Food / Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Very often, food that is said to be “traditional” is greatly adapted.  Not so in this case.  Cawl is about as authentic as it gets.  It’s the broth of peasants, for whom cooking meant an iron pot that simmered permanently on the hearth, and into which, ingredients were tossed as and when available.  Perhaps you’d gleaned a few leeks that day; into the pot with them.  Perhaps you’d scrumped some apples; into the pot.  Perhaps you’d been able to afford a little grain; into the pot with it.  Perhaps you’d got really lucky, and your boss had given you a few scraps from the sheep his wife had prepared; into the pot with them.  Hour after hour, the pot simmered, throughout every day, and every night.

And a few less appetising ingredients would certainly land in there too.  Their thatched roofs without ceilings were a haven for life of all kinds, and little creatures tended to fall out of them periodically.  So the occasional caterpillar and maggot would score a bull’s eye and add to the ingredients.  The occasional rat too.

This recipe doesn’t include rats or caterpillars, but it does reflect the high quantity of vegetables and paucity of meat, and long cooking times that characterised the Welsh peasant’s diet.  It’s especially suitable for a slow cooker, and it’s the perfect dish for a cold, miserable gloomy day.  Real soul-warming food!

The key is herbs.  It’s always bugged me that English-speaking people are so miserly with them. How often have I read “a pinch of parsley” – why?  What good will that do?  You need to be tossing it in by the handful!  Why do recipes only ever call for one bay leaf?  Why not two? Or three? Or four?  If bay leaves taste good, then lots of bay leaves taste very good.

So don’t stint on the herbs.  The peasants certainly didn’t.  Herbs were free and grew abundantly, and the peasants threw in whatever they could lay their hands on!

  • 900g (2lbs) lamb or mutton offcuts
  • 50g (2 oz) pearl barley
  • 4 peeled and chopped carrots
  • 2 sliced onions
  • Peeled and chopped swede (rutabaga)
  • Plenty of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 900g (2 lbs) chopped potatoes
  • A handful of parsley
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • Any other root vegetables that are in season
  • salt


  1. Trim the fat from the meat, chop it roughly into large chunks, place it into a deep pan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Skim off the fat.
  2. Add the barley, and root vegetables, and add water. Throughout the cooking process, you will need to ensure there is sufficient liquid to cover the ingredients.  Bring back to the boil, and add salt and the peppercorns, then add the thyme and bay leaves.  Simmer gently for two hours.
  3. Add the potatoes and simmer a further 20 minutes. Correct the seasoning, add the leeks and simmer a further 5 – 10 minutes
  4. Serve with a garnish of parsley, crusty bread, and Caerphilly cheese.