Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics

Snowdonia, Cockles and Haggis
by Fred Ferretti

From a window of the tight, little eight-seat car of the Ffestiniog Railway, I was unable to see as much of Wales as I wished that gray morning. Earlier, the aspects of the purple and jagged Snowdonia mountains had been a glory — oaks, elms, sycamores, and beech trees on the lower slopes; tall tufted firs and a herringbone of pines climbing the range up to dull black boulders of slate; and all of the spaces scattered amid the trees thick with ferns and foxglove. But from the tracks of the rattling, narrow-gauge train, as its steam engine pulled us up the sheer Ffestiniog hills from Blaenau Ffestiniog, the views were of the shale piles outside Gloddfa Ganol, the world's largest slate mine and quarry, and of the entrance to the neighboring Llechwedd Slate Caverns. Hundreds of sheep, placidly chewing their way through knee-deep mountain grass, watched as the train made its way upward through small way stations wedged into the steep hills, towns such as Dduallt, Tanygrisiau, and Tan-y-Bwich, so dependent upon this toy-like vehicle — in which I happened to be bouncing — simply because there is no other way up to these mining villages.

"Mind your heads," Dick Saunderson had cautioned as we crouched our way into the railway car. He pointed to a tiny billboard posted at one end of the car. "The Coming of the Lord Draweth Nigh. James 5 V.8" it read, and Saunderson, late of British Rail, but not so late that he didn't consult his vest fob watch unceasingly, repeated, "Mind your heads."

We were three days into Wales, days that saw us aboard the exquisitely appointed Pullmans of the Orient Express bound for castles and for niches of Welsh history; nights that took us to such places as seventeenth-century Bodysgallen Hall in Llandudno, North Wales, perhaps the finest country hotel in Wales, and to the newer Cwrt Bleddyn Hotel in Gwent, South Wales. It was at Bodysgallen Hall that I was urged to finish a meal with one of Scott's Original Health Biscuits, "medicinal biscuits," I was told, of black vegetable charcoal. But at Cwrt Bleddyn I had my taste of Wales's own, and only, single-vatted malt whiskey labeled, with due respect, Prince of Wales and also "Swn y Mor," which translates as "sound of the sea."

"You know, of course, that the malt was made by one Rhuallt Hir on Bardsey Island in A.D. 356, long before the Scots even came to the thought of whiskey, do you not?" asked Peter Hewer, the hotel's restaurant manager, as he served a roasted guinea fowl.

"No I do not," I replied, and Peter Hewer looked to the ceiling of his dining room with the suffering eyes of one who knows he must once again undertake a bit of remedial education.

So much of a recent visit to Wales was similarly serendipitous: Tasting Wales's own white wines, Crofta and Monnow Valley, and walking a crenelated rampart of Caernarvon Castle; eating that strong preserved seaweed called laver bread and being led through Bodnant Garden in the rain by its chief gardener, a man with the delightful name of Martin Puddle; sampling the many varieties of cows' milk cheeses from Dyfed and visiting with the ghost of Clive of India at Powis Castle; drinking Decantae water from the ancient mineral springs of Snowdonia, still bubbling since the time of the Romans; and wandering the dreamlike Italianate streets of the village of Portmeirion.

And we were moved to it all, through it all, this country of David Lloyd George, Dylan Thomas, and Richard Burton, by the Orient Express coaches. Each morning we would board our car, in my case "Ibis", and listen to stories of teas served and antimacassars unraveled from Lenny McNamee, our steward, and, one morning, of the special wants of Sir Laurence Olivier, as tended by Steward, then Chef, Terry Evans.

"He liked to have kippers and eggs on the night train from London to Brighton," said Terry, who began as a pastry boy on the Orient Express thirty-five years ago. "And then he would have to have at 3 a.m. a boiled egg with dried brown toast."

These days not much is actually cooked on board the Orient Express day-trip Pullmans. "We do potatoes and soups, but most of the food is brought aboard already prepared," which saddens him, he said.

Nevertheless as I sit in the car named Ibis, with its Limoges china and its white damask monogrammed "V-S-O-E," for Venice Simplon-Orient Express: with the car's mahogany walls beautifully inlaid with fruitwood and its frosted tulip-shaped wall sconces, so excessively art deco; as I drink Lapsing Souchong and eat scones with clotted cream I am, for a moment, transported back to the days of luxurious British railway travel, days that Dick Saunderson remembers.

He recalls that Her Majesty preferred the stuffed jacquard wing chairs, and he delights in reading the polished brass screwed onto the wall of Ibis.

"Ibis — First Class Kitchen Car, 20 seats, built 1925 by Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Co. Sold to La Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits et des Grands Express EuropŽens for service in Italy. Purchased by the Pullman Car Co. Ltd. In 1928 and returned to Britain for Golden Arrow Service. Entered Cunard Boat Train Service between Victoria and Southampton 1952. Retired 1968. Acquired from the Birmingham Railway Museum 1981."

