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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear