Traditional Welsh cooking owes a lot to the history of Wales when times were very hard and mothers needed to fill their families bellies as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The day to day diet of most rural Welsh families relied on broth and oatcakes livened up with the odd slice of Welsh-cake of the bakestone. This history of poverty is not just in the far distant past but it is also in the living memory of some of the older generation today. Wholesome good food was only enjoyed by the wealthy and farmers with larger, well tended farms.
From these hard times came many of the traditional recipes handed down from generation to generaton, housewives would invent new recipes using whatever ingredients they had to hand and would circulate them around friends and family. The depths of poverty can be seen in recipes such as ‘Kettle Broth’ a mother would try to give something warming to her children in the evening by feeding them a hot mash of boiling water poured over broken bread crusts sprinkled with salt and pepper, or’cawl dwr’ water broth, which is actually a good cure for thoose suffering with colds and flu, boil an onion in water then add oatmeal(made into a paste with water first)boil for a further 5 minutes and add some broken pieces of bread, a knob of butter,salt,pepper and a sprinkle of ginger then take to your bed. A gift of a sheep’s head from a farmer to one of his workers would result in a special treat for the worker’s family and his wife would cook ‘sheep’s head broth’ boiled with leeks, parsley and oatmeal ‘troliod’, which were often eaten in the spring when potatoes were scarce. Potatoes were also used to make sweet dishes such as ‘poten dato’, mixed with a little flour, sugar, spices, currants, butter,egg and milk, then baked in the oven.
A big change came for farmers in 1935 when the Milk Marketing Board started to collect their milk in churns from the farms in Wales. With greater affluence, educational opportunities and forgein travel, the culinary horizons have widened in Wales, the old recipes have remained but have become updated and do not rely on freshening up stale foods, as was so often the way. Traditionally Friday would be baking day, first the bread for the week would be baked in the log burning wall-oven followed by cakes and tarts in the afternoon, when the oven had lost the first, fierce heat, then in the evening a rice pudding could be placed in the oven and maybe even left overnight. Bread tended to go stale quickly towards the end of the week bread would be soaked in milk and then re-baked to freshen it up.
A quick breakfast for an early riser would consist of bread and butter with hot tea poured over it, ‘siencyn te’ this is often referred to as the shepherd’s first breakfast, this is a tradition still maintained in some busy households today only now a teabag sits on top of the bread and butter waiting for the early riser to provide the hot water. One-pot stews (Cawl) were the main meals eaten and would provide a three course meal, the broth eaten first followed by the meat and vegetables as the main and dumpling cooked in the broth would be eaten with a little milk and brown sugar for a sweet.
Dishes such as cawl would be cooked in a large cauldron or iron pot suspended over an open fire, it was hot and heavy work to manipulate the heavy iron crane to adjust the height of the pot over the flames. Even though the old foods were monotonous they were healthy enough, ingredients included oats, wholemeal breads, buttermilk and home-cured bacon and there were many warm, filling potato dishes.
One of the enduring kitchen utensils that can still be seen in many welsh kitchens, often one that has been passed down through the generations, is the ancient ‘Bake Stone’. Cooks today still proudly use this even if their kitchen is modern and has all the latest technology out will come the bake stone to make the ubiquitous Welsh cakes. The Bake Stone is basically a griddle elsewhere, there are regional names for it in Wales suchas ‘Gradell’ in the north, ‘planc’ (plank), ‘maen’, ‘llechfaen’,’gradell’, hence bara planc (bakestone bread) or pice ary maen (cakes on the bakestone). The iron bakestone of today is a follow-on from the early, primitive method of baking on a hot hearth or flagstone, this later developed into a thin slab built into a wall over a fire, hence the bakestone. For those not in possession of a traditional welsh bakestone a heavy black frying pan will suffice.
Traditional Welsh dishes have become ever more popular over the past few years and have enjoyed a revival. They are no longer enjoyed only by families at home, but are being promoted through the hospitality and tourist trades. Many different foods are grown and produced in Wales, one of the most popular being Lamb. Salt Marsh Lamb being the meat of choice for many top class chefs. Also Fish and seafods are popular and rightly so, as so much of Wales has a coastline the fish is fresh and tasty. A speciality dish from Wales is Laver Bread, this is made from a seaweed known as Laver which is collected and boiled to produce this shiny black Laver Bread. Calling it bread is a misnomer as it is not a loaf in this case it means sustinance. On the west coasts of Wales many people still gather and boil it themselves but inland most people buy in the markets ready-made. To make the little patties of laverbread for breakfast, the prepared laverbread is mixed with medium oatmeal to help hold it’s shape and then fried in bacon fat.
True Welsh Rarebit ‘Caes Pobi’ (Roasted Cheese) is a very simple dish and one the welsh are extremely fond of, nowadays it has many regional recipes with rich sauces, but in its original form it is a simple piece of hard cheese melted over an open fire and put on a piece of barley or wholegrain bread. It is said that the modern method of melting the cheese in a microwave is the perfect modern version of the dish.
Wales also produces cheeses, the most famous being Caerphilly, a mild, crumbly, white cheese, traditionally produced in the farms and the hills of Wales. (Although production has moved more to England and factories now). With the abundance of sheep and goats in Wales Ewe’s milk cheese and soft creamy goat’s cheeses are now being produced in the Welsh farms and are growing in popularity, most of the major supermarkets now stock a good selection in response to the high demand.The Welsh love Teatime! And rightly so. With such delicacies such as Bara brith( a fruit bread), Teisen lap (moist fruit cake), Reisen carawe (caraway seed cake) and Teisen Mel (honey cake) count us in for tea! Also served at teatime are griddle cakes, scones, pancakes and various varieties of breads all served oozing with rich Welsh Butter. So there is no alternative, come to Wales and try them yourself !
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