The Welsh Cake

To many, the humble Welsh Cake is synonymous with St David’s Day, March 1st, but not for me. For me, these little delights are a year-round temptation. How such a small, seemingly harmless morsel can cause such great fractions in my resolve is utterly remarkable. The root of evil in my dietary plans, I am simply unable to turn the offer of one down. Best proffered still warm from the griddle, with a sprinkling of caster sugar (and certainly not served singularly on the plate), I am yet to find anyone who can resist the temptation of this home-made little wonder.

Welsh cakes

An enigma of the cake world, the Welsh Cake is neither scone, cookie nor pancake, but is often compared to being a cross between the above. Yet to consider it such is to do it an injustice. While the ingredients are similar to that of a scone, and it is cooked on a griddle, much like a pancake, the resulting product is something so unique that nothing else comes close to being its competitor. They are not a quick or easy treat to make; love, time and care must be invested in their crafting, as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them have done so. While we live in a busy world, it is hard sometimes to find the time to make delicacies such as these, and while I urge you to try and find the time, fear not, for there are some wonderful people out there who have gone to the effort for you! If you are Cardiff based, then you must check out Cardiff Bakestone and Cakes located in the heart of Cardiff market, and the fabulous people at Fabulous Welshcakes, in their shop down Cardiff Bay – both of whom offer both the traditional and more adventurous flavours.

Traditionally cooked over a hot bake-stone, Welsh Cakes have been known by many names over the generations: Bakestones, Griddle Cakes, Teisen Gymraeg, and picau ar y maen to name but a few.  Yet regardless of what name we know them by, the basics are always the same. The traditional form of these cakes sees them lightly spiced (normally with cinnamon or mixed spice) and feature currants in a flour, butter, sugar and egg base. While these cakes are the norm, some variations are becoming popular which tend to replace the currants with alternative flavourings such as chocolate chips, desiccated coconut, apricot and walnut, cranberry, apple, citrus, etc.

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A variation on the traditional Welsh Cake, these are made with dessicated coconut.

So go on, if you’ve not taken the plunge before now, here’s a recipe for a traditional Welsh Cake – give it a try! And if you are already a Welsh Cake fan, please, spread the love.

Welsh Cake Ingredients:

  • 225g/8oz plain flour
  • 75g/3oz caster sugar
  • 100g/4oz butter
  • 50g/2oz currants
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp mixed spice
  • A pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • A little milk to bind

Sift the flour, baking powder and mixed spice into a mixing bowl. With your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until a crumbly consistency. Add the sugar, pinch of salt and dried fruit to the mix then pour in the egg (beaten). Mix together to form a soft dough – if it seems a little dry, try adding a splash of milk.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface – it should be roughly as thick as your little finger. Cut out rounds using a pastry cutter or similar. Lightly grease a flat griddle pan and place over a medium heat. The Welsh Cakes should take approximately 3 minutes on each side to cook – they will be golden brown in colour. Make sure the griddle is not too hot or the cakes will cook on the outside but not in the middle. Once cooked, lightly sprinkle with caster sugar and leave to cool a little before serving.

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Super Green Smoothies

Green Smoothie

So, for anyone who knows me or who follows me on Twitter, you’ve probably worked out by now that I have a thing for green smoothies. This love affair goes back a few years now, to when I first plucked up the courage to try a ‘Super Green’ smoothie from a juice stand in London; it was a pricey way to try it (costing me well over £3), but I have since been making them at home for a fraction of the cost. I’d flirted with the notion of the green smoothie before, but had never fancied the idea of drinking spinach – boy am I glad I got over that! Ever since that fateful afternoon I have been officially converted to the green-smoothie way of life. Over the last few years, a number of my friends have quizzed me on why I like green smoothies and why I’m so keen to get others to try them. Well, I’ve decided this blog post will be my long-overdue response to some of those unanswered questions.

What’s so good about green smoothies? Well for one, they tend to be low in calories, but are very filling. Most green veg contain high amounts of water and fibre meaning they can fill you up as much as a good sized meal might, without containing all the calories! I have particularly enjoyed them when I’ve been trying to shift post-Christmas pounds as they help fight hunger while also helping your metabolism burn off fat. Also, if you’re not a fan of eating veg, green smoothies are a relatively painless way of getting green veg into your diet. The sweetness of the fruit element of your smoothie will disguise the flavour of the veg, meaning you won’t have to suffer through the taste of those foods you don’t necessarily enjoy eating. But these things aside, there are also many claims that green smoothies have a variety of health benefits.

‘What are these health benefits?’ I hear you ask! Well, many people claim that a daily green smoothie, packed full of so-called superfoods, has increased their energy, improved their general health and well-being and even given their mental abilities a boost, claiming they have greater clarity and a stronger sense of focus. High in antioxidants, green smoothies provide your body with the best defences for illnesses and disease and some health experts believe that not only will they boost your immune and digestive systems, but also that including dark, leafy greens in your smoothie will increase your calcium intake and help keep your bones healthy too!

