LAVERBREAD THE WELSHMAN’S CAVIAR
BY WENDY HUGHES
The Welsh certainly know a thing or two when it comes to health and vitality. They also know that the laver plant is a rare source of vitamin B12 and is full of iron and iodine, and next to Welsh cakes it is probably the best known food to come from Wales
Welshman’s caviar was an expression apparently coined by Richard Burton because of his love for his native food laverbread or ‘bara lawr,’ This national delicacy is made from seaweed that has been washed, then boiled for up to ten hours to a soft greenish black paste and is usually rolled in oatmeal seasoned with black pepper. It is an acquired taste and resembles spinach in appearance with a unique oyster and fresh sea air taste, and usually cooked with eggs and bacon, or shaped into flat cakes and cooked. It is one of the most nutritious varieties of seaweed, full of health benefits and full of protein and low in calories. Traditionally Welsh people do not use an iron pan or metal spoon, preferring to use a wooden, spoon or a silver fork, and an aluminum saucepan.
Back in the 16th century south Wales, seaweed was taken in by the spring tide, gathered and taken by horse cart by farmers to manure their land, because of its properties as a fertilizer and animal feed had long been recognized, but as a food for human the west lagged behind the east.
Harvesting seaweed in Pembrokeshire goes back a long way with the first mention of it in William Camden’s Britannia, a journal of Britain in 1607. He recorded laver being eaten as a survival food by people forced from their homes during Viking invasions, and George Borrow, travelling through Wales, wrote of “moor mutton and piping hot laver sauce”; a traditional dish that is enjoyed by many today.
In the 1800’s laver collection was an important cottage industry and source of income from employment and laver huts remain on the coast today. The laver was thrown over the roof of the huts and left to dry before being taken by horse and cart to Swansea to be processed. Now sourced on the north and south coastlines, much of the production is still in the Gower peninsula. Traditionally the laver was washed by hand and cooked in pans over open fires. Although production is now industrialised, the traditional methods are still used with skills passed down through the generations still remaining an important cottage industry in Wales today.
Although laverbread is often enjoyed just as it is, it can be an acquired taste and comes into its own when served with other flavours and used in a multitude of recipes. It is a valuable flavour enhancer adding a delicious savoury depth and dimension to cooking.
Although laverbread does not have Protected Designated Origin status it can still be viewed as an important food; produced traditionally in a certain geographical region, and is at its best during spring when the laver is at its most succulent. It can be pureed to a fine paste, or chopped for a coarser texture..
Traditionally a miner’s breakfast of laverbread, bacon, eggs and cockles was eaten by hungry workers before a long day at the pits. A nutritious, high energy food for pit workers in the mining villages of South Wales, women and children suffering from malnourishment were also advised to eat it. Miner’s wives gathered it, cooked it and then drained it in cloth to either sell at market or share amongst the community. Plucked from the shores of the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen coasts it is unclear whether it was eaten for subsistence, or because of its health giving properties. Sources suggest that folk were aware of its properties, but as it was free to those who could gather and process it, it was an integral part of the diet of the working class.
Laverbread features on many meus today, in both fine dining and casual establishments, and is an integral part of the drive to showcase Welsh ingredients and cooking of Wales. Its dominant and lingering taste especially suits sweet salty meats such as bacon and marsh lamb and it goes well with the rounded creaminess of butter and cheese. Often enjoyed simply on toast, it is suited to the crunch of the toast and a good spread of sweet salty butter.
Traditionally, the most popular way of eating laverbread is to roll it in oatmeal and fry in bacon fat until crisp. These little laverbread cakes are absolutely delicious and put one in mind of black pudding. It also finds its way into sauce and a popular way is to simply heat it with butter and lemon to serve with lamb or mutton. Laver soup is a broth made from a lamb stock, potatoes, onions and carrots with laverbread added.
You really need look no further than laverbread to find that true taste of Wales. And if you are already familiar with it, why not try it in a new way, and if you haven’t tried it before then perhaps now is as good a time to seek our this truly versatile ingredient. By the way toasted laver flakes are fantastic in miso soups, or stir-fries as well as simply sprinkled on top of your scrambled eggs or bacon butties. Go on, seek it out and you won’t be disappointed.