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It was typical of the man that maybe the most perceptive thing AA Gill ever wrote on food was in an essay that is also one of his most mean-spirited and unfair. In a takedown of the cookery writer Elizabeth David, Gill takes her to task for her preciousness, for her archness and most of all, for her use of olive oil. The effect of David on British food, according to Gill, was ruinous. Suddenly the middle classes were obsessed with the food of the Mediterranean, dinner parties became an exercise in cooing at what tomatoes the host had managed to import, and the nation’s cooking fat of choice inexorably started to change from its humble, native origins. If I recall correctly, at one point in the essay Gill compared David to Hitler.
Like most things, I’m not sure Gill even believed it ─ but there is a kernel of truth. It’s no secret that Britain’s food revolution took place for some but not for others. By valorising the food of Italy and France, middle-class Britain lost touch with everything about its own produce that makes its cuisine interesting, shunning the working class traditions of the regions. For Gill that means lard. It was the writer Waverly Root who first divided France up into domains based on its most prominent fat: olive oil in Provence and Languedoc, butter in the north and lard in the south west. By this demarcation, Britain is a country of lard, and everything good about its food is based on animal fat: the enriched, flaky crusts on a pie, tallow scented batter on a proper fish and chips, suet pudding and hot water crust pastries, and perhaps most of all, its regional bakes and desserts.
Today’s newsletter by Ross Clarke is about the inability to get proper Welsh food in London, but it is also, in its own way, about lard and the untranslatable specificity of what the British regions do with fat. I’ve written before how strange it is not to be able to get regional British food in the nation’s capital as a Londoner; for homesick non-Londoners is it stranger? Or ultimately, does knowing that only you and your people will be able to understand the comfort of rag pie, of a munchie box or a parmo, actually cultivate a stronger sense of home than a Londoner will ever have?
Hiraeth, and hunting for corned beef pasties, by Ross Clarke
I’ve lived in London now for nearly ten years and as a travel writer – who can barely currently travel – I’m forever grateful that I can dine out here on pulpo a la gallega one night and panir sabzi the next. Yet it’s strange that while I can get food from pretty much every corner of the globe, I often scour the city in vain to find the tastes of my own home of Wales. By this, I don’t necessarily mean whole meals ─ such as cawl (vegetable broth with lamb or ham) ─ but the lard-enriched baked goods that we in Wales grow up with, and are still so commonplace in Welsh homes and high streets today.
It’s a mystery that I can’t quite comprehend. There’s been a steady Welsh population in London since the turn of the twentieth century when profitable farm work dried up and many came to the big city to find work and wealth. Opportunity in my own career path is the reason I made the journey down the M4 a decade ago. And it’s an easy journey. With Wales being physically connected to England and part of the UK and all that, and the ingredients for Welsh cakes even making up part of a question on the Life in the UK test, you would think there would be places in London where Welsh bakes would be available. And yet, can I find a slice of thickly cut bara brith slathered with butter within the M25? Can I f… Fishguard!
It’s not just Welsh food. There are many great regional British baked goods that are strangely absent from London. When was the last time you saw Yorkshire parkin (spiced gingerbread-like cake), Eccles cakes (sticky currants in a pastry case), Northumberland singing hinnies (fruited scone-like griddle cakes), Cornish heavy cake (an eggless, fruited lard cake) or proper Cornish pasties for sale? It seems so odd that in a city where you can buy any type of food and import any produce, that perhaps the most hard to find items are those that come from locations less than 100 miles away!
Growing up in South Wales, things that used flour, butter, eggs and sugar were part of the food stock that fuelled my existence. Nanna Lena’s butterfly cakes or corned beef pie, Nannie Gwen’s apple tart or Welsh cakes (they are, you guessed it, flat pastry-like griddle cakes). Hearty stews, often topped with a pastry crust, or tea-soaked fruitcakes with a cup of tea are what help us get through many a rainy Welsh winter – and sometimes, even rainier Welsh summers.
Thanks to the pandemic, this is the longest period of my life when I’ve not been back to Wales or seen my mum and dad in person. I’m used to being away from home and have lived outside of Wales nearly as long as I lived in it, but the more I’m away the more I desperately cling to my Welsh identity and try not to feel hiraeth (the Welsh word for the nostalgic yearning for home) too much.
One way I’ve been distracting myself is by listening to some classic editions of Desert Island Discs while cooking (and washing up) and a recent episode included one of my favourite food writers, Claudia Roden. In it, she tells the story of how she began collecting recipes from emigrants of Egypt during the Suez Crisis – including those of her own family. She says, “Food was that part of our heritage that we could still preserve… it was that part that gave us a lot of pleasure”. It got me thinking (as I was wrist-deep in bolognese-infused dish water) how food forms such a part of our identities and is perhaps the easiest way – when we are away from home, friends, family and what we know – to reaffirm our past and provide some much-needed comfort.
So with this in mind, why on earth can’t I get a corned beef pasty at Greggs?
