Today I am writing to you from Wales. Again, it is so different to the rest of the United Kingdom. It starts with some pretty unpronounceable town names. I mean, how on earth do you say Llanhbydder? Actually, again, the myth is greater than reality. The towns starting with Ll are a bit of a tongue twister, the rest is quite manageable.
I was spoilt with the beautiful countryside in the Cotswolds and in Scotland, but Wales, it’s so green here and there are some quite respectable hills, which I like. But it’s the food that brought me here because this small, beautiful piece of our planet has quite a few surprises in store.
There is, of course, Welsh lamb and beef. Hardly surprising that the meat is of high quality when the grass is definitely greener on this side. And yes, they have all the fruit and vegetables. So, no surprises there.
I stopped at a little café during the afternoon and had some Bara Brith, known as “speckled bread”, which essentially is a sweet fruit bread.
But it was something else that intrigued me, although it is rather an unspectacular dish. Until you look at the names of the ingredients. Lots of questions, and I had to get to the bottom of this.
I pulled up at a pub, run by a woman called Ffion. I had researched a little and found that she was on a mission. She was going to put Welsh cuisine on the map. I gave her a ring, told her my story, and she was delighted. And she turned out to be quite a surprise, as I would soon discover.
I walked in and she was behind the bar. “Hi, I’m Vicky, we spoke on the phone?”
“Oh hi”, she said, full of enthusiasm, “so lovely to meet you. Did you have a good drive?”
“Yes, thanks,” I replied, “It’s sooo beautiful here.”
“Yes, and we even brought out the sun for you. What can I get you?”
I ordered a glass of wine.
“Can I tempt you to a glass of Welsh wine?” she asked.
I was stunned.
“You mean, somebody in Wales makes wine?” I asked.
Ffion smiled at my surprised expression, “Yes, I mean, it’s not like in the traditional wine regions, but adapted to our climate, and it’s ok. You should give it a go.”
“Would you like anything to eat as well?”
“Yes”, I said, “I’d like to try a Welsh Rarebit.” My curiosity suddenly took over, and I couldn’t hold back, “and I was rather hoping you might shed some light onto what I am about to eat. Like, what about the name?”
“Well”, she said, “Rarebit is actually taken from rabbit, but no rabbit meat was ever used. So, I can’t really say more about that one. I think it goes back to the early 18th century, but I’m not a 100% sure. But our Rarebit is based on the most traditional recipe.”
“Meaning, there are others?”
“Yes. Between you, me and the gatepost, it is nothing more than melted cheese on toast. But you can tart it up a bit with all kinds of things.”
“So, what do you do?”
“Well, we take a good, strong Cheddar cheese, local beer, Worcestershire sauce, laverbread…”
‘Is that the bread on which the cheese is put?” I asked. “Sort of like the Irish soda bread?”.
Ffion laughed, “No, it’s not even bread. It’s seaweed”
“Okay” I slowly said, getting my head around this, “so, you put seaweed together with beer and cheese, melt it and then put it on toast and serve it?”.
“That’s pretty much it. I’ll make you one, you can see and taste for yourself.”
I have to say, I had become a little curious by this strange combination. I thought about all the other things I had been given as food during my trip here. Fried Mars Bars in Scotland, not to mention the Haggis, and now seaweed mixed with cheddar…whatever next?
Not long later, Ffion emerged with a plate on which were two sizeable Welsh rarebits. True, no rabbit anywhere. And no seaweed either.
“Where’s the laverbread?” I asked.
“It’s between the cheese and the toast. We buy it ready prepared, but what you do is wash the seaweed over and over again, then it gets boiled, pretty much to death. The colour changes from brown to green. It’s a bit like a pesto in its texture.”
“Except, it’s like eating oysters”, I said, my mouth full of piping hot food. My rarebit was a mixture of strong flavours, all competing for first prize. The very strong cheddar fighting the laverbread, not to mention all the other things mixed in. But it tasted rather delicious, if unusual.
“How do you like the wine?” asked Ffion.
“Not bad actually,” I replied. “What’s the story here?”
“Well, there are two vineyards actually”, and this one here is run by a chap who wanted to grow grapes in Spain. But somehow, he got caught up in EU red tape, dropped the project and decided to give it go here in Wales. He seems to be doing well. Sells ceramics and stuff as well.”
It was a strange combination. Somehow it worked because I was eating and drinking it in Wales. I did wonder if it would have the same impact back home in Brida. How I can find laverbread in Brida will remain a mystery.
Ffion and I had a good time chatting about this and that, and she kindly shared her recipe with me. But I had to leave because I needed to make my way to London.
I was going to have a cup of tea. A very, very expensive cup of tea.
What you need
225g mature Welsh cheddar
25g butter, melted
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon plain flour
freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons Welsh beer
1 tablespoon laverbread
4 thick slices of bread
What you do.
Grate the cheese and put it in a saucepan along with the butter, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, flour and pepper. Mix well and put over a gentle heat. Gradually add the beer to moisten but do not make the mixture too wet. Stir until melted and when it has reached a thick paste remove from the heat and leave to cool a little.
Meanwhile, toast the bread on one side only, then spread the laverbread over the untoasted side before spreading the cheese mixture. Grill gently until the topping is cooked through and well browned.
The mixture can be made and kept in the refrigerator for several days if required.