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Celtic Food

Traditional Welsh Food


Celtic Food

Question: I am looking for books and recipes for period Irish/Celtic cooking. Can anyone recommend anything? I am compiling a collection for a future feast.

Answer: It isn't clear what you mean by "Celtic" (i.e., whether you're using it to mean "Irish & Scottish" or "any of the various Celtic-speaking cultures") -- there's enough idiosyncratic use of the word that one can't make any assumptions.

In general, researching period cookery of the various Celtic-speaking cultures involves looking at a lot of material that is not primarily cookery related. You might need to look through literature for references to food and eating, and through agricultural records for the sorts of foodstuffs that would be available, and so forth. I'm not aware of much in the actual "cookbook" genre from the various Celtic cultures in period, and what little I have seen (mostly for Welsh) is simply translations of works in other languages, rather than representing a native culinary tradition (which is usually what people in your position are looking for).

(the question continues) This is what I have so far: recipes from an article from Renaissance Magazine, a period recipe for cock-a-leekie soup, Celtic shortbread, and Celtic cookery from the Rialto files. I'm more interested in the 10th to 11th century, but I think everyone ate the same things throughout the ages, because the modern Irish recipes still eat the chicken and leek soup.

Answer: This is not a useful assumption to make. Look at the drastic changes in culinary styles in cultures for which we have a fair amount of evidence (e.g., French or English). Modern "traditional" recipes can be useful if you start with period references to a dish that appears to surviving in similar form in modern times, but even in that case the dish may have gone through major changes in technique or ingredients while keeping the same name and basic description. You also need to make certain that you do have period evidence for the "traditional" dish in question -- for example, the above chicken and leek soup. Read the article carefully: what evidence does it present for the period existence of this particular dish?

My impression of the article in Renaissance Magazine is that it covered "traditional Irish/Scottish dishes that would not have been wildly improbable in the Renaissance" as opposed to being dishes for which there is direct period evidence.

Irish food is not a particularly easy topic to research, but there is information out there for those willing to dig. But to get useful results, you have to focus on what actual period evidence says, and not on whether modern dishes can be traced back to period. Filling in the blank spots with extrapolations from more modern sources may be the last step in the process, but if you start from an assumption that "Irish cooking hasn't changed since the 10th century" it makes it very hard to interpret the evidence on its own merits, as opposed to always trying to evaluate it in terms of how it supports your starting thesis.

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Traditional Welsh Food

Question: Do you know any traditional welsh recipes that I could use at events? I am primarily interested in non-feast food. I tend to cook for a large group of hungry mercenaries and simple is better. However, I would not turn down good feast food as well.

Answer: There's a fair amount of information available in medieval sources on the Welsh diet, available (and typical) ingredients, and so forth, but rarely anything so practical as an actual recipe. Some of the richest sources for information about food include the medieval law tracts and the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis. There are also some food descriptions in medieval Welsh literature, but one needs to treat those a bit more carefully.

There are at least a couple of surviving, fragmentary culinary manuscripts in the Welsh language from the 16th century, but they appear to be simply Welsh translations of pre-existing Anglo-French material, rather than reflecting specifically Welsh cookery.

There is actually a published book on the topic of medieval Welsh food entitled Food of the Bards (by Enid Roberts), although it's a bit frustrating from the point of view of a researcher. She starts off with references to food in medieval Welsh poetry and then presents recipes for dishes similar to those that are being described -- however, while the recipes have the look-and-feel of actual historic recipes, she doesn't cite sources for them, and it is highly unlikely that the originals have specifically Welsh associations. (That is, if you took the same food references and did your own digging through medieval cookbooks for similar-sounding recipes, you'd end up with results that would be neither more nor less "Welsh" than she did ... and you'd have the advantage of knowing where your recipes came from.)

Some of the dishes characteristic of modern Welsh "folk cooking" have medieval roots. The flat, unleavened ("tortilla-like") oat bread that has been a staple of folk cooking in Wales is very similar to the "flat oat bread used as plates" that Giraldus describes. Conversely, some dishes that have medieval roots have changed drastically in their modern form. For example "caws pobi" (toasted cheese), in medieval descriptions, seems to be little more than melted cheese, typically served on bread -- and while the connection with "Welsh Rarebit" is easily traced, there seems no reason to believe that the specific form of the latter is period.

There's a lot of scope out there for digging up tidbits of information on period Welsh food from unlikely sources and putting it together in some sort of systematic fashion. I've compiled a bunch of material from the "usual suspects", but haven't gone much father than that.

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