My history with food from the old sod doesn’t begin auspiciously. Grandad Challacombe was affectionately known as Chaco de Faggot de Dung Merchant. (What did his enemies call him?) He used to collect horse manure for his vegetables, and his family sold homemade faggots in Neath market. I also had professional faggot-makers on my maternal grandparents’ side.
But when I came along, as expected then, it was mam who was responsible for feeding us. Bicarbonate of soda-boiled vegetables were the order of the day and my mother Pauline, who ate only chicken and chips, didn’t like cooking. While the Bay City Rollers played us through the seventies and ‘Tainted Love’ blasted on the radio in the eighties, we enjoyed Libby’s Sunshine Orange, crispy frozen pancakes, stuffed vol-au-vents, potted sandwich spread or meat paste and Vesta curry.
Easily the best day of the week was Saturday, when we fetched shop-bought chip butties with rissoles, curry sauce and pickled onions from Dick Barton’s. Then came a miracle. In the wake of cheap flights to the continent, suspicions towards ‘foreign’ food waned and within our Formica-walled kitchen, round the breakfast bar that shook with the spin of the washing machine beneath, Pauline reconnected with the family’s home-cooking roots.
We still ate chips, but Mam’s menu started to vary. Welsh classics came out: cawl, laverbread with cockles and bacon, smoked haddock poached in milk or ham with parsley sauce, griddled sprats when the fish man came, home-baked Welsh cakes, bara brith and flapjacks. One year came the hefty and dangerous malt beer of Pembrokeshire – heat with the poker from the fire, serve hot with brown sugar and sit back and wait for it to hit you.
But best of all? Her curries, learnt from her friends Madrika and Mrs Boorah. Out went the freeze-dried carrots and hello came whole spices, freshly ground and puffed balls of roti and puri breads.
It made us all staunch believers in the satanic art of home cooking. Come the early nineties the transformation was complete, from a straw-bottled, Rosé-wine-guzzling, greens-hating Neath native emerged a herb-growing experimental exponent of feast-making in the heart of the home, and I salute her.
Mam’s love of cooking hasn’t left this family. I learnt to cook, argue, taste and season right there alongside my siblings: it’s still chaos at Christmas, knives at dawn as to whose methods are to be used, all keen to be captains of the ship that is the kitchen, the heart of the house, the middle of the action.
Georgia Ruth, ‘Codi Angor’
Rhos Male Voice Choir, ‘Tydi A Roddaist’
Llio Rhydderch, ‘Castell Rhos Y Llan’
Recipe: Welsh Cawl
Cawl (sounds like cow) is called ‘lobscows’ in North Wales, A sailor’s stew which has similar sounding dishes in countries that have shorelines along the Baltic Sea – Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania – and which gave Liverpool’s Scousers their name.
Years and years ago, when cauldrons simmered in the fireplace, you might add vegetables as they became available. And while you were working in the fields, it kept doing its magic, so, when you returned, famished, it was ready to dish out. This version has no meat, but I’ve included a non-veg additional step at the end.
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped
salt and pepper
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large parsnip, chopped
400g swede, chopped
400g potato, chopped
2 sprigs of thyme
1.2 litres of water (plus vegetable stock cube optional)
1 x 400g cooked butter beans, with their liquid (or other peas/beans like pre-cooked chickpeas, kidney beans, black eyed peas, peas or fava beans).
a handful fresh parsley, chopped
1 Put the onions and leeks in a pan with a glug of oil and sauté with a pinch of salt until soft, 10 minutes or so.
2 Stir in the rest of the peeled, chopped vegetables, the herbs and the water, bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer until the vegetables are all tender, around 30 minutes.
3 Add the butter beans with the liquid and stir through. Keep at a gentle simmer, season to taste. (At this point it’s technically ready, but can be left now at the lowest setting, to wait for you.)
4 Serve in bowls (traditionally wooden ones, with wooden spoons, but hey), sprinkle with chopped parsley. On the table, offer a chunk of cheese and the grater, and the salt and pepper.
*Non-veg option: Add small pieces of browned lamb (fried up quickly in hot oil before you fry the onion, remove from pan and set aside, adding back in at step 2). Traditionally, cheap cuts like the neck were used, so the longer you simmer, the less tough the meat; taste to see and keep adding water if it gets too thick and risks catching at the bottom.
Cerys Matthews hosts the BBC Radio 2 Blues Show and her award-winning Sunday show on BBC 6 Music. She was the founder member of the multi-million selling band Catatonia and author of the Sunday Times bestseller, Hook, Line and Singer.
Where the Wild Cooks Go by Cerys Matthews is published by Particular Books and is out on 5 September 2019, priced £25.
Cerys is also on tour in Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Dublin, Hove and London. For tickets and details click here.