It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon on our first trip to Wales, and we still had not found a place to spend the night. We'd stopped at a town not far from the English border, hoping to book a room through the town's Welsh Tourist Office. But when we got there, the door was locked. A sign said it would be closed until Easter.
The March air was damp and chilly, as cheerless as the gray stone all around us. We opened our tourist guidebook and scoured the bed-and-breakfast listings again. We'd called most of them already, only to hear recorded messages saying they weren't open yet. One of the last ones on the list was a B&B on a sheep and dairy farm. When my husband got off the phone, he wore a big smile.
"She said yes, to come along," he said, "And she had a very pleasant voice."
We got back into our tiny rental car and headed farther into the Brecon Beacons – a hilly region of mid-Wales. Flocks of sheep punctuated green hillsides. Hedgerows rolled up and down gentle grades. Stone walls and neat stone cottages marked the people's long husbanding of the land.
Outside the village of Talgarth, we turned off the narrow asphalt road onto a tree-lined dirt lane that led to a cluster of farm buildings. We spotted the B&B sign and passed through a white iron gate into a small, paved yard. The stone farmhouse didn't look nearly as grand or as tidy as it had in the guidebook.
A low, rectangular building, it was decorated with an odd assortment of flowers in small pots sprinkled about the place. We learned later the house was a converted cow barn. With the new barn nearby, the smell of manure was noticeable even with the car windows rolled up. My husband looked at me questioningly. I smiled. It would be an adventure.
We knocked on the door, and the woman who answered it put our misgivings to rest. She was a sturdy farm wife with copper-colored hair and rosy cheeks, and her wide smile and words of welcome drew us in.
"Oh, you found us – well done," she said soothingly. It was as if she had been waiting a long time for our visit. She ushered us into her home and showed us our room, which had a view of a nearby mountain framed by lace curtains. We brought all our bags in from the car.
"Now you must have a nice cup of tea," Bronwen insisted. We waited in "the lounge," a living room packed with comfortable furniture, richly patterned wallpaper and rugs, and family treasures – china, silver, brass, and old photographs.
Outside, the wind whipped white sheets on the clothesline above a bed of daffodils. When the clouds broke, sunlight poured in over the geraniums on the wide, glossy-white windowsills. The whole effect was more than homey – it was heavenly.
When Bronwen brought us tea, it wasn't just tea. It was a large pot of tea kept warm in a crocheted tea cozy, poured into pretty china cups, and served with sugar and farm cream, homemade bread, and currant-sprinkled Welsh cakes.
If there was any doubt in our minds that this was the best place we could have landed in all of Wales, it melted away with the first bite of those buttery, nutmeg-spiced biscuits.
We spent five nights at Bronwen's. We toured the countryside by sailplane and on horseback. We accompanied Bronwen to the market, where farmers in tweed jackets, wool caps, and black Wellington boots gathered among pens of bawling lambs.
We watched Bronwen's son, Robert, milk his cows – and got our boots good and smelly.
We hiked through sheep pastures and bracken up that hill outside our window – Mynydd Troed. At the top, we listened with delight to the distant stereo sound of ewes calling their lambs from every direction. We watched the sun break out of clouds and fan its brilliant rays over the rolling green landscape.
We got wet and chilly, and didn't mind because we knew that when we got back, Bronwen would welcome us with tea, Welsh cakes, and her warm, motherly smile.
When we finally left, Bronwen handed me a copy of her recipe penned on lined paper. At the end, she wrote: "Do hope they will be successful. Bron."
It took a little experimenting – and translating the recipe into American terms – but I did learn to make good Welsh cakes.
After our fourth trip to Wales we bought an Aga cooker – a cast-iron queen of a stove. But a griddle or electric frying pan works just fine for making Welsh cakes.
They taste best with a hot drink after a long walk in the March drizzle.
8 ounces (2 sticks) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups self-rising flour (see note)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup currants
(Editor's Note: The original version of this recipe was missing the butter/margarine from the ingredients.)
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar together by hand. Beat in eggs. Gradually add flour, nutmeg, and currants. (Let currants become coated with flour.)
Blend until the dough is soft and just moist enough to roll out. Roll to 1/4-inch thick. If the dough is too dry to roll, add a small amount of cream.
Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds.
Place a griddle over medium heat until it's hot enough that a drop of water will sizzle on it. (You may also use an electric skillet heated to 350 degrees F.)
Place up to 4 rounds of dough at a time on the griddle. (Don't let them touch.)
Turn the cakes just as you would for pancakes – when the bottoms have begun to brown (generally after about 2 minutes or so).
Makes about 24 cakes.
Note: If you don't have self-rising flour, you may substitute 2 cups all-purpose flour to which you've added 1 teaspoon salt and 3 teaspoons baking powder. Mix thoroughly.