Welsh rabbit, welsh rarebit… or rather Gloucestershire rabbit
A fancy name for cheese on toast…. or something else entirely? Welsh rarebit has both pedigree and reputation.
What other dish can turn a couple of blood-spattered, broken-boned adventurers who have just had a cliff dropped down on top of them into recovered and refreshed human perfection? Yet
“A hot bath and an hour’s rest at the accommodating Granville had been followed by two stiff brandies-an-sodas for Gala and three for Bond followed by delicious fried soles and Welsh rarebits and coffee. And now, as they confidently approached the house, it would have needed second sight to tell that they were both dead tired and that they were naked and bruised under their walking clothes”
Moonraker, Ian Fleming
What further proof of the miracle-working properties of the Welsh rabbit could there be? I admit the brandies-and-sodas might also have had something to do with it. Now on to the history.
The original (and less nonsensical) name for this particular combination of cheese, toast, and ale is Welsh Rabbit. According to some sources most of the Welsh were a bit hard up and they substituted cheese for (more expensive) rabbit which at least makes some sort of logical sense. At the end of the eighteenth century a lexographer with little logic and even less imagination couldn’t see the explanation and invented, as an improvement, the completely meaningless ‘newer’ version, Welsh Rarebit.
And it’s not only the ‘rarebit’ bit which is so misleading, but also the ‘Welsh’ bit since this dish is just as popular in England and Ireland. In fact there’s widespread consensus that either Lancashire or Gloucestershire cheese is an improvement on Caerphilly (bit too mild and crumbly), and there are numerous contenders insisting that the very Irish Guiness is the best beer to use rather than Welsh ale or stout. In spite of that Andrew Boorde, physician, priest, traveller… and clearly a bit of a wit writing only a few hundred years ago tells a ‘St Peter at the gates of heaven’ joke (see below) which proves that the Welsh have been considered partial to a trencher of roasted cheese for quite some time….
Nevertheless, not to be outdone, it’s possible also to make an Irish version using Irish cheese, spring onions and stout. There is even a really delicious Lebanese-style version which substitutes the Gloucestershire cheese for feta, and includes a tablespoon or so of thick yoghurt, some spring onions, a couple of teaspoons of za’atar and some dry fried cumin seeds…. hmmm.
How to make the original Welsh version? Well, of course, there are all kinds of fancy modern versions (Jamie Oliver’s includes chilli jam for heaven’s sake) which include egg yolks and white sauce, but we of the Life Is Too Short school of cooking prefer the traditional, dead simple version comprising bread, stout, mustard, and double Gloucester cheese. It doesn’t need a whole bottle of stout or ale so, obviously, drink the remainder with the meal. It’s important to serve this dish IMMEDIATELY and PIPING HOT otherwise when the cheese cools down it starts to get a bit rubbery.
- 100 ml/½ cup stout (malty) or ale (nutty)
- 250g double Gloucester cheese (grate 50g – about ½ cup) and slice the rest very thinly with a cheese slice
- 2 tsp of English mustard
- salt and pepper
- 4 slices of nice nutty, seedy wholemeal bread
- butter or bacon fat
- spread each of the slices of cheese thinly with the mustard and put into a thick-bottomed saucepan
- cover with the stout and heat slowly over a low heat so that the cheese and stout meld together
- toast the bread on both sides (if you only toast one side it goes soggy and saggy) and spread with the butter. Alternatively, an old recipe suggests “for a rich rabbit, fry the toast in bacon fat”
- pour the melted cheese over, season and serve
Andrew Boorde’s St Peter joke:
“Fynde wryten amonge olde jestes how God made St Peter porter of heven. And that God of his goodness suffred many men to come to the kyngdome with small deserving. At which tyme, there was in heven a grete company of Welchmen which with they rekrakynge and babelyngetrobelyd all the others. Wherefore God says to St Peter that he was wery of them and he would fayne have them out of heven. To whome St Peter sayde, ‘Good Lorde, I warrant you that shall be shortly done’. Wherefore St Peter went outside of heven gayts and cryd with a loude voice, ‘Cause Babe! Cause Baby!’, that is as moche as to say’Rosty’d chese!’. Which thynge the Welchmen herying ran out of heven a grete pace… And when St Peter sawe them all out he soddenly went into Heven and lokkyd the dore! and so aparyd all the Welchmen out!”.
Andrew Boorde (1490-1549) The Breviary and Dyetary
And from the diary of Joan Wyndham, 6 July 1943:
“I noticed a very funny note in the kitchen from old Kaate who ‘does’ for my mother. ‘Madam’ it said, ‘had one bomb] at the top of our street. I was shott out of my bbed. It was gastley, all night digging. Today I am nearly a cripple, I can hardly walk. I think it must be rumatism. I am breaking up. The butcher has run out of sausages.’. My mother’s note for today simple said, ‘Dear Kate, so glad you are still alive. I think we will have Welsh Rarebit tonight'”