I was born in South Wales and grew up there until the age of ten. I have strong memories of walking along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and seeing narrowboats. They were the homes of poorer people in those days and not trendy as they have now become, but they had a romantic appeal to me and I knew I’d spend time on one at some stage of my life.
Fast forward almost fifty years and my time arrived. I booked a narrowboat for ten days and puttered up and down the canal walking and eating along the way.
I remembered a few meals from my childhood and had distant memories of watching Mum make Welshcakes and Bread Pudding. Welsh Bread Pudding is very different from English Bread and Butter Pudding, and, like all Welsh food, it could be described as ‘comforting’ or less kindly as ‘stodgy’.
Here’s an account of my ten days canal boating and my quest to find traditional Welsh food along the way.
Day 1: Welshcakes were easy to find as they seem to be very popular. Wasting no time I purchased some immediately and we enjoyed them with our morning coffee as we set off on our canal boat adventure.
We settled into a nice routine during our trip, setting off each morning, stopping at least once during the day for a walk, then finding somewhere nice to stay for the night before ‘fivesies’ time.
Sometimes I helped ‘my driver’ navigate, sometimes I sat at the front, enjoyed the tranquility of the canal, and read.
Day 2: I was always on task, however. High on my list of traditional Welsh food was a dish called ‘Faggots and Peas’. Faggots are made from pork and pigs liver, bacon, breadcrumbs and herbs. They are usually served with mushy peas, potatoes and onion gravy.
I looked at lots of pub menus from Llangynidr to Brecon but none featured faggots.
Day 3: On arrival in Brecon I asked at the Information Centre. It’s true, I asked for faggots at the info centre. The staff were very helpful and told me the local fish and chippy sold them. Sadly the fish and chippy was closed.
The local market, however, was still open
Bingo! A lovely young butcher, by the name of James, had freshly made faggots in stock. But could I prepare a faggot-based meal in my tiny canal boat kitchen? Adopting a positive attitude I decided I could and purchased the faggots.
James also had some delicious looking Welsh cheeses in stock. I remembered Caerphilly cheese from my childhood so bought some along with a creamy blue Perl Las and a Perl Wen from Snowdonia.
Welsh cheeses and G&T’s featured at ‘fivesies’ time as we puttered downstream towards our mooring for the night.
OK. Time to cook dinner. Here were the ingredients………..
………store bought faggots, a can of mushy peas from Aldi and some potatoes. Oh, and an onion to flavour the Aldi gravy granules.
It was delicious, no I mean really delicious, and it brought back memories of Welsh meals during my childhood. Just what I’d hoped for.
Day 4: We stopped for a walk and a pub crawl at Tallybont-on-Usk late morning on day 4. The pub crawl was actually a hunting trip for Welsh food although I have to admit a Welsh Ale or two were also enjoyed. In the name of research, of course.
The White Hart Inn had Glamorgan Sausages on the menu. These vegetarian sausages are made from leeks, Caerphilly Cheese and breadcrumbs and were served with red onion chutney, veggies and, of course, chips. Everything in Wales is served with chips.
Day 5: Crickhowell is a cute small town with a main street and a castle. There are no large supermarkets here but there are two friendly butchers and fruit and veg shop. My success in the canal boat kitchen was encouraging far and I decided to undertake a further culinary project.
I couldn’t go past the Welsh lamb chops. At the fruit and veg I found ‘kidney beans’; long, wide beans with strings along the side that need to be removed before cooking. Welsh food preparation is very involved.
The result, again, was delicious; tender, tasty lamb chops, flavoursome beans, potatoes, broccoli and the ubiquitous onion gravy.
My visit to Brecon Market on Day 2 had also resulted in a few sweet treats. I met Cath, whose Welshcakes were named in ‘Which’ magazine (a bit like our ‘Choice’ magazine) as the best in Wales. I bought some, along with a piece of Cath’s Bread Pudding (made from leftover bread) and ‘Bara Bryth’.
Bara Bryth is a fruit cake (made with cold, leftover tea). They don’t like to waste anything in Wales. We ate it at coffee time and it was delightful; all plump fruit, sweetly spiced and stodgy. I mean comforting.
Day 6: Abergavenny is a large-ish market town in South Wales. You might remember a pop song from the sixties called ‘Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny’. I still remember most of the words.
It was here, at The Kings Arms pub, that I ate Welsh Rarebit, also known as ‘posh cheese on toast’. The dish comprised chunky door-stops of bread, smothered in toasted Caerphilly cheese. It was accompanied by a tasty chutney and some peppery leaves. Pretty good when washed down with a Welsh Ale (room temperature of course).
Day 7: Bara Lawr, or Laverbread, is a traditional Welsh delicacy made from laver. Laver is a type of seaweed that grows around the west coast of Great Britain and east coast of Ireland. It’s bursting with nutrients, a bit like Spirulina, and you can add it to stews and soups, mix it into scrambled eggs, or just spread it on toast. I ate it on toast sprinkled with lemon juice and pepper. I was the only person on the boat who ate Laverbread.
Day 8: One of my non food related aims on this trip was to revisit my place of birth in South Wales, and walk around the area I remembered from my childhood. My parents migrated to Australia when I was nine so I had lots of early memories and I wanted to revisit a few of them.
We parked our canal boat close to Five Locks which is the southern-most navigable area of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. It’s also right next to Pontnewyd, the small village where my life began and where my relatives still live.
I spent a wonderful couple of days walking for hours and hours, recognising things from the past, noticing changes, filling in gaps with information I’d forgotten. I visited two lovely Aunties and I found the hospital where I was born.
Food, however, was never far from my mind and I learned of a new Welsh ‘dish’. Like everywhere else, multiculturalism in Wales has introduced new culinary treats. Among them Indian-style curries which, as we know, are normally served with rice. Clearly the Welsh are not yet ready to forego a serve of chips with every meal and therefore enjoy them with a curry. The locals explained that this ‘dish’ is known as ‘half and half’; half rice, half chips.
Day 9: On our journey back upstream I wanted to try Faggots and Peas in a pub so I could compare and contrast with my home-cooked effort. The Bear in Abergavenny served them so we headed there for dinner. Just as delicious as mine but served, naturally, with chips.
Day 10: As our canal boat trip came to an end my clothes were feeling a wee bit tighter around my middle. Although I had walked every single day it obviously wasn’t enough exercise to counterbalance the calorie-laden ‘comfort’ food in Wales. As a consequence most of Day 10 was spent walking alongside the canal on the towpath while my driver steered the boat.