Archaeological and documented evidence show that the early Welsh economy was based on mixed farming. When journeying through Wales in 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis (also known as Gerald de Barri or Gerald of Wales) noted that most of the population lived on its flocks and on milk, cheese, butter, and oats. Numerous references to foods in literary works establish that this was generally how the Welsh subsisted until well into the nineteenth century.
Ingredients of the Traditional Diet
The Report of the Royal Commission on Land in Wales (London, 1896) shows that small farmers and tenants survived on home-cured meat from domestic animals, home-grown vegetables, dairy products, and cereal-based dishes. Farmers and cottagers would fatten and slaughter at least one pig a year to provide a constant supply of salted bacon. On larger farms, a bullock or barren cow was also butchered and the meat shared between neighboring
The topography determined that oats and barley were the most commonly grown cereal crops, with wheat confined to the fertile lowlands. Oatmeal in its various forms was one of the basic elements in the diet of the Welsh. Llymru (flummery) and sucan (sowans), consisting of oatmeal steeped in cold water and buttermilk, boiled until thickened and served cool with milk or treacle, as well as bwdram (thin flummery), uwd (porridge), and griwel blawd ceirch (oatmeal gruel) were among the everyday fare served in most rural districts until the early twentieth century. The bread most regularly eaten throughout Wales until the late nineteenth century was oatbread, formed into wafer-thin circular loaves and baked on a bakestone or griddle over an open fire. It was used in the counties of north Wales as a basic ingredient in cereal pottages such as picws mali (shot) or siot (shot); a popular light meal consisting of crushed oatbread soaked in buttermilk. Brŵes (brose) was a common dish in the agricultural areas of the north and regularly prepared as a breakfast dish for the menservants. It was made from crushed oatbread steeped in meat stock and sprinkled with crushed oatbread before serving.
Welsh rural society was largely self-supporting with the exception of sugar, salt, tea, rice, and currants, which had to be purchased. Sundays and special occasions usually merited a roast dinner for which a joint of fresh meat would be purchased from the local butcher; this was followed by homemade rice pudding. Very little fresh fruit was purchased, and eggs were eaten only on very rare occasions. The limited range of supplies also demanded great resourcefulness to provide an assorted menu. The ability to prepare an assortment of stews from one basic ingredient, namely oatmeal, required considerable dexterity. Similar skill was required for broths such as cawl and lobsgows using home-cured meat.
The open fire with its many appliances was central to cooking throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, in many rural homes, well into the twentieth century. Such limited cooking facilities also governed what could be prepared. Stews, joints of meat, and puddings were boiled in a cooking pot or cauldron. Pot ovens were used for roasting meat and baking cakes and fruit tarts, and the bakestone was widely used to bake oatcakes, drop scones, soda bread, pancakes, and griddle-cakes (such as Welsh Cakes). Additionally, spits, Dutch ovens, and bottle-jacks, clockwork implements in the shape of a bottle that were hung in front of the fire, were used for roasting meat.
The preparation and consumption of traditional foods were closely integrated with patterns of life in rural Wales. Before labor-saving agricultural machinery, farmers were dependent on the cooperation of their neighbors to fulfill seasonal work. Corn (grain) or hay harvesting, corn threshing, and sheep shearing were essentially communal efforts requiring communal meals and celebrations. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Boten Ben Fedi (harvest pie), consisting of mashed potatoes, minced beef, bacon, and onion was served for the corn harvest supper. Threshing and shearing days were also marked with plentiful meals of cold lamb or beef, potatoes, and peas followed by rice pudding for dessert. Tatws poptyeef, onions, and potatoesas a favorite in parts of Gwynedd, and afternoon tea consisted simply of home-baked bread, butter, cheese, and jam; while rich yeasted fruitcake and gooseberry pie were considered as shearing specialties in most regions.
In the industrial towns and villages during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, wives would often help to support their families in periods of hardship by preparing and selling home-cooked dishes, considered delicacies by members of the local community. Coal-miners' wives or widows prepared dishes of minced seasoned liver and pork fat called faggots, which were served with peas and sold from the women's homes or from market stalls. Pickled herrings were a comparable savory dish sold by women in the slate-quarrying communities of north Wales and consumed with homemade oatcakes by quarrymen and farm servants.
Although the tradition of living off the land survived until a later period, in the rural areas change came with improved roads, modern shopping facilities, refrigerators, and freezers. By the early twenty-first century, the majority of the above-mentioned dishes are mostly eaten on special occasions as traditional food.
See also Cake and Pancake; Cattle; Cereal Grains and Pseudo-Cereals; Dairy Products; Herding; Hearth Cookery; Meat, Salted; Stew.
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Mared Wyn Sutherland
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