Visit to Wales Offers Exotic Specialties And Simple Fare

Mention Welsh cuisine to an Englishman, and he'll no doubt refer only to the obvious: the region's everpresent leeks, cockles, and purplish laverbread. But Wales is renowned in Britain not only for its exotic regional specialties, but also for its simple, wholesome fare, based on the produce that is home-grown in the vast pastoral countryside.

Wales is still cattle and sheep country, with Welsh lamb enjoying a reputation as the best in Britain. Travelers to Wales can see market stalls weighed down with local foodstuffs, from Welsh butter and cheese to eggs, lamb, fish, leeks, and other vegetables. Wales relies on village markets more than does any other region in Britain.

One specialty the Welsh have thrived on for more than a century is laverbread. Most locals enjoy the gastronomic treat that is simply a strong-tasting processed purple seaweed, which rapidly gained favor among the region's coal miners after the Industrial Revolution.

Laverbread is traditionally coated in oats and made into small cakes, which are fried with bacon, eggs, and sometimes cockles (little shellfish). A seaweed rich in iron, it grows in abundance only on coastal stones inside the sandy coves washed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. But it's a concoction only adventurous palates dare try.

"It's quite an acquired taste as the seaweed is really salty," says Penny Jackson, who runs the Celtic Tearoom in the coastal town of Tenby in southwest Wales. Purple laver, Porphyra umbilicalis, dubbed "laverbread" only after it has been washed, boiled, and minced, is one of several regional dishes she offers customers. "I don't like it at all, but my husband thinks it's the best thing since sliced bread."

For centuries, the hearth was the focal point of every Welsh home. A typical turn-of-the-century meal would center on cawl, a thick soup stewed in a pot suspended over the hearth made with either beef, pork, or lamb and vegetables. Fish would occasionally substitute for the main course, easy to procure as Wales has more than 750 miles of coastline and rivers.

Baked goods would often be prepared alongside the hearth on a hot griddle. Many recipes for these traditional pastries and breads corresponded to special events or holidays, so harvest cakes, threshing cakes, and shearing cakes became commonplace.

Welsh cakes, perhaps, are the most traditional baked goods in Wales. (They are similar to sweet pancakes.) Like laverbread, they became popular among workingmen. Originally they were taken out to the farmers in the fields in the early morning, and given to miners to eat as a midday snack when they went down in the pits.

"Today, Welsh cakes tend to be eaten in the morning. They are quite satisfying as you usually have them with butter or a lump of cheese," says Mrs. Jackson, whose elegant tearoom opened two years ago. She runs the operation with a business partner, but she bakes most of the cakes herself. "We usually serve them for tea with sugar on them."

Bara Brith, a speckled bread that resembles fruitcake, is also served in most Welsh homes. "Every household tends to make it," Jackson says. "In the older households, if you visit someone, it's just always there."

Supermarkets have taken a toll on local fruit and vegetable stalls, and tourism and better roads have influenced the flavor of dishes in once-isolated areas. But specialties such as the Glamorgan sausage (a cheese-and-leek croquette) and Anglesey Eggs, made with leeks, potatoes, and cheese, still thrive thanks to the high-quality produce available.

Welsh baked goods have also changed slightly in recent years, mainly due to dietary concerns. Many traditional cakes are often made today with slightly less sugar than in the past, and white flour is occasionally substituted with wholemeal flour.

"I stayed at a cozy home-away-from-home hotel, and I was offered Welsh cakes and a pot of tea as a welcome to Wales," says Heather Naylor, a tourist from London visiting the southwest coastal area. "They were warm and freshly baked that day, and a real treat after a long journey from London. I wish they were available in cake shops in England."

Jackson says many tourists don't stop at sampling only the griddle cakes. In the summer, when the region is filled with tourists, she offers laverbread on a daily basis - and has been quite successful enticing the uninitiated to try it.

While some hard-core locals eat laverbread with only a touch of salt and pepper after it has been microwaved to a crisp, she prefers to prepare it the time-honored way: cooking rashers of smoky bacon first, then frying the laverbread in the bacon fat. Despite the unappetizing image that conjures up, it's a recipe that works.

Currant or 'Speckled' Bread

(Bara Brith)

A teatime favorite

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package active dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup milk plus more as needed

2 tablespoons butter or lard at room temperature

2 eggs at room temperature

1 cup currants (or raisins)

1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins)

1/2 cup chopped candied fruit peel

In a large bowl, mix 1 cup of the flour with yeast, salt, sugar, and cinnamon.

In a saucepan, heat milk and butter or lard, stirring to combine. Let cool.

Beat eggs and add to cooled milk mixture. Pour into flour mixture and stir to make a smooth batter.

Mix in remaining 1-1/2 cups flour - a little at a time - to form dough.

Knead on a floured surface for about 10 minutes, adding extra flour if dough becomes too sticky.

Place dough in greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place for about an hour.

Soak the currants and raisins in water until they are plump (about 50 minutes); drain, then mix with candied fruit peel.

Turn dough onto floured board; knead for a few minutes, then add fruit, pressing in while kneading.

Cover and let rise until double in bulk.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Shape dough into a round or an oval and bake on cookie sheet or in loaf pan for about 35 or 45 minutes. (When you tap the crust, it should sound hollow.)

Let cool.

Cut in thin slices and serve with butter. Makes 1 loaf.

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