FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – HORSING AROUND
On 1st March I was privileged to attend the National St. David’s Day celebration in Cardiff. At the after-service reception the subject of Welsh foodie delicacies cropped up. Amongst many, Welsh cakes and Welsh Rarebit seemed to top the poll of welsh delights.
This got me thinking about the origins of Welsh food, and why certain dishes are called what they are.
For example, Welsh Rarebit has nothing to do with rabbits, and there are doubts as to whether it originated in Wales. One theory suggests that way back in the 17th century a “poor man’s” meat in England was rabbit. In Wales, where “poor men” simply couldn’t afford meat, they resorted to cheese, and as a result some “taffy” or another conjured up the name for a snack which we in Wales love.
As for Welsh cakes, we adore them. Sugared, stodgy and yummy. If you ever come to Cardiff, try the ones from the Victorian Market. The best in town and its reputation has now stretched to Hampshire. On the other side of the Severn Bridge there is a far more formal “take” on the recipe. The less, stodgy and less sugary English version is the scone. However, back to Welsh cakes … It seems our friends (with Welsh heritage) in Patagonia have a different perspective on this particular piece of “Welshness”. They say that back in 1865 when a number of Welsh settlers started to build new lives for themselves, they struggled to find food that would sustain them in lean times. So, they mixed together brown sugar, sweetened nuts and fruit to make a cake of strength, and one that would last once cooked. In Patagonia, the Welsh cake is also considered significant for newlyweds. Tradition has it that the bottom tier of the wedding cake is made of Welsh cake. After the wedding, the other tiers of the cake are eaten, but the bottom layer is wrapped up and the newlyweds eat a slice of the cake every month for the first year of marriage to give them the fortitude to survive the trials and tribulations of married life.
Where is this taking us? Well, apart from having a burning desire, right now, to have a coffee and a Welsh cake, it got me thinking about how cooking skills and techniques develop as time goes by.
Way back when, in 1988, Steve appointed himself as official food shopper for our household. That was OK, but his way of shopping bore no relation to how we had shopped when I lived at home. Before we got married, my idea of shopping, was to trundle off to the local shop with my PA; get a loaf of bread, a tin of soup, a packet of biscuits and a few other essential ingredients – such as meat (no horse of course!) to make sure I could live, if not quite like a queen, then as close as you could – bearing in mind the varying level of cooking skills that (over the years) my PA’s have demonstrated.
I can still remember the day that Steve returned from his first “married” shopping trip … having spent two hours wandering around the supermarket, returning with provisions that would have seen us through a nuclear war, let alone a month. But who was I to argue. In came bread, butter, meat, vegetables, tins, biscuits, more biscuits and even more biscuits … you get the drift on his priorities. I have to admit the system worked, and we never did run out of food, but what he did with all the carrots he bought continues to be a source of intrigue to me. I can only think they did some good, as he has only recently conceded that his 20-20 vision isn’t quite what it was.
However, buying wine was another thing entirely. Coming from a good Welsh Presbyterian background, he was hardly likely to be a fine wine connoisseur, but when he proudly announced we were going to host a dinner party for his senior partner, and other office colleagues, I did start to wonder whether I should take responsibility for the wine ordering. Having fixed a date for the meal, decided upon the menu, and organised the dining room table, all that was left to do, was the shopping. Off to the supermarket Steve went, armed with a list of ingredients for the meal, and with firm instructions on what wine to buy. Now just remember that at this time, here was a man who couldn’t tell a Merlot from a Muscadet. Disaster was bound to loom. I did wonder whether I should have gone to the shops myself, but when you have to impress your senior partner, there is nothing for it, but to let the captain of his sinking ship stay to the bitter end.
An hour or so later, Marco Pierre White returned. Armed with everything that would make the evening go with plenty of joie de vie, Steve was confident that his future in the practice was secure. However, when I enquired as to how he had chosen the wine, the reply floored even me. “I liked the look of the label” was the chirpy response. Too late to do anything other than see his professional development go down the drain, rather like the plonk that had been bought, we got ready for the evening. The guests duly arrived and we proceeded to dinner. In fairness to Steve, the meal was really rather good and the evening was a great success. However, the funniest thing of all was the wine choice. Apparently 1988 was a good year for Bulgarian Merlot, and what came home from the Supermarket? Yes, a generous number of bottles of Bulgarian Merlot over which Mr. Williams (the senior partner) raved. Career intact, Steve decided to keep one of the bottles for posterity. He suggested we open it on our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Well, that significant date looms in September, and the only remaining bottle of 1988 Merlot continues to sit in our wine store. I hardly want to burst his bubble, but the bottle which so saved his career is about as past its sell-by-date as the man who bought it 25 years ago!
