Posts Tagged ‘welsh’

O. M. G. You have no idea ...

O. M. G. You have no idea …

Oh thank you! WordPress today “Freshly Pressed” this marvellous blog, which I shall immediately subscribe to, and I warmly recommend their recipe for the ineffably wonderful “Welsh Cakes”.

You may have seen an exceptionally poor piece of doggerel I wrote about Wales on March 1st, but this yummy treat is a much better way to celebrate Dydd Gŵyl Dewi.

Mum used to make them, and they were always the sweetest, most scrumptious memory of my family in Swansea that would be possible.

What I think I love about them most is how they are truly representative of a genuine Welsh cuisine.

When Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I first got together she cheerfully disposed of any British food as “something that looks vaguely brown and solid and lies flat on the plate”. And frankly, at the time, if you were going to rely on the type of food served up in restaurants (with the exception of the exquisite curry houses on every street corner) then her criticism was well-founded, and some would say, still is.

But the ethnic cooking of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland was always there, sliding by under the radar, hidden away in the miniature kitchens of millions of working class households, like a silent language linking us all to a simpler – and more delicious – past.

So I strongly recommend you jump over to Edible Swansea and make a note of their Welsh Cakes recipe right now. And better still, rustle up a batch tonight.

It’s a funny coincidence, but last night we dined on one of my mother’s other favourite recipes, Boiling Fowl in Caper Sauce.

This is also about the easiest “gourmet quality” dish to cook in the world.

The dictionary describes a “boiling fowl” as a mature hen of about 2 years of age, suitable for eating but which requires prolonged cooking.

And in truth, of course, that is what they were – “layers” that had stopped laying – and in the cruel world of a working class Victorian backyard that meant a quick bonk on the back of the head, plucking, and into the pot to bubble away gently for hour after hour until the meat (strongly-flavoured comnpared to a younger bird) fell away from the bones and became gelatinously, shiningly slippery-soft and sweet.

Smothered in a white sauce dotted with plenty of plump, acidic capers and served with homely vegetables cooked in the same pot, plus plenty of mashed potato and hard rye bread to mop up any left over sauce, it was then, and is now, one of the ultimate “comfort food” treats of a winter’s evening.

Low fat and healthful too. The stock left over after the cooking makes a wonderful base for any soup or stew.

The recipe below can be varied to suit your personal tastes, but don’t add too much in the way of additional seasoning or you will mess with the essential rustic simplicity of the dish.

We cooked up a couple of large “Chicken Marylands”, which is cheating, but in today’s modern world finding a real boiling fowl has become ironically rather difficult in urban areas. If you can’t find a nice tough old bird to soften up, then any skin-on chicken will do, but don’t cook “off the bone” chicken breasts and suchlike this way because they eventually just disintegrate to nothing, and anyway, you want all the flavour and fat that comes from the bones and skin.

If you don’t like eating meat on the bone, don’t worry, because by the time it’s finished the meat will fall off any bones at the merest nudge of a fork’s tip.

This is vaguely the look you’re aiming for – now add mash and veggies and dream of Gareth Edwards playing for the Lions …

Variations of this great Welsh dish pop up all over the world – its served with fettucini in Italy, with beanshoots in China – revealing its ancient provenance.

And Jewish people insist – with some scientific support – that it acts as a natural antibiotic, as does the resulting soup.

So if you’re currently suffering with snow and colds in the northern Hemisphere, you could do a lot worse than to cheer yourself up with this quintessentially natural dish. From my mother to you – enjoy.

(PS The upsurge of interest in the UK in eating mutton – thanks to the campaigning of the Prince of Wales – that is to say older sheep who have past their lambing days – offers another opportunity for this recipe, because mutton goes wonderfully well with capers too. You can roast or boil the mutton according to your personal taste.)


1. Take one whole boiling fowl minus the guts. Oil the skin and roast in a hot oven just until the skin takes on some colour OR take your chicken pieces (skin on, bone in) and brown on the stove top in a frying pan with a little oil.

The goal is to caramelise the skin, not to cook the chicken.

