Some of my favourite Welsh cookbooks by The Welsh Kitchen's Ross Clarke
Last summer, I spent a week near the Brecon Beacons National Park, not that far from where I lived in the Welsh Valleys a long time ago. One of my day trips was to Trehafod and Pontypridd, where my first two Welsh homes were located before I briefly moved on to Cardiff. I’d recently started following Ross Clarke, the food and travel writer whose newsletter, The Welsh Kitchen, has become a firm favourite. Ross is a travel writer and editor whose work has been published across National Geographic Traveller, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Evening Standard, Metropolitan, High Life, and the BBC.
While I was in Pontypridd, I revisited The Princes, a cafe-bakery hybrid opposite the town’s famous covered market, to buy a slice of their corned beef pie, which I was most fond of when living as a student in the town. I read Ross’s recipe for his Nanna Lena’s corned beef pie upon my return which he kindly tweeted a link to after seeing my tweet about Princes’ pie, and then I reread his Vittles piece about Wales and London’s Welsh community whom he describes as “London’s close-knit band of wanderers, descendants and visitors, brought together by language and shared cultural experiences, including hospitality, food and drink – oh, and singing”…
Ross’s words brought me up short. If a simple conversation about corned beef pie and its affinity with white pepper (NEVER black) can induce feelings of hiraeth in a Not-Welsh person who lived there only briefly, then what on earth must it be like for the Welsh diaspora? Despite the global migration of Welsh people to places as far away as Australia and New Zealand, Patagonia in South America and the mining communities of Pennsylvania, there’s a relative paucity of writing on the subject of Welsh diasporic food and— indeed— the food of Wales (which tends to get lumped into the general category of ‘British Food’). This is puzzling and infuriating. So, I’ve wanted to write a newsletter about Welsh food for some time and needed to get it right but I cannot claim expertise from my all-too-brief drop-ins. Ross is the best person to ask for recommendations about excellent books on the subject of Wales and her food, so I did. Let’s hope that one day, we get to read Ross’s book on the subject. In the meantime, here’s what he has to say:
“While I have about 60 books about Welsh food (and counting!), there are perhaps unsurprisingly not many places to find out about Welsh food or recipes. It’s one reason that I wanted to start my newsletter, The Welsh Kitchen, in order to delve into Welsh food culture, showcase great Welsh produce, and provide recipes that people can try at home in their kitchens. That being said, there are some books I go back to time and again. Here are some of my favourites in the English language. There are books in Welsh but I’m not a fluent Welsh speaker, so while I use them to try to improve my vocab and learn, I tend to stick to the English language ones.”
Welsh Fare by S Minwel Tibbott
I think that my favourite museum in the world is what I know as St Fagans. Strictly speaking, it’s now St Fagans National Museum of History, but it’s had many names. It’s a village of rescued houses and buildings from around Wales that have been painstakingly dismantled from their original locations and reconstructed at this one site outside of Cardiff. They detail the living history of Wales. S Minwel Tibbott was an assistant keeper at the Department of Oral Traditions and Dialects at the museum and mercifully set out around Wales to record women in their homes talking about domestic life and food. This book is the printed result of those recordings. Some of the recipes are very old and the few images that are included of some of the respondents are fantastic.
There’s open access to the recipes in the book on the National Museum of Wales collections and research site:
First Catch Your Peacock by Bobby Freeman
This is perhaps the most comprehensive guide to Welsh food and recipes that exists and was compiled and written by the doyenne of Welsh cookery, Bobby Freeman. Bobby also produced lots of tiny little books about Welsh food, including Welsh Bakestone Cookery, Welsh Pies and Puddings etc. First Catch Your Peacock often details multiple versions of the same dish that she uncovered during her research. Back in the 60s, Bobby opened The Compton House Hotel in Pembrokeshire, which was considered the first proper modern restaurant serving Welsh food on the menu. I love this story from the book, “If anything can be said to have endured from the ‘old days’ of Welsh cookery in addition to cawl, it is the love of pancakes, in all their many forms… When pancakes were on the menu in an industrial canteen in West Wales, I was amazed to see an old bakestone come out of its cupboard to be placed over a couple of house bricks set on either side of a gas burner. On this, amidst the gleaming steel and steam of contemporary catering equipment, the cook stood patiently making pancake after pancake, hour after hour, until the men’s demands for them were appeased.”
