A local food renaissance in Wales

bookcoverEd. note: The following piece is a lightly edited excerpt from the author’s new book, Welsh Food Stories, published by University of Wales Press. 

In my opinion, when we consider the horizon ahead, the current rediscovery of Welsh food, and the importance of redeveloping a mixed food economy here that does not depend so entirely on outside imports and just-in-time supermarket chains, seems just in the nick of time. Global climate destabilization is accelerating, and is driving political instability, food insecurity and mass movements of people, and slowly but surely making more and more of the world uninhabitable and unfarmable. At the same time, the rapid adoption of digital technologies into every part of western life has created social, economic and political ruptures that have already impacted the world of food, and will continue to do so. Food itself has become more politicized and polarized than perhaps ever before, with debates about veganism, rewilding, subsidies and the future of farming redounding round the echo chambers of the internet and the airwaves.

Against this backdrop, the re-growth of a local food economy, rooted in a local food culture in a place like Wales, feels like exactly the kind of asynchronous response that is needed. By asynchronous, I mean a response that operates on an entirely different level, and according to entirely different rules and logic, to the forces that threaten us. As Einstein famously put it, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. So does it matter to us that people rather than machines make the food we eat? Does it matter that everyone has access to good, healthy food they can afford? Does it matter to us that this land – and others like it – is one populated by farmers? If it does, and we see those things as good in and of themselves, then we have a basis for discussion about a future that necessarily includes rural employment; necessarily upholds centuries of tradition; necessarily creates the space for human connection between the producer and the consumer (‘consumo’ is Latin for ‘I eat’), and much more. We can then, once we have this baseline for discussion, insist that farmers and producers do what so many are already doing, as we have seen in this book – namely farm in a way that increases, rather than decreases biodiversity. We can, and doubtless should, as a society eat less meat – but better meat, thus only returning to what was de facto the case for most of our ancestors throughout the long ages of the world. There are templates for this in so much of the Welsh food history we have been exploring. There is nothing desirable about returning to the past, if that were even possible; but much to be gained from re-evaluating our own norms by considering them in the light of the past.

Welsh livestock drovers, author supplied

A good example of this lies in the fact that traditional Welsh food – like all great cuisines – is the product of a mixed food and farming economy. The fact that many of the foods and foodstuffs in this book have not all continued to be produced in Wales is, in many cases, due to the disappearance of mixed farming in the country over the latter half of the 20th century. As Rhys Lougher, Ann Parry, Carwyn Adams and Alex Simmens all explained to me through the lenses of the food they produce, the drive towards specialization has completely reshaped Welsh farming over the decades since the Second World War, and has, on the whole, led to a marked reduction in the variety of food produced on Welsh farms. The current state of affairs, with an almost exclusive emphasis on livestock rearing, is, however, not sustainable, neither economically nor ecologically. There is a dawning realisation in both the food and farming sectors that monocultures are not the way to go for human or planetary health, and a convincing case has been made that a mixed economy of small farms could not only lead to better food, but also greater rural employment.[1] For Welsh food, this is the sine qua non of not only rediscovering and developing old food traditions, but also of securing the fragile rural economy. This is also the only realistic way in which the potential of this half-dormant cuisine can be realized; an entire food economy from field to plate needs coaxing into existence once again.

Welsh cattle

Welsh cattle, author supplied

This point can be made – and would be true of other bioregions in the western world – in four points. Firstly, it is clear to me that the particular combination of foodstuffs and emphases in traditional Welsh food is one that simply doesn’t occur elsewhere. Personally, I find it delicious. This distinct culinary tradition does deserve, in my humble but considered opinion, the moniker of a ‘cuisine’. The core palette of ingredients is surprisingly broad for such a small area, not much larger in surface than the Belgian Walloon region. It is a mostly peasant tradition that has made use of the produce of the seas and rivers, shallow tidal waters, fertile valley soils and rocky hills that form this country. We find animal products, grains, vegetables and top fruit all making substantial contributions to the list. In other words, there is enough breadth here to allow for further development and new departures.

Welsh baked goods

Caerphilly cheeses maturing, author supplied

Secondly, and related to this, I hope that I have managed to persuade you that those same Welsh foods and dishes, in the enterprising hands of cooks, chefs, makers, bakers, farmers and brewers (today) and perhaps most of all housewives (yesterday) are worth exploring and getting to know. Quality is always worth seeking out. And that quality – despite everything and often little-trumpeted – exists today in Wales, and most particularly in those foods that have been made and prepared from the land of Wales for long enough to be widely considered ‘of this land’. The traditions that led to Caerphilly cheese or Welsh rarebit, to laver bread and Welsh cakes were organic developments over countless generations of the raw material that was available, and often abundant, on this large, hilly peninsula on an island in the north-west of Europe. In the right hands, these are true treats, reflected in the numerous accolades awarded those Welsh foodstuffs and dishes that are made to the highest standards by skilled producers.

