Welsh Social History
Contents of this section
Butter was made on most farms and smallholdings weekly, and then stored in casks
ready to be taken every few weeks to market. Large quantities were made in the spring
months for the old farmers believed that calving should be limited to April and May.
Milk was poured into a slate or wooden trough and allowed to stand in the dairy,
so that the cream could be skimmed off the surface. Since churning usually only took
place one day a week the milk could be slightly sour before it was converted into
butter. To make butter cream was placed in the churn and the handles grasped and
the vessel rocked to and fro; this method was slow and laborious. There was also
a plunger churn which had a near conical, coopered container, anything up to three
feet tall, with a vertical plunger, equipped with a perforated metal disc at the
bottom, passing through a central hole in the churn lid. Whilst most barrel churns
were hand operated, dog wheels and horse turnstiles were used in some districts for
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The skimmed milk was usually fed to calves, but it was also used to make cheese.
In some parts sheep were also milked after the spring lambing and their milk was
mixed with the skimmed cow's milk. The usual recipe was:
1 gallon ewe's milk
4 gallons cow's milk
calf's caul; or rennet (two tablespoons)
The milk was heated in a brass pan to blood heat, and then removed from the fire,
the rennet added, and the mixture allowed to stand for a few hours. A wooden spoon
or implement was used to cut it up and the whey poured away. The curds were then
mixed and pressed with bare hands and salt was added, and then the curds were placed
in a cloth ready for pressing. The cheese presses were of wood, stone or metal. The
cheese had to be pressed for two days and turned three times each day: for the first
two turnings holes were bored in the cheese to allow the whey to run out. Usually
the cheese was kept for a couple of years before it was considered fit to eat.
In some households the whey would be used to make a dish known as gwyneb maidd.
About 3 gallons of whey were heated to near boiling point and fresh milk and buttermilk
were added. The milk curdled and bread was added, and the dish was then eaten, usually
with bread and cheese.
In communities near the sea fish provided variety. Herrings were popular, especially
in the Lleyn Peninsula and the south-west. In the autumn it was the custom to buy
a 'meise' of herrings, consisting of 500 fish, and salt them. The herrings were placed
in a cask in layers with layers of salt between, stored in a dark, cool place for
a couple of months. When the salted herrings were required, they were taken out of
the salt and washed and allowed to steep in cold water overnight. Next day the fish
were hung on sticks, in the chimney space to dry.
In some riverside communities salmon was preserved by smoking; it was not regarded
as a luxury, merely as a last resort to preserve fish that could not be sold on the
open market. The cockles gathered by the cockle women of Pen-clawdd, in north Gower
were popular. These were boiled, or fried with laver bread (a form of seaweed gathered
from certain beaches).
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To produce the essential ingredients for so many rural foods, every locality in Wales
had a corn mill. In 1923 the county of Cardigan had 77 working corn mills, Brecknockshire
had 44, and Pembroke 54. All these mills were water driven, but in some areas - Anglesey
and the Vale of Glamorgan in particular - windmills were very common. In other districts,
notably in the Milford Haven area, tide mills were known.
Corn milling was undoubtedly the most widespread of all rural industries, for there
was hardly a river or stream in Wales that didn't have a mill along its banks. Considerable
quantities of cereals were grown in Wales, for not only may the remains of corn mills
be seen in the fertile valleys suitable for cereal crops, but they may also be seen
in the narrow valleys of the moorland, for even the moorland sheep farmer grew his
quota of oats, rye and barley to feed both man and animal, even though the land may
have been completely unsuited to tillage.
The quality of millstones is of vital importance to the miller and both the fixed
stones and the running stones have to dressed at regular intervals with a special
hammer known as a 'mill bill', deep grooves of a regular pattern had to be cut into
the stones to ensure the grain was milled efficiently and distributed the flour to
the edge of the wheel. French burr millstones were preferred for milling barley.
But for milling wheat and oats, millstone grit stones were used.