A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse by Elisabeth Luard
While not strictly Welsh recipes per se (although there are many), this book gives the most wonderful account of the seasons in Wales and the produce available and what to do with it - including a great how-to for preparing snails. Elisabeth Luard is a legend of the food and travel worlds and each recipe is a lesson in how to cook simply and beautifully. Each season month starts with a wonderfully descriptive chapter opener and is illustrated by Elizabeth herself. I love a recipe under March: Baked apples with cider and rosemary, that starts, “This is a good way to use up the last of the cooking apples”. Cider and mead have been made in Wales for generations and I love to use Welsh cider in recipes.
Traditional Welsh Home Cooking by Annette Yates
If you’re looking for a great, clear introduction to Welsh food and cooking, then this is the ideal kitchen companion. It tells you a bit about native foods and produce and some Welsh customs and traditions. I always find Annette Yates’s recipes work every time and here you’ll find all the classic Welsh recipes (cawl, Welsh cakes etc) plus some twists such as bara brith ice cream.
First Principles of Good Cookery by Rt Hon Lady Llanover
This recipe book (if you can call it that) is the most convoluted story of Welsh cookery – or perhaps cookery full stop – that I’ve ever encountered. Baroness Augusta Hall was the heiress to the substantial Llanover estate in Monmouthshire. She was perhaps the most prolific advocate for Welsh customs and traditions ever. She taught herself Welsh, insisted her staff use it, dressed in what is now considered Welsh national dress, and insisted on serving traditional Welsh food at any of her parties or gatherings. This book outlines her recipes but does so through the tale of a young man who, when roaming Wales, comes across a hermit with a passion and encyclopaedic knowledge of food and cookery. It’s a really strange read but I love it. I’ll leave you with the best line from her introduction, “It is, however, fair to the Author, that the ‘Gentle Readers’ should be informed (whether male or female), that, had time and circumstances permitted, this book would have been more complete, but under the impression that facts will constitute its chief value, the Author decided on publishing one volume as quickly as possible, without waiting to rearrange the subjects or to improve the composition.” Maybe that explains its eclectic nature.
Lamb, Leeks and Laverbread by Gilli Davies
I haven’t counted but I think Gilli Davies has possibly produced the most recipe books about Welsh food (or comes in a very close second to Bobby Freeman). This one is from 1989 and is a rather no-frills book. There are minimal pictures but lots of great recipes. My copy has that wonderful old library book smell and the page edges are now tinged butterscotch. Each of the recipe titles comes with its Welsh translation. Gilli also makes sense of one of Lady Llanover’s most famous recipes for salt duck.
Welsh Food Stories by Carwyn Graves
This is actually a brand-new book that has just been released – and it’s much needed in the world of Welsh food literature. Until now, there’s not really been a definitive account of Welsh food history, besides some of those mentioned above, and this really fills that gap. As well as giving a backstory to food in Wales, it also goes into greater depth about 9 specific Welsh foods, including bread, butter, cheese, cider and salt. It doesn’t have recipes, but it’s an ideal introduction for anyone interested in Welsh food culture and produce.
Best of the rest
The Love Spoon by Sian Llewellyn
A Taste of Wales in Food and Pictures by Theodora Fitzgibbon
Welsh Coastal Cookery by Colin Pressdee
Sea Salt: A Perfectly Seasoned Cookbook by Lea-Wilson Family of Halen Môn
I asked Ross to provide links to posts from The Welsh Kitchen that he feels give readers a good idea about Welsh food culture and the breadth of his own knowledge. They are listed below; every single one is a gem.