Welsh love spoons and cawl spoons

I love Welsh spoons, whilst the tradition of spooncarving died out in England it continued to be strong in Wales with many folk still alive that ate all the time with wooden bowls and spoons in their youth. This was particularly the case for the Welsh national dish a traditional broth called cawl (recipe below). Then there is the strong tradition of “love spoons” and probably more spoons made today for the tourist trade than were ever made in the past. Lets have a look at some of these spoons and learn a little more about them.

The oldest dated love spoon in the collection of St Fagans National History Museum is dated 1667

they say
“The lovespoon tradition stems from the times when the ordinary people of Wales used wooden utensils to eat. The collection of lovespoons at the Museum includes some 200 spoons, most of which were carved during the 18th and 19th centuries. The oldest spoon housed at the Museum is dated 1667. The adornments on these carvings are symbolic. For example, the dragon is a symbol of protection, diamonds are for luck, and a cross carved into a spoon is a sign of the carver’s faith. The number of wooden balls in a cage symbolises the number of children that the carver wished to have with his loved one.”
Pinto in his seminal book Treen has a whole chapter of authoritative text on love tokens which puts love spoons in context. Many domestic items used to be decorated and presented as tokens of affection across all of Europe from stay busks and knitting sheaths to lace bobbins and small furniture. Here are some impressive early Welsh love spoons from Pinto’s collection.

The love token tradition was particularly strong in maritime culture with sailors doing carving and scrimshaw work on wood and ivory. This was transformed in Wales in Victorian times at the same time as the advent of gift cards and love spoons became an item of commerce, produced for sale as a curio or memento. Today most of the love spoons produced are……I shall be polite and say not to my taste. This is typical, bandsawn and powersanded churned out with little love or skill to feed the insatiable demand for cheap consumer tat, oh Wales what did you do with your great tradition? If you must buy a lovespoon get a decent one from Ralph Hental or Adam King.

Now cawl spoons, there is something still to be proud of. The gorgeous spoons below are from Jonathan Levi’s collection and in his book “treen for the table” (recommended)

More examples of good old love spoons

and these dolphin shaped ones he suggests are from Caernarvonshire.

I have some spoons and bowls made for me by Gwyndaff Breeze who used to work at St Fagan’s his cawl spoons had two different ends, one tapering to a point he called a rat tail. These he claimed came from areas where peat was the dominant fuel and the point could be spiked into a piece of peat beside the fire. I’ll try to add photos of Gwyndaff’s spoons after the weekend.

So I promised a recipe, there are lots to choose from because like most living traditions it varies with region and each home develops their own. I like this one from the BBC Wales website.

Alsion Argument from Llanfair Caereinion shares a family secret:
“I make this delicious lamb broth in the same way as my Grandmother would have. It is a dish which was served in our family each Thursday, although we felt that it was always better on Friday if there was any left as the vegetable had become a bit mushy and absorbed the lovely juice. It is not quick to make properly but it is very simple.
You will need a piece of lamb – usually shoulder or breast (whichever is cheapest). Cover the lamb with water and add a whole onion, roughly chopped, some peppercorns (about six) and a little salt.
Bring the water to the boil and then allow to simmer until the meat falls easily off the bone. This will take up to a couple of hours.
Remove the lamb from the water and strain the stock that is left. When the lamb is cooled a little, remove all the meat from the bone and discard the bone and any excess fat. Cut or break the meat into bite size pieces.
Allow the stock to cool and skim off the excess fat, if you wish (you can also do this by leaving the stock overnight and this will leave a hard fat covering on the top which can be removed in one piece.
The vegetables you will need are a small swede, two or three parsnips, three or four carrots, three or four large potatoes and about two or three large leeks.
Clean and prepare the vegetables and chop into decent size chunks (not too small – you are making a stew rather than a fine soup).
Now you will need to melt some butter in large pan (O.K. – so this is not a low cholesterol dish!) and start by softening the vegetables in the butter. If you start with the firm vegetables like swede and carrot and leave them to fry for a little while before adding the parsnip, potato.
Add the leeks when the rest of the vegetables are nice and buttery and starting to soften. Then add back in your strained lamb stock and the lamb chunks.
You may need to add a little extra water – just make sure the vegetables are covered at all times. Bring to the boil again and simmer for about one hour until the vegetables are cooked.
The only other seasoning you will need is a handful of chopped parsley and you might like to adjust the salt and pepper content at the end.
Serve the stew piping hot with some freshly ground pepper and a good chunk of crusty bread and maybe a piece of good cheddar cheese.”
By Alyson Argument from Llanfair Caereinion 

And now to give you an authentic Welsh voice talking about cawl spoons I rather like this youtube

