Food & Drink · Travel

Ro’s Recipes: Two Keys Found in Wales

 

Longevity in friendship is one of life’s true blessings. I am reminded of this now, as I’m planning for the upcoming visit of a great, dear, old friend. Over several decades, we have celebrated weddings, welcomed children, cheered new jobs, congratulated achievements, puzzled over troubles, mourned losses, contemplated retirement and recognized the future.

In the early 1970s, Cathie and I shared a flat in London with three other young ladies, Susie, Mary, and Carolyn, just out of college. We were making our way in the world, learning how to drink plonk, (cheap wine) and entertaining young men with experimental renditions of our respective mothers’ Sunday lunch specials – in my case quite badly.

Each of us had our own style. Susie, with independent means, frequently developed an inconvenient headache, so she would buy made ingredients. Mary would imagine a pasta, and elegantly frittered ingredients in the pan, stirring in a desultory way with one hand and a cigarette or glass of wine in the other, as if conjuring a mystery. Carolyn’s style was very down to earth, good simple English food put together in a workmanlike way.

What all these young ladies had in common was that they decorated the kitchen like a crazed Dali with not a square inch of counter space, clean pot, pan or plate. Cupboards and drawers were flung open. And the sink was full of the great un-washed! This was terrorism to Cathie and me. We both carry the organization gene.

Cathie was by far the most relaxed and adept, moving about with confidence. She’d been helping her mother in the kitchen before she could reach the sink. When I asked her often what she was doing, she’d tell me, “This is the way Mummy does it.”

In the spring of our friendship, Cathie invited me for a long weekend with her family in Wales. The glorious Celtic country to the west of the middle of England, known for heavenly voices, sheep that roam the hillsides, cows that provide milk for Caerphilly cheese and more. And hillsides that grow cereals for all sorts of Welsh breads and cakes: laverbread from seaweed, bara brith, or speckled bread, Welsh tea cakes.

I think this was the first weekend house party I attended as a “grown up.” Her parents welcomed me into their gracious, classically comfortable home as an adult, asking me to come down for “drinks” before dinner when I’d unpacked and changed out of my traveling clothes.

The conversation over drinks was friendly and mildly socially invigorating, just as it should be. A quick polite inquiry as to the how-doing of the job, family, a tad of political to and fro, a snippet of cultural interest. These are akin to the appetizing nibbles prior to sitting down for dinner: little smilers and eye openers, a slight wink of peppery opinion, the smooth ease of agreement. Nothing that’s going to take a serious challenge to resolve, or disrupt the digestion of discussion for the rest of the evening.

This was the first of a few meals where I experienced the light, chatty, but also warm, serious discussions about current events, cultural norms and differences, development of my nascent political understanding, explorations of principles and perversions, respectful listening to informed ruminations of life beyond the past, present or immediate future, all interspersed with curls of good humor and laughter — the salve that heals a bruised opinion. This was a safe place to be nurtured and respected as an adult. It was a ground spread of comfort I had not been offered, nor felt before. I could share and discuss poetry, literature, art, theater and not fear my ignorance in an adult environment.

Cathie’s mother, Dilys, prepared a wonderful and delicious dinner, using ingredients sourced from local farmers and a butcher. The table was graced with flowers from her garden, arranged with the ease of gathering blooms into an apron and placing them to loll in a simple vase. No pretension — just nature smiling for the camera.

The first course was a simple chicken liver pâté served with toast points and cornichons. It was sumptuous, rich, and delicious — of course. But what impressed me more than anything, having a mother who “couldn’t boil water,” according to my father, was the delightful surprise that you could make it yourself. It was a revelation! An important one.

Wales, for me, held two inter-disciplinary keys: my social and intellectual confidence and my culinary exploratory drive, which led to a totally unexpected career.

Reflection, retrospection, understanding.

I honor the memory and grace of Dilys Owen-Lloyd for encouraging me to learn and boil more than water!

Read More »: Ro’s Recipes for Welsh Rarebit and Chicken Liver Pâté

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