Citizens! Today is March 1, which is celebrated as St. David’s Day in Wales – and as one of my oldest and dearest friends is Welsh, I would be remiss in my role as Leader of TFD Nation not to wish him the best on this day of days in Wales!
Supposedly, St. David created a hill upon which to stand and preach to the people, while a white dove landed on his shoulder – it is still how he is depicted to this very day! What better way to celebrate St. David’s Day than with the most quintessentially Welsh dish of cawl! “Cystal yfed o’r cawl â bwyta’s cig” is from a collection of proverbs attributed to Cattwg Ddoeth (Cattwg the Wise) and translates to “It is as good to drink the broth as to eat the meat”.
There are several legends related to cawl in Wales beyond St. David. For example, Llywelyn ap Seisyll had been king of a considerable part of Wales in the early 11th century, but on his death the throne was taken over by another dynasty. His son Gruffydd was said to be an idle youth and one New Year’s Day was driven out of the house by his exasperated sister. Leaning against the wall of another house he heard the comments of a cook who was cooking a dish which appeared to be cawl. The cook complained that one piece of meat kept rising to the surface however often it was pushed down. Gruffydd took that to refer to himself and from that day on changed his outlook on life, to such effect that by 1055 he was king of all Wales.
Cawl (pronounced ‘cowl’) is a Welsh dish. In the modern Welsh language, the word is used to refer to any soup or broth. In the English language, it is used to refer to a traditional Welsh soup, usually referred to as cawl Cymreig in Welsh. Historically, ingredients tended to vary, but the most common recipes are with lamb or beef with leeks, potatoes, swedes, carrots and other seasonal vegetables. Cawl is recognized as a national dish of Wales.
With recipes dating back to the 14th century, cawl is widely considered to be the national dish of Wales. Cawl was traditionally eaten during the winter months in the south-west of Wales. Today, the word is often used to refer to a dish containing lamb and leeks, due to their association with Welsh culture, but historically it was made with either salted bacon or beef, along with rutabagas, carrots and other seasonal vegetables. With the introduction of the potato into the European diet in the latter half of the 16th century, it became a core ingredient in the recipe as well.
The meat in the dish was normally cut into medium-sized pieces and simmered with the vegetables in water. The stock was thickened with either oatmeal or flour, and was then served, without the meat or vegetables, as a first course. The vegetables and slices of the meat would then be served as a second course. Cawl served as a single course is today the most popular way to serve the meal, which is similar to its north Wales equivalent lobsgows. Lobsgows differs in that the meat and vegetables were cut into smaller pieces and the stock was not thickened.
“Cawl cennin”, or leek cawl, can be made without meat but using meat stock. In some areas cawl is often served with bread and cheese. These are served separately on a plate. The dish was traditionally cooked in an iron pot or cauldron over the fire and eaten with wooden spoons.
The Welsh phrase gwneud cawl o [rywbeth] (literally “(to) make a cawl of [something]”) means ‘to mess something up’.
The word cawl in Welsh is first recorded in the 14th century, and is thought to come from the Latin caulis, meaning the stalk of a plant, a cabbage stalk or a cabbage. An alternative suggestion is that it is from Latin calidus, meaning warm, as this is the source of Spanish caldo, with the senses of broth or gravy.
Regardless of its etymology, this is one tasty dish and not at all difficult to make. Cawl should be started the day before so that any fat can be skimmed off and all the flavors given the opportunity to amalgamate. You can thicken the soup with a mix of flour and water in equal parts, or with some pinhead oatmeal or even a bit of cornstarch mixed with stock, if you’re so inclined – or just leave it unthickened, as you see fit (TFD prefers it thickened).
My version hearkens back to the original recipe that used beef and a proper flitch of bacon, but I still include the modern updates of lamb and potatoes as well as a bit of TFD seasoning magic. Please do serve this the proper way with some good homemade brown bread and proper Welsh Caerphilly cheese, which you can buy here. Slab bacon is a very personal preference, particularly regarding the choice of wood used to smoke it – I prefer a lighter smoked bacon in this recipe and highly recommend this brand.
Citizens, I hope you enjoy this taste of Wales and properly appreciate its ancient pedigree and savory nature! I’d enjoy this as part of a wonderful Welsh meal, perhaps featuring this classic main dish of Wales!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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