Cawl is a Welsh classic. If you grew up here, chances are it was a staple school dinner, Friday supper or weekend lunch. Outside of Wales, however, it’s less well known.
This is a dish that’s at once highly specific and quite hard to define. At its simplest, it’s a slow-cooked meat-and-vegetable soup, usually served during winter or early spring and often made with potatoes, onions, root vegetables and leeks, but it’s also closely related to stew. “It’s a peasant dish — plain but wholesome — that wouldn’t have been written down, but would have been handed down from family to family,” says food writer Nerys Howell, author of Welsh Food by Season.
On one hand, the word ‘cawl’ can be taken to mean ‘soup’ or ‘broth’ (as in, for example, cawl ffa: broad bean soup), but ‘cawl’ also has a more particular meaning, with a cultural significance much like that of Irish stew or Russian borscht. It may have come from the Latin ‘caulis’, meaning ‘stalk’ or sometimes cabbage, or it could be related to another Latin word, ‘calidus’, which is the root of ‘caldo’ — a cawl-like soup made in Galicia, northwest Spain, and in neighbouring Portugal.
In the past — as was the case in Howell’s family — the meat and vegetables would sometimes be removed from the cawl pot and eaten separately, with the broth being served second or saved for another day (any residual fat or jelly would also be skimmed off the top and saved.) Whether it was — or is — made with lamb, beef or bacon, potatoes or oats, leeks or onions, would depend on where in Wales it was being cooked, by whom and in which historical period; there’s no universally accepted recipe. According to food historian Bobby Freeman, in South Wales the dish usually involves lamb, and sometimes beef, while in North Wales, it’s more often beef. However, the latter version tends to go by the name of lobscouse, or lobscows, making it unclear whether it is in fact a version of cawl, or simply North Wales’ answer to scouse, the very similar stew synonymous with nearby Liverpool.
Cawl predates written records, and archaeological evidence suggests prehistoric Welsh cooks were cooking using pots of water warmed with fire-heated stones. The landscape in Wales is speckled with evidence of this in the shape of ‘burnt mounds’ (shattered, scorched rock fragments and charcoal), some dating back to around 2500 BC. This practice of pot-boiling with hot stones lasted well into the Roman era in some areas, and although many Iron Age cooks would have used cauldrons suspended over fires, it was the Romans who brought mass-produced iron cooking pots to Britain. These three-legged cauldrons were widely used for cawl-making well into the 20th century.
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