending show the appetite to deepen the life sustaining experience that connects us to the earth, its farmers and each other. 

Food Festival Week In Review

Day 1: Sunday 29th October – Launch, Newport Boat Club

The Food Festival Week in the coastal Welsh town commences with a boat club event, drawing in 50 invitees. Upstairs at Newport/Trefdraeth boat club, a local choir harmonizes folk songs ancient and new as day one unfolds. Jim Bowen sets the stage for the festival, emphasizing its connection to the anthropomorphic climate catastrophe. Resilience stories from local businesses like Havards, the first community-owned hardware shop in Britain, an organic market garden, and Nevern Valley Veg, a community-supported organic vegetable supplier, create a powerful impact. The vegan feast, hosted against the backdrop of rising tides, leaves attendees uplifted and ready for the week ahead. The choir’s performance adds a cultural touch to the evening, creating a memorable atmosphere that resonates with the festival’s theme of community and resilience.

Day 2: Monday 30th October – Chefs’ Day
Trewern Arms, Nevern

Day two of the Food Festival Week brought together a diverse audience at the Trewern Arms for a captivating culinary experience led by the renowned Jenny Chandler. A vibrant children’s cooking session was followed by a demo and in depth talk to the adults. Jenny’s hands-on cooking session went beyond addressing children’s nutrition, delving into the broader realm of sustainable living and mindful dietary choices. The room buzzed with the aroma of locally sourced, organic vegetables transforming into burgers. Attendees left not only with practical cooking skills but also a deeper connection to the importance of local, seasonal ingredients. The day showcased the power of culinary exploration to engage and inspire all ages, fostering a commitment to mindful and sustainable eating habits.

Making veggie and pulse burger with Jenny Chandler
Thoughtful tasting led to 2nd helpings all round
Mums buying the books helped by kids

Day 3: Tuesday 31st October – Farming Day

Touring smallholdings, listening to farmers

Our exploration of Newport’s smallholder landscapes showcased the resilience of sustainable communities. Brithdir Mawr, a 70-acre intentional community was the first stop, demonstrating off-grid living with microhydro and solar power. The community of over 20 individuals shared a commitment to communal living and sustainable practices.

Encounters with individuals like Brian John, a pioneer in renewable energy and advocate against genetically modified food production, added depth to our journey. The walking tour continued to include visits to an orchard benefitting from Wales’ unique planning policy, a thriving microbrewery, and a smallholding practicing regenerative mob grazing.

Evening brought us to Dylan Roberts of Carningli Dairy, highlighting three generations of commitment to sustainable farming practices, providing locally produced, grass-fed milk to the community.

This immersive day left us with profound insights into sustainable living and a deeper appreciation for the intricate connections between people, land, and nature that define these communities.

Day 4: Wednesday 1st November – Wild Living Day

Wednesday brought over 20 people from Newport to the lower slopes of Carningli, where a couple who left their vetinary jobs to raise children and live off this beautiful land between the mountain and the town, now face challenges from affluent neighbours trying to drive them out. Despite financial and emotional costs, their sustainable lifestyle is a symbol of creativity, using scrap materials for their home and a biodigester turning garden weeds into cooking gas. The family’s inventive approach extends to harvesting from the wild and transforming weeds into meals. Defying skeptics, the once hard-grazed mountain meadows now boast abundant productivity, challenging preconceived notions about sustainable living in challenging environments.

Mountainside smallholdings return

Day 5: Thursday 2nd November – The Food Fair, Newport Hall

Grand Food Fair, Newport Hall.

A vibrant local food market featuring 27 stalls was set to sell essentials and indulgences, but a sudden yellow storm with gales and floods led to cancellations from producers in other counties. Despite the challenges, essential items like bread, meats, eggs, cheese, flour, preserves, and innovative products such as birch sap syrup, seaweed savories, and cakes, along with mountains of organic vegetables, were available. The hall underwent a fast redesign to accommodate the changes. The market fair, known for socializing, became an opportunity for producers to share their stories with audiences, highlighting childhood influences, life-changing decisions, and the challenges they face against powerful forces in the industry. The event was not just about shopping but also about connecting with the community.

All stalls did well and basics like the bread and meat sold out before the afternoon. The evening ended at the other end of town at Llys Meddyg for afters: a chocolate and wine tasting session.

