Simple farmhouse foods give the true taste of Wales
Ty'r Cwm, ''the House in the Valley,'' was probably once an estate worker's cottage, tied to an English mansion or plas, like many which grandly overlook the hills and valleys and tiny villages of west Wales.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, it's the home of the Welsh Cookery Center, established by Bobby Freeman, a writer, food historian, and former restaurateur. A small 400-year-old cottage, it has doorways you must stoop under and a roaring, open fire which welcomes visitors.
Welsh foods and cooking traditions are unique and strongly intact, for indeed this rugged Celtic outpost, despite the Act of Union which united the Principality of Wales with England in 1536, remains today a very separate and foreign country.
Whereas English cooking traditions developed from the prosperous tables and groaning sideboards of aristocratic country mansions, the true taste of Wales is in the simple foods of hardworking farm laborers and peasants, slate quarrymen, and coal miners.
It is a diet based on pork, bacon, and root vegetables, which developed out of necessity. Cooking methods were primitive, such as cooking over an open fire and baking on the ever-present planc, which is a well-greased bakestone or griddle.
Cawl, for example, is probably the national dish of Wales. The word tranlates as soup or broth, but cawl is much more than that. A classic one-pot meal, it simmers with a joint of pink, home-cured bacon, scraps of sweet Welsh lamb, cabbage, orange-tinted rutabaga, tiny ''new'' potatoes, and tender leeks.
Recipes for cawl vary, depending on the family, the region, and season and on what vegetables are available. Like other such national dishes as French pot au feu or Spanish cocido, it is at once simple and delicious.
Traditionally it is eaten from earthenware, flowered bowls, with hand-carved wooden cawl spoons that protect too-eager mouths from burning.
Laver, an edible seaweed found on the coast, also reflects the indigenous eating traditions of Wales, for it is still gathered and eaten regularly.
Donning rubber Wellington boots and carrying a large bucket, Bobby Freeman and I struck out for Llangranog beach, where we found it, gathered like tousled mermaid's hair, on the rocks that were exposed when tide had fallen.
Laver needs washing in several changes of water. It is then steeped or boiled for upwards of six hours or cooked more quickly in a pressure cooker. Finally, it is shredded to a fine pulp.
The favorite Welsh way to use the seaweed is in laver bread, a flat cake with oatmeal in it which is fried in bacon fat and served with bacon.
It is also made in a sauce and served hot with a roast. Bobby Freeman likes to mix it with orange juice and rind to make a sauce that she serves with sweet, tender Welsh spring lamb.
Though her maternal grandmother came from North Wales, Bobby was born in Lancashire, in the north of England, and her holidays were always spent in Anglesey.
She came to live permanently in Wales some 20 years ago, to develop and run the Compton House Hotel in the small fishing town of Fishguard, in Pembrokeshire.
The hotel's restaurant, ''Y Gegin'' (''the Kitchen'' in Welsh), soon gained a reputation for the quality of its food. It seemed natural to Bobby not only to use fresh local produce, but also to experiment with serving local recipes.
This, however, was no easy task. There were few Welsh cookbooks available in English - or even in Welsh. Cooking traditions had been passed down through generations from mother to daughter.
Moreover, the Welsh themselves could not understand that anyone would want to cook and serve something as ''ordinary'' and common as cawl in a hotel restaurant.
But in time, she was able to gather recipes by talking with farmers' wives, or by meeting the coracle fishermen who, in their strange, circular cloth-covered crafts, fish rivers such as the Teifi and Tywi for salmon and the pink-fleshed sewin or sea trout.