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28 February 2024

Welsh food is potted social history

Wales has its own proud and unique cuisine – and it’s not just for St David’s Day.

By Pen Vogler

The culinary glasnost of postwar England is a familiar story. Thanks to Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, we opened up our hearts and minds to tomatoes, garlic and ginger, and we’ve tasted the benefits ever since. Less well known, perhaps, is the parallel embrace of another exotic cuisine: Welsh. 

The late Bobby Freeman grew up in Manchester, and fell in love with Welsh food when she opened a hotel in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. She liked to tease her English customers by serving vichyssoise (a cold leek and potato soup) as “chilled cawl cennin”. Undeterred by the many people who told her “there’s no such thing as Welsh food”, in the early 1960s she collected recipes from cooks living and dead, becoming a formidable social historian. She was particularly indebted to Lady Llanover, a Victorian who, as part of her drive to revive Welsh folk culture, wrote an idiosyncratic cookbook called The First Principles of Good Cookery (1867). In it, a hermit (Welsh and wise) gives elaborate instructions to a traveller (English and slightly idiotic) for preparing mutton stew, chicken and leek pie, or – the dish that Bobby Freeman made famous – salt duck, all made delicious by use of the ffwrn fach, or double boiler.

Lady Llanover’s campaign did not quite survive the flattening effects of Victorian culture. My mother’s Brecon grandparents (born in the 1880s) understood Welsh but refused to speak it because it was “the language of servants”. It would take something special to overcome this status anxiety – Welsh cakes. Eva Gwynne Jones (later Hughes) was proud of her recipe for these delicately spiced, curranty cakes which, made on a griddle or bakestone, hailed from an era when few people had ovens. They are the madeleine of Welsh nostalgia, slathered with butter to revive travellers, or the cause of family rifts over whether to serve them with sprinkled sugar. “Evans the Death”, the undertaker in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, laughs in his sleep as he dreams of his childhood and “runs out into the field where his mother is making Welshcakes in the snow”.

Anything made with flour, however, is likely to be relatively modern, as wheat was too unreliable to be a staple in wet, upland Wales. While most early-modern communities were fuelled by different versions of grain-based stews known as pottage, the Welsh cawl was a strictly meat-and-veg affair in which leeks, of course, took a starring role. It was a one-pot dinner from a time when “one pot” was the entire batterie de cuisine, not just a cooking method. The meat was nearly always mutton, which was available year round thanks to mountain, hill and lowland pastures.

Early Welsh drovers, having sold their superior sheep in downland English markets, returned triumphantly with Cheddar and Cheshire cheese for their beloved caws pobi (toasted cheese). Welsh topography didn’t traditionally lend itself to making cheeses that melted well. Today, Caerphilly does the job admirably, having come close to death in the Second World War when it was repeatedly refused a place on the list of permitted cheeses that could be easily cubed to make up the 2oz-per-person weekly ration. Anybody asking today whether there is “such a thing as Welsh food” will find an answer in the flock of 60 or so cheeses the Welsh Cheese Company has shepherded together. 

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If you are reading this in Merthyr Tydfil or Caernarfon, you might be rolling your eyes at this ridiculous London person who doesn’t understand that generations of your family have had cockles and laverbread for holiday breakfasts, cawl for school dinners, and tea-infused bara brith for family gatherings. As if Welsh food only exists if someone English notices it. But whether the English-bred Bobby Freeman and cosmopolitan Lady Llanover have “rescued” Welsh food from oblivion, or simply brought it to the attention of Britain’s other nations, I’ll raise a glass of Tiny Rebel to their work as I tuck in to the new (to me) traditional dish of Welsh lamb and leeks this St David’s Day.

Pen Vogler will be at the Oxford Literary Festival at noon on 16 March to talk about her book “Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain” (Atlantic)

[See also: We eat piles of pancakes come Shrove Tuesday, but eschew the Lenten fast]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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