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’

Happy Birthday to my friend Aldyth, this one's for you.

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'


Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Beautiful! (I think that word really need to be said with a Welsh accent!) I have to say that Wales has a place in my heart too, since my parents had their honeymoon their . . . in January! (And they say romance is dead!)

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Whoops, my spelling. I meant "there" not "their" (now beating myself up!)

Toffeeapple said...

My own Patron Saint is Dewi. At school we used to have a mini Eisteddfod on this day.

The cawl takes me back to the hob by the fire where Ma would prepare it (using scrag-end of neck and pearl barley) it would take two days to get to table but it was always worth the wait, especially if there were suet dumplings too.

Bethan said...

My Welsh friend made this for an international food night, amongst the Italian/Spanish/Chinese dishes it actually really stood out as something everyone enjoyed. You need a big hunk of bread though to soak up the broth!