Wales, that awkward shaped country that protrudes into the sea from England’s west-central belt, is famous for a multitude of things; leeks, Tom Jones, rugby, Scott of the Antarctic, the list is almost infinite.
But without doubt, one of the country’s best loved icons, worshiped in households across the land, is the humble Welsh Rarebit.
Not to be mistaken for a fluffy four-legged creature that can be found in many a farmer’s field, Rarebit is actually an upgraded, luxury version of cheese on toast. Its history is as colourful and varied as the ingredients used to make it and, like the cheese itself, can differ dramatically according to the Welsh locality you’re trying it in.
The History of Welsh Rarebit
The origins of Welsh Rarebit aren’t particularly clear, but the majority of accounts lend themselves to suggest that it comes from the idea that early Welsh farmers, peasants and land workers were either too poor, or too inefficient at catching rabbits, to provide meat for their meals. As a result, cheese and its derivatives became the staple protein. These accounts suggest that Welsh Rarebit would have been Welsh Rabbit, had they been able or allowed to eat any.
A slightly less slanderous account suggests merely that the word Rarebit comes from the term ‘rare’, as a form of cooking, and ‘bit’, as a quantity, and simply means a small piece of cooked Welsh cheese. Either way, historians have battled to prove the etymology of the word since the term was first coined in 1785.
An early account, dating back as far as the early 1500s and found in writing by Andre Boorde in his ‘First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge’ makes reference to baked cheese, otherwise known in Welsh as Caws Pobi, so the inference is that neither of the two preceding theories is correct. It is clear why today’s historians are struggling to find its origins.
Although there are specific ingredients which are found in most recipes for Welsh Rarebit, a variety of additional ingredients can also be added, such as a poached egg beneath the cheese layer, or a topping of freshly sliced tomatoes and a helping of Branston pickle. As long as the cheese layer is melted in a pan prior to grilling, you can consider your dish to be following the original Welsh recipe regardless of what else you add. Be sure to use Cheddar made without rennet for a vegetarian option and vegetarian ingredients throughout.
Although this dish has a number of variations, it is widely accepted that true Rarebit should follow this basic outline. For culinary enthusiasts whose kitchen skills don’t extend beyond eating the results of someone else’s labour, it is worth noting that some major supermarkets sell a pre-packed Welsh Rarebit cheese that only requires slicing and grilling.
To make Welsh Rarebit you will need the following ingredients:
8oz grated, strong Cheddar
1 tablespoon Welsh butter
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon mustard
2 teaspoons plain flour
4 tablespoons Welsh beer (or milk for those who prefer not to use alcohol)
freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bread
Step 1: Mix the Cheddar, butter, Worcester sauce, mustard and flour together in a dry saucepan.
Step 2: Place on the heat and, as the cheese begins to melt, add a dash of the beer or milk and keep stirring. Do not allow the pan to become too hot or the mixture will burn, and do not add too much liquid or it will become too wet.
Step 3: Continue to add small quantities of beer as you are melting the ingredients, until it is paste-like but still thick. If you add too much liquid in error, add a little more flour and cheese to absorb it again.
Step 4: Grill the bread on one side only. Turn the slices over and spread the cheese mixture onto the un-grilled sides. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and place back under the grill until the cheese mixture bubbles. The grill should be at a medium heat to produce the best results. It will take longer to cook but will melt more evenly, producing the perfect Welsh Rarebit