The GBK Cookbook
The British Food Trust
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The Food of Wales
by Helen Gaffney
The food of Wales recalls its ancient, Celtic traditions. In the mining valleys of the south and villages in the north perched below mountains of slate shards, in quiet coastal fishing harbours, through a rolling rural landscape of sheep-dotted hills and babbling salmon rivers, to the rugged upland farms of Prescelly, it is one which has developed to satisfy the needs of hardworking men and women: the appetites of farm labourers and coal miners, of quarrymen and fishermen.
Many English culinary traditions developed from the top, that is from the amply stocked larders and groaning sideboards of aristocratic country mansions, but the true tastes of Wales, the 'old foods' that people still speak of and relish with such fondness, come from the harsh Celtic land which yielded not a lot, but enough to satisfy. The bleak uplands of Wales could support few cereal crops other than oats, and thus, in common with other Celtic countries, they form part of the staple diet, used as a cereal in soups or porridge, or shaped into thin cakes and cooked on the planc or bakestone.
While today we regard sweet mountain lamb as the Welsh national speciality, that full-flavoured meat was almost certainly reserved for holidays or special occasions only; it was the pig that formed the mainstay of the diet. In rural areas certainly, and even in semi-urban parts of the mining valleys, the twlc or pig-sty at the bottom of every garden, was an enduring feature, the annual pig slaughter, performed by an itinerant butcher, an exciting ritual.
Bacon remains today an essential and favourite food. Today with vegetables such as leeks and cabbage (the only two vegetables cultivated in Wales, according to the tenth-century Laws of Hywel Dda), it forms the basis for what is virtually the national dish of Wales: cawl. There is no exact translation for cawl; the word in Welsh signifies 'broth' or 'soup', but it is much more than that, a classic one-pot meal, originally cooked in an iron pot over an open fire, containing all the goodness of the land: fat home-cured bacon, scraps of sweet Welsh lamb to flavour the stock, cabbage and orange-tinted swedes, tiny marble-sized new potatoes, and slender, thin leeks, added to the pot only at the very end so that they are still raw and crunchy and peppery. Recipes for cawl vary from region to region, house to house, and from season to season, depending on what vegetables and produce are available. While cawl can be eaten all together, that is meat and broth served in a bowl, in many houses the broth is served first and the meat and vegetables follow afterwards.
Another simple favourite that warms the heart of many a Welshman also indicates the importance of bacon and root vegetables in the daily diet of the past: tatws rhost, no more than fat rashers of bacon placed over slices of potato, sprinkled with spring onions and a little water and cooked over the open fire. A simple filling food of the land, certainly, but today still enjoyed equally by businessmen and professionals in Cardiff or Swansea, as well as by farm-hands in Meirionnydd and coal miners in the Valleys.
Until the development of the coal mines in the south and slate quarries in the north, Wales remained essentially an agricultural country, made up of numerous small-holdings and tenant farms. Along the coast, of course, fishing was and to a certain extent remains an important industry. Great shoals of herring and mackerel were caught off the west coast and these plentiful fish were simply fried in bacon fat, roasted on a toasting fork, salted or preserved.
Along the Gower, the lovely peninsula that extends between Swansea and industrial Llanelli, oysters were once caught in great quantities at Port Einon. Indeed, throughout Britain, oysters used to be prolific, though here, as elsewhere, they have since become scarce, and thus an expensive luxury. Even in the past they tended to be an item sold for cash rather than eaten locally. However, one shellfish that continues to provide a source of inexpensive protein to a coastal people is the cockle. Across the Gower, in Penclawdd and other tiny villages, the cocklemen and cocklewomen continue to gather this humble shellfish as they have for centuries.
The Gower peninsula used to be the centre for another indigenous food industry, for indeed it is only in Wales and parts of Scotland and Ireland, that an edible seaweed known as laver is gathered and processed commercially. Available already cooked and prepared in numerous markets throughout Wales, bara lawr (laverbread) is usually eaten sprinkled with fine Welsh oatmeal, then warmed in hot bacon fat and served with bacon for breakfast or supper. The seaweed itself can be found in some parts of the west coast, clinging to the rocks at low tide. But its location is fickle, for it seems to shift and relocate at different times of the year. Perhaps it is there, but just covered in sand.
Wales is an ancient land, indeed, still in many ways very much a separate country, as visitors to the Welsh-speaking west and north soon realise. The lovely sing-song of the language, heard in pubs and shops and markets, is wonderfully, incomprehensibly strange to those not familiar with it. The fisherman who knocks at the back door of the pub with a string of trout, or maybe a salmon or sewin (the Welsh name for sea trout) speaks Welsh because it is his native language, the language he speaks at home, and which his children learn at school. It is a language as ageless as the pitch-covered coracle from which he plies his trade. The design of this tiny, almost circular boat has altered little since Neolithic days. It is hardly more than a wicker frame covered no longer with hide but with calico that has been sealed with boiling pitch. Coracles are remarkably maneuverable, and on rivers such as the Teifi, Tywi, Taf and Cleddau, remarkably efficient too, a factor which has led to their unfortunate decline in use, due to over-fishing.
