When we started Cardiff By Bike we wanted to tell stories. Whilst many of us ride because of the way it makes us feel, there’s a lot to be said for the opportunities the bicycle can present to us.
Back in September we took a trip up to Abergavenny for Jack Thurston’s annual Food Ride. £5 was all it cost, aside from train fare and that was just to cover the cost of lunch.
This is a story about food, not about cycling. Bicycles were involved of course, but they were merely a supporting cast in a play about doing things differently.
A change of pace
The world around us looks the way it does because we have been conditioned to think more is better, faster is better, cheaper is better. As we are starting to learn, to our cost, we may have been completely and utterly wrong.
This is especially true with food. Industrial farming, whilst capable of producing vast amounts of food, it’s often a hugely destructive, wasteful process where animal welfare, soil quality and biodiversity are unfortunate casualties in a march to greater profits. Enter, the slow food movement.
Slow Food was initially founded by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists in Italy during the 1980s with the aim of defending regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. In over two decades of history, the movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture.
A growing dependence on pesticides and antibiotics, whilst slashing and burning huge swathes of rainforest to grow profitable crops on an industrial scale, with little regard for the long term viability of the planet.
The time for change is now and today’s ride is a glance into a more sustainable future that draws upon the skills and methods of the past.
After meeting up outside the Post Office in Abergavenny, we had a quick safety briefing and introductions. The plan was for a 20-ish mile ride, aiming to return to town by about 4. Not a lot of miles in 6 hours, but that wasn’t what this day was about, after all.
Our first stop, after leaving Abergavenny was Rob Penn’s place. You may remember Rob from his excellent book and TV programme, Ride of my life and It’s all about the bike.
Whilst Rob is still riding as much as ever and on the same bike he built over the course of his book, lately he’s been writing about making things out of wood; and is currently writing about his adventures in wheat. Yes, wheat.
Rob’s talk was fascinating. He explained that back in the old days (I am of course paraphrasing here), a typical field of wheat would have had dozens of different varieties of wheat, each with its own characteristics and flavours.
By having a wide variety of wheat, each with its own strengths and weaknesses to environmental factors such as climate and disease, it is more resilient and therefore less dependent on external help –the pesticides and other trappings of intensive farming. A modern field of wheat may have only one variety of wheat, which will require far more treatment than the fields of old.
First we invented mechanical technologies to turn wheat into barren white flour. Then, we invented chemical and genetic technologies to make it resistant to pests, drought and blight and easier to harvest, dramatically increasing yield per acre. And, while we were tweaking genetics, we also figured out how to increase glutens for better “baking properties” (fluffier results).
The article above explains things far better than I could, or that I can remember from Rob’s talk. However, Rob is part of a growing movement of people attempting to embrace the old ways, before we became obsessed with yield. Modern farming has effectively created Frankenwheat –wheat that has little in common with the wheat of 40 years ago.
The irony here is that whilst it may appear more expensive to produce wheat the old fashioned way, with all the additives farmers need to buy in to keep their Frankenwheat alive, it doesn’t work out that much more expensive to do it properly, but it tastes so much better and is far easier on our insides.
Rob’s talk set the scene for the day –recapturing the more traditional methods of farming and helping us to realise that the food we buy in the supermarket shares little with the food we used to buy.
Raw Milk at Grosmont Wood
This brings us neatly onto our next stop of the day, Grosmont Wood Dairy. Here you can buy “raw” whole milk from a closed herd of pedigree Holstein cows. The shelf life is a bit shorter and the Food Standards Agency advises against feeding it to children, pregnant women or those who are unwell, but our friend Dave is a big fan of the stuff. I don’t drink milk so it’s a bit difficult to comment here…
Welsh Black Lamb
Our lunch stop continued the theme. Pen y Wyrlod Farm rear pedigree, organic, grass-fed Welsh Black lamb.
This all helps us to grow lambs which only feed on natural grass and hay, developing slowly to reach maturity at their own pace. Their meat is tender, low fat and has a complex flavour that more commercial lambs simply cannot match.
They explained that their farm has changed little since the 1550s; their fields have changed little over the years, but by focussing on healthy soil and feeding their livestock only pasture –none of the usual additives given to regular sheep allows the quality of the meat to speak for itself. It means the animals mature more slowly –15 months rather than 15 weeks, but some things are worth waiting for.
They do a fine line in Hoggett burgers, which we were more than happy to chow down on after a morning of riding mostly uphill.
The last talk of the day sadly involved no eating, but was interesting nonetheless. A farm just outside Abergavenny that found a niche turning green waste (your garden cuttings etc) into soil.
The Green Waste Company (Abergavenny) Ltd take your garden waste, clean out much of the plastic contamination (seriously, this stuff is everywhere), strip the leaves and branches down to small pieces and pile it up to decompose. Over time it is broken down to become soil, which they then sell.
However, being a Sunday I must confess to being a bit distracted by train timetables. They’re not that frequent on Sundays and the next train was bearing down on us. Fortunately it was a fairly short, exhilarating ride down the hill to the station.
The riding part…
Abergavenny and its surrounding countryside is beautiful, but certainly undulating. We climbed a lot, we descended a lot. Today was not about cycling, but I don’t think there is a better way to explore the countryside aside from maybe on horseback, to get a feel for a different pace of life and to change the way we see the world around us.
There was a broad range of riders, of various ages and abilities, but nobody was left behind. The faster riders would pull up at the top of climbs to wait for everyone else to re-group, which is fortunate because there was a lot of climbs.
What I would say is, although the food available at the stops was excellent, there aren’t many places to stock up on additional supplies if you get hungry along the way. Monmouthshire is beautiful, but can be pretty remote at times.
A few years ago I spent half a year living in Monmouth, just up the road. It was long before I rediscovered cycling and spent much of my time driving up and down the A449 to work and back.
Since then I’ve returned to the area on a number of occasions on a bike —Dr Fosters Summer Saunter, twice; and our trip up the Kymin, scoping out an Audax route. Looking back I had little understanding of the area, or a feel for how fascinating the place can be.
It’s awash with quiet country lanes that make for wonderful times on the bike. Jack’s ride is an excellent way to see a small part of it; to meet the people who live and work the land and to get a feel for all of its lumps and bumps.
A huge thanks to Jack and the Abergavenny Cycle Group for putting on such an interesting, eye-opening tour.