A Delicious Tradition
“Go on, take a bite. Try it”. I looked at the black, gooey mass being offered to me by Cheryl Addison, manager of the Pentclawdd Shellfish Co. on Wales’ Gower Peninsula. Well, I was here to investigate two of the traditional foods of southwest Wales: laverbread and cockles. I closed my eyes and dug in. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste anything liked it looked, thank goodness. A hard-to-describe flavour, I’d say it’s a bit like salty spinach cooked in a kettle of fish. Something you could acquire a taste for. Traditional Welsh Recipes
The strangely named laverbread has nothing to do with bread or even fish eggs—it’s a seaweed, sometimes called the Welsh caviar. It’s washed and rewashed till sand-free, then boiled for ten hours until it resembles a pulpy mass, after which it’s chopped into little pieces. Normally not eaten “straight up” like I did, it is usually mixed with lemon juice and spread on toast or fried in bacon fat, after being rolled in oatmeal.
Laverbread used to grow here on the rocks in the Gower Peninsula. Now it’s imported from other areas of Britain and processed here. It’s still gathered in the old-fashioned way on the incoming or outgoing tides by reaching down and picking it up.
It’s not the only labor intensive, edible product I am being offered. The other is cockles, which to me look like a tiny mussel or clam and taste somewhat similar, though I didn’t think quite as good. But they, like the laverbread, are definitely a taste that needs cultivating.
For aficionados, there are stalls selling laverbread in the nearby city of Swansea market (pick up a loaf of crusty Swansea bread to spread it on), and it is also available tinned. Highly prized in Europe, it is reported to be rich in protein, iodine and Vitamins A, B, B2, C and D.
Cockles have been on the Gower since Roman times. Like laverbread, they are still gathered in the same backbreaking way of the past. At low tide the women of the nearby villages went out on the sands carrying baskets. Bending over, they used short handled rakes to bring the cockles to the sand’s surface. They placed them in a riddle, something like a sieve, so that the small ones fell through.
Carrying basketsful on their heads, the gatherers then loaded them on to donkeys and went round the villages selling them. The only difference today is that it’s the men who do this work, and landrovers are used instead of donkeys. The cockles are brought straight out of the water to the Pentclawdd Shellfish Company’s factory right on the beach. There they are steamed open and separated from their shells, then canned or pickled in vinegar.
Cockles aren’t the only seafood available in Wales. The long coastline with its rocky cliffs and sandy bays provides a mouth-watering range of fish and shellfish. Crab, wild salmon, sewin (sea trout) and much more are available as I discovered, to my delight, at Knight’s Restaurant in nearby Mumbles, a Victorian seaside village on the Gower. Their specialty is fresh seafood. On the night I visited, crab, monkfish, salmon and Dover sole were only a few of the offerings. Beautifully cooked large portions of fish and local fresh vegetables hardly left room for the tempting desserts on offer.
When my travels took me from the Gower Peninsula into Pembrokeshire, I discovered the Plantagenet House in Tenby. Here you can dine in a 12th century inn complete with ghost stories of unusual noises in cellar, cups flying off the walls and strange figures seen in a back room. The restaurant also boasts a Tudor fireplace 12 metres (40 ft) high and 6 metres (20 ft) wide. Welsh lamb bangers, fresh fish and the local Tenby crab are just some of the goodies on offer.
Leeks, the national symbol of Wales are often made into soup, alone or with potatoes and winter root vegetables. In fact, if you don’t like leeks you may be hard up for soup choices as they seem to be a favorite of Welsh cooks.
But the quest for great food didn’t end with seafood. I was delighted to find that Wales was awash in my two favorite treats: cheese and ice cream.
Cheese making has a long tradition in Wales. Organic cheeses, unpasteurized cheeses and specialist cheeses made from milk of cows, ewe and goats (often used during the 17th and 18th century) have been around as long as dairy cattle existed in the country.
Caerphilly is probably one of the better-known cheeses. Its history goes back to the 16th century when it was exported to England. I like this crumbly cheese best melted into a sauce and poured over cauliflower.
Several of the farmhouse cheese operations let visitors in on the cheese-making process, offer tastes and an opportunity for purchase in their farm shop. The Llangloffan Farmhouse has won many awards with their unpasteurized full hard fat cheese.
Teifi Farmhouse cheese is another award winner. Their “Celtic Promise” is the only Welsh cheese to have won the title of Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards. It’s a mildly piquant, delicate cheese. My personal favorite is a oak smoked Teifi.
In St. Florence, Pembrokeshire, cheese is produced at Ivy Tower Farm from a recipe barely altered from medieval times. Cheshire-style natural or flavored, blue cheese, soft natural or smoked and goat’s milk are part of the stock.
I discovered St. David’s and Cenarth cheeses, made from unpasteurized milk, Pembryn Organic, Ragstone hard, and Y-fenni, a mature cheddar blended with mustard and Welsh ale, made in Abergavenny.
