Come into the parlour

Port Talbot is a bit like Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony – things keep popping up! But these are pop-ups that all involve food. Now, wouldn’t that have been something in the Olympic Stadium – an edible stage set? The Olympic Torch one gigantic flaming sambucca? Not very British though.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Olympics’ opening ceremony. I liked some of the content but I felt the concept was more stage set than big arena spectacle. But I did stop watching before the lighting of the torch and I’ve been assured that was the cherry on the icing on the cake. That’s far more British.

I am in Wales again, this time for a trip around a forest, a trip around the docks and a trip around the mayor’s parlour.  Don’t you love the word ‘parlour’? From the French parler – to speak — and originally used for a room set aside for receiving and speaking to people. So that’s spot on for the Mayor’s room in the Civic Centre. Although the phrase, 'The Mayor's Parlour' makes me think of plumpness: overstuffed chairs and waistcoats stretched over bellies.

Parlours had their day in both grand and less grand homes. My parents’ house on Sandfields Estate was built with two downstairs rooms: the front room that we called the parlour, and the living room at the back of the house. The parlour was where we had an early family portrait taken. I remember those faint leaves floating up the skin of the wallpaper. The green patterned carpet had just been laid: you can make out a cut-off in the background. It was 1964 and we are a perfect advertisement for the drip-dry family: courtelle, nylon, crimpelene. 

One Christmas Day my sister and I sneaked downstairs in the early hours of the morning to find there were no presents in front of the gas fire in the living room.  With our hearts knocking in our chests we started to look around the house and found them in the parlour and, in prize of place, a dolls’ house my dad had made, the roof papered with brick patterned wallpaper. Slowly, and with some difficulty, we carried it into the living room, then went back to shift the rest of the presents too.

‘But we put them in there so you’d have more room and there'd be less mess in here,’ my mother said when she got up and found us in a sea of wrapping paper in the living room. But the parlour wasn’t where we lived, where we ate and watched TV. That room was for unfamiliar things.

The division has gone now. The wall between the front room and the hall was demolished making an open plan space with the staircase in the corner. It has the dining table in it now, an oak and stained glass bookcase from my paternal grandfather’s house, a computer desk for my mother’s laptop and CD player. We eat here when there are more than three of us at home. My great niece and nephew dance in here when they visit. Lulu’s ‘Shout’ is a favourite. We play table-top games here. My mother keeps any flowers she has in this room because it’s cooler than the living room which faces south-west. And it’s always the front-room now, never the parlour. But there’s still a sense of otherness about it, as if it’s been set aside for possibilities, not the business of everyday, ordinary living. 

To return to Port Talbot’s pop-ups. A crop of new eateries have sprung into being during the last couple of months:
  • Gelato Gatti: home-made ice-cream, coffees and sweet nibbles on the Prom at Aberafan Beach.
  • The Copper Penny: a Marstons family pub and carvery restaurant on Baglan Moors.
  • Giovanni’s: an Italian Restaurant at The Grand Hotel opposite the station in town.
  • Trellis: a café for traditional afternoon teas in Forge Road in the centre of town that promises the cakes of angels.
I’ve ticked the first two off my list and I’ve only been here two days: I highly recommend them both. After making myself go for a two mile run this morning, up and back down the Prom, a cafe latte at Gelato Gatti's was my reward. And I was very happy with the Spring Lamb Stew with Broad Beans and Spring Onions at The Copper Penny late this afternoon. Giovanni’s is booked for next Friday. I’m looking to fit in Trellis one weekday afternoon. Well, a girl has to eat.

Perhaps it’s true that there are two types of businesses you can always rely on to ride the tide of tightened budgets during recessions: the ones that involve food and the ones that involve death. And they both can have parlours. 

Of course, if you have a parlour, you're very likely to have a mantlepiece. The Copper Penny has a mantlepiece with my kind of ornament on it.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something quintessentially British.
  2. Write about a conversation in a particular room.
  3. Write about a family portrait.
  4. Write about the business of everyday living.
  5. Write about a funeral.


Time and Toasted Sandwiches

Florida, France, Wales: too much travelling in too short a time and I missed updating the hungry writer last week, the first time ever since I started the blog 20 months ago. I thought I’d be angry and disappointed with myself but looking at my diary for last week I’ve decided to be understanding instead. 

Researching for Real Port Talbot has taken over my life. I should have listened to advice and asked for two years. Another Real author spent three years on his. I agreed to deliver mine in 15months. Aaaarrghhhh! Last week saw me…

Behind Sgwd Gwladys, near Pontneddfechan
… visiting an Infants School, speaking with a residents’ association, interviewing the leader of the local council, rummaging through a library’s local history section, attending a community protest meeting, tracking down an old watermill, climbing behind a waterfall, photographing wooden Japanese sculptures, visiting a closed nightclub, walking a trail commemorating the life of Richard Burton, taking a guided tour of the steelworks, looking for a composer’s memorial plaque, searching for a local hero’s grave, tramping through nettles and blackberry bushes for a clearer view of gates and rubble…

And I loved every minute of it. Yes, it’s a lot of research. And a lot of writing. But to feel places breaking open their stories for me as I dig deeper is a wonderful feeling. I want to do my best for the town and its people in sharing these stories with them and the wider world.

