Today is the Feast of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, which means I have reached for the chapatti pan again. Like many Welsh children I tried to eat Welsh cakes as soon as I could after they had come off the griddle; soft and melting, one was left with a burned mouth for one’s sins. I don’t recall Welsh cakes as a particularly St. David’s Day tradition, but I do remember the infernal stench of the fresh leeks that were pinned to the boys’ pullovers, only to be shredded into ribbons by the end of the day; a tradition that thankful seems to have died out. While Welsh cakes were then a fairly frequent treat, in our modern generally cake-less regime we need an excuse to make them – so bring out the griddle and the spices.
Llangynwyd is a historic village on the mountain top above the Llynfi Valley. The
Glamorgan Uplands look like a barren landscape but under the mouths of the feeding sheep the land has been tattooed with curves and lines of at least four thousand millennia of change – Bronze Age cairns, Iron Age forts, Roman camps, mediaeval forts and industrial tracks. The village is expanded version of the ancient church and pub combination and has been associated with several folk traditions, including the origins of the beautiful song Watching the White Wheat (Bugeilo’r Gwenith Gwyn). It is claimed the
wassailing custom, Mari Lwyd, has had its most unbroken tradition here. Interestingly, the performance didn’t remain fossilised but evolved and its content updated, as it probably always had been done.
So perhaps we should not be too hard on Ann Romney’s Welsh cakes, as a totally rigid tradition is eventually a dead one. When during the 2012 US Presidential Election campaign the Republican candidate Mitt Romney made a trip to London, his wife Ann researched her Welsh roots in South Wales. She spent a day at Llangynwyd looking at her relatives’ graves in the churchyard. Her entourage took over the thatched pub opposite (The Old House), one of several establishments that claim to be the oldest in Wales.
Back on the US election trail Ann Romney adopted Welsh cakes, a recipe she adapted from her paternal grandmother, as a symbol of her family’s humble origins, and of her as a homemaking, cake-baking ‘mom’; dishing them out on the campaign trail and cooking them live on Good Morning America. Their authenticity was challenged by some but everybody has their own recipe for Welsh cakes (although the two tablespoons of nutmeg does seem a bit eye-watering).
So how authentic are my Welsh cakes? For many years I have settled for a recipe from Jane Grigson’s English Food (1974) – actually a good source of many good Welsh griddle recipes. And my griddle? My non-stick chapatti pan is the best griddle I found so far. Not something my grandmother would have used even if she’d been able, however perhaps there is a heart warming link here as she was in the habit of adding a pinch of what we then knew as curry powder to her cawl!.
Spices such as cinnamon, allspice or a moderate amount of nutmeg are all used, but this recipe introduced me to the distinctive and delicate flavour of mace that as JG says, with the rich dough, makes this ‘most delicious of griddle cakes’.
1 teaspoon baking powder
Generous pinch of salt
1 teaspoon mace
150g fat (JG asks for half butter/half lard to make a short dough)
175 sugar (or to taste)
2 large eggs
Milk to bind
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together; then rub in the fat. Add the fruit and mix to a dough with the egg, and some milk if really necessary. Roll out thinly (the thickness of Ann Romney’s Welsh cakes were a cause for alarm, I’d say a depth of an average little finger) and cut into rounds.
As Ann Romney discovered on her dramatic televised appearance, you have to get the temperature of the griddle just right – too hot and they’ll burn on the outside and be soggy on the inside (there are people who seem like them like that), too cool and they will be dry from over cooking (no one likes like that). As when cooking pancakes, try a couple first and give them as an offering to the gods, or, if at all edible, the cook. Two or three minutes a side is what you aiming at.
I really must get some gram flour and learn to cook chapattis in my pan – next St. David’s Day maybe.
Update with pic!
I ♥ Welsh Cakes
Thanks to Julie for her pic of beautiful, and beautifully cooked, Vancouver Island Welsh Cakes.