Our first guru – and a very appropriate one on St David’s day – is Welsh journalist and writer Frances Jones-Davies.
Frances is editor of Cambria, the national magazine of Wales. Born in the Sudan, which she says was wonderful, she returned to England and hated it, “the food was grey and awful, as was weather” she says, “life was so formal in England, Africa was free and happy and full of sunshine and wonderful smells… everybody was indulgent and easy going … it felt safe”
So it is not surprising that as an adult she left England for hotter and sunnier climes to live in Turkey for several years before settling in Wales with her husband. By that time an interest in food had become not only a passion but a way of life.
Frances has passed on her enthusiasm to her second son, Tom, who now works in London as a chef.
Frances Jones-Davies’ Welsh cawl, soup for a saint
St. Patrick’s day is the busiest evening of the year for a bar, we gather from an episode of the Boston set sitcom Cheers. St. David (500-589), who unlike the other patron saints was actually of his land, has not yet attained such celebration but he wouldn’t approve anyway, he was apparently extremely austere and said to have lived only on water and bread and herbs. Several years ago Jan Morris wrote in an article for Cambria, the National Magazine of Wales that Wales was not a country renowned for its gourmet cuisine, and that this was no surprise when the nearest thing it had to a national dish was Sgotyn, stale bread turned to a porridge with hot water and a bit of salt added if you were lucky, nowhere near so luxurious as its milky English counterpart.
Wales is a small country of both extreme beauty and terrain, from craggy hillsides and the wild desolation of mountain to lush and verdant valleys. The almost permanently damp air makes for sweet lamb, fat cattle and rich milk (in the 1970s over 25% of Europe’s milk was produced here), the excellence of which has been matched by skilful farming and a growing artisan food industry.
Until relatively recently St. David’s day was a half day holiday, and there is a growing lobby to make it a national holiday. In the meantime however, schools across Wales hold Eisteddfodau ( this literally means meant ‘to sit’), a competitive form of concert when children will sing, dance and recite. in some schools it will just take the form of a concert but there are still those which follow the age old tradition and judge and award a chair and/or a crown. It encourages and promotes the culture. The pub will be full traditional music playing, many a free for all with locals turning up instruments in hand; concert halls and theatres will be packed, choirs will be busy. And of course leeks and daffodils (Cennen Pedr – St Peter’s leek) will abound.
Luckily, on the gastronomic front, things have improved since Jan Morris’s article! On March 1st, across Wales, in schools and halls, at meetings of the Merched y Wawr (The daughters of the dawn – a society similar to the WI) and on restaurant menus Cawl (pronounced cowl) will dominate. Most commonly, cawl is a soup of root vegetables, leeks and lamb, but as in all countries, there are regional variations and many families have their own twists handed down through the generations. It is a soup born of what was to hand, making good use of the left overs either from a roast or the remains of the carcasse, long slow cooking extracting all flavour and goodness. It is warming, healthy, easy and extremely good comfort food. Afterwards Welsh cakes and bara brith (speckled bread) will be served with coffee.
In parts of Pembrokeshire and Cardigan ham is traditional, beef is often used, all are delicious! However, I have never come across pork in Cawl. Curious. Across Europe, particularly in the Celtic regions there are many soups built around pork. I have heard it said that fish is used along the coast but I have never actually come across it.
The usual method is to gently simmer the meat in water with some onion for an hour (at least, until the meat is really tender), skim when necessary, a grey froth will form which is made up of all the impurities in the meat. Then add the swede, turnips, carrot, potatoes and leeks (white part), all in smallish chunks. An hour later add the green of the leeks finely chopped, season to taste and serve with bread and chunks of cheese on the side. Traditionally, it would have been cooked in a cauldron over the fire, or left all day on the edge of it. Houses usually had a small range (like a little cupboard) built into the side of the fireplace and when I first came here in the nineties one of these was still being used by a friend as her only means of cooking. I am sure, even now, there are probably a few still in use. Most though, gave way many years ago to the rayburn, still to be found in many farmhouses, often with the top up and barely visible for the piled laundry.
I am a fan of suet and always add dumplings, (for how to make dumplings click here) we have a bowl of grated cheese (you could try, appropriately, Red Dragon, Ed) and like it melted over the top rather than as a chunk on the side. Finely chopped parsley adds fresh prettiness as well as being good for the blood. Some like to fry the meat, believing it to result in a richer tastier dish. Lady Llanover thought the first stage should be done the day before and that once the broth had cooled all fat could be removed rendering a healthful meal.
A welcome and warming end to a day’s work.
Another bonus is that this is a dish that continues to improve, tasting better as the days go by, it is well worthwhile making it by the cauldron.
Traditionally cawl would have been made with the last of the Sunday roast, however, very few of us need to be so thrifty now and it is much richer although still not uneconomical if made with fresh meat. A little goes a long way!
My husband’s mother and grandmother used this recipe. I have given vague quantities but while the blend is important, extra leeks, more swede, less onion, less or more meat, these are all a balancing act between taste, preference and what is in the larder.
Recipe for Welsh cawl
- 500g diced beef or lamb or a ham hock
- 3 or 4 potatoes
- half a swede
- 3 or 4 carrots
- 2 onions
- 3 or 4 leeks
- parsnips and turnips optional
- 2 marrow bones optional
- 1 tsp salt
Half fill a large pan with water, add the meat and salt, bring to the boil and skim any scum that rises. Simmer for an hour. Meanwhile prepare all the other vegetables. I like the root vegetables cut to roughly similar sizes, about a cubic inch. The onions in thin wedges and the leek slightly thicker than a pound coin. After an hour put in the onion and the white of the leek. Half an hour later the rest of the vegetables except the green of the leek, leave that until about ten minutes before finishing. Add more water if necessary, it should be an inch or so above the vegetables at least.
I always throw in a couple of marrow bones and when the cawl is done I take them out, remove the marrow, finely dice it and stir it back in. At which time adjust the seasoning.