This quite neatly brings me onto the subject, more generally, of food.
In the early years of married life, we both worked long hours. Usually I got home before Steve, and supervised the PA’s in getting our evening meal. I shan’t labour some of the tasteless delights that emerged from our kitchen, but these palled into insignificance when I think of the cake and pastry delights that my lunchtime PA could conjure up in an hour. However, on a Saturday that changed. If we weren’t going out, then Steve would take charge in the kitchen. As you know from Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes, we are partial to a Chinese takeaway, but Steve would also quite willingly wield the saucepans and create some dish which usually involved a sauce. He likes his sauces, and it is only recently I have plucked up the courage to tell him how awful they were in those heady days of lust and love!
Thankfully, things have improved, and to give you an idea of just how far I have brought my own “master chef”, I have to take you back to a time just before we got married. “I’ll cook you tea” was the offer one day. Well, there was nothing for it; I would have to try his cooking at some stage, so I thought I’d just as well “try before I buy”! What was the menu I hear you ask … Beef burgers and chips (now you see the horse connection…!). This, in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but beef burger cooked in a microwave (arhhhhhh!) Well, I ate, I digested and went to the loo just as soon as I could. Apparently, a meal of beef burgers and chips was the regular dinner for a busy lawyer – especially on a Monday – prepared just in time for Coronation Street. What an exciting life he led before he found me!
Having poked fun at the male cookery skills in our house, it is only right I tell you about my own culinary demons. Again, many years ago, some well meaning social worker decided that I would benefit from domestic training at Rookwood Hospital Cardiff, where they are able to assess whether you need any special equipment to live independently. Off I went, and cooked a cake … all by myself. I made such a mess with the flour that my black hair looked curiously like a Cruella De Vil hairstyle on a bad day, and as for the cake, can I just say that at the time we were having a new wall built, and it is no understatement to say that the bricks from the wall, were softer than my cake!
No more cooking for me – Phew! Instead it was decided that I would supervise from the safety of the other side of the kitchen. Slowly, oh so slowly, Steve was weaned off microwave beef burgers, and encouraged to use a cookery book – not just to fill out the shelves on the kitchen units, but use to them properly. Out went Microwave Cooking for Dummies, and in came 1001 Recipes for Idiots. Just what was needed!
A few wine tasting evenings, care of the Porthcawl Lions Club, meant Steve was confidently able to identify the difference between Chardonnay and Chablis and even Alberino from Asti Spumante.
But, it is only right that you don’t get completely the wrong idea of what goes on in our kitchen. Since those dark days of long ago, my “little chef” has become something of a “whizz” at conjuring up all manner of tasty delights. Thai, Italian, Chinese to name but a few and of course the traditional Sunday roast. What he can’t do with a punnet of strawberries and a generous helping of Tia Maria is nobody’s business, and his Christmas Eve meal for anyone who wants to join us, has become the stuff of legend!
However, every now and again he does fall off the wagon. Somehow burgers do find their way back onto the BBQ menu, but at least they are cooked over the coals rather than in microwaves. And, with the best intentions in the world, the wine choice still causes ripples of amusement. As an example, the favoured white for our last Christmas Eve meal was… Flip Flop (!) Asked why this particular choice was made, the answer was “Well, it reminded me of the summer and the Olympics” Did it make him legless? I’ll let you decide, but please, no “Oscar P” jokes!
I’m just waiting with eager anticipation to see whether I will be favoured with Bollinger or Baby Cham on Mother’s Day. It’s a good job that James will be 18 in a couple of months time, and hopefully my “wine worries” will be over. Then, he can be responsible for showing his Dad some real wine!
And so, where do I end? There appears to be a noise in the kitchen as I write. Can I allow my mind to wander to a place where Thai fish curry or mixed salad and smoked salmon will greet me at the dinner table? Sadly no … it’s Wednesday, and the chef has the night off. Thank goodness the Pen-y-Lan fish shop has a menu to suit even the fussiest of eaters. However, there is always tomorrow, and I hear rumblings of a steak and ale pie – Now we’re talking … Move over the hairy bikers as my own little four-wheeled wok-wizard will soon be back in action, and I can’t wait!