Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Londoner's Determination to Celebrate St. David's Day

The 1st of March, and daffodils are in bloom, Spring is here and down the M4 motorway our Welsh brothers and sisters are celebrating their national day, the Feast of St. David.  As my French friend observed, it could loosely be considered "like what St. Patrick's Day is for the Irish".  But it is fair to say today's observance is a somewhat niche occasion for those who aren't fully part of Welsh culture.  It has yet to be commercialised, politicised or commodified in the manner of which the Irish national day has been. The pubs of the world are yet to festoon their bar-rooms with Red Dragons and daffodils. But for me a 'Plastic Taffy' of one quarter Welsh extraction I was determined to go about a one-man crusade to make the most of today in my city, London.

As a feast day, it logicalaly follows food and drink should play a big part in observance and so that's where I began.  Digging out a cookery book purchased a few years ago in Cardiff, I set about making a cawl, or stew.  Although adapting the dish to suit my vegetarian diet, and dubious as to how authentic any true Welsh person would deem my effort, it proved a tasty and hearty meal of root vegetables, potatoes, leeks, pearl barely and, I'm afraid to say, soya mince to substitute for meat.

Whilst this was gently simmering away I got to work making that other famous welsh delicacy, the Welsh Cake, a sort of spiced biscuit.  Although my first attempt I thought they turned out quite well and fairly straight forward to make, just flour, margarine, raisins, all-spice, and sugar mixed up and baked for 45 minutes.  Again I can't lay claim to any authenticity but I thought I had a good stab it them and served on a Welsh slate dish, with a cup of tea.

Suitably full of my Welsh culinary creations I set off into town to continue my St. David's Day adventure. 

My first stop was only a short bus ride away, the London Welsh Centre.  Surely I thought, this must be the very epicentre of Welsh festivity in London.  The Centre began as a social club for servicemen based in the city during the wars of the last century and has since continued the tradition and offers amongst other things, free Welsh language lessons, male voice choir sessions, and rugby screenings.  Today of all days I thought this must be party central! 

As I approached the Centre on Greys Inn Road, I anticipated their hall packed to the rafters with men in rugby shirts, kids in novelty daffodil costumes, rivers of Brains SA ale and the whole building shaking with song.  With trepidation of experiencing total and complete concentrated Welshness, I stepped over the threashhold...

Nothing but deathly silence. 

Not here were those Men of Harlech.  Not a soul anywhere to be found.  After a quick look round I found somebody who, very surprised at my presence informed me the bar wasn't to open until 5.30pm.  In all honestly I've never seen much going on at London Welsh Centre and although I'm aware they do have a programme of events it would seem I'm never around when these are staged or I just miss them. 

Never mind, I wasn't about to let this setback interfere with my mission.  I consoled byself at the Bree Louise in Euston, where they have Brains SA in a gravity cask.

Quaffing this above-average ale I became aware something was missing.  That something was laver bread, or purred seaweed.  This delicacy is not something widely known outside of Wales but I'm rather partial to it having also ate other types of seaweed in Korea and other countries and restaurants.  Where I could obtain this product in London would prove something of a challenge.  Off the top of my head I could only think of Fortnum & Masons, the upmarket suppliers of quality produce to both Royalty and tourists.  Onwards to Piccadilly then, to try and source some salty seaweed treats.

Now this is more like it!  Outside the front of the shop was this festive display announcing a Welsh food festival was taking place in store! 

I went downstairs and saw a selection of Welsh products displayed with many free samples to try.  There were all sorts of things including biscuits, mushrooms, seasoning, even wine and whiskey.  Unfortunately however, no laver bread but the range of other products more than made up for this. 

I had by this stage, to make my way to Ealing in west London since there were already plans to play poker and darts with my brother-in-law and our mutual friend Matias.  Since I already knew my day would culminate in this, I could only supplement the pub games with some rubbish souvenir playing cards and Red Dragon dart flights.  There I go commodifing St. David's Day and Welshness.  It's a long way to go before becoming anything like St. Patrick's Day, but I might have taken it a step closer with these kitsch accessories.  Where's my novelty daffodil hat?

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