I didn’t go to uni in Wales.
It’s an odd statement to begin with, sure, but it’s something that has brought endless shame and disappointment to my parents who both went to
Aberystwth Abersythwith Aberystwyth university.
I remember one summer they took me and my sister on a long and winding car trip to their old stomping ground which basically consisted of us standing in drizzle while they oohed and ahhed over university buildings saying things like “oh look darling, didn’t this used to be maths?” and “gosh I can’t believe that’s still standing!” The whole trip culminated in a maddening journey where we walked, shivering, along the seafront to kick an old post – sorry, bar – for no reason whatsoever. As an eleven year old whose friends were all sending me postcards of their fortnights in Mallorca and Tenerife it was not the highlight of my summer holiday.
Ten years later my sister proudly made her way to Aberysy…Aberysywt… the same uni too, where she met her boyfriend who also had two brothers who had studied there. Cue more dizzying car trips to visit her and engage in more nonsensical violence against public railings once we got there. But now I was outnumbered – when my sister suggested we walk up something very high and steep called Constitution Hill (because, speaking from experience, you need an iron constitution to survive it) everyone got very excited instead of quite rightly asking if she’d gone mad. Later that very same day she offered to show us round the uni. The catch? To get there we had to walk up another seemingly never ending hill. Cue more gleeful hand clapping as I stood there, still dripping in sweat, wondering when we’d get to come down from all these hills (the answer was never – to this day I’m convinced that Aber operates like some sort of Penrose staircase; always going up, up, forever and exhaustingly up.) Those Aberystwyth sunsets though? Phew.
Needless to say I was very interested when I was contacted a month or so ago by an archivist at the Ceredigion Archives who introduced me to their records of life in Wales (including lots of Aber life) and most notably a 19th century recipe book from the Webley-Parry papers. Finally, here was my chance to earn my family’s respect!
The Webley-Parry family were landed gentry from Cardiganshire, and the Ceredigion Archives houses many papers relating to various members of the family through the 18th and 19th centuries. The recipe book from today’s experiment contains handwritten everyday tips, hints and recipes for the Webley-Parry family written by different authors from different times, most likely the cooks of rich households who shared recipes with each other. There are loads of interesting recipes in the archives that have been digitally uploaded – for roasts, tea biscuits (which one archivist has already made), wines and something called ‘Shrub’. Today I chose pancakes because it was Sunday – a day made for ‘fancy breakfast’ (read: cereal out of a bowl rather than stood over the sink gobbling dry fistfuls of it).
Interestingly, this was the first recipe I’ve recreated from an original source. I had to spend a while deciphering the handwriting but I think I managed to follow most of the instructions accurately with the right ingredients. If you think I’ve made a mistake please let me know by writing me a letter and popping it straight into the recycling bin.
I’ve written about making pancakes before, and the recipe here struck me as being similar to medieval ‘Crespes’, so I was interested to see what the differences were.
Before we start I will admit to one tiny mistake; the last instruction said to fry the pancakes in lard “as you do fritters”. This was what made them so crispy, I assume. I misread the handwriting and thought it said fry in lard “as you do kittens.” I was alarmed; I had never fried a kitten in lard (or any other cooking oil) and wasn’t sure of the best way, so carried on cooking them in in ordinary amounts of butter. By the time I’d worked out what it meant most of the batter had been used up so I was only able to fry two as if they were fritters.
First I took a pint of flour and added six egg yolks and two egg whites to it. A ridiculous amount of eggs, I agree, but at least now I have an excuse to make meringue. To make it into a batter I added warm water, sherry and mixed together before adding a little salt and mixed spice.
The recipe then said to add the mixture to a small pan and “bake them, but not too much” (helpful) before frying them in lard (like fritters, not kittens.) Because, as discussed, I wasn’t entirely sure of the handwritten instructions, I ended up cooking most of them like conventional crepes (in a little bit of butter until cooked on each side) – which resulted in very tasty but much floppier pancakes than what was intended.
