A common question from visitors to Wales is “What is Welsh Black Beef,” especially when the juicy, flavourful meat isn’t black at all, but a rich, tempting red. They’re sometimes surprised by the answer that the black refers to the colour of the cow. The Welsh Black is small, but highly regarded for its weight; its thick, powerful muscle that yields such a mass of luscious, succulent beef.
Hardly surprising for a fairy cow because, as we all know, the little people have the best of everything. What people rarely know is how the Welsh Black was introduced to Wales by the farmer, Tomi Twp.
Tomi lived with his daughter, Hyfryd, at Brws-y-Nant, above Aberdyfi in the mountains of Meirionydd, by the Bearded Lake — it’s called the Bearded Lake because its density of reeds and rushes give an appearance of a thick covering of hair. It’s a portal to the other world, and the little people often used to be seen grazing their milk-white cows by the lakeside.
Tomi Twp was by no means a wealthy man. His hut was made simply of clom — a mixture of straw and mud — with a roof of reeds gathered from the lake. In the middle of the hut sat a tiny fire. The smoke rose into the rushes (twice, Tomi had lost even what little he had when sparks set light to the thatch) and out of a small hole in the top. Whatever little food Tomi could lay his hands on went into the small kettle that hung permanently over the fire. When he harvested a few leeks from his garden, into the pot they went. When he gleaned a few potatoes, into the pot they went. Once, he’d done a job for the village butcher, who’d given him the tripe of the animals he divided that day. Into the pot they went, the only meat Tomi had had that year. And occasionally, the creatures that scuttled about the thatch would stumble and fall out of the roof: a caterpillar, or a mouse, if Tomi was lucky, would score a bull’s eye into the pot.
It was meagre fare, and Tomi would sup his pottage every night as he gazed at Hyfryd, her little fingers raw and calloused from the hours spent at her loom, and dreamed of a better life for her than he had provided for himself.
Not that Hyfryd ever complained. Every night when he got home, she would kiss him, sit him by the fire, and knead the pain from his cold and weary shoulders. She would sing as she scooped small ladles from the kettle into their bowls. Her crystal-clear tones never failed to mend his heart. But as they slept on piles of rushes in front of the fire, he dreamed of Hyfryd in a big house, made of wood, with a chimney, of a great herd of cows in a proper byre, instead of a solitary, scrawny heifer, Diddiben, sharing the hut with them, and that produced barely enough milk to sustain the pair of them. Then dawn would break and Tomi would resign himself to another day of labour with paltry rewards.
The solution to all his troubles hit him in a brainwave. He was grazing Diddiben by the Bearded lake when the waters began to stir, whirling faster and faster as a deep hole appeared in the middle. Tomi watched in astonishment as from it emerged a faery princess with her herd of milk-white cows. He watched all day as she grazed them by the lakeside, until, by the light of the setting sun, the whirlpool appeared once again, and the faery princess drove the herd back into it.
The next day, it was Hyfryd, grateful for a day away from the loom, who drove Diddiben to the lakeside. There she waited, as Tomi had told her, until the whirlpool appeared, and from it emerged the faery princess with her herd. Hyfryd seized her chance, her moment on stage, She sang as loudly, but as well, as she knew, her sparkling melodies ringing across the Welsh countryside.
The faery princess turned and listened with a silent smile because, as Tomi had advised Hyfryd the night before as she kneaded the aches and sorrows from his back, everybody knows that the faeries love the song of a pure heart, more than the fairest lily. All day, Hyfryd sang. All day, the faery princess listened with evident pleasure. Finally, as the sun set, the faery princess herded together all but one of her cows, and drove them into the whirlpool.
Hyfryd slowly approached the faery cow left behind. It skipped across the meadow and nuzzled the nape of her neck. She admired its white coat, its stout body: “I shall call you Brasterog,” she whispered: “Let’s go home, Brasterog.” The three trotted merrily home through the twilight.
Brasterog proved, indeed, to be everything Tomi had hoped for. As a faery cow, she produced great quantities of heavy, creamy milk that Tomi churned into blocks of the finest butter in the country. Word spread that the best dairy produce were to be found at Tomi Twp’s, and people travelled from miles around to pay high prices for it, such was the demand for Brasterog’s milk. Soon Tomi mated Brasterog, who brought forth a fine calf, also milk-white, and the milk poured forth.
At first, Tomi paid for Hyfryd to go to school, to learn to read, as Tomi never had. Next, he bought them both soft, warm, woollen clothing so Hyfryd could abandon her loom. He bought themselves a fine carved table, throwing away the old board they had once used, proper chairs, mats for the floor and horses; and no longer did they subsist on small ladles of ghastly gruel, but roasted meat nightly before the roaring fire.
Still Tomi dreamed of a house; one that would have separate rooms for living and sleeping, and a byre for the cows, and a proper chimney that would be the talk of the village. It would cost a fortune, money he didn’t have. Not that he couldn’t save for it – money had long ceased to be a rare commodity in his life – but as he emerged from his feather bed each morning, picking his way through the litter of creatures that had fallen from the rafters during the night, he was impatient. As he gathered the pails and pails brimming with tasty, sweet milk, he slapped Brasterog’s haunches, and pondered how good they’d look on a plate. After all, thought Tomi Twp, with the calf, he had no need of Brasterog’s milk. Such a weight of meat would fetch a fine price, enough to build a proper house, with a chimney.
He arranged to meet the butcher by the lake the lake, leaving the calf at home with Hyfryd. Brasterog nervously scythed off mouthfuls of grass with her teeth, eyeing the butcher as he sharpened his knife on a stone. With one of his beefy hands gripping her halter, she heaved an anguished bellow as he threw back his knife, the blade glinting malignantly in the sun, to thrust it deep into her neck.
“STOP!” The imperious command echoed through the valley. The butcher dropped his weapon, mouth agape at the sight of the faery princess standing in the whirlpool, her face a figure of fury.
“Ignore her,” screamed Tomi Twp: “Do as I paid you!”
But the faery was beckoning to Brasterog: “Come, stray white cow; come home to me now. Now, when I call, come into my hall.” Brasterog reared up, with a thump of her hooves, sent the butcher sprawling, and galloped into the lake where the faery princess pulled off the halter. She tossed it scornfully back at the men: “We have no need of coercion in our world!” Together, they slipped back into the whirlpool, never to be seen again.
Tomi Twp consoled himself that he still had the calf, but without the faery blessing, it’s skin turned darker and darker as its milk became scarcer and scarcer, the quantity reducing, the quality falling. And it stopped growing, remaining small its whole life. It still retained its fairy providence, though, even after it had turned completely black, providing the best beef anybody had tasted.
So the next time you tuck into a hearty steak of tender, tasty Welsh Black beef, remember to be thankful to the faeries. And maybe sing them a little song.