1 March: St David's Day

'Nothing I cared for, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
In the moon that is always rising…'

Dylan Thomas (1914 -1953) ‘Fern Hill’

Dewi Sant to give him his Welsh title, unlike many of the Saints whom I’ve been learning about since I started this project, turns out to have been an historical figure about whom we know quite a lot. He was born in the 6th century the son of a noble house in Ceredigion in West Wales. His father was a local chief and his mother, who reputedly gave birth to him on a cliff top during a storm, was called ‘Non’; meaning she either was or became a nun. The marks her fingers made during her labour are said to show on the rocks at Capel Non.

St David founded his monastery sometime in the mid 500s. His order was very strict and their diet was said to consist solely of bread, herbs and water – early teetotal vegans in fact. He died in 589 and his biographer Rhigyfarch records his last words as 'Gwnewch y pethau bychain' –‘Do the little things’. He was buried where the Cathedral of St. David now stands and the celebration of his feast day dates back to 1 March 1120, when he was canonised. The origin of the connection between St David, Wales and leeks is obscure. The Salisbury Primer of 1533 recognises the leek as St David’s symbol and Shakespeare says the custom of wearing a leek is an ‘ancient tradition’. Henry V tells Fluellen that he is wearing a leek ‘for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman’.

For years the observance of St David’s Day was more ‘practised’ in England than in Wales. The day gave the typically xenophobic English yob an excuse to beat up his local Welshman or at the very least make fun of him. A Dutch visitor to London in March 1662 noted that ‘…all kinds of riffraff and layabouts wear (a leek) in their hats…. they call after them - Taffey, Taffey or David, David’

I’m going to make Cawl Cennin. This simply means leek soup or broth in Welsh and could have been made with any meat or none, but a piece of sweet Welsh lamb gives depth and fragrance and the leeks are of course essential on St David’s Day.

Here’s the recipe. Like most stews it’s probably best made one day and eaten the next. Cawl is not a thick brown stew, but something more like the French ‘pot au feu’, an un-thickened broth with the meat flavouring it. It’s a complete meal but I sometimes like a bowl of buttered cabbage on the side.

Cawl Cennin

2lb neck fillet of lamb – chopped it into large pieces.
3-4 carrots cut lengthways
2-3 sticks of celery chopped coarsely
1lb potatoes – small waxy ones are best
2 -3 leeks chopped into chunks
1lb waxy potatoes
Butter or oil
A little faggot of herbs – I used parsley, thyme, rosemary and bay.
2 pints stock – I used chicken, simply because I had some fresh, vegetable stock is fine.

Sweat the carrots, celery and the white part of the leeks (keep the best green bits) in a casserole until very lightly coloured. Remove, then add the lamb and brown it lightly. Return the vegetables and add the stock and herbs and simmer very gently for 2 hours. I cooled the cawl at this stage and then skimmed off the fat. Add the potatoes and simmer until soft. Before serving taste and season well then add the very finely shredded green bits of leek and lots of fresh parsley. You can eat the broth first and then the meat and vegetables, or have it all together.

The Welsh say ‘Cystal yfed o'r cawl â bwyta's cig’ – ‘It is as good to drink the broth as to eat the meat’. Tradition also dictates that cawl is eaten from wooden bowls with wooden spoons so that the diners don’t burn their mouths. I think that’s more to do with showing off the exquisite standards of Welsh wood turning.
I lived in Wales for all my teenage years. It’s where I first fell in love and where I learned to be myself. It has my heart.

'Gwnewch y pethau bychain'


ginny said...

i love leeks ... maybe leek soup could be rustled up later here to mark st David's day?! thank you for all the wonderful stories and facts.

kate said...

I think I will go next door to the carnicera and get some meat and make this today! A really interesting post and I love all the quotes. By the way who painted the picture at the top of the blog? Is it a Bosch? love Kate x

Anonymous said...

it is a Breughel...and as someone who was there when Liz was learning to be herself i can truly say it was a golden time for all!!!!Great recipe but what about the Welsh cakes!! i made mine at 6:30 this morning

Liz said...

As my friend Anonymous says (and I know who you are!) it's by Pieter Breughel the Elder, and it's called 'Village Wedding Feast' - it was painted in 1568. Bosch was one of his major influences. The original is in a museum in Vienna. Glad you like it.

Liz said...

My friend Mags from Carmarthen emailed me to say you are supposed to eat cawl with a piece of cheese on the side. Didn't know that.