Eric Akis: Welsh rarebit a fitting way to toast St. David

Give the dish a Vancouver Island twist with local bread, beer and cheese

Eric Akis

If you’re of Welsh descent you’ll know that today is St. David’s Day, a celebration of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. St. David is believed to have died on March 1, 589, or slightly later, depending on the source. He was an archbishop in Wales who spread Christianity, founded monasteries, lived an ascetic life and is said to have performed miracles along the way.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of his most famous miracles is the formation of a hill beneath him as he preached to a large crowd, allowing them to see and hear him more clearly.

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That article also says that during this incident, a white dove landed on his shoulder, and St. David is often depicted this way.

In Wales, St. David’s Day celebrations include parades, festivals, parties and music. St. David’s Day is also celebrated in places where Welsh immigrants settled.

Traditional Welsh food, of course, is served. So, today, I offer a recipe for a Welsh dish that’s been enjoyed for eons, Welsh rarebit, originally known as — and still often called — Welsh rabbit.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, it’s a savoury creation that normally consists essentially of a piece of toast with melted cheese on it. The book goes on to say that the description would not have seemed adequate to Lady Llanover, a Welsh heiress who lived in the 1800s and published one of the first Welsh cookbooks.

To make Welsh rarebit, she says, you need to cut a slice of real Welsh cheese, made of sheep and cow’s milk, then toast a piece of bread less than a quarter-inch thick, to be quite crisp. Then Lady Llanover says to spread the bread on one side very thickly with fresh, cold butter, lay the cheese on it and serve it immediately on a very hot plate.

From that fairly straightforward method, as with many other dishes that have been around a long time, numerous variations have developed.

That said, most recipes I reviewed see toasted bread topped with a tangy cheese sauce flavoured with such things as beer, Worcestershire sauce and mustard.

In recipes for the dish, you’ll note that rabbit is never included, which has long made folks wonder why it was originally called Welsh rabbit.

There are few tales as to why that is, with one suggesting the name comes from Welsh peasants who ate cheese in place of meat because they could not afford the latter. Another story says someone gave it that name as a joke and it simply caught on.

I called my version of the dish Vancouver Island-style Welsh Rarebit, because I made it with locally made bread, cheese and beer. It will make a nice lunch or dinner when served with sliced tomato or a simple green salad.

Vancouver Island-style Welsh Rarebit

This hearty and rich version of the famous Welsh dish features bread, cheese and beer made on Vancouver Island.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 7 minutes

Makes: two servings

4 slices whole-grain Vancouver Island bread (see Note 1)

175 to 200 grams Little Qualicum Cheeseworks caerphilly cheese, grated (see Note 2)

2 tsp all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp dry mustard powder (I used Keen’s brand)

• pinch ground cayenne pepper

1/4 cup dark Vancouver Island beer (see Note 3)

1 Tbsp butter

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, or to taste

1 large egg yolk

1 green onion, thinly sliced

Put cheese, flour, mustard powder and cayenne pepper in a bowl and toss to combine. Put the cheese mixture, beer, butter and Worcestershire in a non-stick skillet.

Set skillet over medium heat and cook and stir until the cheese melts and mixture is smooth and almost simmering (do not boil).

Remove skillet from the heat.

Place egg yolk in a small bowl and break up yolk with a fork. Mix a tablespoon or so of the cheese mixture into the egg yolk to temper it.

Quickly mix the egg-yolk mixture into the cheese mixture in the skillet until combined.

Cool cheese mixture 15 minutes, until thickened but still a little warm and spreadable.

While cheese mixture cools, toast bread and set on a non-stick baking sheet.

Set an oven rack six inches below your oven’s broiler. Turn broiler to high.

When cheese mixture has cooled 15 minutes, thickly spread some of it on each piece of toasted bread. Broil the Welsh rarebits one to two minutes, until the cheese mixture is hot and lightly bubbling.

Set two pieces of Welsh rarebit on each of two plates. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.

Note 1: When testing this recipe, I used about five-inch-long oval slices of whole-grain bread from Victoria’s Wild Fire Bakery (wildfirebakery.ca). But any good local whole-grain bread, or sturdy white bread if you prefer, will also work.

Note 2: Little Qualicum Cheeseworks (morningstarfarm.ca) is located in Parksville. They say their Caerphilly cheese is a unique Welsh-inspired cheese characterized by its firm, crumbly texture and buttery tang of lemon. You’ll find it for sale at many supermarkets and delis. If you can’t find it, use Lancashire cheese or aged cheddar cheese instead.

Note 3: I used Driftwood Brewery (driftwoodbeer.com) Blackstone Porter, sold at many liquor stores. Other dark Vancouver Island beers will also work.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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