Absent leeks, lost voices? Cooking and recording in early modern Wales

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

My original intention for a blog post for St David’s Day (1 March) had been to cook and write about early modern leeks. Quite apart from being one of my favourite vegetables, the humble leek is one of the national symbols of Wales and features in a number of “traditional” Welsh recipes, including Cawl and the misleadingly-named Glamorgan “Sausages”. Unfortunately, the leeks proved surprisingly elusive. What I found in their place were some interesting hints at the dynamics of society and literacy in early modern Wales.

My search began with the very fine recipe book of Merryell Williams of the Ystumcolwyn Estate, Montgomeryshire. Williams’s 239-page volume is a collection of food and medical recipes compiled in the late seventeenth century. Williams was wife of a wealthy landowner John Williams, and when he died in 1685 she remained in charge of his large estate. Although she would not have done all the household cookery herself, her recipe book is likely to have been an important part of her role as manager of the household both before and after her husband’s death. Packed with a bewildering range of sweet and savoury dishes that would have been used for everyday entertaining as well as more elaborate feasts and festive occasions Merryell’s collection looked promising.

Sadly, however, on not one of the 239 pages of neatly transcribed recipes is there a mention of a leek. Artichokes, cabbage, spinach, and many different herbs and spices all have frequent mentions, but the leek is almost conspicuous by its absence. Furthermore, despite recipes purporting to be based on French, Spanish, and Portuguese cuisine, there is not a single recipe that Merryell identified as Welsh. Why?

It may have been that Merryell just didn’t like leeks. Nevertheless, her recipe book provides an interesting snapshot into the culinary life of a wealthy Welsh household in the seventeenth century, and these absences may therefore hint at something more interesting. Fascinating as this volume is, my frustration led me to reflect that if I wanted to find “traditional” Welsh recipes, this was probably precisely the wrong place to look.

Firstly, Merryell Williams belonged to the wealthy elite who, in contrast to the majority of the population, spoke (and wrote) in English. They looked towards English and continental influences rather than Welsh for the management of their households.[1] This was partly a product of the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, after which English law and language supplanted that of Welsh. Crucially, the 1535 Act stipulated that ‘no Person or Persons that use the Welch Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King’s Dominion’. It should therefore come as little surprise that the English-speaking Merryell Williams did not fill her book with explicitly Welsh recipes. If I want to find Welsh recipes from this period, I probably need to learn early modern Welsh.

Secondly, recipes such as Cawl, now regarded by many as the national dish of Wales, had by the seventeenth century an association with frugality. Dating back to the fourteenth century, Cawl was a thrifty but hearty stew that could incorporate leftover meat and vegetables into a single pot that could be cooked over a fire. Merryell Williams did write down recipes for stews, but they contained rich and expensive ingredients such as saffron, or incorporated several cuts of meat.[2] She was clearly not averse to thrift (she includes a recipe for how to make mutton taste like venison), but it might be speculated that Cawl was too humble to make it into her collection.

Looking for written Welsh recipes from this period at all is a significant challenge because of the continuing importance of oral communication. Literacy in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wales was unusually low, at around 15 to 20 per cent.[3] The result was that most recipes were probably committed to memory or passed through families orally. The result is a striking paucity of surviving sources which note distinctively Welsh recipes.[4] Those who were literate, and recorded their cookery, tended to be part of the English-oriented elite.

My failed quest could serve as a glum reminder of the difficulty of studying the lives of those who have not left a clear trace in the written record. This is to a certain extent reflected in a relative lack of research on early modern Wales. Historians are resilient beasts, however. As recent work by Lloyd Bowen has shown, looking at barriers to communication can as usefully illuminate political culture and social dynamics as examining the remnants of written communication.[5] As Merryell Williams’s sad lack of interest in leeks highlights, noting what isn’t in the written record is often as illuminating as uncovering what is.

Merryell Williams’s recipe book can be viewed online here.


[1] Bobby Freeman, First Catch Your Peacock: Her Classic Guide to Welsh Food (Talybont: Y Lolfa Cyf., 3rd edn, 2006). p. 15.
[2] John Davies, Nigel Jenkins, Menna Baines, The Welsh Academy encyclopaedia of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), p. 230.
[3] Richard Suggett and Erin White, ‘Language, Literacy and Aspects of Identity in Early Modern Wales’ in Adam Fox and Daniel R. Woolf, eds, The spoken word: oral culture in Britain, 1500-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 65.
[4] Freeman, First catch your peacock, p. 14.
[5] Lloyd Bowen, ‘Information, Language and Political Culture in Early Modern Wales’, Past and Present, 228, 1 (2015), p. 158.

Image: Leaf from recipe book of Merryell Williams. By Merryell Williams [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A18th_Century_Recipes_f.12.jpg.

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