Welsh Laver

Welsh laver, author supplied

But I realise this will not persuade all. A common charge levelled at the foods that feature both in Welsh cuisine and the cuisines of many neighbouring cultures are that they are heavy, even stodgy. There is some truth to this accusation: porridge, cawl, fish and chips and many of the other dishes mentioned in this book are filling meals better suited to people doing heavy physical work on a farm or in a mine than in front of a laptop screen. But this is in fact equally true of the vast majority of the celebrated traditional dishes of France, Italy or Spain, which are not often accused of being overly heavy: pasta, cassoulet and caldo gallego are not exactly light meals. Having spent several years following the contours of Welsh food history, it seems to me that the reason Welsh dishes and ingredients are not particularly present in restaurant fare or cookbooks today has more to do with their story not being told, than the innate unsuitability of the foods themselves for modern palates. Cocos a way, llymru or Carmarthen ham (page abc) on a slice of sourdough bread with Welsh butter are just three examples from this book of entirely traditional Welsh dishes that would lend themselves perfectly to a modern light starter menu. Many other ingredients and traditional dishes that use heavy joints of meat or large quantities of grains or dairy can be paired with locally-grown salads to create lighter meals. Above and beyond all this, there is a strong argument to use the best quality ingredients, paying a fair price for doing so, and to simply enjoy the sumptuousness of rich butter, laver bread or chips. As an old Welsh poet sang ‘Iôn a roes yn ein hoes ni/ gynnyrch byd i’n digoni’ (The Lord has given us in our day / the world’s food to enjoy). Even as an occasional treat, surely the enjoyment derived from the salt/ fat/ sweet/ grain goodness of Slapan, or Cig moch, caws a winwns is worth the splurge, if only to remind one’s palate that such foods exist. And then the experience must be capped by washing everything down with an excellent single-variety Monmouthshire cider or even some diodgriafol, if somebody were to start producing it again from the locally abundant rowan berries.

The third thing that I hope has been implicitly obvious throughout the book is many of these food traditions have their own peculiar terminology and language, and that native language is the indigenous Welsh tongue. There is a specific vocabulary in Welsh – much neglected, and at risk of disappearance even among daily speakers of the language – to do with all the domains of food preparation from the specific minutiae of farming, to production, kitchen preparation and onto the table. Words like pingo (the verb used when a fruit tree is heavy-laden with fruit such that the branches are bending; it is said to be ‘pingo’), crafell (an oatcake slice) or mwtrin (a mash including potatoes, swede and also carrot or peas, served usually with buttermilk) have disappeared from the vocabulary of most speakers under the age of 70. It goes almost without saying that even the concepts they embody have therefore also almost disappeared from not only from Welsh-speaking culture but even more so from Anglo-Welsh culture. What has replaced many of these terms are simple calques[2] from the English, wiping away the rich language of dairy produce, with umpteen original terms for milk of different sorts, for instance, replaced with Anglicisms. So llaeth crych was milk about to turn to butter; armel the second milk, best for buttermaking, and tical the very last milk, considered even richer than the armel. None of these terms are now in common currency. Neither are words like isgell (stock), llaeth glas (skimmed milk) or eirin Mair (gooseberries), replaced by stoc, llaeth sgim and gwsberis. This is more than linguistic purism; this is what happens when an entire food culture is subsumed by the industrial food machine of the modern Western world.

This could, however, be changed: what has been almost lost can be un-lost. One important source of new richness for the modern Welsh food scene is the different perspectives and flavours brought for centuries by the presence of immigrant and ethnic minority communities. It is a little-known fact that one of the first purpose-built mosques built in the UK was in Cardiff in the early 20th century, thanks to the city’s port.[3] There are records of sailors from Cape Verde in the city as early as the 17th century, and they were followed by Yemeni dockworkers who brought their families and flavours of home with them to the city before the 19th century was out. Italian migrants settled widely during the early 20th century across the cities and towns of industrial South Wales, establishing ice cream parlours and cafés that became local institutions and introducing new dishes and beverages, not least cappuccino under the guise of ‘milky coffee’. These waves of immigration left their mark not only in the introduction of entirely new foods and ways of eating, as everywhere in the western world, but also in novel combinations such as the Cardiff takeway ‘arf n ‘arf of chips and rice. Other outside influences brought the familiar sight of Breton onion sellers to Wales every summer, as we have seen. More recently, English back-to-the-land migrants have re-stablished viable veg-growing enterprises in areas where they had disappeared and have been instrumental in establishing the burgeoning Welsh wine industry. The threads these communities and influences have brought to the story of Welsh food in and of themselves deserve further explanation, and it is enticing to think of the possibilities that could arise from a marriage between them and a revival of the older, native traditions.