Specialities such as salmon, sewin or other seasonal delicacies such as wild mushrooms might appear on the table not as a main meal but at supper, just as a small taste to be savoured. Supper, as opposed to the main midday meal, is generally a light snack at eight or nine in the evening. However, mealtimes in Wales tend to revolve around the main householder's occupation. In the north, there was a meal known as the swper chwarel or quarry supper, at five in the afternoon, when the men returned to the light once more from the subterranean depths of slate caves in Blaenau Ffestiniog and elsewhere. Coal miners worked shifts which affected when meals were taken. Likewise farmers' and farm labourers' mealtimes vary according to the time of year and the jobs at hand.
Caerphilly is the only nationally known Welsh cheese. Cheese making was carried out in the past, particularly in the fertile, low-lying dairy lands. In the rugged and sparse uplands, however, the poor ground often could barely support sheep or goats. It is probable that ewe's milk cheeses were once made on such farms and today there is a revival in soft, creamy goats' milk cheeses. Such cheeses, though, are most often for local consumption only. Caerphilly is a mild crumbly white cheese which originated in South Wales where it quickly became popular with the growing population in the industrialised valleys. Today farmhouse Caerphilly, made in traditional rounds with natural rinds, is made only in the West Country, not in Wales, though mild, crumbly block cheese is made in creameries in Wales as well as elsewhere.
Today, certainly, many more people work regular hours, but one meal which remains loved by all, even if no longer indulged in daily, is the traditional Welsh tea. In the past, as elsewhere, baking was done just once a week, and in addition to breads such as wholemeal, rye, barley or maslin (made with a mixture of flours), such favourites as bara brith (the famous 'speckled bread' of Wales) would be put in the wall oven alongside the week's loaves. In many parts of Wales, however, more often than not Welsh breads and cakes were baked over or in front of an open fire in improvised pot and Dutch ovens. Teisen lap is one such traditional Welsh cake, no more than a moist, shallow fruit cake, while others, delicious in their surprisingly extensive use of spices include teisen carawe (caraway seed cake), teisen sinamon (cinnamon cake) and teisen mêl (honey cake). Such cakes are still made today throughout Wales, though the recipes of the past have been updated for cooking in modern ovens.
Alongside such cakes and breads, a wide selection of griddle cakes is also offered at teatime. The griddle or bakestone is a traditional flat iron, slate or stone plate that rests over an open fire. Cooking on this primitive utensil has been developed in Wales to a fine art. A variety of scones, pancakes, cakes, breads, turnovers and oatcakes are all cooked on the well-greased bakestone. There are few homes in Wales that do not have an ever-present tin of Welsh cakes on hand to offer to family and visiting friends. Welsh cakes are delicious when fresh off the bakestone: spicy and moist and sprinkled with sugar. Additionally, bread is cooked on the bakestone, bara planc, perhaps rather heavy for modern tastes, but unique in taste and a reminder of the days when ovens were a luxury not in every or even in most homes. Fruit tarts such as gooseberry or rhubarb are also cooked on the bakestone: large pasty-sized turnovers, flipped with a flat wooden slice or spatula. Furthermore, the bakestone could be adapted to an oven by inverting an iron pot over the hot, flat surface.
The Welsh are extremely fond of crempog (pancakes) stacked into layers and oozing with good salty Welsh butter. Bara pyglyd (pikelets) are another favourite, the spongy holes unequalled in their ability to absorb butter. Welsh butter is generally very highly salted, perhaps to some an acquired taste, though much missed by Welshmen when far from home.
Welshmen, once away from Wales, have a sentimental longing for the tastes of their past. But the visitor to Wales, curiously, will not find the Welsh over-enthusiastic about their food traditions. Perhaps this is because the true foods of Wales, the 'old foods', remembered with such gusto, are also reminders of another, less prosperous, less fortunate age. Surely such country foods as cawl, home-made faggots, or tatws rhost are delicious to us, though they might not be quite so appealing if that was all there was to eat, day in, day out, supplemented by a dreary diet of sucan (a sort of gruel made from milled oats) and things like sheep's head broth. Social implications impede too, for the diet of the past was a diet which had to make a little feel like a lot, albeit sometimes quite successfully and deliciously.
The rich in Wales did not eat the foods of the country, but, living in their comfortable plas (such mansions are to be found throughout the country, topping the finest possible positions overlooking valleys and villages), tended to ape the English, to deny the Welshness of Wales. This social divide was apparent in many other aspects of life: the landed gentry were (mainly) Church of England, Conservative in politics and, of course, non-Welsh speaking. The gwern, on the other hand (the word translates roughly as 'peasantry', though its meaning is much richer), were non-conformist, devout chapel goers, liberal or Whig in politics and were concerned with safeguarding the culture and language of Wales. The foods of Wales are just as much a part of this nation's culture and history, and likewise should be safeguarded, not as a historical relic from times past, but simply because they can be so delicious.
Recipes from Wales