Day 6: Friday 3rd Nov – Family Cooking Day

Friday’s family day unfolded with a captivating tour of Nevern Valley Veg, owned by Naomi and Richard, who operate under the One Planet Development policy on their 7-acre field. Their commitment to sustainability involves cultivating biodiversity, utilizing river irrigation, and employing solar-powered water pumps.

The community hall later buzzed with activities, from apple pressing to making bird feeders. Ein Gegin and Blue Green Cymru led childrens cooking and crafting. Supper was a plant-based feast by Myfanwy of Rebel Kitchen. Carwyn Graves, an expert in Welsh food history, shared insights into forgotten culinary traditions, captivating the audience with tales from his latest book.

A community meeting led by Jess Seaton and Cris Tomos then took center stage. During which a unanimous vote was reached supporting the community’s purchase of the town’s whole food shop currently at a risk of closure.

The community expressed a collective desire to broaden the impact of sustainable local food beyond its niche market, and Fishguard food festival organizers highlighted the success of the neighbouring town’s concurrent food festival.

Tour of organic horticulture market garden
Another day of children cooking with Ein Cegin

Day 7: Saturday 4th Nov – Farm Visit Day

A final journey to Carningli, exploring the Vaughan family’s long-horned farm. Robert shared generations of farming history dating back to the 1700s, introducing us to the majestic cows, calves, and bull herd.

The week concluded with a lively party at Trewern featuring music, with ten folk musicians taking turns and two bands. This gathering provided yet another opportunity for networking, where a team for a new community growing garden starting in the county town was found.

Closing Party
Food festival party poster
Folk musicians before the bands

The support for a community purchase of the whole-food shop is one example of the self belief and confidence in collective action which has been energised by the food festival. Food Festivals in Newport and Fishguard in 2023 have launched this and several similar initiatives.

Globally the storm clouds roll, adding urgency to build nature and people positive lifeboats to chart the future seas.

Read the full Newport Food Festival 2023 project report

A Food Festival week in a tiny coastal Welsh town, a deep dive into local food and the farmers and land behind it. Here’s the festival week, recalled.

Day one,  the launch

Newport/ Trefdraeth boat club is mapped to be submerged in the coming decades by the rising sea.

Upstairs as the day waned and the tide rose, a local group of men harmonised folk songs ancient and new. Then Jim Bowen set the context for the food festival within the anthropomorphic climate catastrophe the world is entering. Why food security and farming matters now more than ever, how it can heal not harm the world and our countryside.

Then 13 lightening speakers shared 13 resilience stories. Some were from the village outside; Havards is the first community owned hardware shop in Britain, the community raised over £400,000 to buy it rather than loose it. An organic market garden two miles away feeding many in the town, run by child of the town returned with her partner, both successful by their second year. Multiple and varied stories from near and far added their spark to the path ahead, revealing the multifaceted colours of resilience.

Night fell on high tide, the view of the sea was replaced by reflections of the 50 invitees in the black glass. The evening ended with a vegan feast, networking, and a look at the festival week ahead.  When we left, uplifted by the galaxy of speakers, we found the car park submerged, reinforcing the dire context. Cars crawled through the rippling sea to the safety of higher ground, this time.

Day 2

Breaking down the barricades to well fed children

Processed, convenience, damaging foods dominate – children from all backgrounds fall victim to a high suger, salt and chemical dependency.  They turn up their nose at the humbler wholesome meals well intentioned parents prepare. There are exceptions, of course, but too often parents buy peace with sweets and crisps, avoid the meal battles surrendering to white pasta, avoid public shame by leaving demanding children behind when they shop. This is a health threat locally and globally additional to but reinforced by lack of money.

On Monday children packed into Jenny Chandler’s cookery session at the Trewern Arms, and were instantly captured by her. The secret of good eating, is cook it yourself. Make the magic, feel the ingredients with your hands, nose, mouth. Watch others experimenting, get drawn in. That this was unaccustomed shows in the deep reflective tasting of the burgers made by their own hands from local organic veg from the garden mentioned, and the wondrous pulse of Britain. The serviettes were empty and hands shot up for more.

After a break wherein Jenny’s cookery and food books flew off the table, it was the adults turn.

Finding the pulse

Jenny made dishes while talking: We learned about a traditional balanced diet and how this creates harmony within and without, in the body and in nature, its importance for mood and mental health. The core ingredient? Not leaves or roots, not meat or milk but the seed, the pulse. It was on the seed that civilisation grew tall. Seeds store future life. Wheat was key, but also rye, barley, oats, protein rich whole foods lasting through winters and lean years,. Also as horse power, the fuel of our transport and machinery before fossil fuels.

