WORDS BY SOPHIE MACKINTOSH
WORDS BY SOPHIE MACKINTOSH
Despite the transformation from working class breakfast staple to superfood, few people have ever tried Welsh laverbread. Sophie Mackintosh explores the cultural, historical and personal significance of a food that will always remind her of home.
Welsh cuisine has always been based on what the land and sea can give you. There is terroir in everything. Welsh lamb is prized for the flavour and quality that comes from grazing on lush coastal grass, and tender Pembrokeshire Early potatoes for their nutty taste. But my favourite Welsh ingredient is laver, the delicate single-celled seaweed that coats the rocks of the south coast and which too is influenced by the tides, the temperature, the salt.
Laverbread – made by washing, boiling and mincing the laver – has undergone something of a transformation in recent years. It was a working-class food, traditionally eaten by miners at breakfast with bacon, eggs and cockles, often mixed with oatmeal and fried in bacon fat or butter. It’s been eaten for centuries, most likely as a survival food due to its abundance and cheapness. The first known record is thought to be in William Camden’s Britannica, an account from 1607 that vividly describes the springtime gathering of ‘Lhawvan’ from a Pembrokeshire beach.
Nowadays you’re more likely to find it in upmarket Welsh restaurants, used in a sauce or as an accent to local seafood, rather than in a typical Welsh breakfast. Richard Burton described it as ‘Welshman’s Caviar’; Fortnum & Mason and Harrods sell it at high prices as a delicacy; and its nutrient-rich, superfood status has ensured its revival. I as much as anyone am fascinated by the trends in food, enraptured at the idea that once lobster was a food seen only fit for livestock and prisoners, and witnessing the growing appreciation for neglected cuts of meat such as pig’s cheeks and trotters. Food, like anything else, can be reinvented, and there is a sort of beauty in that. But back at home, it remains ordinary. Walk into local shops in Pembrokeshire and you’ll find cheap tins on the shelves, or in the markets of Tenby and Swansea you can buy it fresh. I bulk-buy for when I return to London, or order tins online. I press it upon people curious to try it, show them how to scoop out the gelatinous black paste from the tin and mix it with oatmeal, a tactile and strangely satisfying experience.
Laverbread was a working-class food, traditionally eaten by miners at breakfast with bacon, eggs and cockles, often mixed with oatmeal and fried in bacon fat or butter
I want people to know about these things; it feels important to me. Even as far back as the 1500’s there’s a joke about how there are no Welshmen in heaven, because their ‘krakynge and babelynge’ disturbed the others, and so Saint Peter, the porter of Heaven, ran outside and shouted that there was ‘rostyd chese’ outside, and all the Welsh people rushed out, and I feel that goes some way to describing how much of the rest of the world still sees Welsh cuisine – leeks and rarebit, essentially a joke, not something beautiful made from what was to hand, an alchemy of the soil and sea.
It’s easy to apply romanticism to these sorts of dishes – just as I am now – but it feels important to recognise that they were born out of necessity. The poor state of roads and the wildness of the country meant that whole communities were untouched, that you had to do your best with what you had. There are still elderly residents in the north of my county, remote and hard to reach, who only really speak Welsh. And there is a cafe in the mountains by my old school where my English-speaking mother will not order, I must order for us both. I say "tatws siaced, caws a ffa pob os gwelwch yn dda", words which have the dreamy lilt of a spell, but which just mean "jacket potato with cheese and beans". This cafe doubles up as a function space especially popular with funerals (there is often a casket in the room behind us as we fork prawn mayonnaise into our mouths), and it is a cornerstone of the local community, existing as it does on a crossroads of the county; a long stretch of road, beyond it the vast expanse of the Preseli Hills, sea to the south and north.
My mother and my grandmother may not speak Welsh, but their connection with our traditions are in the food they make: the tea-steeped fruit for bara brith, the Welshcakes cooked on the griddle or range, sharp cockles eaten from the jar. My grandmother always asks for a bag of batter scraps from the fish and chip shop, the grease leaking through immediately; she eats the rinds from my bacon that I cut off. You do not waste, you do not want, a habit that comes from being the eldest of 11 children in the Rhymney Valley, back in that time where miners did eat laverbread for breakfast and oggies for lunch, those pasties with substantial crusts that you could discard, coal-dust-marked, afterwards.
My great-aunt, her sister, tells me about hunger that drove her to eat the icicles inside their windows on winter mornings. And I remember childhood summers picking elderflowers with my mother to make wine and sloes in autumn to steep in gin. We used to buy bunched samphire from the man who came around selling fish from his van, but now the van no longer comes, because the times have changed even around here – though sometimes a friend will come round with a trout caught that morning, or a pail of frothy raw milk, or a pheasant with a stomach full of grain.
Wales is a small country but it is one that has endured, tenacious to the bone. My love for it springs up inside me, now, despite being a person who for so long wished for elsewhere. People still speak the language, despite attempts to suppress it in the 1800s, when Westminster politicians decided it enabled uprisings and rebellions. They were unsuccessful. You can try and tamp down tradition but ones as strong as this, so connected with the land, always come back to you. There is always a way to survive, and there is always a way to be nourished.
Wales is a small country but it is one that has endured, tenacious to the bone. My love for it springs up inside me now, despite being a person who for so long wished for elsewhere
One of the businesses at the forefront of the laverbread revival is Cafe Mí´r, which started out as a street-food business but which now sells a variety of laverbread products. Founder Jonathan Williams left Wales and then returned, pulled by the sea and by food. "Laverbread is a part of the Welsh heritage, part of the Welsh culinary DNA, and yet most cafes, hotels and restaurants weren’t using it until recently," he says.
The process of gathering laver by hand is one which enchants me, calling up as it does memories of days spent crawling on the shore with a bucket, pulling up shells and catching shrimps and taking them home. "Hunting for laver seaweed can be difficult during the winter as the sand tends to come in and cover the rocks," Jonathan says. "The spring and summer is when it is at its best. Young and tender fronds become abundant, and harvesting becomes much more rewarding. By late summer the laver seaweed tends to get bleached by the sun and starts to lose its vibrant colour."
In the past, women would harvest laver from the shore and dry it in thatched huts, the remains of which can still be found at the Pembrokeshire beach Freshwater West, a long and beautiful stretch of sand that I visit every time I go home. "Nowadays we wash it several times to remove debris, and then it can either be boiled for several hours to turn it into laverbread, or placed in a dehydrator to turn it into the dried flakes that we call Welshman’s Caviar," Jonathan explains.
I know these flakes well. I put them on everything: scrambled eggs, soup, buttery pasta. It’s easier than cooking a full Welsh breakfast, and every time it brings me home. It reminds me of what it feels like to be by the sea, what it feels like to wish for elsewhere, how it feels to return with my heart held out. The first time I ate laverbread the taste was so peculiar to me that I still remember it – iodine cutting through the salt of bacon fat, fine oatmeal, a food that I should have rejected as I was picky child, a picky teenager, always difficult. I ate it then and I eat it now, my mother balling up the small patties with her hands and cooking them on the range. An act of love, an act of history.