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Munchies

The Welsh Were the Original Nose-to-Tail Eaters

The Welsh have been eating from a nose-to-tail standpoint since year dot. Finances dictated that they had to, it was as simple as that. One beast had to last you most of the week.

by Jonathan Woolway
Mar 1 2017, 1:00pm

Photo via Flickr user msiew

The Welsh have been eating from a nose-to-tail standpoint since year dot.

Finances dictated that they had to, it was as simple as that. One beast had to last you most of the week and beyond. This was a major influence to bring me to St. John: eating things that I grew up with, but being made on a whole new level.

Because for me, Welsh food is slightly overlooked.

I did a Masters degree in history until I was 25 but food has always been a massive part of my life. We always had homemade bread on the table and I think that's where the Welsh really come into their own. We've always been fantastic bakers—good cooks as well—but actual cakes and bread and things like that are brilliant.

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I started cooking in a local restaurant in Mumbles many years ago. I met two friends of mine there—one of them went on to run his own restaurant, the other went on to work at The Ivy and has now returned back to Wales. That's where I started cooking professionally and I remember vividly—years ago now—flicking through a food magazine and seeing a centre page spread about St. John. I saw these whitewashed walls and Fergus [Henderson] and Trevor [Gulliver] and read the sample menu. From a professional point of view, it was love at first site.

So I moved to London to work at St. John. It was my dream job then and still is. I'm now in my eighth year here.

Lamb broth, tripe and onions, and leek and potato soup sound so basic and monosyllabic but they aren't that way on a plate. When everything is right, you really don't really need anything else.

With British food, for the most part, it's honest. There's no smoke and mirrors, there's no pulling wool over people's eyes—you order hare and bacon and mash and you get hare and bacon and mash. It might not be a quirky play on words or a deconstructed dish, but it is what it is and those three components have been done with the utmost care. You take one of them off, it doesn't work. You put another one on, it doesn't work. I think British cooks in general know when to be restrained.

But to be honest, as much as the Welsh like to pride themselves on being different culturally and linguistically—which we undoubtedly are—there is a very minuscule border that separates England from Wales. Most of the quirks of culture and history are reflected in the fact that there was more money in certain parts of England than there was in Wales. The Welsh have always eaten cheaply, that's the main difference I can think of.

I hate to use the term "cheaply" because the dishes might be cheaper in fiscal terms but in terms of flavour and texture, they're second to none. Food patterns emerged from necessity to survive and to be economical, but also to be tasty at the same time.

I think there's far more of an emphasis on family-style feasting and everybody sitting down and eating together in Wales too, rather than the more formal approach. Back home, even in restaurants, you would sit down and there would be a lamb shoulder on the table and four plates, rather than four portions of lamb. Or maybe a big bowl of soup (or "cowl" as we call it) and a ladle.

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St. John always had an emphasis on certain Welsh foods but since I joined the kitchen, we tend to do cockles and laverbread far more than we used to. Even basic things like lamb broth, tripe and onions, and leek and potato soup are all very much the taste of my childhood. They sound so basic and monosyllabic but they aren't that way on a plate. When everything is right, you really don't really need anything else.

Of course, the Welsh rarebit has been at St. John from day one. There's no secret recipe, really—the biggest thing is good quality ingredients. Although you're just melting cheese down, it's got to be good quality cheese and it's important to get the spicing right—that little bit of heat. A rarebit without Worcestershire sauce is like bread without butter, it doesn't work.

But something a simple as swede mash with garnish—that to me is very Welsh. The smell of swede draining off to be mashed takes me straight back to being an eight-year-old in my nan's kitchen. To some people it might be repulsive but that smell is so evocative to me that it's almost like a hug.

It's fantastic.

As told to Phoebe Hurst.

Jonathan Woolway joined Fergus Henderson's original St. John restaurant near London's Smithfield Market eight years ago and became head chef in 2014. Hailing from Gorseinon, Swansea, Woolway combines the restaurant's iconic nose-to-tail eating approach with a very Welsh focus on hearty, seasonal produce.