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The food we now commonly regard as comfort food is, more often than not, food born out of poverty. Chicken soups, brilliant as they are, are the result of squeezing every last nutrient out from a carcass which likely cost the week’s wages of a peasant family. Fish pie, a thing of creamy glory, is made from the delicious trimmings of otherwise expensive fish. Add the plentiful potato, and you have a classic.
In the wake of St David’s Day, it seems to me there is no better cuisine to turn to than that of the Welsh. It is as if the entire nation was hungover (as we so often are) when they decided their national dishes. One thinks of the potent umami of laver bread, the vinegary delight of cockles, or the tea-soaked, toasted and buttered glory of Bara brith. But I have something else in mind. Something so applicable to the hungry, cash-strapped student that I am ashamed it has taken me this long to write about it.
I speak of Cawl. To those familiar with the dish, the mere sound of the word evokes a certain comfort, a sense of wellbeing championed by the Welsh. The Danish concept of Hygge seems minute in comparison. Cawl is a stew that fuses winter and spring: a chance to use up what is left from winter and celebrate the oncoming of spring. And what is synonymous with spring? Lamb, of course.
Traditionally, the cut of lamb would be roasted as a celebratory feast. As with every feast, there would be leftovers. With leftovers, comes imaginative cooking. Left to cool, lamb can tend to dry a little, so putting it in a stew for a few hours seems the perfect solution. Add some root veg, do some revision while it cooks, and you’re golden.
To save on breaking down a cut of lamb, buy diced chunks. Any root veg will work: carrots, parsnip, onion or Swede. But there has to be leeks. Dice the veg and fry everything until caramelized, before pouring in around three pints of water. Add a cube or two of stock. Season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Once boiling, lower the temperature to simmer the stew and leave for anything from an hour and a half to four hours. A good reduction is what you’re after: lots of robust veg in not too much water.
This is not something you want to blitz: the delight comes from supping at the strong stock whilst grabbing at veg every so often. Biting into the lamb is a particular treat: it is so tender that the spoon you’re holding could cut it. Cawl is traditionally served, as per the Welsh cheese making traditions, with cubes of cheddar and thick slices of bread. Croutons if you’re feeling decadent. In truth, however, the only required accompaniments are a blanket and a film. Well, maybe a rendition of calon lan.