Breton onion sellers

Breton onion sellers, author supplied

In sum, then, we have here: firstly, a group of native foods and dishes; secondly, quality produce made in continuity with old traditions, and thirdly; distinctive ways of talking and thinking about the foods that are rooted in a language and a place but open to the world. In other words we have here something that might rightly be called a food culture. An ensemble of foods, methods, uses and names that was passed on and developed from generation to generation, enriched by outside influences and ever-changing, but retaining its own identity. A culture – a collective human creation – to do with food – which is what people eat. And very specifically, a Welsh food culture, made of this land and by its people, almost disappeared but now rediscovering itself.

Welsh fisherpersons

Welsh fisherpersons, author supplied

The broad ingredient list of the Welsh culinary traditions also reminds us of the food production potential of all the habitats of the land and seas of a place like Wales. We know that this corner of Europe is very likely to be spared most of the worst effects of climate change, so that feeding people both here and elsewhere from this land is likely to become a moral imperative over coming decades. Studying food history is the best possible place to start for a full and nuanced understanding of what the land can produce, and nowhere is this more true than those parts of the world where the modern industrial economy and food system have swallowed and distorted native traditions. Apple-growing in Wales is a good case in point, though the principle could be applied to countless societies the world over. The UK as a whole currently only produces 20{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of the apples eaten in the country, and Wales close to zero.[4] We now know that traditionally managed orchards are one of the single most biodiverse ecosystems that can exist in northern Europe, and they can also produce significant crops of fruit, honey, dairy and meat (from sheep) and wood from the same land. So for the sake of rural employment, the future of our birds and insects and the survival of native traditions, it seems obvious that those Welsh river valleys that a century ago teemed with orchards need refilling with new ones. This flies in the face of the economic wisdom that saw 95-98{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of Welsh orchards grubbed up in the twentieth century; but then again, that economic logic has also come close to destroying the basis of life itself.

Other examples abound, and, again, what is true for Wales will be true, in different ways, for so many nations and regions around the world. Vegetable production should be scaled up significantly, as should grain growing; and then the economic superstructure of mills and millers, market gardeners and bakers can grow up around them. And none of this is a zero-sum game: the losers from a Blaencamel organic veg co-op in every town, and Hen Gymro or other native grains growing in every valley are not other local growers, farmers or producers; they are multi-national corporations, and supermarkets with no stake in Welsh futures.

woman collecting cockles

Woman collecting cockles, author supplied

And there are also ecological lessons to be gained from studying the carrying capacity of this land and shore, as we saw in the contrasting tales of oysters and cockles. Government policy makes a significant difference to whether the potential of the land is used, as the tale of Welsh sea-salt production makes clear. We are now in a position, unlike most of our ancestors, where we can research, experiment and innovate to find the best ways to produce more food from the land and seas of places like Wales, whilst also locking in carbon and increasing biodiversity. Is there a task more urgent than this for the wellbeing of both current and future generations? If we doubled down to this work in earnest, could we even see a food and farming renaissance in Wales that formed the basis for a good life for all the future inhabitants of this land, whatever their origins?

All this could be done in the modern, internet-powered vacuum of possibilities without so much as a glance to the past. We could, for instance, decide to keep our shelves stocked with bara brith, but finally acknowledge that the age of buttermilk and salty butter has now gone and the day of yoghurt and margarine has long since come. There is much to be grateful for in the open door we currently have to ingredients, dishes, production methods adopted and adapted from anywhere in the world. But most of the best dishes are time-worn; most of the best food knows where it came from, what story it fits into and even what story it is a reaction against. And so to base the food economy of the future 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.

Welsh teatime fashion

Welsh teatime fashion, author supplied

The re-establishment in public discourse of a Welsh food culture, with its long history, its ingredients and methods, provides the possibility of a rooted baseline for the future of food in this country; open to change, but aware of its provenance. There is comfort, there can be a very rightful pride in knowing that this loaf was made from this heritage flour, grown ten miles away on Ceredigion soil and milled in the village named after the local river’s many mills. Or in eating a cawl in 2050, made with mutton that grazed on ffridd-land rich in insect life from a flock hefted to it for hundreds of years. Or in cider made from native varieties grown in an orchard of mature, standard apple trees planted in 2020 on some of those same Monmouthshire fields that had long been under orchard but were grubbed up in the 1960s. That kind of pleasure, and pride, is not the kind that led to the interlocking crises I mentioned earlier. It might well, then, offer itself as the basis of a very different, but deeply rooted, kind of future.

[1] See for instance Smaje, A Small Farm Future (2020)

[2] Calque – a word for word translation from another language

[3] https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/a-history-of-mosques-in-britain

[4] Macdonald and Gates, Orchard: A year in England’s Eden, 195


Teaser photo credit:  Hen Gyrmo grain, author supplied

A local food renaissance in Wales