2. Remove the chicken from the heat and grab your biggest pot. Put a little fat or oil in the bottom – in the old days it would have been lard, but today probably olive oil will mean fewer frowns from the diet nazis. Chuck in a few finely chopped cloves of garlic, about one and a half casually sliced and strongly-flavoured onions, a sizeable pinch of salt and grate in a decent amount of black pepper or roughly crush some peppercorns and chuck them in. Stir steadily over medium heat for about two-three minutes but don’t let the garlic or onions take on any colour.

3. Chuck in a good double handful of diced carrots, by which I mean three or four good sized carrots. Chop up a celery stick or two into small pieces and add that too. Stir for another minute. Roughly chopped turnips or parsnip can also go in there if you like them: personally I think they skew the flavour base too much and I don’t enjoy them especially.

4. Place the chicken or chicken pieces on top of the vegetables and cover the whole lot with water. Choose one herb of your personal liking and throw a decent wodge of that in too – fresh is best but dried will do, just remember the flavour is more intense and use less – a bay leaf or two works well, so does basil, so does thyme, so does parsley, so does rosemary, so does tarragon, so does sage. All go well with chicken: the most amenable of meats.

Don’t use a bouquet garni or a hodge-podge collection of herbs or you will overwhelm what you’re trying to achieve.

Go on, you know you want to. In Wales, it should be a pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon ...

Go on, you know you want to. In Wales, it should be a pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon …

5. Bring to the boil and then simmer on a gentle bubble, adding water if necessary but sparingly, (if you’re adding water you’re probably cooking the pot too fiercely), until you are ready to eat, provided and always that you aren’t ready to eat for at least 2 or 2.5 hours.

6. Just before you’re ready to eat, make your caper sauce. Take some of the liquor from the pan – just a tablespoon full or two or you will make the white sauce too brown looking – and with some water, white flour and a little butter make a classic pale roux.

Add warm (not hot) milk to make a medium-sticky sauce – it pours, but only just. Stir through plenty – plenty – of capers.

Serve with mash and bread and butter, spooning the veggies and the sauce over the chicken. When you’ve got all the veggies and chicken out of the pot, save the resulting stock, it’s liquid gold.

In today’s sophisticated world Betty’s Boiling Fowl should probably be served with any crisp, dry white wine like a good Aussie chardonnay, but for a change, why not plump for a good, chewy British “real ale”, which is how they would have enjoyed it years ago.

I watched in mounting horror last night as the most unexpectedly talented, bravest, and most exciting team in the rugby world cup were eliminated at the semi-final stage by one of the least impressive, after the Welsh captain was sent off for an illegal (read, potentially dangerous) tackle.

(If you feel “mounting horror” is too strong to describe my reaction to a sporting event, then you clearly don’t appreciate what the game of rugby means to the tiny nation of Wales and its children, even those marooned in far-flung Antipodes.)

That this wrecked the game as a contest, that Wales nevertheless fought back bravely to eventually only lose by a single point, (France eventually winning 9-8), that the controversy lit up the internet and media everywhere, well, these are the things of sporting history.

That the game highlights an outrageous miscalculation by the sport’s governing body, this is the topic that must be tackled in the cold light of dawn.

A game for hooligans, played by gentleman, administered by donkeys

The noble and ancient game of rugby (it has been played in some form or another for at least thousand years, although its codification is more recent) is notable for many things, but unquestionably it is most famous for having a rule book which is more tinkered with than any other sport in the world.

Every year, seemingly, a new batch of nuances and changes are implemented, all intended to improve the spectacle for supporters. And every year, the ever-more labyrinthine rules code reduces crowds and TV viewers (even, occasionally, players and TV commentators) to a state of bemused confusion, as the game is constantly paused and re-started to answer the demands of the latest modifications dreamed up in the ivory towers of rugby administration.

And yet despite this constant and annoying fiddling (and certainly not because of it, as the effect on the game itself can only ever be considered to be marginally positive) the game continues to grow in popularity, and well beyond it’s traditional borders of the former British Empire and its closest neighbours. The United States and Canada now boast creditable teams, as do locales as diverse as Japan, Russia, Argentina, Romania and Georgia.

