“Traditional dishes were borne out of poverty”: a brief history of Welsh food

The dish we now know as rarebit – a corruption of the word rabbit – is so called because the English were mocking us.

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Many of us think of Wales as the land of song but our culinary traditions reveal a rich heritage, which for centuries has connected Welsh people with the green, green grass of home.

Wales is a humble nation, and very little was written about her food until the last century. Wales was, and is, a country of mountains and rivers, and the wet and windy climate meant that not much could grow here. So while Wales was influenced by her neighbours, uniquely Welsh dishes were created from the limited ingredients people could source.

Unlike in England, where meals were first enjoyed in the dining rooms of the gentry, traditional Welsh dishes such as bara brith, cawl and Welsh rarebit were borne out of poverty. Not a scrap could be wasted, and bara brith, a teatime favourite, was made using leftover dough collected at the end of the week.

Simple and nourishing food was needed to sustain farmers, coal miners, quarry workers and fishermen. It is said that the word “cawl”, the name of a traditional broth, comes from the Latin calidus, meaning warm.

The 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley is now derided for its fraudulent depiction of Welsh life: despite claiming to be a miner’s son, its author Richard Llywellyn was not Welsh and had never lived in Wales. But its delicious descriptions of home cooking still delight readers today:

“When we sat down, with me in Mama’s lap, my father would ladle out of the cauldron thin leek soup with a big lump of ham in it… There was everything in it that was good… and the smell alone was enough to make you feel so warm and comfortable...”

Home is where the hearth is, but we have always been tied to our land. And agriculture, especially sheep farming, was one of the biggest employers in Wales until the last century. Welsh lamb is a delicacy across the world; and for every person in Wales, there are three sheep. They even have their own census, so it’s unsurprising that jokes are made about a Welshman’s fondness for these woolly creatures.

That wasn’t the only jibe made towards the Welsh. Because meat was a luxury and generally sold for profit, poor people often ate cheese on toast (or caws pobi) instead. The dish we now know as rarebit – a corruption of the word rabbit – is so called because the English were mocking us. “Welsh” was used pejoratively to describe something inferior – for example, not having the money to eat rabbit.

Life has not always been easy for the Welsh and the fear of famine was very real. In the 18th and 19th centuries there were many riots in response to the shortage of food, which was often exported to further climes.

Welsh people had been mainly self-sufficient, but when many of them moved to the coal-mining valleys during the industrial revolution, they had to buy their own food. Appetites changed with the arrival of Italian workers, and cafes serving ice cream and coffee thrived in the South Wales valleys. Later, Indian and Chinese restaurants and takeaways became popular, and as travel abroad became cheaper, foods like aubergines and avocado were introduced.

Today, our ingredients, while perhaps not as famous as Scottish haggis or Irish soda bread, are well received at home and abroad. The Welsh meat sector alone is worth £1bn and we export many foods, including lamb, chocolate, whisky, sea salt, cheese and mineral water. Traditional recipes have even made it over the pond. In Patagonia, where a Welsh colony migrated in 1865, an Argentinian version of bara brith, torta negra, is still eaten.

This small but fiercely proud nation is quietly celebrating its cuisine.

Sarah Philpott is a food writer based in Swansea. Her first cookery book, The Occasional Vegan, was published in March 2018 by Seren Books and her HistFest event, Wales: A History Through Food, is at Waterstones in Swansea on 6 December. You can book tickets here.