I’m new here in the wilds of Wales. By which I mean, to be geographically specific, the western edge of Mid Wales in the county of Ceredigion (Cardiganshire), as it was known when I arrived in the principality some 20 years ago. Folks lived in these uplands for more generations than anyone can count. Twenty years is just long enough to settle in and meet the neighbors.
When I arrived, the Welsh language was spoken in the farmhouses of North and Mid Wales, but not in the industrial South, where most are English-speaking, and certainly not in Cardiff, the capital. The Welsh language — and pride in Welshness — reemerged into public consciousness after many centuries underground around 10 years ago, when power was devolved from London and a regional government established in Cardiff. Welsh-language broadcasting brought the vernacular back into general use (among farming communities, it never disappeared) and bilingual schooling now ensures the next generation won’t lose their mother tongue. Welshness also returned to favor in the kitchen, though much had already been lost.
Regional dialects pervade the kitchen
There are, nevertheless, still plenty of regional differences in pronunciation and in names of everyday objects, particularly in the kitchen. Take, for instance, the Welsh bake stone, a heavy slab of black raw iron, flat and round, with a cut-in moon-shape that serves as a handle. It’s meant to be placed directly on the heat and used to cook Welshcakes (which go by one word in Wales), pancakes and double-crust pies.
In the prosperous, non-Welsh-speaking south, where most of the literature on Welsh traditional cooking is written and published, the usual word for the bake stone is planc. Planc, however, is not recognized as a name for a cooking instrument by the ladies of the Women’s Institute of Llanilar, a small but lively village on the main road between Tregaron and Cardigan Bay, where last week it was my pleasant duty to discuss and describe the career of a cookery-writer working for magazines. (The women here, like most native Welsh speakers, use the word griddle, pan or “radell.”)
My own bake stone — or whatever you care to call it — appeared on my doorstep on the day I arrived in Wales. “I expect you’ll be needing this,” said my neighbor and future mentor Jane Edwards, placing the bake stone on my battered gas-cooker. She also provided the recipe without which no bake stone can earn its keep: Welshcakes.
A traditional Welsh tea features three cakes
Which brings me back to my evening in the company of the ladies of the Women’s Institute of Llanilar. The women, on this occasion some 50 sturdy, gray-haired matrons (quite a gathering for the area), come together every week to listen, discuss and read. At the end of the talk, when plates of cake and sandwiches were served, I turned the discussion to my own particular area of interest: the timing, composition and presentation of a proper Welsh tea. (I’m planning to serve one as the first meal at this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in July.)
A proper traditional tea in a Welsh farmhouse, it was generally agreed among those present, happens on a Sunday, and may be taken at any time between 2:30 and 4 p.m. Nothing savory is appropriate, which means no sandwiches (though cheese is offered as a possibility by some). The main event is cake: one fruity, one plain.
The traditional Welsh fruitcake is bara-brith (speckled bread). The most popular plain cake is lemon-drizzle, which is soaked with a sweet, lemony syrup which sets to a glaze. Both are loaf-shaped for ease of slicing. Bara-brith, being fatless, can be spread with salty Welsh butter, while a lemon-drizzle has no need of further enrichment.
Tea may also include pancakes (the puffy drop-scone variety rather than thin crepe) or oven-scones to eat with butter and honey or jam; damson is particularly popular. There may be butter or jam, but not the two together, since Cardie farmers don’t like to overdo things.
Then there’s the Welshcake. Somewhere between a cookie and a scone, it’s made by cutting soft dough into rounds and cooking them on a griddle. Welshcakes are good for tea, it’s agreed, but also eaten with morning coffee and as a snack before bed. Few now make their own, at least not since they can be bought in supermarkets.
In rural areas of Wales — forget the sophisticates of Cardiff and the like — the main meal of the day is taken at midday (on Sunday, upon returning from church or chapel). The timing of the traditional Welsh farmhouse tea (at least as recently discussed with the ladies of the WI) indicates it is a light meal, almost a delayed dessert-course, taken for enjoyment rather than sustenance. And, it must be said, a chance to demonstrate the baking skills of the cook — and no one bakes like the Celts.
