Lobscaws and Llymru: Welsh food and recipes

Collections - Posted 22-04-2020

I recently enjoyed reading First Catch Your Peacock: The Classic guide to Welsh food by Bobby Freeman (Y Lolfa, 2006). The book provides a thoroughly-researched introduction to the history of Welsh food, followed by examples of traditional recipes.

The book’s definition of ‘traditional’ is the food which was cooked in the Welsh cottage or farmhouse kitchen, using a pot or a bakestone originally over the open fire, or in later centuries on the cast iron cooking range. The recipes were passed down orally through families for generations, rarely written down until recorded in the the prize-winning Eisteddfod essay of Mati Thomas in 1928.

Freeman comments on the difficulty of distinguishing traditional Welsh recipes from English or foreign ones, due to the similarity of ingredients or to linguistic confusion. One example is the ubiquitous meat and vegetable broth called ‘lobscaws’ in the north,‘cawl’ further south. The ingredients may be identical but the origins of the names are entirely different. While ‘cawl’ appears to be a genuine Welsh word, ‘lobscaws’ actually derives from the north German ‘labskaus’, which in northern England became ‘lobscouse’. Conversely, Welsh food names may have passed undetected into the repertoire of ‘old English’ cookery. The gelatinous dish called ‘llymru’, made from oatmeal in Wales, became ‘flummery’ in England and it appeared with its original ingredients in Gervase Markham’s Countrey contentments, or The English husvvife (London 1623). By the mid-seventeenth century fancier variations had evolved, containing sugar, cream, orange-flower water or fruit flavourings, such as the recipe published in The Closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. opened (London 1669), which resembles more closely the modern cook’s notion of a traditional flummery.

Among the cookery books consulted by Bobby Freeman at the National Library of Wales is The First Principles of Good Cookery illustrated and Recipes communicated by the Welsh Hermit of the Cell of St. Gover (London 1867) by the redoubtable Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover. While the language is English and the authenticity of some ‘Welsh’ items may be suspect, the recipe for Salt Duck (p. 408), we are assured, is convincingly genuine. A digital copy of the early edition is available on the Library’s website.

Other interesting culinary information may be found in the Library’s collections of estate records. Freeman identifies these recipes from the ‘plas’ more closely with the English cookery tradition, yet they are ‘Welsh’ in the sense that they were written down by the wives and housekeepers of the Welsh gentry homes, and that most of the fresh ingredients came directly from their own estates. One very fine example is Peniarth Manuscript 513D, a book of recipes compiled in the seventeenth century by Meryell Williams (1629-1703), the highly capable wife of John Williams of Ystumcolwyn, Montgomeryshire. The immaculate handwriting makes it quite ‘user-friendly’ for today’s cooks. The book is logically organised into sections for pottage, meat and fish, puddings, biscuits, cakes, preserves, wines and medicines, all meticulously indexed at the back of the volume. Many of the recipes were translated into Welsh by Dr Enid Pierce Roberts, Gwraig orau o’r Gwragedd (Gwasg Pantycelyn, 2003).

Gogerddan near Aberystwyth belonged to the Pryse and Loveden family. Only one recipe book has survived, together with a few loose items, one of which is a menu in Welsh, dated 1796, when the estate belonged to Pryse Pryse (formerly Loveden). The menu seems quite festive although the occasion is not specified. It includes Brithyll ffrio, math o’r pysgodin berw yn Saesneg enw Turbot, oen coes berw gyda y llwin ffrio, pwding crynu, cig eidion rhost…pastai afal ffrwythau (fried trout, boiled turbot, boiled leg of lamb with fried loin, quaky pudding, roast beef and apple pasty).

Much of the food produced from the Gogerddan estate and garden was for immediate use in the house. The lists of seeds and the accounts show what was grown in the kitchen garden between 1767 and 1919: white Spanish onions, London leeks, orange carrots, parsnips, rape seed, white Cos lettuce, imperial lettuce, Italian celery, three varieties of cauliflower, kidney beans, cabbages, cucumbers, and apples. Greenhouse crops included tomatoes and grapes. The cash book records the costs of sending parcels of produce to Aberystwyth, and more ominously, the prices of fumigating compound and rat poison. There are wonderful series of farm accounts, showing livestock bought and sold, crops sold and farm wages, 1813-1919; and the dairy accounts, recording weekly the production of milk, cream and butter, 1881-1919. Many of the groceries such as sugar and tea were purchased from local tradesmen in Aberystwyth. All of these records may be discovered among the Gogerddan estate and household administration papers.

Some of the best household records in the Brogyntyn archive date from the time of Mrs Mary Owen in the mid-18th century. Mary (née Godolphin) went as a somewhat unwilling bride to William Owen, the squire of Brogyntyn on the Welsh borders.  As Mrs Owen, she settled into her new life as mistress of a large house, facing the challenges of domestic management.  Among the household papers are the instructions which she wrote for her servants:

The Cook’s Business. She must be able to get a dinner of fiveteen dishes of meat; four or five things when the family is alone is sufficient…..She must salt all the meat……fatten the poultry…….keep the scullery and larders and kitchen clean, and the utensils belonging to them……dress the wheat flower……make the parlour bread……rise with the other maids to wash, till her own business requires her elsewhere……She has help from the other maids to scour, which is once in four weeks, but I expect her to scour the pewter plates every fortnight……She is to carve for the lower servants at dinner…..When she has time I expect her to iron her own cloaths……

The arduous servants’ duties which were specified by Mrs Owen force us to consider the problems faced by the cooks of both the cottage and the ‘plas’ in previous centuries. Bobby Freeman and Mati Thomas each observe the difficulty of cooking to a consistent quality on an open fire or a cast-iron range, dependent on the type of fuel, the daily weather conditions and the efficiency (or deficiency) of the chimney.  They remark on the sheer physical effort expended in handling the heavy implements of the traditional Welsh kitchen and in maintaining a high standard of cleanliness. Evidence of the old cooking equipment may be obtained from a detailed scrutiny of the thousands of inventories which survive in the pre-1858 Welsh Probate Records, most of which are available in digital form on the Library’s website.

A good example is the inventory of Thomas Lewis’s house at Llan-gors, which was possibly Trewallter, although the abode is not named in the probate documents. The kitchen contained a whole array of different sized pewter dishes, basins and plates, salt cellar, candlesticks and flagons; skillets, brass candlesticks, warming pans, chafing dishes, various brass pans, bell metal vessels; dripping pans, frying pans and other iron implements; one pair of cupboards, one jack, one iron plate before the fire and other iron wares; vats, barrels, hogsheads, another cupboard, one chair and two joint stools (NLW wills, BR1680/103).

Actual utensils may be viewed at Ceredigion Museum or at St Fagans National Museum of History.

Hilary Peters
Assistant Archivist

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

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