"But we brought her back, didn't we now?" he says with a grin.

Indeed they did. From Victoria Station the Orient Express travels northwest, through Wolverhampton, then turns sharply west through Shrewsbury into Wales and up along the Welsh coast to Bangor. Later we clatter through the center of Wales to its western coast, then south to Cardiff before we return, days later, eastward to London. A marvelous train ride that ends where it began, in Victoria Station, six minutes ahead of schedule.

"As I expected," said Dick Saunderson, flicking open his trainman's watch, just to be sure.

"It is, all of it, from our home kitchens," said Patricia Dally. "It is from our past traditions that we want very much to keep alive," added her husband, Meirion Dally. "Nor would we have it any other way." Nor would, you, after you have met the Dallys.

So, if you move along Crwys Road, a street of small shops, in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, you will come eventually to number 48, with its sign informing you that you have arrived at a restaurant called Blas ar Gymru. Go inside, for the Dallys will be there, Patricia in the kitchen heady with intense aromas, cooking pure examples of the foods of Wales, unsullied by adaptation, and Meirion out front in the white stucco and black oak-beamed dining room of the small, clean restaurant, telling you that Blas ar Gymru translates into "A Taste of Wales" and later demonstrating just why you are so much enjoying the smells coming from Patricia's kitchen.

"This," said Meirion, "is selsig morgannwg," as he put in front of us Glamorgan sausages made with chopped onions and leeks, grated Cheddar, herbs, and bread crumbs. They were like breaded pastries, utterly delicious, and I'm afraid that they may have forever displaced bangers in the windmills of my mind.

Bara lawr a chig moch was next, a preparation from southwest Wales of laver bread, which is seawood pureed with oatmeal and served mounded on fried bread with smoked bacon. "It was eaten by the Welsh miners, who had to spend so much time underground. It gave them vitamins," said Meirion, and it was marvelous. Then came cawl, a broth of leeks, carrots, cabbage, turnips, and cauliflower; followed by pastai cig moch a chocos gwr, a pie of cockles, which said Meirion, "were popular with the Romans in Wales," cooked in cream with bacon and onions.

There were potes Rhondda, a "hot pot from Rhondda, Patricia's grandmother," said Meirion, of beef and smoked ham stewed with vegetables and served under a crust of crisp, sliced roasted potatoes. "Good, isn't it? asked Meirion.

Oh my.

The Dallys have been at their happy mission of preserving the traditional cookery of Wales for four years. Patricia had worked in a sales office, Meirion in department stores, before they decided that "we ought to make for others the foods of our grandparents, things we would prepare in our home kitchens when we had visitors," according to Patricia.

What they are doing, Meirion contends, is one aspect of what he sees as a resurgence of traditional cooking in Britain. But for the Dallys it is much more. It is living, deliciously living, culinary history, and you really out to make your way to Cardiff, to Blas ar Gymru (where you need not be concerned about Welsh spellings or pronunciation because the menu is translated), and taste some of Patricia Dallys' pwdin, her puddings, such as Sherry trifle, black current fool, and an utterly exquisite bread pudding thick with dried fruit and redolent of nutmeg. Meirion will surely talk to you about skerrid, the fragrant Welsh sheep's milk cheese marinated in mead, and have you taste Wales's two white wines, Croffta and Monnow Valley, from two tiny vineyards, one, Monnow, only an acre in size.

The wines are pleasant, not too dry, and do taste good with Patricia's thick and heavy apple pie.

"And leave a bit of space for a taste," says Meirion. "Not many people know that we Welsh are making a fine malt whiskey. Did you know that? Did you know we've been making whiskey since long before the Scots?"

I didn't know that.

Duncan Stewart Cameron tiptoed out of the kitchen and peered around the folded floor screen, hoping, he said, to see people enjoying his steeve soorfrits on straeberry dorty, the vauntie pout wi' slivers o'crustacean an'a creesh, and the aik smeeked rid beardie, but what he was really concerned about was the haggis.

"There was no problem at all finding the makings," the chef of the Turnberry Hotel, that most singular resting place on Scotland's Ayrshire coast, was saying. "But I was a bit put off by the quality of the cream."

Master-chef Cameron, overseer of a brigade of twenty-five cooks, was in New York City to prepare some of his Scottish specialties at the Union League Club. And, whereas he did not have access to the kippers that Andy Alexander skillfully catches for him in the waters of the Clyde when he is home, and which Doug Hollingswork smokes for him in the town of Maidens, and though the turbot flown in for him was not quite as fresh as if it had been pulled from the North Sea that morning and whisked to the Turnberry kitchens, he was making do.

