Welsh Social History
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Food and drink
Food and drink
By no stretch of imagination could rural Wales be regarded as a gastronomic paradise,
for much of the diet consisted of salty home-cured bacon, home grown vegetables,
especially potatoes and other root vegetables, and oat based food. A monotonous
diet characterized the daily life of Welsh country folk. For example, an elderly
man, who worked on a farm in north Pembrokeshire in the 1930s, said; breakfast of
tea and oat bread was taken at 6 a.m. before milking. This was followed by ten o'clock
tea (te deg), known as bite in parts of mid-Wales. This consisted
of bread, cheese and tea. The daily mid-day meal consisted of soup (cawl),
a broth of mixed vegetables in bacon stock, followed on two or three days of the
week by an apple or plain suet dumpling cooked in the cawl. Fresh cawl was
made on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but on other days the soup of the previous
days was re-heated. Tea was often taken in the fields and again consisted of bread,
cheese and tea, with the added luxury of wheat bread and jam on Sundays. Supper
on most days consisted of bread and tea, or bread and milk, and occasionally the
cold meat from the cawl of midday.
On Nos Galan Gaeaf (Halloween) in Montgomeryshire, in many farmhouses, a mash
was made of nine ingredients: potatoes, carrots, turnips, peas, parsnips, leeks,
pepper, salt and new milk. In the mash was hidden a wedding ring. The young maidens
of the local village would dig into the mash with their wooden spoons, anxious to
learn their fate, for the one who found the ring would be first married. In Carmarthenshire,
the mash of nine ingredients, stwmp naw rhyw, was not used to foretell the future,
but nine girls used to meet to make a pancake containing nine ingredients. This was
then divided among the girls and eaten. Before morning, each girl would have a vision
of her future husband. In many parts of North Wales, where the custom of bundling
was a very common practice (much frowned upon by the English judiciary) the young
dreamers would often find their future husband in bed with them!! Along with the
mash, or the pancakes, came the wassail bowl. The wassail was often put inside a
puzzle jug, with many spouts, and the unsuspecting drinker would find himself doused
with beer, wine, or cider by drinking from the wrong spout. Some of these puzzle
jugs can now be seen at the National Folk Museum of Wales at St. Ffagan, near Cardiff.
The custom is very similar to one observed by the author in southwest Germany, where
participants in a contest drank out of a large glass boot that had to be handled
a certain way to prevent spillage.
Apples always played a large part in Halloween festivities (they are the one fruit
that grows prolifically in the temperamental Welsh climate and can be preserved throughout
much of the early winter). The most popular game was apple bobbing, with six or eight
perfectly round fruit placed in a large bowl of water set on the floor. Then, with
both hands tied behind their backs, the young lads and lasses would try to pick up
an apple with only their teeth. Usually they received a nose and mouth full of water
for their pains, but no apple!! In some houses, the apples were tied on one end of
a stick suspended from the ceiling with a candle tied to the other end. The stick
was then rotated and the participants, again with their hands tied behind them, tried
to catch the apple with their teeth as it spun around. They usually ended up with
a mouth full of candle! Apples played a large part in many other customs, too. If
you peeled an apple in one single piece and then threw the peel over your shoulder,
the letter of the alphabet it most closely resembled when it hit the ground would
be the initial letter of your future partner in marriage.
Other Halloween customs did not involve apples, but the unseen. In the Vale of Glamorgan,
at night, when the spirits were roaming the churchyards, one of the braver villagers
would put on his coat and vest inside out and recite the Lord's Prayer backwards
as he walked around the church a number of times. Then the courageous lad would enter
the porch and put his finger through the keyhole of the church door to prevent any
spirits from escaping. It was believed that the apparitions of those who would soon
die could be spied through the keyhole. In other areas of Wales, groups of youths
would dress up in women's clothes with the girls in men's clothing. They would wander
from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or
nuts, used to divine one's future. In other, more rural areas, young men used to
dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces.
After chanting their weird rhymes, they would then be given gifts of apples or nuts,
and sometimes beer. The groups would be known as the gwrachod (hags or witches).
The visitings of these groups were always in fun, but were taken seriously as harbingers
of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from
Oatmeal formed the basis of numerous dishes such as llymru, uwd, bwdram as
well as oatcakes. The oatcakes in turn, when crushed, formed the basis of such dishes
as picws mali and brywes. There were two types of oatcakes:
the thin type that was spread with butter and eaten with or instead of bread, and
a thicker variety intended for crumbling. Recipes for oatcakes varied from district
to district, but was commonly, as follows:
3 tablespoons of boiling water
1 1/2 tablespoons bacon fat
4 tablespoons of fine oatmeal
pinch of salt
Melt the bacon fat in water, mix with oatmeal. Spread out and knead well; roll out
thinly and cut into circles. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone or a frying pan
for ten minutes.
The equipment necessary was a rolling pin, (although some thought it better to use
the palm of the hand, or bare forearm); a wooden slice (rhawlech) for turning
and a wooden or metal rack (diogyn or car bara ceirch) for drying the
oatcakes when cooked stacked upright in the rack in front of the fire.
Recipes abound which used oatmeal:
Cawl Llaeth (Milk broth)
2 bowl-fuls of skimmed milk
1 tablespoon oatmeal
Boil the milk. Mix oatmeal and water to a fine paste and add to the milk, bring
to the boil, add salt and eat. In many places this was eaten for breakfast.
Sucan, which was oatmeal with the husks included, was widely used in
a number of recipes. One of the was bwdram, made with a bowlful of sucan
with a quart of lukewarm water. The water was poured on the sucan and the
mixture allowed to stand overnight. For supper the following night, the mixture
was sieved and had to be of such a consistency that its colour would be seen on the
back of a wooden spoon, when the spoon was removed from the mixture. If it was too
thick, then cold water was added. The bwdram after re-heating for five mins.
was then eaten with barley bread and perhaps salt herring. The so-called bwyd
sucan of west Wales was a thicker version of bwdram .
Brywes: Oatcakes and cawl.
Cawl was reheated and mixed with oatcakes. This was regarded as breakfast
3 dessertspoons of oatmeal
bowlful of buttermilk
This was especially popular in the harvest field. In rural south Cardiganshire in
the late 19th C., for example, it was customary for the farm women to carry a jug
and a jug of oatmeal to the fields, between tea-time and supper-time. Each harvester
would take two dessertspoonfuls of oatmeal in a bowl and add the buttermilk from
the other jug.
6 bowls of buttermilk
Oatcakes were rolled with a rolling pin and placed in a bowl. The mixture was allowed
to steep with added buttermilk for an hour or more and then eaten, usually for supper.
3 gallons of skim milk
1 tablespoon of rennet
Heat the milk to blood temperature. Add the rennet and cover with a cloth. Leave
for some hours and mix. This was regarded as summer breakfast food.
Lobscows & Cawl:
The north Walian equivalent of cawl was called lobscows. The usual
method of making cawl was to place salty beef, salty bacon or some other meat
in a suitable boiler with about 4 gallons of water. This was boiled for about an
hour and a half; potatoes, swedes, parsnips, carrots, cabbages, leeks and sometimes
herbs were added . Oatmeal first mixed with water was added to thicken the mixture.
In west Wales, the cawl was eaten first, usually from a wooden bowl or basin and
almost invariably with wooden spoons. This was followed by a second course of meat
and vegetables with a certain amount of liquid to moisten it.
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