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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