Is there a Welsh national cuisine?

From seafood to stews, the country has a distinct culinary identity.

First of all, what is a national cuisine? Is it a collection of dishes that are prepared regularly by indigenous people or a series of recipes that represent an area based on locally sourced ingredients? Do the dishes need to be contemporary and what if the ingredients are not exclusive to the region? Perhaps a "national cuisine" simply adds a culinary identity to the country. If so, then Wales can do this extraordinarily well.

Let's start with the flavours associated with Wales. First there is lamb. Not just any lamb, but most of it reared on the uplands where it eats natural herbage, matures slowly and due to its breed, tastes so very good. Welsh Black beef is renowned for its flavour too. Sea trout, or sewin have a delicate flavour, and there are large cockle beds along the south coast and delightful queenie scallop and mussel beds around Anglesey. Talking of the sea, laverbread is one of Wales' more unusual ingredients. It grows around the Pembroke coastline as does samphire and seakale, and the untamed landscape inland offers flavours of whinberries, rosehips, ransoms (wild garlic) gibbons (spring onions) with leeks and potatoes still being the main cultivated vegetable crops. On the dairy front, brined cheese such as Caerphilly, which was once the mainstay of dairy farmers, has been joined by a host of quality goats', cows' and ewes' milk cheese.

Geraldus Cambrensis, the twelth-centure scholar who toured Wales in the company of Archbishop Baldwin in 1188, wrote in his journal. "Almost all the people live upon the produce of their herds, with oats, milk, cheese and butter. The greater part of their land is laid down to pasturage: little is cultivated, a very small quantity is ornamented with flowers, and a still smaller is sown".

When it comes to recipes, then there are two traditional Welsh methods of preparation and cooking. If you visit St. Fagans Welsh Folk Museum on the outskirts of Cardiff you'll see that the main feature of the early Welsh kitchen was the open-hearth fire and the bakestone or griddle, a flat pieces of iron set over the fire, on which were cooked oatcakes and pancakes. Then there would be a large iron pot suspended above the fire. Boiling and stewing were the most important methods of cooking meat and cawl. This all-in-one soup/stew is still a popular dish and can be made out of bacon, beef or lamb with root vegetables and leeks.

The bakestone, which is called a planc or maen in Welsh, still plays an important part in everyday life. Oatcakes, Welsh cakes, tinker's cakes, pancakes, even loaves of bread; traditionally, all were cooked on the griddle, and with a degree of skill too. Today Welshcakes are served at any time of the day and the Welsh, well, they have a passion for crempogs or pancakes.

The Welsh painter, Kyffin Williams who grew up on Anglesey, once told me how as a child he was taken to visit the local farms for crempog teas. He could never eat more than six, much to his humiliation and to the amusement of the farmer's wife. 'Well, well, you are no good, complained one old lady. Your father could do twenty and your grandfather twenty-four'.

But what of contemporary cooking - does it show a flavour of Wales? What would you find in a top class Welsh restaurant? I suggest that you should be prepared for some exciting food. Many a fine chef has sought the peace of rural Wales, where the local ingredients are top quality, fresh and unusual. Combine these with modern culinary skills and the menu will reflect delicious creativity. Could you be tempted by a bowl of Cawl of Welsh Shellfish or Whinberry and Oatmeal Icecream?

Gilli Davies's most recent book is "Flavours of Wales" (Graffeg, £16.99)

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State