Seeds grow in Britain, not just the cereals but the pulse, the faver bean, peas, broad beans, field beans.  A cornucopia neglected.

On diet and cuisine, Jenny is homely and easy. Recognising the transformation that diet can bring to our lives, and the widespread need to wean ourselves of rubbish, there is no need for self denial or purism. Indulgence has always been part of our culture, our feasting. Meat grows magnificently on our grass, on higher lands. Animals belong in nature and animals eat each other, we are part of this chain.

She laughs at food demos’ fancy flourishes, complex procedures, exotic pinches of rare ingredients. She throws together native ingredients bought at humble prices. The seasons colour her culinary year, abundance is welcomed with open bowl. Let the ingredients shape the meal, allow the weather and land outside to shape the ingredients.

England’s beans are bulk grown for export to the middle east, we learned, some returning as falafel.  A million pointless miles we could short circuit tomorrow. The need to change diet is external and internal, global and gut. A healthy ecosystem is a rich variety of gut bacteria, a galaxy of plants and animals interacting. Each needs the other. We cant bring back a healthy gut biome and appetite overnight. They take time to grow, fed on the right foods, time to replace the sugar, salt and glutamate gut bacteria that demand feeding. Strict diets may trigger cravings and binging. Be gentle, take your taste buds to rehab.

Onto the land behind the food

We set out on a fine non raining Tuesday to explore a bit of the landscape of smallholders behind Newport.  Despite the financial and regulatory fist forcing farms into few giant intensive holdings, the mycelium of small holdings is spreading. Perhaps due to John Seymour’s influence, here they are dense enough for us to walk between them, with neighbours popping out en route to add to the resilience story. Small holdings around larger farms is the Welsh tradition.  The loss of people on the lanes and fields was a blip of the oil age, short lived it felt today.

Brithdir Mawr is 70 rolling acres between the river and the mountain, and one of Britain’s few surviving ‘intentional communities’. Which means you have to formally join it, adopt principles and rules, make contributions, go to the meetings.  Brithdir is off grid for everything, no water, gas, electricity or sewage services, only its own systems. The unusual one is electricity. Everywhere apart from a few remote islands and mountain tops, can access the National Grid in the UK. Brithdir chose to go it alone, and it is eye-opening to see how little generating equipment suffices, with a few lifestyle tweaks. The microhydro is the mainstay, with solar topping up especially in low rain summers.

The community of 20, rising up to 40 on volunteering weeks, is largely fed from the land. Several vegetable gardens supply the communal table year round, via larders full of preserves. Their tomato pesto is proverbial. We saw the multi coloured ranks of jars, an army ready to take on the winter and hungry gap. There are goats for milk, and sometimes pigs for meat while neighbours’ graze cattle on the acres and hay harvests are accomplished with tractor and horse sharing the load.

From our tour guide we absorbed the shared passion, the learning journey they are on, the step change of working as a community with its different decision making, the conviviality of the cooking living room and the wider impact this set up has on the stream of learners. Nearly every visit results in city escapees deciding to completely change their lives.  They are astonished to find that yes it is possible to live well within nature’s bounty in one place. This titanic planet destruction we are trapped on is not necessary. So many are leaping, there is a desperate need for more lifeboats, and practical educators!

We wandered the quiet road from Brithdir and passing a luxurious smallholding, out popped Ingar and Brian John. Brian was brought up in the county town of Haverfordwest with his father an old fashioned civic councillor, imparting on his son his ethic of civic responsibility. A legacy with repercussions.

Brian taught Geography at Durham University, married Ingar in Sweden, and took early ‘retirement’ back to Pembrokeshire to immerse himself in writing and local geology. History had other plans for him however. It needed his hand at the wheel.

