Article by: Eugene, the founder & guide at Fogo's Free Tours Cardiff & Swansea
Wales may not be world renowned for its cuisine, but it is certainly more distinctive than one would expect. Wales has spent many centuries in the shadow of its larger neighbour to the east and as a result is often stereotyped as such, or perceived to share cultural and historical similarities. Of course, this is very much not the case, and one area of great difference between Wales and even its fellow nations of the UK is in its food.
However, what is Welsh food? One may be forgiven for thinking that it is revolves around meat, stews and perhaps bread, and yes there are some examples of that, but it is far more diverse, eclectic and even meat-free than expected for a traditionally rural country.
What we think of as British food is, of course, very prevalent in Wales as well. The likes of fish & chips, bangers & mash, meat-based pastries and traditional breakfasts are all very common across England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but beyond this typical fare the Welsh have their own distinct traditional delicacies. So, lets divulge a bit of Welsh dining and discover what Welsh food is, and its differences with the rest of Britain.
Once more commonly known as bake stones, now everybody just refers calls them Welsh cakes. The most easily accessible of Welsh foods, Welsh cakes are essentially little circular shaped soft cookies made from butter, eggs, flour, milk, currants and sugar, that serve as a snack any time of the day and for any occasion. Every bakery, coffee shop and even supermarket across Cardiff, Swansea and the rest of the country generally sells them, and if they cost more than 50p then you are being ripped off. If currants and raisins aren't for you, Welsh cakes come in a range of flavours these days, including chocolate chip, lemon, jam, cream, coconut, Nutella and even plain.
Another one with the world ‘Welsh’ in the name, Rarebit is typically the second type of food that people think of when the think of Wales, and much like Welsh Cakes, it is something that one might find even beyond the borders of Wales as well. Rarebit might be a peculiar name but the dish is straightforward enough, as it consists of melted cheddar cheese placed upon bread, perhaps with the twist of adding some ale flavouring, Worcestershire sauce or mustard. One may argue that cheese on toast is a fairly international dish these days, but it has been a tradition in Wales for centuries. Sometimes seen as Welsh Rabbit, but not to be confused with the animal of course.
While it’s been already noted that fish is very much a British delicacy on the whole, a seafood that is more traditional to Wales might be cockles. Cockles are a type of shellfish that live in shady, sheltered beaches across the world, notably around the Gower Peninsula, west of Swansea city centre. They’ve been sold at Swansea Market for centuries, and remain one of the highlights of the city’s wonderful market even today. Cockles are typically accompanied by something called laver bread. In this instance laver bread is essentially a green colour paste made from seaweed which has been boiled and pureed. Occasionally it is rolled and baked with oatmeal to give it more of a bread like presentation. Cockles and laverbread also form an important part of what is considered a traditional Welsh breakfast, as opposed to an English, Scottish or Irish breakfast, accompanying bacon, sausage and eggs for example. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste but laverbread is known as Welsh caviar to some…
Returning to the bakery, the next item is something that may not come as a complete surprise to anyone familiar with food from the British Isles. Bara Brith translates from Welsh into English as ‘speckled bread’, and is a type of fruit bread. Fruit bread is something that may be common around the world, much like cheese on toast or seafood, but in Wales bara brith is made with tea leaves, holding it all together, and often features a spreading of butter as well. Much like Welsh cakes, a snack for any occasion or even a lunch in it’s own right if you’re in a hurry.
This one involves a geography and history lesson. Glamorgan, first of all, is traditionally a county of Wales. The land of Glamorgan still exists but the administrative region of the same name has changed. The name lives on however, be it in the name of the local county cricket team, or in the name of a local delicacy. Glamorgan sausages are a sausage shaped item that are actually vegetarian, featuring three crucial components, namely potato, cheese and leek, which just so happens to be the national vegetable of the county. Leek tends to feature in an above average number of dishes, including soups and stews usually, and has been an important symbol of Wales since an infamous battle in the 6th century between the invading Saxons and the native Britons which took place in a leek field. Ultimately, the Welsh warriors of Britain thought to wear leeks in their hats, distinguishing themselves from the Saxons, and won a great victory as a result.
Wales is famous for sheep. In fact, there are three times as many sheep as there are people in the country, with there believed to be around nine million of them. So it should come as no surprise to know that lamb plays a significant role in Welsh cuisine. The most traditional and well known of all lamb dishes in the country is cawl. It may be the Welsh language word for soup but it is also a specific type of lamb stew as well. Generally it is served with potatoes and leek, other major staples of the Welsh diet traditionally, as we have already discovered. Unlike some of the other items on this list so far, cawl is probably exactly the kind of thing one would expect to fear as a typical meal in Wales. Along with rarebit, potentially the most traditional of all Welsh dishes, with its origins dating back hundreds of years.
A fun word to say but crempogs are essentially a form of pancake or crepe. They are made with flour, buttermilk, vinegar, eggs and butter, and cooked on a griddle, just like how Welsh cakes also are, rather than in an oven. Certainly much thicker than a crepe, they are stacked high and served with butter on top, usually on special occasions such as birthdays or, particularly, on Shrove Tuesday, the day before lent begins or more commonly known in this part of the world as Pancake Tuesday.
The history of food in Wales is unfortunately rather poorly documented, therefore the origins of a lot of these foodstuffs is often unknown. However, with Wales being a traditionally rural country up until even 250 years ago or so, it should come as no surprise that diets consisted of variations of milk, meat and vegetables. On top of that, the nineteenth century transformation of the country into an industrial powerhouse also suggests a reliance on stews, pastries and seafood, and therefore their prevalence makes a lot of sense also.
Welsh food, as we can see, is quite diverse and intriguing, if perhaps not something to whet the appetite. As a result, there is plenty here to get stuck into on a visit to Wales and worth trying even if only once. Finding some of these items however, can be the hard part. With no traditional cafes or restaurants available in the major cities, one tends to rely on the likes of Cardiff and Swansea markets to discover some of these foodstuffs. Otherwise, venturing further afield, to the more traditional and rural areas of Wales, which is highly recommended anyway, is where you are more likely to find the likes of laverbread, crempogs and cawl.
In addition to this article about Welsh food, you can also read this article about Dragons and Castles to find out more about the attractions in Cardiff.