When I first moved to London, I asked the tabbarded staff member for one only to find they had no idea what I was on about. According to Greggs, this is a “regional bake” and not something you’ll find in London – yet it’s probably the most popular savoury slice in Greggs back home, with its dreamy filling combo of mashed potato, onions and corned beef. Back in the office, I told my colleague Hannah about this dilemma. She replied, “Try getting a baby’s head down here”. At my alarmed expression she explained that this was slang for a meat pie with gravy where she’s from in Lancashire, “You can’t find Eccles cakeseither and I have to wait until I go home to get a decent pie barm”. I learned, later, that this a meat pie in a bread roll ─ I immediately requested she bring me one next time she goes home.
Bakes and desserts are the regions’ secrets: it would be unfathomable not to have heard of pain au chocolat or panettone, but the mention of chocolate crunch with pink custard (such a regular and welcomed sight in my school canteen in South Wales) drew blank expressions from my colleagues recently. What I took to be a ubiquitous British dessert was perhaps more regional than I thought. After a quick natter with colleagues from Kent and Truro I realise that I’m far from alone in hankering for the tastes of our respective parts of the UK. I reason that I will try to educate myself a bit more, even if I can’t get my hands on an authentic gypsy tart (evaporated milk and brown sugar in a pastry case) without a trip to the Isle of Sheppey.
I decided that, if no one else was going to, I should preserve my own traditions and do it myself. I made Welsh cakes. I’ve been making Welsh cakes all my life, but I had never quite realised their significance until now. They represent me, where I’ve come from, my feelings of home, and of belonging. And the more I thought about it, I have unconsciously been using them as my coping mechanism when faced with homesickness or crises of confidence.
When I left school, I was sent off to university with a big batch of Welsh cakes made by my Great Auntie Den (also my godmother), which I used to break the ice with my new flatmates on my first day in my halls of residence. I lived in Spain for a number of years, and when I was asked if I could do something for Cultural Week I ended up teaching 200 Spanish high school students how to make them. Suffice to say, the students and staff were happy come break time. And during the pandemic, I’ve hosted a Welsh cake cook-along (via the power of Zoom) for my fellow choristers in the Borough Welsh Choir.
You see, even in a city like London – where everyone seems to have a Welsh granny – you meet very few Welsh people unless you actively seek them out. London’s Welsh community, I’ve learned, is a close-knit band of wanderers, descendants and visitors, brought together by language and shared cultural experiences, including hospitality, food and drink – oh, and singing. Hospitality, in fact, is something of a national trait. Gerallt Gymro, aka Gerald of Wales, the twelfth century Cambro-Norman archdeacon and historian said of Wales,
No one of this nation ever begs, for the houses of all are common to all; and they consider liberality and hospitality amongst the first virtues. So much does hospitality here rejoice in communication, that it is neither offered nor requested by travellers, who, on entering any house, only deliver up their arms.
Indeed, whether it’s a post-choir rehearsal snack, sustenance to go with a pint while watching a rugby match, or simply a nibble to go with a cuppa and a natter, food, hospitality and homeliness are always very closely entwined in Welsh social settings.
And if I can’t get home for the foreseeable, well… I guess I’ll just have to bake my way there with Welsh cakes, and ward off the hiraeth a bit longer.
I regularly used to watch my Nannie Gwen make Welsh cakes on a cast iron bakestone that my granddad had made at the local steelworks, looking on from my draining board perch as she measured flour in an old flour bag and tipped in sugar from a cut-glass basin by eye. She’d dust them liberally with sugar and give them to me warm off the griddle.
Ingredients (makes about 20-25)
100g hard fat (butter, lard, margarine, Stork, or a mix of any of these)
200g self-raising flour (or plain if it’s all you’ve got) plus extra for rolling out
60g caster sugar (or granulated if it’s all you’ve got)
80g currants (or sultanas, cranberries, chopped dried apricots)
1tsp mixed spice (optional) (or ground nutmeg or ground cinnamon)
1 free-range egg
Drop of milk if needed
Icing or caster sugar for dusting (optional)
Traditional-style recipes use a mix of butter and lard. Most modern-day recipes just use butter.
Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the butter. Rub together with your fingertips until it looks like breadcrumbs. Give the bowl a good shake to bring any large bits to the top to rub in. Add the sugar, mixed spice and currants and stir to distribute evenly. Add the egg and mix together with a wooden spoon or a knife until a soft dough forms. Add a little milk if the mix is too dry. The dough should be a little sticky but easy enough to roll out with a little flour. Pop it in the fridge for a few minutes while you clean and prepare your worktop for rolling out and preheat your bakestone on the hob on a medium heat. You’ll know if it’s hot enough if you throw a little flour (or a tiny piece of dough) on and it toasts to a golden colour in a minute or so.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and roll out the dough until it is a bit thicker than a £1 coin or a little under a centimetre. Using a pastry cutter, cut out circles of the dough. Roll and cut the excess again until all the dough is used up. Grease the bakestone with a little butter and wipe off any excess with a piece of kitchen roll, which you can then use to re-grease between batches. Cook the Welsh cakes in batches for about three minutes on each side or until they’re just cooked through without burning. They should be slightly springy to the touch. Remove from the bakestone, dust with sugar and serve warm with a strong cuppa.
They’ll keep for a week in an airtight container (or an old Quality Street tin if in my Nan’s house). If they feel a little stale, pop them in the toaster for a moment and spread with salty butter or jam.
Both Ross and Lucie were paid for their work - Ross donated his fee to the London Welsh Centre