I’ve had three heart attacks, love, and I’m still here, Ella singsongs down the phone. No point in being miserable.
There’s nothing quite like a Welsh woman of 92 to put this lockdown into perspective. I ring her in the middle of a 14-day quarantine, I haven’t left the house once, it’s almost winter and I’ve spent most of it calling up Welsh women, mainly grandmothers, in the name of food research. As I write this, I’m making welshcakes. I speak to Ella, Lena and Eirwen, Winnie and Myfanwy. They are farmers and farmer’s wives, former librarians, wedding cake bakers and factory workers, mothers and grandmothers, who all utter something along the lines of ‘well, no point in grumbling, you’ve just got to get on with it’. They have a point.
We chat for well over an hour, Ella and I. She tells me about growing up in the pit village of Cwm Fyfiog (the valley of wild strawberries, she says) in the former coal-mining valleys of south Wales. She got sick with rheumatic fever as a young girl and had to relearn to walk at the age of seven. She was 11 when the war began, her father an overman down the mines, her mother at home.
She relays all of this in a matter of fact way, but without much prompting on my part. There’s a story to everything, she says. She tells me about the days she worked at Berlei bra factory embroidering nightdresses. “I made a pattern that they used on the nighties, but I’m not artistic, love, it just came out good”. She tells me about the time she catered for the cast of Hair and the time she found out she was pregnant, four and half months gone, and when she took over running the con club, just 10 weeks after her son was born. She spent the following decades running clubs and pubs around south Wales.
“I was 35 then and we never expected to have children. He was the longest baby the hospital ever had! He wasn’t a pretty baby, he was born with jaundice and his hair was straight up. He was a good baby and he’s a good son now too…but he’s a vegan”, she adds with a lowered voice. “A real one”.
I enjoy talking to Ella. I rang her, interested to learn how older generations cooked decades ago; the frugal ways of cooking and eating that were rooted in a way of living that was closer to the land and the seasons. I wonder which of these habits have stuck fast. “Oh I never waste, but I’m not mean”, she insists. She still bakes often – pancakes, welshcakes, crumble and scones – but now freezes the extras in portions because she lives alone. She saves all her bread crusts in the freezer to make bread pudding, she simmers chicken bones into stock and saves her roast drippings and vegetable cooking water to make gravy. She also uses a microwave, shops at Morrison’s and makes her own coleslaw (“oh yes, with Hellmann’s”). Her grandsons love her cheese toasties, which she makes in the George Foreman but, which she would once have made on the open fire. “It’s not like today, back then, they took ages to cook. Then, when the fire was down, I’d boil a ham on it overnight”. Modern conveniences have nudged their way into the cadences of her everyday but the underlying thrift remains the same; the results of a lifetime of cooking.
Of the women I speak to, almost all of them have similar stories. “I suppose you could say I was a home cook but I wouldn’t say that” says Myfi. Another common theme. All of them cook and still do; hot dinners (meaning roast dinner), the traditional cawl soup (a simple meat broth with root vegetables that has as many iterations as it does cooks), liver and onions, brawn and Welsh faggots, and always baking. Welsh women are known for their baking; pancakes and Bara Brith fruit loaves, bread pudding, treacle sponge, fruit tarts and rice puddings like this one.
Theirs was a resourceful baking that made use of whatever was available. Bacon fat was often saved and used for making cakes when there was a shortage of other fats, like butter or lard; the latter a nod to the ubiquitous use of rendered pig fat and offal in Welsh cooking. Most families had a pig that they slaughtered every winter, the whole family enlisted to preserve every part of it; head and trotters were boiled into soup, the ears, tongue and brain, liver and kidneys saved to make faggots (see above), brawn and sausages, and the fat rendered into lard to use for baking. Even the bladder was blown up to use as a football, Winnie told me.
In many ways, it makes sense to continue using lard. As a byproduct of eating pork, there must be plenty going to waste. But in London, I’ve found it difficult to find quality, pure lard from organic or free-range pigs. I eventually tracked some down from Piper’s Farm in Devon and have been baking with it since. It makes shortcrust pastry flakier for sure and adds richness to both sweet and savoury welshcakes.
A Welshcake recipe
Having grown up in Wales myself, I love welshcakes. The classic ones, with allspice and currants, dusted with sugar. Baking on a hot bakestone (referred to often as just the ‘stone’) heated on an open fire was a real thing in Wales. Welshcakes are one of those examples, now more often cooked on a cast iron pan or on the aga, although a heavy frying pan works just as well. Welsh grannies rattle off their recipes to me in ounces, each a slight variation on the former. Ella’s recipe uses both butter and Stork margarine while Winnie prefers just butter. Nia’s gran uses both lard and margarine. I’ve been trialling different fats, swapping in wholemeal or spelt flour and found that half butter-half lard, and half plain-half wholemeal flour is my favourite. This is what they look like.
Savoury welshcakes, though, are a new one on me. Winnie sends me the recipe in the post after we chat on the phone: “You can vary them these days with savoury things like bacon or leeks. That’s very nice. A lot of youngsters don’t like fruit, you see, so I add chocolate chips. Variety is the spice of life, Malou”. So thanks to Winnie, here I am making savoury welshcakes with Caerphilly cheese and leeks. A first for me.
Find both savoury and sweet welshcake recipes below.
Winnie’s cheese & leek welshcakes
Makes about a dozen
Winnie uses Caerphilly cheese here. It’s a hard, crumbly white mild cow’s cheese made in South Wales. You can sub this for other crumbly cheeses, Cheshire, Cornish Yarg or Cheddar is fine too.
1 small leek, finely sliced
250g/8oz self-raising flour
60g/2oz Caerphilly cheese (see note), crumbled or grated
1 large egg, beaten
Fry the leeks in a little oil and/or butter until softened.
Sieve the flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Rub in the fat until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the cheese and softened leeks, followed by the egg.
Bring it together into a dough, adding a little more flour if it’s too wet, then place on a floured work surface and roll it out into a large circle, about 1cm thick. Stamp out circles with a cookie cutter.
Cook on a heavy frying pan or bakestone for a few minutes until golden, flipping halfway. Eat hot or cold with more butter.
For traditionally sweet welshcakes, swap the cheese and leeks for 125g sugar, 75g currants and ½ teaspoon allspice. I like to swap out half the butter with organic lard in sweet welshcakes, and half the flour with wholemeal flour for a nuttier flavour. If using plain flour, add half a teaspoon of baking powder.