Welsh Rarebit is still very common in Wales, and well understood as a piece of toast covered in a sauce made from cheese, beer and mustard, and grilled for a couple of minutes until melted.
So I was surprised to find this Victorian recipe (Mrs Beeton No 1652) from 1861, which prescribed a Welsh Rarebit as little more than cheese-on-toast. Indeed, Mrs Beeton even titled it: “Toasted Cheese, or Welsh Rare-bit.”
“INGREDIENTS.—Slices of bread, butter, Cheshire or Gloucester cheese, mustard and pepper.
“Mode. – Cut the bread into slices about ½ inch in thickness; pare off the crust, toast the bread lightly without hardening or burning it, and spread it with butter. Cut some slices, not quite so large as the bread, from a good rich fat cheese; lay them on the toasted bread in a cheese toaster; be careful that the cheese does not burn, and let it be equally melted. Spread over the top a little made mustard and a seasoning of pepper, and serve very hot”
I didn’t have Cheshire or Gloucester cheese to hand, but I thought Red Leicester and Cheddar would qualify equally well as “good rich fat cheese.” I thought it would please the eye to sliced the Red Leicester (which is the colour of Cheddar in America) and sprinkle grated Cheddar (which Americans might be surprised to learn is pale yellow in the country where it was invented!) over it.
I don’t know what a Victorian cheese toaster would be, but the grill works just fine for melting cheese. I don’t understand how one would spread mustard over the melted cheese – perhaps you’d make the mustard powder very watery. Instead, I spread a thin layer of English Mustard over the buttered toast before laying over the cheese.
This is the essential difference between Mrs Beeton’s Welsh rarebit and simple cheese on toast, and it’s great! The toast provides a crunch, the cheese is salty with a satisfying gooiness, while the mustard provides a hint of acidity and heat. I can’t imagine why I’ve never thought of using mustard with cheese-on-toast before! I certainly will do in the future.
Conclusion: A very pleasant snack, though not at all what most Welsh people in the twenty-first century would expect of Welsh rarebit.