12 Responses to Welsh love spoons and cawl spoons

  1. Le Loup October 28, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Last time I was in the UK I tried to find a love spoon to buy for my wife. Never found any.Keith.http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

  2. Gorges Smythe October 29, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    Interesting stuff!

  3. Rhugl October 29, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Good article on a slightly mis-understood subject. Spoons were given not just as a token of love but were offered in much the same way as an engagement ring is nowadays. The girl might be offered several spoons but would only take the one that appealed the most.As you say there were several messages conveyed in the spoon itself,some of which would suggest the man's virility,etc.. On the acceptance of the spoon it was taken that there was a commitment made and a suggestion offered of the delights to come when they were married! Hence the Wenglish terms-spooning[love-making] and sboner[lover].Cawl spoons were not referred to as llwyau[spoons] but were called a lletwad[ladle].A lletwad bach was a small ladle for eating your cawl and a lletwad mawr was for getting the cawl out of the cauldron. The lletwad mawr had a hook on the end for hanging on the rim of the cauldron.Whilst I agree that there are many variations of cawl,what is described here is closer to a lob scouse traditionally served in the northern parts of Wales. Cawl traditionally had none or very little meat and was usually based on ham or mutton bones,boiled slowly on a cooking range or open fire over several days,skimmed often. The vegetables were added directly to the broth and would not have included such things as peppercorns!Finally there are still spoons crafted by hand in Wales allthough maybe not commercially. I will try to find some names. Spoons were crafted by a Twca Cam-a bent dirk or cleaver,usually made in recent times out of used cut-throat razors.

  4. Rhugl October 29, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Robin,check this out-http://www.18531.com/2007/03/really-making-polyandry-family-pretty-talented-hostess/

  5. Robin Wood October 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Rhugi thanks for that interesting comment. I was particularly grateful to know lletwad bach.When you talk about the meaning of the gift eg "On the acceptance of the spoon it was taken that there was a commitment made" what is the source of your information? There is clearly so much Victorian and later elaboration to sell products and this has passed into oral history much like the Bedgelert story. I am keen to find as much earlier primary source information as I can.

  6. Robin Wood October 29, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Rhugi,yes seen the Tibtan bowlturners before, good blog post.

  7. Rhugl October 30, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    My source of information on the love-spoons,etc. is oral as well i'm afraid. These things were discussed by my family so have no reason to suspect that they are anything but true. The Gelert story was precisely that a story made up to attract tourists,though it is likely there was a degree of truth to that.I appreciate the fact that you seek to quantify this,but Welsh history is mostly oral especially after the dissolution of the Monasteries. However,I will look through the books I have on love-spoons to see if there is any further information I can glean

  8. JafaBrit's Art October 31, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I love wood spoons but wasn't familiar with the tradition of love spoons. What a fabulous post, and really enjoyed the video and comments also.

  9. Hannah November 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Please tell me what book this is??I am looking for all kind of examples of love spoons.you can contact me back on gwynwilliamsjones@gmail.comthank youthank you

  10. Robin Wood November 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    The two books I mention Hannah are Treen and other wooden bygones by Pinto (B&W pictures) and Treen for the table by Levi (colour pictures)

  11. paul November 3, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    hi Ribin, thanks for this post. i have in the past looked for information on cawl spoons on the web but never found even this much information, its all lovespoons as soon as you search on welsh spoons. since becoming obsessed with spoon carving a year or so ago i have wanted to develop my style towards making welsh spoons in wales rather than my current more generic spoons.thanks again.Paul

  12. Jeff Evans.(Hairy Spooner, re-enactor) October 21, 2015 at 7:33 pm #

    I have been carving spoons for 30 years to be used during re-enactments covering Medieval to Elizabethan and later. I made a quantity of spoons and blades for the film series Hornblower but they did not return from the filming venue (lifted by the local populace). My family on my father’s side had farms in Lampeter and Aberarth where wooden bowls and spoons were in regular use, bowls being stacked on a shelf next to the open fire place and a rack with three steps to hold the spoons was secured nearby on the wall. I still have a Cawl spoon that was my grandmother’s, she died in 1952 at the age of 83 and which I used during my childhood. Some years ago I made a set of 15 cawl spoons and two small salt spoons all on a three step rack.for the Skirrid Inn near Abergavenny At the moment I’m making some large kitchen spoons of cawl design and 2ft long so that they can stir the contents of cauldrons. Another spoon that generates a lot of interest is a tasting ladle with a small spoon bowl at the end of the handle and a groove along the shaft so that the cook can lean over the spit, dip the ladle into the cauldron and taste the contents by tipping the spoon up gently so that the juice flows down the shaft. so as not to get a face full of pottage the taster has to be acquainted with the skill of drinking a yard of ale.