The fairing (menu) was to his liking. The mousseline of grapefruit and orange on strawberry sauce, the supreme of chicken with scallops of lobster and lobster butter, and the smoked salmon, all of which sounded quite different when translated fro the burr, where just fine, as were the lizzie taties, which is what he calls Elizabeth potatoes, and snaa shaps (snow peas).

But what about the haggis, served as first course?

"We found the sheep offal all right," he said, referring to the heart, liver, and lungs that are customarily minced with onions, seasonings, oatmeal, and suet and boiled in a sheep's stomach to create what is undoubtedly one of the world's most unusual, and least appreciated sausages. "But we didn't use the stomach. I used an intestine." Then he placed the cooked haggis in a puff pastry cup with a topping of whipped potatoes and turnips and served it.

"It's not the true haggis is it?" Master-chef Cameron studied me and suggested.

The taste was very good, as good as that of the rough, coarse haggis I remembered having had at the Cramond Inn just outside Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth, but the texture of this one was quite smooth, as if it had been purŽed in a food processor, I said, and Master chef Cameron studied me and smiled.

"True," he said. "I had trouble with the cream. Not as much body as Scottish cream. Nevertheless, a good cook should be able to produce something, no matter what the ingredients."

Which, of course turned out to be the world's first haggis á la nouvelle.

This is not, I assure you, as piquant a tidbit as you might taste if you were to read the London tabloids with any degree of regularity. It has nothing whatever to do with reported annual expenditures for Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe, or how many millions of pounds sterling the Queen earns in interest per day from all of her investments, or which Buckingham Palace duke is nightclubbing with which screen actress this week, or whether the Queen Mother continues on with her visits to hardware and gadgets counters at Fortnum and Mason. No indeed.

We report rather that Prince Charles's desire for his grains to be pesticide-free as well as his desire to spread widely his fondness for organic farming has escalated to the point where he has permitted flour milled from organically grown wheat on his Home Farm at Highgrove, outside London, to be baked into bread for the masses. The new loaves are called Wholemeal Highgrove and include not only wheat from the Prince of Wales's farm but other organic wheats from Canada as well. What, however, is one to make of this wedding of wheats, royal with common? Could it be that H.R.H. is less eager than I to support his local chemical industry?

Table For Two

I rarely do more than quickly scan the health food magazines, but when I have read them I have found them to be gentle publications that appear to mean well. Thus it pains me to report that a reading of a new magazine on the racks reveals that the heat has been turned up to such an extent that I had to reach for my peppermint leaves and valerian roots in an effort to calm myself.

BUZZ WITH VITALITY! urged one headline. BE MORE ADVENTUROUS WITH BEANS! shouted another. STEP UP TO THE SOYA ERA! prodded a third.

GET FIGHTING FIT! ordered still another.

This magazine even had a quiz. It asked: "Which herb do you think would be good if you are feeling depressed?" and offered three choices — lungwort, garlic, or lemon balm.

I checked off garlic, but I was wrong, for it turns out, according to the magazine, that lemon balm helps alleviate depression. I cannot know for certain, but I think an older, gentler magazine would have opted for garlic. It always helps me.

But I barely recovered from this bout with the healths, and was collating my collection of food-related postage stamps when my wife came into the library to announce that her joy that day was complete because it finally had been acknowledged that the Chinese had invented ketchup,

"What's your source?" I asked.

"Ketchup," she replied.

"Source," I said, "not sauce."

"Oh. Well I read that Del Monte had changed the name of its tomato sauce in a bottle from "catsup" to "ketchup." Which of course means they finally concede that the Chinese invented ketchup."

"I don't think Del Monte is doing that," I argued. "Maybe they just wanted to dive into the tomato mainstream. After all, A&P calls its stuff ketchup and so do Heinz and Hunt's. It's just that nobody uses 'catsup' anymore. That's all there is to it."

Wrong," my wife said. "In China ketchup is called keh jup, which translates to mean tomato gravy or tomato sauce. It is a small leap from keh jup to ketchup, isn't it? I think Del Monte is simply recognizing gastronomic history, is what I think."

Well maybe, I agreed, but I nevertheless sidled over to my encyclopedias. There I read that ketchup is indeed believed to have been of Chinese origin and that perhaps its initial ingredient might have been salted mushrooms. My book also suggested that the origin of the word was the Malay, or Thai, kachiap, which was taken from the Chinese word ke-tsiap, which it said means the brine of pickled fish. I brought all of this research to my wife.

The word for tomato in China is fan keh. When the tomato is made into sauce it becomes keh jup, keh for tomato, jup for sauce. I don't know anything about the brine of pickled fish," she said.

"But — "

"Why not consider something important," she continued. "In the A&P the other day the sign at the head of the aisle read "ketchup," but Pathmark still had "catsup." What are we to do about that? What are you going to do about that?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "Do you have any garlic?"


copyright 2000-2017; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca