Why Welsh food history matters

Book review by Jane Powell

Welsh Food Stories, by Carwyn Graves. University of Wales Press, 2022.

The unassuming title of this book suggests an anecdotal tour of the Welsh food scene, a blend, perhaps, of nostalgia and foodie adventures, entertaining but hardly serious. Indeed, there is plenty to enjoy as food historian and linguist Carwyn Graves visits farms and food businesses from saltmarsh lamb on the Gower to sea salt in Anglesey, and from cider orchards in the southeast to cheesemaking in the west. But do note: this is a scholarly book with a serious message.

A series of interviews with farmers, growers and food processors gives a vivid snapshot of the way that traditions going back many centuries are expressed in the present day. Each is the jumping off point from which Graves painstakingly unearths a complex history and even a pre-history. Here are the Welsh armies feasting on mead in the 7th century poem Y Gododdin, the Romans importing white-fleeced sheep to add to the dark-fleeced flocks that were already here, the colourful culture of the Drovers, the intrepid nineteenth-century travel writer George Borrow rhapsodizing about mutton in a Llangollen inn, the rise and fall of Caerphilly cheese, and an army of women, (presumably), proficient in turning oatmeal, water, salt and dripping into oatcakes on a bakestone, producing ‘wafer-thin rounds as large as a dinner plate with fine even edges’.

Harvesting cockles

For those of us who think it is enough to know about Welsh cakes, laverbread, Caerphilly cheese and cawl, Graves provides a bracing corrective. Welsh food is a serious thing. It is not just a peasant cuisine, the making-do of an impoverished and marginalised people, to be forgotten in the face of technological advances and changes in nutritional fashion. We have our hundreds of apple varieties, our distinctive cheeses that are the product of our acid soils and native breeds, our nurserymen and country estates, and our knowledge of the wild foods to be had from the sea and the hedgerow. This is vital knowledge for the future.

In nine chapters, Graves covers topics such as bread, butter, salt and seafoods. Each is full of fascinating facts that certainly changed my understanding of farming history. Red meat, for instance, is not just one thing, whatever the impression given by Hybu Cig Cymru. Cattle were to early Welsh society what bank accounts are now, and so it was not surprising that beef became a commodity out of the reach of most people when the drovers began to herd their cattle down to London in the Middle Ages, responding to (and helping to create) the English demand for roast beef. Sheep, meanwhile, stayed at home, although their wool travelled, and so mutton became a mainstay of the rural economy. It was only in the 20th century that a global export trade for lamb developed, where prices justified the early slaughter of animals for the sake of their tender meat. As a result, mutton ‘became ever more associated with the older generations, poverty and poor taste’ – an example of how fashions in food shape entire economies.

Some foods have all but disappeared. A nineteenth century boom in the oyster trade around Swansea led to a collapse in the price and the exhaustion of the beds, although there are hopes of a modern revival involving artificial reefs. Cockles have fared better, but they are hardly the staple they were, and the economics of the traditional methods of gathering them by hand, don’t work out. Perhaps changing tastes come into it as well – the shellfish of Cardigan Bay may be celebrated in France and Spain, but there is little demand for crabs and scallops at home, and young people are not queuing up to join the industry.

Other traditional foods are enjoying a modest success. Here are stories of cider makers in south Wales reviving an ancient craft, of Hen Gymro wheat being grown again in Ceredigion (thanks in part to the foresight of Aberystwyth agriculturist Sir George Stapledon and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg), of new cheeses blending cow’s and sheep’s milk, of growing demand for Welsh sea salt. Meanwhile, cawl adapts to new ingredients, vegetables are grown organically and profitably in rural Ceredigion, and bakers are finding new interest in sourdough loaves made with local grain.

Why does all this matter? The power of the book lies in its use of present-day stories as a pivot between a rich and neglected tradition on the one hand, and an uncertain future on the other. Implied, rather than spelt out, is the question of what diet would best meet the various requirements of healthy nutrition, environmental sustainability, affordability and cultural expectations. Thanks to Graves’ scholarly research we have a much clearer picture not only of what our ancestors produced and ate, but why they did so, and how it brought them not just sustenance but pleasure and meaning.

The challenges we face now are nowhere more poignantly illustrated than by the author’s sad tale of growing leeks. Thanks to the ravages of the leek moth, a recent Asian import, he can no longer grow the national vegetable in his garden at home, and other pests like the allium leaf miner also threaten the crop’s future. How can we imagine cooking and gardening without this familiar standby? But we might have to, and meanwhile climate change allows new crops to grow. It is the principle of growing vegetables, and the recipes that enshrine them, that really matter and that will carry us through.

For the past few centuries, Welsh identity has centred on language and religion, with little thought of such basic concerns as how we feed ourselves. But times change, and now it is food, Graves suggests, that can help to unite us, especially as we begin to welcome refugees from war, drought and flooding. And of course, food is not just a marker of social connection, inviting us to adapt our traditions to new ingredients and tastes. It is also a marker of our relationship with the natural world – or lack of it – and so a powerful way to save our civilization. It deserves our full attention.

Read this book (I wish it had an index!) and be grateful for the past generations who gave us such a rich food culture, and resolve to pass the best of it on to the people who will come after us. For ‘to base the food economy on the foods of a faceless global village and a soulless global market, would be to do not just Wales but the entire world a disservice.’

Carwyn Graves will be talking about the history and future of Welsh food at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022, in Lampeter.

Jane Powell is a freelance writer and education consultant based near Aberystwyth. She writes at http://www.foodsociety.wales.

Main picture: Caerphilly cheese, courtesy of Carwyn Graves. Cockling picture, from the National Library of Wales.

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