The last two, however, I was able to recreate more closely to the original. The “bake them, but not too much” instruction confused me – if I baked what was left one at a time in a pan in the oven I’d be there all day baking and frying, waiting for the pan to cool before discarding butter and baking and frying all over again. If I just poured the batter out into pancake size blobs onto a baking tray and baked them surely it would all pool into one big pancake which I’d then not be able to fry? I ended up ‘baking’ them in a dry pan over a low flame until the wetness of the batter had disappeared but there were no dark spots.
Then it was time to fry them properly. I removed my barely baked pancakes and dolloped about half a packet of butter into the hot pan. After I’d opened a window, gulped down a few lungfuls of fresh air and blinked the smoke out of my eyes I tried again with the remaining butter (that’s right – I wasted a whole packet for this) in a cold pan heated slowly over time. Once the butter was hot, but not so hot it sent the town’s fire brigade to my front door, I cautiously placed one of the pancakes into the pool. It puffed up a little bit like a chapati, but not all the way round, and after about 30 seconds I flipped it over to cook on the other side.
So, what were these pancakes like? Well, the first lot which I hadn’t cooked in a whole packet of butter were absolutely delicious. Rich and quite eggy without being cloying and with a definite hit of sherry – they were like a very fancy modern pancake. The mixed spice added a lovely warming hit which meant that (and I never thought I’d say this) they had enough flavour that I found myself wondering if I’d even need sugar and lemon to complete the dish at all. As somewhat of a pancake purist, to put it mildly, the idea of serving a crepe pancake without lemon and sugar was anathema to me – yet here I was quite happily forking this delicately spiced, slightly alcoholic pancake into my mouth while the expectant lemon sat un-squeezed and un-needed.
The properly fried ones were something slightly different, however. As my husband put it, they were like “concentrated pancake.” The taste was a lot more overpowering – the sherry was gone, replaced with a butteriness that seeped into every taste bud. The spice was still there, but it was fighting more to be heard and with the fried ones I found myself wanting the citric tartness of a lemon to cut through the grease. Were they crispy, though, as the recipe promised they would be? Well, not really. They were certainly crispier than the other ones, but once you bit through an initial crust-like layer, they were still soft inside. I also think they needed to be eaten immediately to enjoy maximum crispiness – again, much like a chapati, they began to deflate quickly once off the heat.
While I’m still not 100% sold on the fried ones, the first batch I made were truly delicious and I have to thank Ceredigion Archives for bringing the recipe book to my attention – these just might become my new Sunday ‘fancy breakfast’, they were lovely and I will definitely be making them again.
So am I sad I missed out on the chance to study at Aber? I mean, sure. It’s true I’ll never be an authentic Aberystwythian(?), not least because I lack the levels of fitness required to live anywhere that’s not dead on sea level. But in making these pancakes and delving into the Ceredigion Archives I sort of feel like I got a little glimpse into a small sliver of the history of Wales and Aberystwyth (spelled it right first time round – get in!)
Unlike my parents and sister I may not have studied or lived in Wales – but if it’s as good as these pancakes I get why my family was, and is, so charmed by the country.
Ond nid af i fyny’r bryn hwnnw eilwers.*
*I don’t speak Welsh so this is the work of Google translate. I know what I was trying to say but please forgive me if it’s been translated as “hurry spatula fourteen eels” or some other nonsensical slogan – you know what Google translate can be like.
1 pint of plain flour
6 egg yolks
2 egg whites
A sherry glass of sherry
A pinch of mixed spice
- Combine flour, eggs, sherry and spice together to form a dough.
- Add warm water to create a consistency of double cream.
- Cook the pancakes until just cooked through but not browned in a pan.
- In another pan, melt a good spoonful of butter – you want to be able to cover the pancake in it.
- Place the pancake into the melted hot butter and fry until it puffs up. Flip over and fry again.
- Repeat for the remaining pancakes.