Saturday, February 27, 2010

St. David of Wales

March 1 is the feast of the great patron of Wales--St. David (the Welsh form of his name is "Dewi"). He lived in the 6th century, and was a bishop and abbot who founded many monasteries, known for their austerity of life. He was widely popular in the British Isles, and many churches are named for him. Legends about St. David abound.

The dove you see in the image comes from the legend that once while he was speaking a white dove landed on his shoulder--and moreover the ground on which he was standing rose to form a hill; he stood at the summit and his voice resounded like a trumpet to the vast assembly.

For reasons that are rather mysterious, the leek is associated with St. David's Day: Welshmen wear or display leeks, in his honor. This goes back a very long way: in Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 5, Scene 1), this custom is spoken of as "an ancient tradition begun upon an honourable respect."

We (of course!) propose that you display leeks in their delicious edible form, on your dinner table. A Continual Feast (pp. 237-8) has two nice recipes for leek dishes to serve in St. David's honor: "Braised Leeks," and "Leek and Potato Soup" (aka Vichyssoise).

Another food often associated with St. David's day is a delicious bread with currants and/or other dried fruits called Bara Brith. Let me add that this bread is very high on my list of all-time favorite bakery items: it is rich (I love currants!), moist, delicious--quite addictive!

Bara Brith (it means “speckled loaf”)
1 cup currants (or combined currants, raisins, mixed candied peel, and/or dried apricots)
1 cup strong tea (I use Irish Breakfast)
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon (about a half package) dry yeast
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon mixed spices: 1/8 cinnamon, 1/8 nutmeg, 1/8 ginger, 1/8 cloves

I mention these in part because there are many different recipes for this traditional bread--and also because you may be missing an ingredient, but have something else that will work on hand!
You can cut back on the butter; you can add an egg or two; you can skip the tea, and put in more milk; you can modify the spice mixture, replacing the ginger and/or cloves with allspice, mace, and/or white or black pepper; you can use all brown sugar, or all white. This loaf is sometimes made with self-rising flour rather than raised with yeast; that is too big a shift to go into here--but you can easily find recipes that make it that way.

Brew the tea, and soak the currants (and other fruit) in it for several hours or overnight.
Drain the fruit and pat it dry. Reserve the tea.
In a small saucepan, warm the milk slightly—it should just be tepid, not hot.
Stir a few teaspoons of the milk into the yeast and let it froth.
Melt the butter in the rest of the milk.
Add the salt to the flour, stir the yeast and milk mixtures into the flour, and blend well.
Add enough of the tea to form a soft dough.
Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover well, and let rise until doubled in bulk—about an hour and a half (but that can vary a good deal).
Punch the dough down.
Mix the fruit with the white and brown sugar, and the spices.
Gradually work the fruit mixture into the dough, making sure that it is well blended in throughout.
Place the dough in a rectangular bread tin, lined with parchment paper. Make as even a loaf as possible.
Cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and let the dough rise to the top of the pan; this will take about an hour to an hour and a half.
Bake at 400 F for 20-30 minutes. Cover the loaf with aluminum foil for the last 10 minutes or so if the top seems to be getting too brown. When done, the loaf should sound hollow.
Delicious fresh from the oven--sliced, with butter! This bread is also nice toasted.

And while we are honoring St. David and our Welsh heritage, let me recommend to you Welsh choral music! Wales has the most wonderful male choirs, often made up of literally hundreds of men--and they sing grand hymns and other songs ("Men of Harlech"!) in a truly unforgettable way. I first heard them in Wales, and was completely blown away; I have become a devotee of their singing. There are lots of recordings of Welsh men's (and mixed) choirs available on Amazon and elsewhere


  1. Yesterday we enjoyed the leek and potato soup - delicious! We added a little powdered ginger to improve our blood circulation, but the original recipe did not suffer!

  2. Welsh choir video: