Cardiff on a plate
The food scene in Cardiff is changing dramatically, and Cardiff University alumni are setting the menu.
Until recently, choices for eating out were unimaginative and takeaways dominated. But in just a few short years, Cardiff has become a top culinary destination. And Cardiff University alumni are at the forefront of a new wave of chefs, entrepreneurs and writers transforming this city into a foodie's haven.
We caught up with six of our alumni - including finalists from The Great British Bake-off and MasterChef, the restaurateur behind some of Cardiff's best-loved eateries, a top food blogger, an award-winning barista and an innovative food recycler - to ask about the unique ingredients that have made Cardiff the place to eat.
Spoiled for choice
Kacie Morgan (BA 2010) is the founder of The Welsh Rare Bit, a blog focusing on culinary travel
"Once upon a time, like many a Cardiff student, my idea of eating out consisted of rolling into Ramon's for a greasy fry-up, grabbing something from Venus Kebab House after a late night or, if really skint, munching on the toast handed out at Metros."
"Budgets didn't stretch very far, and although there were a couple of restaurants I liked, there weren't many independents worth writing about."
"But this meant the city was pretty much a blank slate, with lots of room for innovation and experiment. To me, the biggest change to the Cardiff food scene has been accessibility."
"Good food is now everywhere. Cardiff is now home to many award-winning chefs and there are soaring numbers of producers specialising in international cuisines and alternative diets."
"Even HMP Cardiff now houses a first-rate restaurant staffed by prisoners. And our city has seen a seemingly unstoppable rise in street food pop-ups and food festivals."
"Nowadays, I'm more likely to blog about a class, a food tour or street food event than I am to write about a restaurant," says Kacie.
"This accessibility has shaped us Cardiffians into discerning diners, just as curious about the story behind where our food comes from, as we are about how it tastes. We want to meet the people who made our mind-blowing food, hear how ideas came about, discover how foods are made and perhaps have a go ourselves!"
with international flair
For writer, broadcaster and Great British Bake Off finalist Beca Lyne-Pirkis (BMus 2004), the key to Cardiff’s success is in its diversity.
“I learned a great deal about cooking from my mother and grandmother, so when I was a student, I’d cook and bake for my housemates."
"Then, during the summer breaks, I travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, and Italy, and those experiences dramatically influenced my cooking style."
"Favourite dishes like Thai green curry and risotto are still crowd pleasers now - and let’s not forget the sweet treats, like flapjacks, lemon and blueberry cake, and pancakes! Shrove Tuesday was always a much anticipated event in our house."
"My time at Cardiff University definitely helped develop my cooking style and gave me the confidence to apply for the much-loved show.”
Reaching the final of the Great British Bake Off in 2013 “changed my life,” says Beca. “Since then, I’ve had four cookery series and I’m starting my second book.”
Still living in Cardiff, she is excited by the culinary changes afoot. “I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to do a job like mine here!”
The taste of home
For restaurateur Cerys Furlong (MSc 2005, Hon 2017) quality fresh, local and seasonable produce is essential.
"It's at the heart of any vibrant food scene - and in Wales we're spoilt," says Cerys.
While Cardiff's diners devour international dishes, there's no denying Wales' homegrown ability to wow - imagine succulent lamb, melt-in-your-mouth cheese, fresh fruit and Welsh cakes so good they're a meal in themselves.
Having been involved in well-loved foodie haunts such as Porro and The Potted Pig, Cerys opened Milkwood in 2017 with her husband, the renowned chef Tom Furlong, and friend and fellow chef Gwyn Myring.
"We use only the best local produce - the fish is caught just hours before we serve it, our beef comes from the Vale of Glamorgan, the salad is grown in Bute Park."
"I love that our menu constantly changes to reflect the seasons."
Getting out of the kitchen
It's estimated that around two million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK every year. Cardiff is home to several social enterprises that are tackling the problem.
Formerly an Environmental Law lecturer at Cardiff, Lia Moutselou (Geography and Planning 2002-2005) is founder of Lia's Kitchen, a part-time home-based ethical food venture.
Inspired by Greek and global cuisines, and sustainability, Lia runs pop-up food events, social suppers, cooking workshops and waste reduction cooking classes and dinners.
She is co-founder of Cardiff's Wasteless Suppers, where food surplus about to be thrown out by supermarkets or donated by producers is handed to a line-up of star cooks - and each serves up a course and a talk on how to affect positive change.
Meanwhile, in Cathays Community Centre, Cardiff University students are helping to run the Community Fridge project.
Supermarkets and local businesses donate everything from fruit, vegetables and sandwiches to cooked meat and fish.
Local residents can then simply pop into the Community Centre and help themselves with a 'pay-as-you-feel' scheme to help running costs.
An independent flavour
For many of us, the best way to start the day is coffee. Teodora Petkova (BA 2018), an award-winning barista, agrees.
"There's so much to enjoy - the taste, smell, presentation - but when I first arrived in Cardiff, I found the pace of cafe culture a surprise."
"Coffee was just something to have 'on the go' - people were too busy to enjoy it. Happily, things are changing," she says.
Finding her passion in Italy ("I loved to watch the baristas working in the artisan coffee shops, preparing each shot of espresso like it was a magic trick!"), Teodora brought home an impressive skillset - and entered The University Caterers Organisations (TUCO) barista competition.
"It was like an exam," she says. "I had to do lots of research. Looking for the perfect beans, spending hours equilibrating the grinder and practising techniques and avoidance of mistakes under pressure."
"On the day itself, we had minutes to produce four espressos, our milk-based drinks and four espresso-based non-alcoholic specialty drinks whilst providing commentary."
She won Gold, and shared the secret of her success with us.
How to make the perfect coffee
1 - Each cup starts with the beans
Make sure they are kept in a cool and dry place, away from the sun, heat and humidity. Many people make the mistake of keeping them in the fridge, that can change the taste completely. The best place to store beans is in their tightly wrapped bag, in the cupboard.
2 - It's all about balance
If you have coffee with milk, choose the right milk for the beans you are using. You have to taste the coffee, so be careful when using sweeter milks such as full fat.
3 - Clean your machine
The coffee bean consists of oils which leaves traces on the machine. Making the effort to clean your machine on a regular basis, even if it is just with hot water, prevents the oil from building up and changing the taste.
4 - Find a favourite cup
It has to be the right size (never drink a macchiato in a 16oz cup), then heat it up - pour in some boiling hot water and dry it out before pouring the coffee. Baristas keep cups on top of the coffee machine to keep them at the right temperature.
5 - Don't be afraid to experiment
Try unusual flavours and blends - make your own syrup at home or even recreate one of those ridiculously awesome-looking coffee drinks from Instagram. Just keep trying new things!
"For me, eating out is entertainment. In my restaurants, you can watch the Wokstars cook right in front of you."
"Cardiff has a buzz of excitement about it - it's an up-and-coming city and people want to try new things. Many new businesses are starting here, attracted by the skills and talent available at the University."
"They bring with them a multicultural workforce with money to spend and keen to try new tastes."
"Coming from a family of Chinese immigrants who found work as chefs, when I was growing up I saw a lot of the same dishes, like sweet and sour chicken, in restaurants."
"That didn't reflect real Chinese food to me. I am passionate about taking the cultural element of food and presenting something different and exciting."
Even at University, the food industry felt like home to Larkin.
"I was the foodie," he says. "I played rugby for Cardiff Law and the team would come over for my fried rice. I was doing basic dishes - but I loved it. I was already thinking I can change this industry and get people excited about Asian food."
This article first appeared in Cardiff Connect magazine, Autumn 2018.