A bowl full of tradition
Cawl (pronounced cow-l, like towel in one syllable) is a thrifty traditional Welsh soup dish, dating back to the 14th Century. Recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen in Wales, and are often passed down through families. It is really very simple – a soup made from a cheap cut of red meat stewed slowly with winter root vegetables, historically in a cauldron over an open fire.
But, oh, it is so much more than a simple soup – ask ANY Welsh person.
I am Welsh. My parents, and their parents were Welsh, I went to university in Wales, am a huge supporter of the Welsh rubgy team, and consider it a mere technicality that I was born and brought up in Surrey, England.
I didn’t grow up eating Cawl, I wish I could ask my mother why. But I discussed this with my siblings, and we reasoned that either Mum didn’t like Cawl, or she assumed that we wouldn’t eat it and therefore didn’t make it. Cawl tastes way better than it looks, so maybe the latter is true. I have vague memories of Mamgu Wales (my Welsh grandma, I also had a Mamgu London) making it on one of our holiday visits.
Because Cawl is a simple, traditional food, recipes are usually more a guide than a strict set of ingredients and instructions. So before cooking my own version I consulted all of my Welsh cookbooks and a number of Welsh friends. Should I use lamb shoulder, neck, chops, beef brisket, or salty bacon? Should I add cabbage? Of course, I had to have leeks. Most definitely leeks. It’s not Cawl without leeks. Should I cook on the stove or in the slow cooker? Whatever I decided, I must eat the Cawl with bread and butter and a hunk of strong cheese, that was certain. Of course, everyone has a different memory – but nearly all brought fond smiles of shared family meals.
Traditionally the choice of meat depended on what was available, however it was always an economical cut which required long slow cooking. Cawl isn’t really a meaty dish, the meat is there to flavour the broth. Sometimes the meat isn’t even eaten with the soup, it could be fished out kept for another meal. Very thrifty.
The cooking method for this dish is proof that old traditional diets were often intuitively very good for you. I doubt the Celtic mothers were consciously aware of the exact science behind nutritional broths – or that in 2015 they would become the height of nutritional trendiness. By slow cooking the lamb, the stock is enriched with the nutrients from the meat, bones and cartilage – especially gelatin, which has a multitude of health benefits particularly supporting poor digestion. The neck is a tough cut of meat, and slow cooking breaks down the tough tissue and collagen, making the meat easier to digest.
So here I present you with MY Welsh Cawl, in a beautiful cawl bowl, served with bread and butter, and a smidge of cheese, daffodils on the side. But please, don’t eat the daffodils. So much more than soup. A bowl full of tradition
- Welsh butter / olive oil
- 600g bone-in lamb neck*, weighed with bone in
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 2 carrots, peeled and cubed
- 2 parsnips, peeled and diced
- 2 small turnips, cleaned (you can leave skin on) and diced
- 1 small swede, peeled and diced
- 2 leeks, thinly sliced
- A few sprigs of thyme or parsley
- To serve: Bread, butter and a hunk of strong cheese – Caerphilly or cheddar.
- Heat a large deep pan on the stove with a smidge of butter or oil. Sprinkle the lamb with a little salt and pepper, then sear in the pan until browned on all sides – this step is not essential but gives the soup a deeper flavor.
- Add 2 litres of water to the pan, and bring to the boil. Lower to a simmer and add all root vegetables – except the leeks. Simmer uncovered for 2-3 hours, or till the meat is so tender it falls apart. As the fat from the meat rises to the top of the pan you can skim it if you like.
- Twenty minutes before you are ready to serve, add the leeks to the pan.
- When the Cawl is ready, take out the meat and shred it, taking care to discard all the bones. Return the meat to the soup.
- With the rich flavor of the meat you may not need to season the soup, so do taste before you add more salt. Finally, sprinkle with fresh thyme or parsley for a pop of colour and flavor, and serve in deep bowls.
- Notes* Lamb neck can be substituted for other cuts – such as shoulder or even chops, but a better taste is achieved when the bone goes in the stew too.
Do you have any traditional nationalistic recipes that are special to you? 31