The first energy crisis struck in the late 1970’s and Brian who had been at the founders meeting for CAT – Centre for Alternative Technology, founded Newport and Nevern Energy group which held a ground breaking energy show over 2 days and started one of the first bulk buys for home insulation which was not a thing at the time. Lorries rolled into Newport piled with rockwool for queues of insulation hungry home owners who had joined the club for the cut price deliveries. Mass home insulation saw the light of day in Newport. The Energy Group took on the abandoned Old School and started the first Eco centre. Young alternavistas wanted renewables not just insulation. Brian installed a mini wind turbine on the old school roof and argued like a terrier for its output, a few Watts, to be fed into the grid. The National grid had never heard of such a thing and said their engineers would be electrocuted. But the terrier wore them down. The first renewable was connected to the British grid thanks to the history harrier, Brian John or Giant Bron as my dyslexic son thought he was called. He then took on the National Parks planning system and I learned at his side to navigate the opaque high jump obstacle course to changing planning policy. This had repercussions..

When the UK was about to become a GM (genetically modified) food producing nation in the 1990’s, an organic farmer in Mathry started the fight back in Wales. Giant Bron strode in, along with a whole crew, scientists, political activists, more farmers, protesters, young people, retired people. The campaign was intense and 6 weeks long, as this was the planting window.  It won, and Brian went on, with the farmer and others to vanquish GM in all of Wales, then joined others to make the conditions for its growth ‘too arduous’ to continue, to quote Aventis a retreating GM seed conglomerate. Whether this battle was the key one or not, it was successful, the crusaders took the battle to the EU and changed rules there. We were sitting round the outdoor table in the glorious Autumn non rain.  The tour, released from the magic of mighty deeds in nearby lands and times,  resumed its way towards the next smallholding.

Before arriving we met a new orchard with apples for sale at the unmanned roadside table. Out popped the owners, another farmers daughter returned home with her partner. They had availed of a Wales only planning policy, One Planet Development. This relates back to the skills I learned from Brian John, where following his footsteps I proposed the policy to the Pembrokeshire planning inspector at the public enquiry. The enquiry is run like a high court case, with expert witnesses, the planning inspector as the judge and barristers in full regalia trying to crush the little team I had mustered. They beat us by fair means and mostly foul. But the team of expert witnesses I brought along had presented a conclusive case that the planning policy we sought, then called low impact development, was the answer for nature, climate, resource conservation, beauty and housing need. As the legal route was now blocked one of the expert witnesses, Tony Wrench, a practical man and ex councillor, went ahead to build an exemplar home anyway, at Brithdir Mawr, and lived in it with his wife peacefully for years until it was ‘spotted’. Then there was a 10 year battle by the planning Authority to enforce its demolition which failed and engaged the global news media. To resolve things, the new policy unique to Wales was born, and here we were viewing one of its recent beneficiaries. The orchard owners were completing their home, only possible because of the policy, they shared with us their happiness at being able to live and work as they had always dreamed. All that battling the system and winning resulted in a sustainable happy home coming. They were not the only returnees we would meet this week, with a home and rural business because the policy.

Opposite was a microbrewery on an organic farm, celebrating 10 years of success. The two – orchard and brewery had a symbiotic relationship.

We left the road on a public footpath through the orchard and over an ancient oak ringed hillock to the final small holding of the day to learn the benefits of regenerative mob grazing by the family’s longhorn cattle and poultry. Both parents had returned to their neighbouring family villages of Newport and Brynberian met and bought a ruined church at auction. The tour lunched by their new hempcrete barn whose mass walls stored carbon, heat and cool, sound.  Sheeps wool insulation was being installed, the building smelled sweet – the countryside embodied. Robin tugged up a chunk of grass roots to illustrate how mob grazing stimulates a deeper mass of roots, more productive grass as it is only lightly grazed before the herd moves on, emulating wild grazing habits. The roots make the earth bouncy and strong, resistant to heavy hoofs, wet and drought. Insects and small animals thrive in the earth and the sward above ground but below the grazing level. Wet areas of reeds had receded, replaced by stronger grasses. Improvements from the husbandry were tangible to wildlife and to productivity.

Our day had led us on a path through a lifescape: land, people and nature dynamically entwined. We had heard first hand how individuals and local action is part of and sometimes leads historic change. Far from a sideshow or a rural backwater it is a driver of fresh ways of doing things. We had not yet visited a farm feeding the population at large. This was about to be remedied.

The evening saw the Royal Oak, Newport upstairs room fill with audience for Dylan Robert’s talk on his family’s Llwyngwair farm, best known locally as Carningli Dairy.

There are endless meetings about the need for us to eat from sustainable nature loving farms, and they always end up bemoaning the gap between what the poor or now ordinary people can afford and the cost of producing sustainably.  The sustainable food remains niche because of its price, or is it that food is too cheap? Or accommodation too dear to leave money to eat? Is it our culture or some technical, regulatory of fiscal failure? The conversations gyre and gimble. The mass intensive boys win the price war and nature and our health lose. These meeting attendees should have been here this evening.

Dylan’s family have farmed here for three generations. He shows photos of his grandparents and their cattle at the shows. He and his father now farm, with a small team. Visiting his farm earlier in the year demonstrated the affection between the cattle and humans, they stroll over to inspect their visitors and enjoy a rub. They wander in to be milked at will attracted by a few nuts as a tipple. They are mainly grass fed, only indoors in the wet of the winter to protect the grass. The grass is stitch sewn, no ploughing, no pesticides or herbicides. The milk is not homogenised or sterilisied or standardised it has cream on top. It is only pasteurised. Dylan started a milk round during covid, realising then the importance of the milkman’s call. How was it that some people just happened to be at the door every time they delivered at the same time? He hoped to sell 300 bottles a week. He misjudged. The number has risen steadily. He now sells 3000+ bottles a week in summer, 2000 + in winter with fewer visitors. 1 litre glass bottles with wide necks for washing, each cost £1.50 delivered, less to the shops and restaurants. All are sold within 10 miles. This is a significant proportion of the population.

What are the rewards? The van is a loved icon, everywhere it goes people wave with a surprised smile as if recounting a friend. Dylan’s children going on the round, ask, why is everyone waving? Do you know them all? It is the human ecosystem reborn. Community. Dylan tells us it makes him feel proud.

Wild inventions

Wednesday saw over 20 people trapse up from Newport to the lower slopes of Carningli where a couple left their vetinary jobs to raise children and live off this beautiful land between the mountain and the town. Their life has been embattled as some wealthy home owners nearby decided to try to drive them out. The cost has been great in money, time and emotion to the young family. Despite this their venture is an icon of solutions and inventiveness using scrap and cheap materials to meet human needs. The tour goers meet the attitudes and personality behind technical wonders the home spun house, made of all sorts of materials, a biodigester creating gas for cooking out of humble garden weeds and waste. There is fun and inventiveness round every corner. The family harvest from the wild, turning weeds into meals to supplement the poultry, veg and honey they produce. The mountain meadows are north sloping. Their opponants said there was no chance of living off this land. They are proving that hard grazed thin soil can turn to abundant wild productivity in a decade.

It is time to open the gates to the wider community of small producers, via the Food Fair. Markets of individual traders, usually outside was the traditional way to shop, then there were market halls, and permanent food shops, greengrocer, butcher, baker and general store, and in the last half century global trade and supermarkets bulldozed all but a vestige of our shopping heritage.  Oil powered and oil doomed. It is vital to pick up the threads of the forever ways and weave something that will last again. What it will be only time and our efforts will reveal.

27 stalls were coming to sell local foods, all the essentials and some indulgencies. Then a yellow storm blew up, with gales and floods so producers travelling from other counties cancelled, others set out and turned back.  We lost charcouterie, wine, sheeps cheese, tea blends, cider and gin. Rum made it, and we kept all the essentials as they were from nearby – the breads, meats, eggs, cheese, flour, preserves and also innovative birch sap syrup and seaweed savouries and cakes, and the dedicated coffee blending ladies and Syrian cooks.  And mountains of organic vegetables. A fast redesign of the hall eliminated gaps.

The market fair was ever a time to socialise as well as shop. The hall committee on the stage refuelled the tea cups.

Producers took turns to leave their stall to tell the story of their endeavours. Audiences shared their journey, the childhood influences, life changing decisions, the emerging bond with the trade and its characteristic moments. Then the children of this journey, the foods that shine with their provenance, sustain and delight. There was also the political dimension, they are up against the combined might of money, chemicals, adverts and political heft. A far different thing to screen entertainment. The audience is vital to the stories’ sequel.

All stalls did well and some basics like the bread and meat sold out before the afternoon. By evening a troupe went to the other end of town to Llys Meddyg for afters: a chocolate and wine tasting session.

We were now at the last phase of the festival week, filling missing elements, planning the future and unwinding with a party.

We still had beef and veg farms to visit, and more for children as it was half term.

Friday’s family day started with a tour of Nevern Valley Veg, picking up their produce for the day’s meals.