Makes about 2 dozen
Variations in the recipe include a pinch of baking soda to help the rise, lard instead of butter, mixed spice instead of cinnamon, more or less raisins, a lower proportion of butter or sugar or both. The size of the eggs dictates how much water you need to add, if any at all. Welshcakes are best eaten fresh but keep very well in a tin.
1 pound (3 ¾ cups) self-rising flour
½ stick) butter
½ cup superfine sugar
4 tablespoons raisins (preferably sultanas)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 to 3 tablespoons water (if necessary)
- Rub the butter into the flour with the tips of your fingers as if making pastry dough, then mix in the sugar, dried fruit and spice. Beat the eggs together a bit of the water using a fork, and work them into the flour mixture, adding more water if necessary, until you have a soft but pliable dough.
- Tip the dough out onto a well-floured board and roll it out to the thickness of a tart pastry, about ½ inch thick. Cut into rounds the size of the top of a teacup or medium biscuit cutter.
- Heat a griddle or a heavy frying pan over medium heat. (You can test the temperature with a sprinkle of flour: If it toasts but doesn’t immediately blacken, the temperature is correct.) Wipe with a butter-soaked rag or paper towel. Slip the cakes onto the griddle and cook until the underside is browned and the surface begins to look dry. Gently flip, then brown the other side, 6 to 8 minutes total.
- Eat them with or without butter, as you please. They keep well and can be freshened up in the toaster.
Serves 6 to 8
Bara-brith, or “speckled bread,” is a Welsh fruitcake that used to be leavened with yeast, putting it firmly in the bread bin rather than the cake tin. There’s no shortening in the mix, so the crumb is bready rather than cakey, and it’s best stored in the tin for a couple of days to develop its characteristic elasticity. This recipe comes from my neighbor Jane, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, who said it was foolproof.
1 pound mixed dried fruit (with peel, if possible)
1 cup hot strong black tea
¾ cup dark-brown muscovado sugar
1 cup self-rising flour
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 egg, beaten with a fork
- Soak the fruit and peel in a roomy bowl in the tea for at least 6 hours (overnight is fine).
- Preheat the oven to 300°F and line a small loaf pan with buttered parchment paper.
- Sift together the flour and spices into the soaked fruit (no need to drain), then stir in the sugar, spice and egg. Beat together until smooth.
- Pour the mixture into the lined pan. Bake for about 1½ hours, until the cake has risen and is firm and brown.
- Cool and store for at least 2 days, until the texture becomes rich and gluey. Slice thinly and spread with salted butter.
Dottie Davies’ Lemon-Drizzle
Serves 4 to 6
Dorothy Davies is the nom-de-plume of Frances Jones Davies, editor of Cambria Magazine. Everyone knows how to make this, says Dottie — except they don’t, which is a pity because it’s the nicest cake on the Welsh tea table.
For the cake:
1½ sticks softened butter
¾ cup superfine sugar
2 large eggs, beaten lightly with a fork
¾ cup self-rising flour
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tablespoons milk (if necessary)
For the drizzle:
Juice of 2 lemons
½ cup superfine sugar
- Preheat the oven to 325 F and line a 7- to 8-inch cake pan or a 2-pound loaf pan (roughly 9 by 5 inches) with buttered parchment paper.
- Beat the butter together with the sugar using a wooden spoon or an electric mixer until light and pale.
- Continue beating while gradually adding in the eggs.
- Fold in the flour with a metal spoon or spatula so as not spoil the lightness, then add the lemon juice and zest. (If necessary, add the milk, a little at a time, to soften the dough. It should drop easily from the spoon.)
- Pour batter into lined pan, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until cake has risen and pulled away from the sides of the pan.
- Meanwhile, prepare the drizzle. Dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice over low heat or in the microwave.
- Pour the syrup over the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Photo: An original watercolor depicting three Welsh staples: bara-birth, Welshcakes and a planc. Credit: Elisabeth Luard.