Oats were once the main staple in the diets of rural people in upland Wales. Part of the research for my novel, Leap the Wild Water, involved finding out what the rural poor ate in the early 19th century. What I discovered was a diet dominated mainly by oats and milk. The only variations in the oats and milk diet were subtle variations in the preparation, invented no doubt to relieve the monotonous boredom of eating the same bland foodstuffs every day.
Oats were used to make oat bread, oatcakes, to thicken vegetable broths, in milk broths, and mixed with milk to make a fairly tasteless, porridge-like substance. Oatcakes seemed to have been eaten at almost every meal time. The most common recipe consisted of mixing fine oatmeal with bacon fat, boiling water and a pinch of salt. This mixture was then kneaded well. After rolling out and cutting into circles, the ‘cakes’ were then cooked on a hot baking stone placed over the fire.
Cawl llaeth was a milk broth eaten at breakfast time and very like the porridge we eat today; made with skimmed milk, oatmeal, water and salt boiled together.
An inventive variation on the oats for breakfast theme was to serve Cawl -with crushed oatcakes added; the downside of having this for breakfast meant that you would be eating the same meal at breakfast as at dinner – Cawl being the main meal of the day. Cawl is a Welsh broth, made by adding vegetables to water in which salt beef or bacon is being boiled, and then thickened with, yes, you have guessed it, oatmeal.
‘Shot’ was a common supper dish. It was basically oatcakes steeped in buttermilk.
For a little variety ‘Sopas’ was eaten at breakfast in summer time; this was made by heating buttermilk to blood temperature, then rennet was added and the mixture placed in a cloth covered bowl. This less than delightful sounding mixture was then left for several hours before being mixed and served. At least it didn’t have oatmeal in it, though it is more than likely that oatcakes were served up on the side.
Even the mid-day meal did not escape the addition of oats, as the bread served with the home-made cheese and butter would have likely been oat bread.
The mind numbing monotony of the rural Welsh diet was the direct result of there being nothing to eat which could not be grown. Thus, Cawl was made from the bacon of one’s own pig and the vegetables grown in the garden. Your cow would provide the milk to drink, and for making cheese and butter. If pudding was eaten at all it was likely to be stewed apples or whatever other fruit was in season in the garden or the wild.
Upland Wales was not a conducive climate for growing cereal crops but people had to grow a certain amount of oats, rye and barley to feed themselves and their animals. What came to be known as ‘Radnorshire’ oats was able to survive the cold and wet Welsh climate.
Though sheep were the predominant animal in upland Wales, they were not reared for meat but for their wool. However, after lambs were weaned, their milk was often added to cow’s milk to make cheese. A typical recipe for cheese was a gallon of ewe’s milk to four gallons of cow’s milk, to which rennet and salt were added. I imagine this would be similar in texture and taste to Swiss Gruyere and provided a tasty addition to an otherwise bland and monotonous diet.
The whey from cheese making was used to make ‘Gwyneb Maidd’. The whey was brought to near boiling point when fresh milk and buttermilk were added. This mixture would then curdle, at which point bread was added. I vividly remember my mother making a similar dish for us as children, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper, which we ate before bedtime. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. My mother made all her own bread, butter and cheese on the farm where I grew up in Wales, until well into the 1960’s, by which time it ceased to be economically necessary or viable. Even now, the faintest whiff of buttermilk has the power to transport me back to my mother’s white-washed dairy.
We have such a varied diet these days; it is hard to imagine the monotony of the self-sufficient diet of earlier times. Back then, bad weather and failed crops could mean starvation to a family. We all know about the Irish famines, but Wales too suffered famines on a regular basis; though people did not die in such numbers as in Ireland because they were not so reliant on potatoes.
I have experimented with growing my own vegetables organically, as part of the research for my novel. It is time consuming and sometimes soul destroying work when the results are far less than hoped for. The past years of unusually cold, wet summers did not help.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.
You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71
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