I did of course have time to eat. 

And this was one of the best toasted sandwiches I’ve had in a long time: the cheese like a melting fondue, the onions cooked through but retaining their bite. But the best thing about this sandwich was the outside of the bread: it had been lightly buttered beforehand so it had that sweet, toasted flavour that I remember from those stove-top single toastie makers from the 1960s. Do you remember them? This is the nearest I could find on Google images:

And this is a contemporary version which I am tempted to buy. The ‘ears’ are a distraction: they do not, unfortunately, form part of the final sandwich. But you do get ‘Diablo’ branded onto your bread .

I suppose the bigger, multi-sandwich machines are more practical but I have an aversion to my kitchen counter being cluttered with electrical gadgets. I can put up with the microwave, kettle and toaster, but that’s about it. And I like the idea of just dropping this little devil into the washing up bowl after it’s delivered my toastie.

I remember making baked bean toasties with our 1960s version, can picture it propped over the burner on our beige New World gas stove with its eye-level grill. What happened to eye-level grills? If there’s one thing I dislike about modern cookers its grills inside the oven at thigh level, and grills that only work with the door closed. 

But back to the present and my best-in-a-long-time toasted sandwich from the café at Bryn Bettws Lodge in the Afan Valley. The valley, in the mountains above Port Talbot, is now known nationally for its mountain biking and hiking trails par excellence and Bryn Bettws is one of a number of accommodation centres in the area. 

The trails range from easy to challenging to knuckle and butt-clenching but think about the toasted sandwiches when feel yourself weakening and you’ll discover the will to continue.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about being disappointed with yourself.
Write about time running out.
Write about doing your best.
Write about a gadget that you like.
Write about weakness and strength.

A Welsh girl walks into an Irish pub in France. No joke.

The Irish Pub seems to be colonising the world. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice them in European and American cities, and they're usually packed to the gubbins too. There was one in Antibes and I studiously avoided it – partly because we chose to live in France not a reconstructed ex-pats drinking outpost, and partly because the outside tables were perpetually cloaked in cigarette smoke. 

Palais de Papes, Avignon
I’m not really a pub person anyway. I generally don’t go to them in the UK (my last pub visit reduced me to a state of shock – read about it here) so they’re not high on my agenda when I’m travelling. Until I went to Avignon last week.

You can have wonderful meals in France but there are plenty of average ones to be found, and a whole bunch of bloody awful stuff as well. Like any country, I guess. But the myth of a gourmet France persists. Perhaps we should blame Elizabeth David. There is also the hit and miss element of French service, not just table service but any form of customer service, from the supermarket check-out girl, to the receptionist at a hotel, to the person who answers the phone at the boiler repair company, to the customer service desk at Carrefour… any position really where the greeting and treating of customers is a primary responsibility. I am speaking from experience and when I lived in Antibes I could feel the dread rising from the soles of my feet when I entered a new restaurant or had to return a faulty purchase. I never could guarantee the kind of response: outright hostility, indifference, or a genuine desire to help. It was unsettling to say the least.

Perhaps it was the holiday resort nature of Antibes and Juan les Pins that was the source of the problem – tourist places in the UK can be the same. It’s as if some people who work in them resent having to deal with the visitors who create their livelihood. A kind of, ‘I can take your money but I can still despise you’ mentality. 

But I digress. My disgruntledness comes from having spent a weekend in Avignon (home of the 14th century stroppy popes) where we paid for a four star hotel whose idea of customer care was to have the air-conditioning on a timer that switched it off between midnight and 7am, the hours when you’re most likely to want it! 

Back to Avignon’s Irish pub. O’Malley’s, O’Neill’s, O’Something or Other. You’ll find it on the Rue de la Republique. It’s open all day, the waiters are funny and prompt, and the food is reasonably priced and great quality. Our first pit-stop there was to grab a snack between a jaw-grindingly bureaucratic marriage ceremony at the Hotel de Ville and the reception a couple of hours later outside of town. I chose a pizza and could have wrapped myself in it and snuggled down for the rest of the day. 

The only thing I’d have changed was the black olives with their stones – you get so used to eating pizza with de-stoned olives in the UK and USA it’s easy to forget and crunch a molar when you bite down on one. 

The next day we went back for an early lunch before heading off to the airport and this time I ordered the Salade de Chevre Chaud. And again I wanted to lay down my dizzy head on this plate of salad with mustard dressing, crispy lardons, walnuts and slices of sweetly sharp goat’s cheese on toasted bread.

We weren’t the only people to be impressed with O’Irish in Avignon. Every pavement café was taken, a sharp comparison with the other lunch venues along the street. 

A half litre of chilled Guinness seemed to be the perfect foil for it. I was a happy lapin. Vive l’Irelande!

  1. Hungry Writing Prompts
  2. Write about going into a pub.
  3. Write about bad food.
  4. Write about someone who is openly hostile.
  5. Write about lying down.
  6. Write about what happiness means to you.