Indeed, the most common comment one hears in the internet chat rooms and from friends gathered around the television is “I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, but I love it, it’s magnificent!”

One can only imagine how much more the public would enjoy it if they could actually follow the rules.

Regulating the almost unregulatable.

Anyhow, last night’s game was effectively brought to a close after just 19 minutes of the first half of an 80 minute game when the latest piece of administrative tinkering saw the young captain of Wales – and one of their most effective players – sent off for a “spear” tackle which was considered both deliberate and dangerous. (I’ll explain the spear tackle in more detail in a moment.)

For any code to seek to regulate precisely the manner in which two men of vast bulk throw themselves aggressively at each other at a run would seem something of a forlorn hope. The fact is, rugby is a potentially dangerous game, played by consenting adults who nevertheless enjoy the enormous adrenalin rush coupled with sublime ball handling and kicking skills that it represents.

That some control of rugby’s inherent aggression is necessary is undoubted. For example: to “high tackle” an opponent – that is to say to trail an arm at head height and loop it around a man’s neck or across his face as he runs past you at 20 miles an hour or more – is not just clumsy, it’s potentially homicidal. It is rightfully pounced on by referees and fans alike.

More problematical is the so-called “spear tackle”. (Also called a “tip tackle”.) Please forgive the next few lines of explanation, and bear with me, as you need to understand these niceties.

Imagine two big, hard-muscled men running at each other at full tilt. One hits the other about hip or waist-high, and tips him off-balance.  The tackling player then “lifts” the tackled player off the ground, that is to say his feet are now airborne. The tackled player’s head is carried forward and downward by the force of the tackle, and his feet leave the ground behind him, travelling upwards. In a moment, driven by the momentum of the tackling player, the tackled player’s body passes through a metaphorical horizontal line drawn above the ground, and he is then deliberately thrown down head first (like a spear being thrown into the ground).

The sanction for committing such a foul is a penalty. That is to say, the ball is given to the wrong team to play with, have a kick at goal, whatever. There is nothing in the rules that state the punishment should be an automatic “red card”.

However the International Rugby Board has said that  spear tackle should be a straight red card. An IRB memorandum on dangerous tackles from 8 June 2009 states: “At a subsequent IRB High Performance Referee Seminar at Lensbury referees were advised that for these types of tackles they were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards.”

That a spear tackle can cause terrible injury to the tackled player is undeniable. To see how it is addressed in various codes, including American Football, you can click here: But two key things about last night’s scrubbing of the Welsh player need addressing.

The first is the element of culpability of the tackling player, and how it was judged by the referee.

To be clear, the maximum sanction for the foul is a sending off for the rest of the game. It is hardly ever used, as losing a player in a rugby match virtually predicates the result, more so than in a game like soccer, for example. For this reason, other options are available to the ref, including issuing a yellow card, in which the offender is “sin binned”  for then minutes, or just a penalty.

The level of sanction issued needs to address certain components of the tackle.

Was the tackled player deliberately lifted upward, that is to say did the tackling player push his body upwards to get the tackled player off his feet? Then, once the tackled player is in the unfortunate position of being un-grounded, does the tackling player deliberately push him down into the ground, or “spear”  him down, risking serious injury?

And this judgement takes place on an event that is surrounded by ballyhooing giants of men, operating at speed, in under a second, remember.

Regarding last night’s game, the Welsh have conceded that skipper Sam Warburton did push up slightly in his tackle, although whether this was deliberate or clumsy is a matter of opinion. What is very clear from slo-mo TV footage is that after the most ephemeral of downward motions (we are now talking tenths of a second being viewed) the French player is then “dropped”, not pushed, into the ground, and he lands primarily on his shoulders, not his head.

