St. David’s Day – Dydd Dewi Sant. I wore my welsh costume to school: a black felt hat, plaid shawl, a small white apron over my kilt, and, pinned to my shawl, a fresh daffodil from the garden whose big trumpet head bumped my chin, releasing the sprinkle and scent of pollen. The boys wore leeks attached to their jumpers with nappy-sized safety pins, until playtime, when some show-off would decide to eat his raw.
There was a school concert and we sang Calon Lân (listen here) and Oes gafr eto, a ridiculous folk song about white, blue and red goats which had to be sung faster and faster with each successive verse until the words fell apart in our mouths. And the finale of the concert: a play in welsh written by one of the teachers. When I was ten, I was picked for the leading role of Maggi, an enterprising cook who convinces a bunch of hungry cannibals not to boil the poor missionary but to add a packet of her tasty powdered soup to their cardboard cauldron instead. It was one of the more enjoyable moments of my early association with Methodism. But that’s another story.
I only recently discovered that my Welsh costume was not ‘traditional’ at all but a 19th century invention by Lady Llanover. She took certain items from the clothing of Welsh countrywomen at the time, added Welsh tweed, and created a ‘national’ dress that would take hold of the public imagination and survive until today. To be fair, Lady Llanover was not the only one tinkering with mythmaking and the recipe for welsh identity. During the 18th and 19th centuries other popular symbols of Wales – the red dragon, leeks, harps and druids, and even some bardic rituals – were also ‘introduced’, part of a pressing cultural wave to identify and strengthen the idea of ‘welshness’ in response to changes that were threatening traditional ways of life.
Change can often be a catalyst for us to protect what we deem to be under threat. Perhaps it is partly because I have lived away from Wales for more than thirty years that I cling to the small yearly ritual of making Welshcakes on 1st March, St. David’s Day, wherever I am and for whoever I’m around: friends, family, writing groups, my university students, and neighbours in England, Wales, the United States, Spain and France. And even though they could be a result of the same mythmaking, not particularly welsh at all but common to baking practices in general, I still associate them with growing up in Wales and they form part of my perception of what it means, or feels like, to be welsh but living elsewhere. Molly Wizenberg, in her book A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, says, ‘Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.’
And, a Welshcake is never just a cake. Nor a scone, nor a biscuit. ‘They’re a drop-scone,’ some people say when I describe how they’re cooked on a griddle, or a maen, a bakestone. But they’re not that either. For a start, they’re made from soft dough not a batter, dough that plumps on a hot griddle with the scent of nutmeg and butter. They are my mother’s cool hands, perfect for baking. They are home.
Depending on what part of Wales you’re in you might hear them called Tishan ar y ma’n (teeshun arr uh maan) or Pice ar y Maen (peekay arr uh mine)
pinch of salt
¼ level teaspoon of ground nutmeg
4 oz butter, left to soften slightly at room temperature
4 oz sugar
2 oz seedless raisins or sultanas
1 egg, beaten
milk to mix
caster sugar to sprinkle
Makes between 25 and 30 small welshcakes*
- Sift the flour, spice and salt into a large bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
- Mix in the sugar and fruit.
- Make a well in the middle of the bowl and add the beaten egg.
- Working in a circle, push the dry mixture into the liquid centre, adding a little milk if needed, until it binds to a soft dough.
- Roll out on a floured board to a thickness of less than ¼ inch and use a pastry cutter to make rounds. The size is up to you, but my favourite is a dinky 1½ inch fluted cutter*
- Cook them in batches on a pre-heated non-stick griddle, or a large flat-bottomed frying pan, over a low to medium heat, for about 2 minutes each side, or until golden brown.
- Sprinkle well with caster sugar while still warm.
I think they’re at their best at this point, but if you microwave a cold one for 10 seconds you’ll recover some of that softness. Or, try spreading one with soft, unsalted butter.
Hungry Writing Prompts
- Write about something you believed to be true but later turned out to be false.
- Write about food that reminds you of home.