There’s something about a birthday these days that has me rummaging through memories for something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whispers of questions, dreamy, hazy smells of something important that I can’t quite remember have been making me itchy for a while, and I’ve had a yearning to go back to Wales, land of my mothers and my fathers, for months now.
I’m Welsh. 100%. I’ve never had a Welsh accent, and apart from a Diolch and a few Gwlads, I’ve never spoken the language. We travelled the world, as Army families do, and a boarding school in Bath was more home than Abergavenny ever was over those interminable, friendless summers of my teens. I couldn’t wait to get out of Wales and continue to travel, and so I did and do, determined never to spend another summer in Wales.
Travelling has made me adventurous about how we live too. I could as easily live in rural Sussex as an ashram in India, a Victorian semi in Brighton or a top floor flat in Sydney overlooking Circular Quay. Home now is where my husband lays any one of his Fedoras and where the kids and dogs come back to after they’ve been wandering. I am a rootless romantic, always up for the next adventure, and I like it that way.
So why was I cruising with my girls through the Gower this week – or Gwyr, as I deliberately chose to spell it on Facebook? Why was I sitting on the beaches of my childhood in Port Eynon and looking down over the cliffs of Rhossilli at a sweeping sandy bay whose limp waves whisper some of those questions I can’t quite hear?
I knew it would be food that I was looking for; it always is. The last time I went chasing a whisp of a memory was after my father died two years ago. We spent his last days rearranging the family photo album of our Malay days in the ’60s, and I promised him I’d spend my 50th there with the family, sniffing our way back to the hawkers’ stalls of my early youth and finding the secret of our Malay curry. As I rediscovered the particular mix of spices that makes Malaysian food Malay, I remembered how important detail had been to my parents who had spent the rest of their lives making and remaking that curry until it was perfect, not for the Malays, but for them. It was, quite rightly, my father’s last supper.
And so as Auntie Eirwen and cousin Claire, four months younger and my playmate in my mother’s hometown of Llanelli sit down to talk food, we are propelled back to the ‘70s and Nana’s Sunday lunch of roast pork, apple sauce and mushy peas and the best gravy I’ve ever tasted. ‘Batchelors’, says Eirwen. Batchelor’s dried peas’. ‘She used to soak them’, chimes Claire. ‘Overnight in the net. And she always added sugar. ‘And butter’ adds Eirwen. ‘Just before serving them, she’d cut the net and add butter. Right at the end’. I am astonished at how much detail they remember.
Uncle John, Auntie Eirwen, Simon and Claire lived five minutes or so up the road from my Nana and Grandad who lived in the house where my mother was born. They still do. Separated by a wall from the Felinfoel brewery, the smells of my childhood were a mix of ale and roast pork, scrambled now as weekday teas blur into Sunday lunches. I remember almost nothing about those days other than those smells. Almost every memory is second hand.
‘Milk-fed pork’, says Eirwen. ‘She bought it in the butcher’s at Felinfoel.’ Hang on a minute; my dumpy, pinny-clad nana who fed the family while never leaving the kitchen, Margretta Williams who answered to ‘Get’ and called me ‘bach’, was buying milk fed pork like someone out of a Hugh Fernley Whittingstall series? I think I may have missed something. ‘She was a very slow cook but and you had to wait,’ explains Eirwen. ‘But what you had was excellent. She wasn’t one of these who would cook for you in ten minutes.’ Claire reminds me of her chips, crinkle cut, washed, dried, deep fried and then dried and deep fried again. ‘They were superb’.
Eirwen and Claire chat about Nana’s pikelets, served straight from the bakestone and crunchy with sugar and butter, one after the other for what seemed hours as we sat around the table playing cards. We never helped her. It was what Nana did, not us.
Audio: Eirwen makes pikelets, just like Nana did, for me and the girls. it’s the first time they’ve ever tasted them, and for me, it’s the taste I was looking for, that took me home to Wales.
I wonder about this woman who took such pride in detail I never noticed. I remember stories my mother had told me about her mother and her mother. And her mother. All from Llanelli, born and bred. Nana was brought up by her grandmother while her own very young mother, widowed when Nana was only four, went out to work. Nana would have been taught to cook by her grandmother, to buy well and to work with very little to go a long way. My mother had told me of the fish she would buy during the war from the fishwives who came door to door. She would stuff it with a single tomato and flavour it with herbs from the garden. ‘It was superb’, my mother would tell me.
Eirwen tells me more about the Penclawdd cockle sellers who came to the door with their wicker baskets draped with white cloths. ‘That was our Saturday dinner;’ she says in that lovely Lanelli lilt. ‘Bacon, egg and cockles’. Now almost 80, Eirwen is the keeper of the stories and tells me about Lanelli in the 1950s and the Italian ice creams and coffee of the Italian coal miners who brought the smells from home. ‘I’d have a knickerbocker glory’ she remembers. But only once a year because it was half a crown. It was so dear’.
As she makes me her own pikelets the next day, crunchy with sugar and butter, and shows me the family history Uncle John had been working on just before he died two years ago, I realise that no-one from this side of the family has ever moved. We look back through census record dating back to 1830, each family Llanelli born and bred.
The grass which has always been greener somewhere else for my family has always been home for my mother’s family and has drawn me back to find roots I never thought I’d need. Those hazy whispers of memories, a scrambled mix of Nana’s roast, Felinfoel ales and pikelets are like something out of the Bisto ad, luring me back to my family’s home of almost 300 years.
As the girls and I head back to Sussex where the Fedoras hang, we listen to Cerys Matthews sing songs from my past.
Sosban Fach, yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach
I sing along, hazy words fading in and out of memory, like the smells of pikelets and Felinfoel ale understanding nothing. And every word.
Audio: A whimsical adventure in sound as I came home again to Wales
Audio:Tania Swistun from one of the oldest cockles and laverbread stalls in the country tells how she has been at the family stall in Swansea Market since she was baby – in a box under the counter.