Picau-ar-y-maen – Welsh cakes

One of my favourite childhood memories is shearing time. I grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of Wales, with my grandparents next door and my aunt, uncle and cousins across the field. Some mornings throughout the year we’d be woken up early to get dressed in overalls (the only thing that will keep the clothes of a bunch of kids marauding across the Welsh countryside relatively clean) and wellies, and head out up to the top of the farm to round-up the sheep, bringing them down to other fields, or into the pens in the paddock if it was dipping or shearing time.

I never remember being told it was shearing day, just that I would wake up to the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep, the odd rattle of corrugated metal sheet fences as they were shuttled through the pens, the sharp smell of sheep shit and wool heavy in the morning air. My brother and I would dress in an excited flurry, hopping out the door with one welly on and overalls flapping, desperate to watch.

Sheep farming is a solitary business, and it takes more than one man to shear a flock – there must have been some complicated schedule around the village, because neighbours would come to help on our farm, and my grandfather to theirs – sort of like one of those barn-raisings you see in the movies, but with less singing and dancing. And a lot more sheep.

Everyone would be enlisted – the men to corral the sheep and do the actual business of shearing, the wives to gather and roll the wool and pack into huge, oily hessian sacks tacked up between fenceposts. When I was very young I remember being allowed to climb onto the roof of the land-rover to jump on the sacks and pack down the wool, but this was soon deemed too dangerous, much to the disappointment of everyone under the age of ten.

Instead we’d be enlisted to peel a mountain of potatoes and veg in big buckets outside my Grandmother’s front door, and help prepare for the big meal to feed the army of helpers.

Welsh cakes were a fixture of the day, thick with butter or sugar. I still associate them with home and shearing, and I bake them every St David’s Day as a token offering – along with a bunch of daffodils in a vase on the table – to my Welsh blood.

But it’s when the summer starts to turn to autumn that I make them now, and today with the rain sheeting down and grim, and because I’m feeling a little homesick, it was the perfect opportunity to make them.

You can buy them in M&S, and some supermarkets, but you’re missing out on their wonder if you don’t eat them when they’re homemade and warm from the pan.

Here’s the recipe, that I copied from my mum’s hand-written recipe book. I add more fruit and spice though, since I love things fruity and spicy (wink wink nudge nudge) but it’s up to you how much you put in. Traditionally these were cooked straight on top of the stove, no need for a pan, but sadly I’ve never actually made them like that, despite having both a stove and a coal-fired rayburn back home in Wales.

  • 8 oz self-raising flour
  • 4 oz butter or margarine
  • 3 oz mixed fruit and/or sultanas
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice

Sift flour, sugar and spice and mix well. Rub in margarine.

Add fruit and mix well.

Beat egg lightly and add. Mix to a dough (if it’s too dry add a bit of milk)

Roll out onto a floured surface till about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut out shapes. As you can see from the pictures above, mine never turn out particularly neat (probably because I use more fruit than the recipe calls for, but, meh, it’s a price I’m willing to pay) – but I use a round cutter about 3 inches wide). Lightly grease a frying pan with margarine/butter – if you can use a cast iron pan even better.

Heat pan over medium heat, and cook cakes for approx 3 mins on each side.

Watch carefully, they burn easily! I generally lose a couple to the burning, but I eat them anyway, because waste not want not eh? You can eat them with butter or sugar sprinkled on, but I think they’re best plain, hot from the pan, and with a nice cup of tea. Eat whilst curled up next to an open fire if possible, in a nice comfy chair with a good book if not.

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