I remember the face of my father
As we walked back home from the mine
He laughed and he’d say
“That’s one more day
And it’s good to feel the sun shine”
I remember my mother was smiling
As I set out to make my own way
She seemed to know that I had to go
But I’d come back home one day
– Take me Home, sung by the Beaufort Welsh male choir
‘I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was only stylish in emergencies’, says MFK Fisher in her world war two cookbook, How to Cook a Wolf, who claimed to have been living on a war budget in peace and out of it. She has a point. As we face an uncertain few months of isolation ahead with fear knocking at our doors and limitations on our usual freedoms, many of us have started to cook more, waste less and shop more locally. My London neighbourhood has never been friendlier (I’ve also discovered we have an 84 year old neighbour who is milling flour for people on my street) while volunteer services have sprung up to help the most vulnerable. If there’s anything positive to say about all of this, it’s that we’re learning how to be less wasteful, and kinder too.
Fisher’s stern tone reminds me of 80-year-old Dee from south Wales who I interviewed several years ago and which prompted me to dig out this frugal recipe for Welsh Pwdin Reis. Dee likes hers ‘with black skin on it’. Rice pudding was once eaten for Sunday dinner all over Wales, slow-cooked overnight to make use of a hot oven after baking bread. I’m fascinated by Dee’s stories that reveal insights into a way of eating and living that I had no idea about despite having grown up in south wales myself. I’d all but forgotten about this interview, recorded on my phone and which I’ve been dipping into (with a big dose of nostalgia) as I isolate at home. Rice pudding seems appropriate comfort food despite the warming weather.
Step one. Put 50g pudding rice in an ovenproof dish. Pour a pint of full-fat milk over the rice and add 50g sugar and a pinch of salt. Beat in 2 eggs for a richer consistency if you like. Stir well and finally add a bay leaf and a little ground nutmeg...
Dee was once a nurse from a long line of Welsh farmers. She grew up near the coal-mining town of Ebbw Vale in south Wales during the boom years of the mining industry when towns in the valleys were thriving. Miners typically earned more than farmers and many migrated from above ground to below, which is not to say they had a lot. “People were not poor, they were skilled. They could make a penny and tuppence go a long way”, Dee tells me of her own grandmother’s knack for thrift: “Belly of pork was the cheapest you could get, it’d be split by the butcher and she’d stuff it with sage and thyme, some breadcrumbs and a tablespoon of mashed swede from the garden”.
She talks in long gossipy anecdotes and singsong tangents. Her stories might begin at the farm, her dad shooting the damn rabbits feasting on his swede, skinning them at market for two shilling a piece, diverging to a scandal up in the valley; “Oh I remember well one day, there was such a scandal on the row. It was wash day and someone had done her washing in cold water. Now, fancy that!”.
Step two. Place the dish in a moderately hot oven (about 150ºC) and cook for 30 minutes, stir, then return to the oven for another hour or so.
Miners’ families lived in rows of small stone houses, each with their own walled gardens. As fairly isolated valley communities, access to fresh produce came from delivery vans. There was the fishmonger who sold soused herrings, the pop van selling fizzy drinks, the cockles and mussels van, the bread van, the veg van, and the milk van. Dee knew all the neighbourhood gossip and clearly enjoyed going from house to house to catch up on the latest. She paints pictures of those times with a big brush of nostalgia, and I’m indulging in it. Her grandfather would play his piano on the street as the mines were closing for the day. He’d take his organ out, the men crouched and sang. “He had baritones, tenors, basses just there, ready and waiting”. Wales is renowned for its song and male choirs in particular, poetic melodies full with hiraeth – one of those difficult-to-translate words that mean something in between nostalgia and a yearning for a time long gone. If you’d like to indulge with me, put this song on while reading and cooking.
Step three. Check on the pudding – after a long time at a relatively low heat the rice will be tender, creamy and a bit stodgy, with a golden ‘skin’ on top.
This is where the recipe ends, and where I’ll add roasted rhubarb, cooked with orange zest and juice, and a good sprinkling of sugar. Like all things, it’s up to the story-teller to put their own rose-tinted glaze onto the tale. Our memory is often more romantic, of course, than the reality. Life in those mining towns was not necessarily what I’ve made it out to be. Hard labour, coal dust and a very frugal diet aside, there is something to be said for the kindness and community that Dee speaks of. It’s something I too am getting a glimpse into in my locked-down neighbourhood, where a sharing economy has evolved from nowhere.
One last one from Dee, just because I like it. “When a miner works, he usually has a mate, a butty. One day I reminded Edna, a miner’s wife I used to see, to pack another piece of bread and butter pudding, for his butty. ‘He’s very partial to your bread and butter pudding with brown sugar on it’, I told her. She couldn’t believe it, I knew everything that went on you see”.
I know what I’ll be making next.
Recipe adapted from Minwell Tibbott’s Welsh Fare – an impressive collection of home recipes and little anecdotes from around Wales.