Not Quite Scones, Not Quite Biscuits: Welsh Cakes! From Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1954)

I (Nico) have never been to Wales. So far, my only points of “contact” with Wales have been:

  • Dylan Thomas
  • a few Welsh people met in England (mainly students)
  • the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (which may or may not have been popular in Italy during my childhood because of a very young and very charming Hugh Grant!)

Now, I understand this cannot mean I know a lot about Wales – I also have to admit, I have never eaten welsh cakes made by a Welsh person, whether in Wales or outside Wales. So, I am really not the best person to talk about Dylan Thomas or welsh cakes, and so I hope you’ll forgive me. But Wales has always summoned idyllic images in my head, and not because of Hugh Grant (who is not from Wales anyway), but because of the Welsh accent: it is softer, even softer than the English spoken on the Atlantic coast of Ireland or in certain parts of the south of England; much, much softer, lulling the listener to a land of dreams.

Dylan Thomas knew well how to make the most of the subtle powers of the English language, and, even though he never uses the Welsh language itself, he makes use of Welsh English, and elements of “Welsh-ness” abound in his works. It was first when reading Under Milk Wood that I came across the notorious welsh cakes; and only much later I would find them in their actual physical form in a Marks & Spencer’s, or Tesco’s, in the UK. The addition of the sweet-sounding adjective “Welsh” itself already lures us into a world of sugar and butter, softness and caresses. Welsh cakes do not have the same solid structure and the hidden texture of English scones, but their thinness (they are way “slimmer” than scones, or American biscuits) is indeed deceitful, as they are packed with even more flavour, and comforting butter, than their English counterparts. After all, Wales is the land of “cwtches”: a cwtch is for the Welsh a cupboard (!), but also (and most commonly) a hug, or a cuddle. The word was voted in 2007 the nation’s favourite word, and we can hardly wonder why: the sounds of the word itself summons up closeness, proximity, embrace, with its near-impossible combination of consonants and the hushed sound of the Welsh “w”. And, according to one Welsh person that I know, a cwtch is “more” than an English “hug”.

And effectively Under Milk Wood is a play of affections. A hymn of love for Wales, and replete with all things Welsh, from laverbread to Welsh wool and beer, this radio drama revolves around a small, imaginary yet very realistic, community in a long-gone Wales, and the (at times, arrested) developments of their inhabitants. In the Welsh village of Llaregub, frozen in time as recreated by Thomas’ imagination, the villagers dream of their dead beloved, and welsh cakes make their appearance when Evans “the Death” (what other name for an undertaker?) remembers his mother preparing these simple, delicious sweets in the snow:

 

FIRST VOICE

 

Evans the Death, the undertaker,

 

SECOND VOICE

 

laughs high and aloud in his sleep and curls up his toes as he sees, upon waking fifty years ago, snow lie deep on the goosefield behind the sleeping house; and he runs out into the field where his mother is making welsh-cakes in the snow, and steals a fistful of snowflakes and currants and climbs back to bed to eat them cold and sweet under the warm, white clothes while his mother dances in the snow kitchen crying out for her lost currants.

 

We can hardly imagine undertakers to have been young once, let alone small children, and so the picture of a cheeky child stealing snowflakes and currants from his mother is particularly moving. Like welsh cakes would have to be eaten with icing sugar on top, indeed perhaps the snowflakes of Wales or Snowdonia, cover and preserve everything and everyone for ever in Dylan Thomas’ memory. Since I have learnt how to make welsh cakes this year, I have completely fallen in love with them: smooth on the palate, buttery in their texture, and just that tad spicy. Try and make them for breakfast and surprise your loved ones! But remember: they are best enjoyed with a “cwtch”.

 

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 225g plain flour
  • 100g butter
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 50g raisins (the original recipe would say currants, but I think it is really up to you!)
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp allspice (or mixed spice if you prefer a more spiced flavour)
  • 1 egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • A little milk

 

Directions

  1. Place flour, baking powder and the spices in one bowl.
  2. Cut the butter (room temperature) in small pieces and rub it into the dry ingredients. It has to have a sand-like texture.
  3. Stir in the sugar and dried fruit.
  4. Add the egg and then mix to form a dough.
  5. Add a little milk to make the texture less dry.
  6. Roll the dough out on a floured surface so that it is a couple of centimetres thick.
  7. Use a pastry cutter (or a glass!) to cut out round welsh cakes.
  8. Cook the welsh cakes on a lightly greased frying pan (or a bake stone if you have one!) until golden. (You may need to flip the welsh cakes so that both sides become golden, and also make sure the heat is not too high or the cakes will not cook inside)
  9. Serve hot with butter and sprinkled with sugar – the Welsh way. Equally delicious with jam or any other sweet spread you like!

 

 

References

Recipe adapted from website www.visitwales.com.

 

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