Rarebit for Ramsey
It’s the second week of Euro 2016 and, after only drawing the first game with Russia, England really needed to get something from their second opponents: Wales. Meanwhile, in our eat along with England’s opponents challenge, the first clash was also a draw, with me preferring English food to Russian, but Professor Plum somewhat surprisingly opting for the Russian. In the kitchen as on the pitch, then, it would be good to see England win this one and, as with the game, the greatest challenge for separating the two neighbouring nations may be the many elements of shared cultural and lifestyle identity. This is not an exotic opponent that will throw up something unexpected, this is very much the challenge of the familiar.
While my prior knowledge of Russia’s culinary offerings was based on a couple of weeks spent there a few years back, I have (predictably, given how close it is) spent a lot more time in Wales. In fact, having family there makes me about as Welsh as their national team’s captain, Ashley Williams, who was born in Wolverhampton to English parents and grew up in the West Midlands playing for the youth teams at Tamworth and West Bromwich Albion. (Like me, Williams’ maternal grandfather was Welsh and that’s what qualifies him for the team, despite the country of his youth really needing a solid defender like him). So, various visits to different parts of Wales over the past few decades have meant that I’ve eaten a lot of Welsh meals. Or, rather, I’ve eaten a lot of meals in Wales as, just like you don’t necessarily eat ‘English’ food constantly in England, Wales being not all that different from home essentially tends to result in eating much as you would at home (i.e. quite internationally).
Like the rest of Britain, then, Wales has been quite ready to adopt food from all around the world (large scale Italian migration to work in nineteenth century coal mines and steel mills in South Wales brought a love of ice cream, for example), but, equally like the rest of Britain, it has its own traditions of home-grown, wholesome, hearty fare. Traditional Welsh food differs from the rest of Britain in tending to be less meat-heavy and with less variety of ingredients, the legacy of a past of remote communities of impoverished farmers. This is not to say that the Welsh are not proud of their produce, however. This is a nation, after all, that uses a vegetable (the leek) as a national emblem!
When it came to selecting a dish to represent Wales during Euro 2016, the fact that this was the only England game to take place in the middle of the day had to come into consideration. That it was a lunchtime event, for example, ruled out cawl, referred to in some places as ‘Wales’ national dish’ as this heavy, meaty broth full of vegetables (and occasionally oaty dumplings) would be a bit much for that time of day (not to mention a good version would take a few hours to cook). Equally, it was too early in the day for afternoon tea and a slice of bara brith, or ‘speckled bread’, the popular fruit loaf favourite. Fortunately, though, one of Wales’ most enduring culinary interests – cheese on toast – was just perfect for this time of day.
Welsh rarebit (or Caws pob Cymreig, literally ‘Welsh roasted cheese’, to give it its native name) is what the majority of people outside Wales would consider to be the most iconic Welsh dish, a concept that dates back centuries to the earliest accounts of Welsh dining tastes. In 1188, Gerald of Wales, whose record of his journeys around the country essentially make him Britain’s first travel writer, wrote that: ‘You must not expect a variety of dishes from a Welsh kitchen, and there are no highly-seasoned titbits to whet your appetite,’ adding that the Welsh population lived almost entirely off milk, butter and cheese. There are mentions of the Welsh being among the first to roast cheese in the late middle ages and, from then on, Wales’ reputation as a land of cheese lovers just grew and grew. The earliest English joke book, A Hundred Mery Talys, published in 1522 and as full of jokes at the expensive of the Welsh as joke books of centuries later, contains a gag, by then already old, in which God tires of the racket made by the Welsh in Heaven and so St Peter lures them away with a promise of ‘rostyd chese’ (I guess you had to be there to find this riotously funny).
The first written recipes for Welsh rarebit start to appear in the 1700s and, yes, they do indicate that ‘Welsh Rabbit’ is the dish’s original name. (‘Rarebit’ is a completely meaningless word that has no etymology beyond this dish and appears to have been coined by people grumpy that no actually rabbits were involved). The popularly imagined origin for the name is that it is a derogatory English suggestion that the impoverished Welsh couldn’t afford a real rabbit and had to make do with this, although that doesn’t really account for this early recipe (from Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy) appearing alongside ‘Scotch Rabbit’ (more basic than the Welsh) and ‘English Rabbit’ (in which the toast is soaked in wine). Wikipedia suggests it may just be ‘Welsh’ simply because of how much the Welsh were known to love cheese.
In Glasse’s early recipe, the ingredients are literally just toasted cheese on toasted bread (with the suggested addition of mustard). Since then, French influences have developed the recipe such that a lot of Welsh rarebits are made with what is essentially a Mornay sauce (a variant on the Béchamel sauce made from a roux of butter and flour, with milk and cheese added). A heartier, more Welsh version substitutes the milk for a traditional ale, porter or stout (despite not being terribly Welsh, a lot of recipes call for Guinness). I decided to go for this option, but (Yorkshire itself being not short on breweries and beer options) it proved impossible in any local or central Leeds supermarkets and off-licenses actually to find a Welsh beer, meaning that I eventually had to go for the Jamaican-brewed Dragon Stout, which does at least have an appropriately Welsh-ish label.
In fact, despite being a Welsh inspired dish, very few of my ingredients wound up being Welsh as I mixed flour, butter and English mustard, adding Cheshire cheese and the Dragon beer and spreading this mix on a slice of half-toasted sour dough bread before toasting it under the grill.
Ultimately, what I enjoyed for lunch in front of a surprisingly gripping, close fought game, was essentially just a couple of slices of cheese on toast, but for a tasty lunch that’s no bad thing. I’m not really sure if the English equivalent (a ploughman’s lunch, say) would provide the same pleasure. So, just on the basis of this dish, if I had to pick a winner then I’d go with the opposite result from the actual game and plump for Wales.
Next up: Slovakia, the only country in the group I’ve never visited and, thus, a bit of an unknown contender, food-wise.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I missed out on this dish for the actual game, on account of it being a work day and everything (but hurrah for time off in lieu!). As cheese on toast goes it’s fine, but I’m not sure the more complicated cooking really lends much to what is a pretty perfect concept to start with. I mean, mornay instead of grated cheese is pleasing, but the beer seems to add more colour than flavour. Though it still sounds better than English rarebit; I know cheese and wine are meant to go together, but I’m not sure soggy bread should be involved! So the welsh do have us beat there, if nowhere else 🙂
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