A variety of cheese on display
A variety of cheese on displayPhoto | Teja Lele

From Welsh cakes to Glamorgan sausage: Exploring Wales' unique gastronomic heritage

A unique Welsh food tour by a culinary expert opens the tastebuds to flavours, exotic yet simple

The food explorer gets off the train, who has travelled from London to Cardiff in barely two hours, and is greeted by an affable, smiling woman at the platform. She says a quick Croeso (welcome) and hands over a paper bag, still warm, containing two Welsh cakes. Part pancakes, part cookies, the small, circular cakes, known as bakestones or picau ar y maen in Welsh, are made with flour, butter, sugar, currants, raisins and warming spices. Sian Roberts, the founder of Loving Welsh Food, the first and only company offering food tours in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, says she loves food tourism as you “try foods that you wouldn’t try elsewhere. You won’t get a Welsh cake or faggots in Scotland, and you won’t get boxty or haggis in Wales”.

Bordered by England to the east and the water on all other sides, Wales, also known as the ‘Land of Song’, is renowned for its craggy coastline, mountainous parks and Celtic culture. Medieval chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis wrote that Wales is a “country very strongly defended by high mountains, deep valleys, extensive woods, rivers, and marshes; insomuch that from the time the Saxons took possession of the island the remnants of the Britons, retiring into these regions, could never be entirely subdued either by the English or by the Normans”.

The country’s identity stands apart through its quintessentially Welsh cuisine as opposed to the rest of Britain’s potpourri calling the kettle black culture of steak and kidney pudding, haggis and chicken tikka masala. Roberts has designed a four-hour, food-focused odyssey across Cardiff, through market stalls, streets and arcades. Her plan is for her epicurean clients to sample traditional Welsh eats such as cheeses, cockles, ciders, laverbread, faggots and bara brith.

Traditional Welsh cooking derives from the diet of the region’s working man: coal miner, farmer, fisherman or labourer. With great numbers of its workforce historically spending long, exhausting days at work, the food had to be hearty, resourceful, filling—and delicious. All with a few staples: fresh vegetables (typically leeks and cabbage), fish, meat and flour. “Welsh cooking uses local ingredients in different ways. Then, people didn’t have access to ingredients from all over the world or sophisticated cooking equipment. They had to be as creative as possible with limited resources,” Roberts says.

olivesPhotographs by TEJA LELE

Lamb and beef feature prominently on the menu as do the fruits of the sea such as cockles, salmon, trout, white crab and lobsters. Welsh cooking follows the nose-to-tail philosophy of creating hearty meals from every bit of meat and produce.

Be it the cawl, a meaty stew served with crusty bread and salted butter at The Welsh House, an upmarket restaurant in the heart of Cardiff, or the faggots—meatballs typically made of minced pork offal (heart, liver, or spleen)—mixed with onions, spices such as sage or parsley, and breadcrumbs, or the laverbread—‘Welshman’s caviar’—made from seaweed collected off the coast; the dishes are simple, yet a feast for the tastebuds. The cawl, a one-pot meal originally cooked in an iron pot over an open fire, is a comforting, warming dish. “Cheaper cuts of lamb and seasonal vegetables are used to make this family favourite,” she reveals.

Roberts takes her clients to see Wally’s Delicatessen, in Cardiff’s Royal Arcade, where a range of local cheeses are displayed alongside a charcuterie board, and ciders. Among Caerphilly, a local cheese now largely produced in England, the crowd-favourites are Black Bomber, Teifi and Perl Wen. Roberts then leads the tasting party to Cardiff Market to try faggots with mushy peas, cooked cockles with laverbread, meat pie, and a slice of pizza at Pizza Boyz, an award-winning outlet founded by twins born in Swansea.

cocklesPhotographs by TEJA LELE

Other gourmet must-haves in Wales are giant oggies—large pasties that miners had for lunch; tatws pum munud, a four-ingredient traditional Welsh dish that uses cheap cuts of meat with easily found vegetables. “The name, tatws pum munud, translates into five-minute potatoes. However, that’s very misleading since the recipe takes at least an hour to cook!” Roberts laughs. The Glamorgan sausage—a vegetarian surprise—is again a family favourite since it is a “simple and great way to use up leftover bread and cheese”. Roberts adds leeks and carrots to the mixture and “lots of parsley and thyme”.

The food tour ends at The Welsh House, an independent regional restaurant and bar, with a round of coffee and bara brith, the traditional ‘speckled bread’ which is a cake studded with sultanas and raisins served on a bed of warm custard. It does hits the sweet spot.

Welsh sweet treats—be it the teisen lap or Welsh cakes—are made on the griddle as most homes couldn’t afford an oven. “All Celtic countries have dishes that are cooked on a griddle. In Scotland, they make flat breads, boxty, shortbread, bannocks, buttermilk scones, potato cakes, oat cakes and pancakes. In Wales, we use the griddle for Welshcakes, teisen lap, breads and oat cakes,” Roberts says.

It’s clear that the thrifty people of Wales added a dollop of innovation and made food to match their lifestyle, and pocket. Welsh food offers plenty of food for thought.

The New Indian Express