With all this milk around it’s hardly surprising that local ice creams spring up like weeds in an unkempt yard. And being an ice cream junky, I naturally had to try them all in the name of “research”. Since most Welsh ice cream is only made in small amounts to be sold nearby, that meant a lot of samples to be licked. Although I never found an ice cream I didn’t like, I certainly had favourites. The Vale of Towy ice cream rated right up there, as did one sold only in the small tearoom at the Aberglasney Gardens in Carmarthenshire.
Joe's Ice Cream at Mumbles, on the Gower, has been in business since 1922. During the Second World War, they were not allowed to make ice cream due to rationing, so Joe spent his time perfecting vanilla ice cream, which is the only flavour they serve. With fantastic chocolate, caramel, hazelnut and fruit sauces to complement the ice cream, you won’t lack for variety. Joe's Ice Cream
Verdis Restaurant, on a pier at water’s edge in Mumbles on the Gower, serves 20 flavors of Italian ice cream. I wanted to stay long enough to try them all.
Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour at Hay-on-Wye serves ice cream made from sheep’s milk and uses local fruit for flavoring: blackcurrant, tayberry, raspberry and damson plums. It’s an intense flavor, extremely creamy and fatty. Shepherd's
No matter where I journeyed in Wales, north to south, east to west, delicious surprises awaited. Roadside signs advertising locally produced cheeses, ice cream and honey abounded. Bakeries, shops and deli’s provided great picnic ingredients. Bara Brith, a Welsh fruitcake, and traditional Welsh cakes were on the menu in village tearooms.
One thing for sure, when eating in Wales you’ll be spoiled for choices, and you won’t go hungry. And, since one of the pleasures of any holiday is good food, traveling to Wales will be a holiday to remember.
A Taste of Wales is an organization that promotes standards of excellence in the preparation, presentation and sale of Welsh produce. They publish a free guide of their members who use local produce in their menus. It’s an excellent planner for dining out in Wales. Ask for a copy from the Wales Tourist Board
Laver with Mashed Potato
Mash cooked potatoes with butter to taste. Butter a dish and layer with equal amounts of potatoes and laverbread (topping with potato). Heat in oven until the potato is brown on top.
Cawl is a traditional soup made with lamb, but a vegetarian version can be made by leaving out the meat.
It consists of chopped potatoes, leeks, carrots, swede, turnip, parsnips, onions and sometimes peas and broad beans and cauliflower. Add the vegetables in whatever proportions you wish or have available to enough vegetable stock to make a soup or stew, along with the cooked meat, and simmer for 2-3 hours.
For two slices of bread, combine ½ oz. butter with ½ teaspoon mustard and a dash of salt, Cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Add 3oz. grated Cheddar cheese and 1 tablespoon beer (milk may be substituted). Toast the bread on one side only and spread the mixture on the other side. Brown under a hot grill.
Bara Brith (Welsh fruitcake)
Soak 10oz. mixed dried fruit in 2 cups hot tea, cover and let stand overnight. Strain the fruit, saving the liquid. Add 3 oz. brown sugar, grated rind of a lemon, 1 ¼ teaspoons pumpkin spice (or any mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice), 1 egg and 12oz. Self-rising flour to the fruit. Add the liquid a bit at a time until the batter is of soft, dropping consistency. Pour into a greased brown paper lined 2lb. loaf pan and bake at 350F for 45-55 minutes until firm to the touch.
Welsh Cakes (like little pancakes)
Stir together l lb. flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, a pinch ofsalt and a pinch of allspice. Rub in 4 oz. butter and 4 oz. shortening. Add 7oz. sugar and 4 oz. of raisins. Then add 2 beaten eggs and just enough milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out on a floured surface to about ¼ inch thick. Cut with pastry cutter and cook on buttered griddle or in iron skillet. Turn when brown and cook second side.
Places to eat
While there are literally hundreds of wonderful places to eat fresh Welsh food and homemade goodies, here are a few of the places I ate at and can recommend.
Knight's Restaurant at 614 Mumbles Rd. Mumbles, Swansea. Fresh seafood a speciality. Reservations recommended.
The Plantagenet House at Quay Hill, Tenby. Fresh seafood, Welsh lamb and Welsh vegetables. Reservations recommended. Downstairs bar serves snacks. Plantagenet House
Welcome to Town Country Bistro and Bar is located on the Gower Peninsula at Llanrhidian. Mentioned in “Which Good Food Guide” and the Welsh food guide, “The Red Book”. Reservations recommended. Welcome to Town
Verdis Restaurant at Mumbles on the Gower serves ice cream, tarts, cakes, pizza, pasta dishes and salad. Reservations recommended in high season for evening meals. Casual dining. Verdis Restaurant
You can rent a car in London or take a train to Wales. The First Great Western train runs every hour from Paddington Station. It’s a through train that travels across southwest Wales to the west coast, with various stops along the way.
Photos courtesy Wales Tourist Board, Llangloffan Cheese and by Barbara Ballard
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