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
“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.
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