Naomi, brought up two miles away on a veg growing small holding returned to her parents’ town with Richard. They now have permission to build an eco home on their 7 acres with the OPD policy mentioned. Their field supplies a range of organic veg to families and shops five miles around, a density that allows them to progress to a strong electric cargo bike for deliveries. Their holding is dedicated to feeding nature as well as people, using habitat to lure in predators – frogs, barn owls, mice, birds, bats, bees to control their pests and to pollinate. Richard related how the white barn owl roosted in their barn and disappeared for its nights hunting when they arrived,  but now spends his nights hunting within sight as their field has grown so abundant in prey. The holding uses the river to irrigate and the sun to pump its water up to the crops. An electrical engineer upgraded a flimsy leisure garden solar PV system to a heavy duty pump and inverter system.

Young adults manned the apple pressing, dinner making, cake making, collage and bird feeder creation tables, and children circulated and joined in at will. The youngest ones made full use of the halls giant floor space. Parents, children, onlookers, cooks  sat down together to eat the fare, another entirely plant based meal and I saw no rejections among the 21 children around long table.

Back in the hall, the food for the children cleared away, Myfanwy cooked for the evening. It was meant to be simple, but being her, ended up sumptuous another plants only mini banquet. She co-runs rebel kitchen feeding the thousands on the streets all over the UK at climate and other protests.

Carwyn Graves arrived and drew a large crowd to set our efforts into the context of Wales food history. He shared the hidden historic traditions and local dish names, that were once everywhere in Wales but went unsung as they were just ordinary until they vanished to the remote corners where he found the traditions still live in practice or as memories. The stories are collected into his latest book. Unfortunately the batch he brought sold out within minutes.

Now was the part of the festival I hoped and feared the most, the community meeting to plan ahead.

I prayed this would not just be a one week jolly but lead to something more permanent, I had no way of controlling the outcome. It was led by Jess Seaton and Cris Tomos who has inspired so many community owned initiatives Despite the conversation wandering down channels with turbulent counter currents it was brought back to a vote on one of the proposals put forward:

Everyone voted for a community purchase of the town whole food shop whose failure to sell was putting the business at risk of closure. There was hope to grow its local food ethos, and add more cooking and teaching to extend the food festival achievements.

The meeting  wanted to extens the appeal of sustainable local food socially, breaking free of its rich niche confines.

Fishguard food festival organisers reported on the neighbouring town’s food festival, taking place concurrently.  It was a huge success.

Relationship and collaboration was the way forward from here, using our knife and fork to recalibrate the economy and landscape.

So the following day a group – most had been on several tours, went on one final one up Carningli the Vaughans long hord farm. Robert shared his family history farming since the 1700’s, and we met the awesome cows, calves and bull herd, responding to our presence from a little distance. They made humans feel small and temporary with their shaggy ancestral aura of a mammoth bison cross. We enjoyed the no punches pulled nitty gritty life of farmer and herd, laughing on the mountainside

We had heard of the nutrient dense flavour and purses came out, but demand was growing faster than the slow growing ancient breed. there was none for sale.

So the week ended with a party at the Trewern where there was music, ten folk musicians taking it in turns to lead and two bands. Another networking opportunity. I found a team for a new community growing garden we are starting in the county town.

This was one village sized town’s festival. Zoom out and discover it is not unique, Fishguard had food festival at the same time, over two weeks. This, its first festival, was incredibly successful, 400 at its food fair, a sold out cinema to learn about sustainable sea farming a packed hall for the finale banquet prepared by students under the guidance of Alex Heff Wales renowned chefs. Its secret was the determined combined efforts of the town, as with all their multitude of festivals that define the town and have lifted it clear of the depression and dereliction that have claimed so many rural towns as shopping habits change

Zoom further out and discover the food festivals of Aberteifi, Abergwaun, Hwlfordd and Arberth (also called Cardigan, Fishguard, Haverfordwest and Narberth). Abergwaun’s was running concurrently over both English and Welsh half terms. It was its first and was spectacular with high numbers. It had the shared power of the towns’s organisations behind it, the Rotary club, the Chamber of Trade the school, the Round Table.

Narberth’s in September draws nearly half its 1000’s of attendees from outside the county.  Haverfordwest’s in August sees fills the town’s central shopping streets, the shops spilling out onto the streets along with guest stalls and performers.  Cardigan’s earlier in August embraces the river as well as land based food.

The thousands attending show the appetite to deepen the life sustaining experience that connects us to the earth, its farmers and each other. 

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