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In a land famous for its temperance leaders of the 19th and 20th C., one of the
oldest institutions that ever existed was a distillery that operated for a few years
between 1887 and 1905. This as established at Frongoch, near Bala, in Merioneth,
a town that was notable centre of Calvinistic Methodism and all that implied. A certain
R.J.Lloyd thought that Wales could become as important a centre as the Scottish highlands
for the distilling of whisky. After samples of water from various rivers in north
Wales were analysed, that from the river Tairfelin was chosen as ideal. A Scotsman
named Colville was engaged to run the distillery project and production started in
1889. Despite the good intentions the campaign for Welsh whisky did not thrive. It
was the fish in the river that suffered after a decade of flourishing on a mixture
of barley and warm water that emanated from the distillery.
There is not any particular Welsh national drink, though in some areas cider was
made and drunk. In 1934 a certain Calvinistic minister preaching at a sasiwn at Trefeca
described Brecknock as a 'cider besotted county'. Cider making was practised on many
farms until recent times, and orchards containing such varieties as Golden Pippin,
Redstreak, Old Foxwhelp, Perthyre and Frederick were well distributed throughout
the border countries. Many public houses had a cider house containing milling and
Although beer making was widely practised in Welsh households in the past, the impact
of temperance leaders and a number of religious revivals between 1859 and 1904 put
an end to this traditional domestic operation. In rural Wales, temperance sprang
from the experience of the 18th cent, revival, whose leaders taught people to sacrifice
all worldly pleasures and seek the spiritual ideal. The 19th C., its revivals and
puritanical outlook on ethical and sexual problems, strengthened and deepened the
austere pattern laid down by the early Methodist leaders. Until recently in many
parts of Wales, total abstinence from alcoholic drink was regarded as the kingpin
of correct social behaviour; until recently too, Calvinistic Methodism, the most
widespread of Welsh denominational affiliations, still required an affirmation of
total abstinence from all its newly elected elders.
In some districts, notably the Gwaun valley in Pembrokeshire, the temperance movement
never caught the public imagination as it did in the major part of Wales, and domestic
beer brewing has always been important in that remote valley.
The basis of good beer is malted barley, in the past the malting of barley on the
farm, or in special malt houses, was widely practised. In Haverfordwest in 1870 there
were ten maltsters and in Pembroke there were eight: in addition, the art of malting
was well known to many Welsh farmers. Malting usually took place in winter; the barley
after being steeped in water for about five days was drained and spread evenly on
a dry perforated tiled floor for a period varying from twelve to forty-eight hours,
where the malted barley was dried over a wood fire. Depending on the temperature,
small roots emerge from the grain. From that stage, great care had to be taken; the
temperature controlled and the sprouting grain had to be turned at frequent intervals
with wooden shovels and rakes. No one was permitted on the floor unless they had
bare feet, in case the barley was damaged. The green malt was then taken to the kiln,
placed on perforated tiles and gently dried by the wood fire lit in the chamber beneath.
The heating arrested the growth and gave the malt the characteristic 'biscuity' taste.
To make strong beer, eight or nine gallons of clean spring water was required for
each bushel of malt, but for a weaker brew drunk at corn or hay harvest, the amount
of water was increased to fourteen or fifteen gallons. The water was boiled and poured
over the malt in the wooden brewing vessel. A bunch of gorse or wheat straw was placed
over the bung hole at the bottom of the vessel to act as a filter when the liquid
was drained. The mixture covered with a blanket was allowed to stand in warm place
for at least three hours. More water was added, the liquid was transferred to a boiler
and a half pound of hops and six pounds of sugar were added. After cooking overnight,
two ounces of yeast were added, and the beer left to ferment for a couple of days
before being bottled or casked.
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Oddly in many parts of Wales mead did not join with beer as one of the deadly
sins and in those districts mead was made in late summer. The ingredients of mead
were honeycombs with the honey removed, cold water, hops and yeast. Cold water was
poured on the honeycomb, and the mixture allowed to stand overnight. On the following
day it was strained through a fine sieve into a boiler to be boiled very slowly.
The surface was skimmed frequently. A handful of hops was added and after boiling
for another quarter of an hour the liquid was allowed to cool to blood temperature.
A pint of brewers yeast was added and left for some hours. Usually the mead was bottled
in stone jars that had to be buried in a marshy field for at least six months before
it was considered fit to drink.
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