EATING FOR BRITAIN: WALES, LAND OF MY MOTHERS
Wales plays a huge part in the DH obsession with food.
Our late mother and grandmother, God bless them both, hailed from The Valleys, The Rhondda to be exact and, consequently, our food memories are filled with the scent of superlative Welsh baking, simple stews and meals served in terrifying portions by women clucking in lilting but disappointed tones about our inability to eat a fifth serving.
So, when I set out for the Welsh helping of my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip, above all I was hoping to encounter some of the smells and tastes that made me who I am today (who said “nice of them to take the blame?”)
My first stop was Saundersfoot, a small town on the Pembrokeshire coast, where I found out they have a competition every year to see who, among the local restaurants, can make the best Cawl, that simple and entirely delicious stew that has nourished prop forwards for generations.
Saundersfoot is a town in transition. It wants to be Padstow but is still closer to Bridlington. There are a smattering of good restaurants and one of the best sweet shops you will ever find, Chobbles run by Amy Coleman, which sells every sweet your childhood dreams could ever desire, including my own favourite, Cinder toffee. However the town was recently described in an article as "scruffy" which may have the local council up in arms, but carried some truth as I wandered the streets and looked at the amusement arcade and shops selling seaside tat.
One man, Andrew Evans, owner of the lovely St Bride’s Hotel high on a cliff overlooking the town, is trying to change that. He blushed when I called him “the Rick Stein of Saundersfoot” but with his hotel and two restaurants in the town itself, he is at least giving visitors the option of eating well and I was delighted when he offered to be my guide on the cawl trail.
We met at 10am in a busy marquee where stalls selling local produce were already doing good business and, after I had a quick sample of Bara Brith, a tea cake, Andrew and I bought our small cawl bowls and set out to visit the nine pubs and restaurants that were taking part.
Cawl is one of the most simple dishes you can imagine and is closely related to both the Irish Stew and the Lobscouse that gives the people of Liverpool their nickname. Traditionally made with neck or scrag end of lamb, now people also use beef or ham, but whatever they use, the process is the same.
The meat is cooked gently in water until tender and left over night so the fat can solidify and be skimmed off. Then, root vegetables (swede, carrots, turnips) are added and cooked until tender before, finally, lots of chopped leeks are tossed in to cook just before serving. Er, that’s it.
There are of course some variations. As we sampled, Andrew commented on where he thought they had added too much salt, too much white pepper or even a touch of mint and we marked down our scores on a form we had been given to return at the end of the trail. Fortunately for me, my favourite came from one of Andrew’s restaurants, The Marina where the broth was thin, the meat was lamb and there was an accompaniment of bread and a square of strong cheese.
After nine bowls of the stuff though, I was cawled out and returned to my B&B to sleep it off, while the rest of the town carried on with their festivities. Even by the evening, I was not in any state for a big meal, so went to another of Andrew's places, The Mermaid and slurped up a small bowl of fish soup made with offcuts of the local catch.
Cawl may not be on anyone’s list of fine dining, but it is simple dish made with cheap ingredients, which seems, on this visit at least, to be just as popular in Wales as ever. Each taste, each sip of broth and piece of soft, slow cooked lamb reminded me of my own childhood and of meals gone by and sorely missed.
There could be no better way to begin a return to the land of my mothers