Simple farmhouse foods give the true taste of Wales
Cardigan, 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.
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.
In the comfort of Welsh farmhouse kitchens, with their scrubbed flagstone floors, she listened and took notes, and, above all, came to know and love the people.
The dishes were served at her restaurant and her efforts were rewarded by two stars in Egon Ronay's guidebook to restaurants, as well as inclusion in the equally prestigious Good Food Guide.
After selling the hotel, she wrote a cookbook, ''First Catch Your Peacock: A Book of Welsh Food.''
Now, in Ty'r Cwm, the House in the Valley, she has begun the Welsh Cookery Center, offering courses called ''Tastes Remembered'' to small groups of people who learn about Welsh food, and about the character and culture of the country.
Cooking demonstrations are complemented by visits to water-powered mills, stone-grinding flour, and smokehouses where mutton hams and the rare pink-fleshed sewin and salmon are smoked, to farmhouse cheese and butter producers, goat and honey farms, the beach to gather laver, and elsewhere.
Accommodation is in top-class hotels or local farmhouses, and the courses can last for one, two, or three weeks.
Further information is available from Ellen Bailey, World Travel, 2322 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles, Calif. 90064, or from the Welsh Cookery Center, Ty'r Cwm, Llangoedmor, Cardigan, Dyfed, Wales SA43 2LE.
Here are some recipes to tempt you with the taste of Wales. There are few houses in Wales that do not have an ever-present tinful of these small, cookie-size griddle cakes on hand to pass at teatime to guests and family: Welsh Cakes 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder Pinch of allspice Pinch of salt 1 stick of butter 1/2 cup vegetable shortening 1 cup sugar 3/4 cup seedless raisins 2 eggs Milk to mix A little sugar to sprinkle
Mix flour, baking powder, allspice, and salt together, and cut in butter and shortening. Add sugar and raisins.
Bind with beaten eggs and a little milk to make a fairly stiff dough. Roll out, and form into rounds, using a circular cookie-cutter with serrated edge, or a glass.
Cook on a well-greased bakestone (griddle), or in a heavy iron frying pan for about 3 minutes a side.
Cakes should be golden, cooked through to the middle, not dried out. Sprinkle with sugar, and serve hot or cold.
The famous ''speckled bread'' of Wales was originally a variation of the weekly bread loaf, sweetened with sugar, and with raisins and currants pressed into the dough.
Although some recipes now use baking powder as the rising agent, the best Bara Brith is made with yeast.
1 teaspoon dried yeast
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup warm milk
1 pound wheatmeal flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch of allspice
2 sticks of butter
1 1/2 cups seedless raisins, soaked in warm water to plump
1/2 cup chopped candied orange peel
Dissolve yeast and sugar with about half the warm milk, and leave to stand in a warm place for 15 minutes.
Mix all the dry ingredients except the fruit, and rub in the butter until well mixed.
Make a hole in the middle of the flour mixture and add yeast mixture and remaining warm milk, and mix well.
Cover with a clean, damp cloth, and set to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down the bread and knead it a few times, then work in the drained, plumped fruit and peel. Turn it into a warmed and buttered 8-inch loaf tin.
Cover, set in a warm place, and leave to rise again for 1 to 2 hours.
Bake in a hot oven at 400 degrees F. for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees F. and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Cover loaf with foil, if necessary, to keep from burning.
Cool a few minutes before turning out. Slice and serve buttered, arranged on a plate.