Much has been made of the speed with which referee Alain Rolland flashed the red card, to almost universal shock and criticism. He did not consult with his assistants, nor did he consult video evidence. He didn’t even stand still and have a think for a moment. And in acting as he did, he virtually awarded the game to France, and ensured that next week’s final, which will be against Australia or New Zealand, will be no contest whatsoever, as the French will undoubtedly fold like a pack of Gallic cards against opposition as fearsome as that. So except for tonight’s semi-final between Australia and NZ, then, the World Cup was effectively over the moment Rolland reacted so emphatically.

A little calm consideration would surely have seen a yellow card issued instead. But the referee, mesmerised by the eternal faffing and fenergling of the rules wallahs of the IRB, reacted spasmodically. Game over.

Referees … love ’em or hate ’em. Or, well, just hate ’em.

The second issue that needs to be addressed is the choice of Rolland to adjudicate last night’s game.

To maintain public support, any body, sporting or otherwise, needs not only to do the right thing, but to be seen to do the right thing.

Rolland is Irish. The team that Wales emphatically beat to reach this semi-final was, er, Ireland.

So why would those making the decisions in this World Cup select a man to ref the game who comes from a nation just defeated by one of the contestants, a nation he once played for, and where he played the bulk of his rugby before switching to refereering?

One doesn’t have to listen to dark allegations of inherent bias to consider such a decision to be dumb, dumb, dumb. It is hardly surprising, when the administrators could have chosen a ref from, say, Australia or New Zealand, that message boards the world over have claimed the Welsh were playing the ref last night, too.

Even more so, when one stops and considers – c’est incroyable! – that Alain Rolland is the son of a Frenchman, speaks fluent French, and was, in fact, given a host of French names by his father in order to remind him constantly of his French heritage.

How’s that for building confidence in the game?

And that Rolland will carry the stigma of this one, rushed decision for the rest of his career is also a shame. He is already the subject of a virulent online hate campaign.

Anyhow, make your own mind up. Let me know what you think. You can  see the tackle, and hear professional comment, here:

And just for fun, you can read about UK media comment here

Max Boyce says it best

Meanwhile, I am indebted to my old friend Richard Ember for reminding me of the immortal Max Boyce’s song which today seems frighteningly prophetic:

I am an entertainer
And I sing for charity
For Oxfam and for Shelter
For those worse off than me.

Bangladesh, Barnado’s Homes,
And though I don’t get paid
It does one good to work
For things like Christian Aid.

But of all the concerts that I’ve done
For the homeless overseas
The one I did that pleased me most
Was not for refugees.

Twas for a home in Ireland
That stands amongst the trees
The Sunshine Home in Dublin
For blind Irish Referees.

That started me remembering Max Boyce and the influence his art has had on my life. I have met Max on a few occasions, notably in the changing rooms at Eastleigh Rugby Club after a hot, sweaty, feverish, hilarious show delivered to hundreds of people crammed into the tiny club rooms drinking vast quantities of “bitter ale”, where I had gone to squeeze his hand and say thank you to him for singing songs laden with emotion that celebrated my Welsh heritage so perfectly. His influence on my poetry about my childhood and my Welsh family was subtle but unmistakeable.

Known as a comic singer, primarily – and enmeshed, of course, in the rugby culture of the whole of Britain – it would be wrong to under-estimate the role he played as a cultural ambassador for Wales generally. Wandering the byways of YouTube I came across a rendition of “Duw, it’s hard.” (“God, it’s hard.”)

My mother used to say “Duw, it’s hard” when life bore down on her, widowed with a two year old and short of money. My Aunty Chrissie would murmur it, cigarette dropping from her mouth, after cheerfully dishing up plate after plate of dinner to a seemingly endless stream of family and friends in the back room of her tiny home in Milford Haven. I once heard a retired miner mumble it as he coughed black coal dust from his wrecked lungs, and took a long pull from his pint of beer on a bench at the pub next door to the retired miner’s home at Langland Bay near Swansea.

Watch the song, and feel in your hearts why Wales’s departure from the World Cup yesterday was so bitterly unfair. And weep a tear with me, for everything that is lost, and can never be regained, and not just on a rugby pitch, butty bach.