What are ‘Superfoods’? There is no official definition of what is a superfood nor what qualities a food-type must have to qualify as a superfood, but generally, they are considered to be a range of products that are claimed as being especially beneficial to the consumer’s health. These foods are especially good for strong bones, preventing illnesses and diseases such as cancer, boosting the immune system and keeping the mind sharp. In terms of superfoods that you might want to include in a smoothie, you should be thinking about items such as broccoli, apples, yoghurt, bananas, blueberries, oats, almonds and/or green tea.

Oats, blueberries and almonds are popular superfood choices to put in smoothies.

Oats, blueberries and almonds are popular superfood choices to put in smoothies.

So what’s the difference between a smoothie and a juice? Essentially this boils down to the fibre content. A juice is purely what can be extracted from the fruit or vegetable – you get the vitamins and the minerals, but no fibre. A smoothie, on the other hand, uses everything put into the blender, so you not only get the vitamins and minerals, but the fibre too.

As to what goes in a green smoothie, really the sky is your limit! Some of the most popular green veg choices for various health reasons seem to be spinach, kale, broccoli and celery. I also like to use a combination of mint, lime, cucumber, green apples, kiwi and the odd banana to give my smoothie a bit of a kick – dependant on what I can lay my hands! For a liquid base, the most obvious choice is water, but to ring the changes I also use green tea (cooled) or coconut water.  Increasing the water content in your smoothie will not only keep you hydrated, but if you’re not using fruit in your smoothie, will also dilute the taste of some of the stronger-flavoured greens.

I won’t go as far as claiming I have a green smoothie every day, but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it. Clean and fresh tasting, I’ll drink them any time of day, any time of year, but they are particularly refreshing in the summer as an alternative to a salad – especially with a few ice-cubes thrown in to keep you cool! Be creative with them; there are no rules and you really can be as inventive as you’d like – if you enjoy yoghurt, why not try adding some, or for a breakfast option you could experiment by adding oats to keep you going until lunch time. Go on, why not give one a try and let me know what you think?

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The greatest poet of our age?

Heaney (2004)

Heaney (2004)

It came as a surprise to me, on hearing about the death of Seamus Heaney a couple of months ago, how saddened I was. His was a talent that mastered language in an enviable way with a sharp ear for the rhythm of language and an eye that focused on even the smallest of details. He was also the one poet who brought me back to an interest in poetry.

As a young child I was a poetry lover – I had numerous volumes of poem-a-day collections, but somewhere along the way I lost my interest. Perhaps it was one too many renditions of  Don’t Stick That Marble Up Your Nose! or it’s remarkably similar counterpart that warned of putting a potty on your head… Regardless, somewhere between primary and secondary school I ended up hating poetry. Why couldn’t poets just say things straight? Tell it like it really was? Oh no, instead they had to go and write around what they really wanted to say, creating apparently irrelevant scenes and images and confusing the hell out of me.

I think I must have been about twelve when I first encountered Heaney. I was in my weekly ‘Speech & Drama’ class, listening to one of my friends prepare for her spoken-poetry exam when I came across Mid-Term Break – even now I can remember the knot that caught in the back of my throat as I heard it read aloud. I was taken aback that poetry could be so stripped back, so simple and honest. But impressed as I was, that one poem didn’t change my opinion overnight. In fact, I was still dubious throughout lower and middle school, but when I came to sixth form and A-levels, all that changed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was overjoyed when I learned we’d be studying Heaney, but I certainly wasn’t writing him off as fast as many of my peers.

As a class we moved through his poems at what then felt like torturously slow pace. Not all of them were as straight-talking as Mid-Term Break, but as we dissected what Heaney was really saying, I developed an appreciation for his manipulation of words. The way he re-created memories or suggested at histories, captured my imagination – and my heart. Some of those poems that we studied, that we tore apart line by line in search of meaning, are now some of my very favourite poems. For me, Alphabets, Digging, Clearances 3, Punishment, Limbo and The Other Side all stood out, and while varied and vast as Heaney’s collections are, these poems are, in my opinion, some of his most powerful and raw.

As some of my MA peers will have learned this year, around me, you bash Heaney at your own peril! While we have been teaching in the community and in undergraduate classes, Heaney has popped up several times, often to the dismay of the students. I have taken it upon myself to try and offer them the introduction to Heaney I had so that they too can appreciate his mastery of his craft. And, while often it feels like an uphill struggle with students not keen to dive into the poems in front of them (why is it that poetry is so considered so ‘uncool’?), every now and then I find someone whose opinion I can see changing right in front of me, a slow smile appearing at the familiarity of his poems, or furrowed brow as they too feel Heaney’s pain or discomfort. For me, this is what makes Heaney great. Aside from his technical ability (that scholars will be praising until the cows come home), through his work he has been able to change people’s opinions of poetry and draw them into his world. For me, the greatest poet of any age is not necessarily the most technically skilled (though Heaney clearly scores very highly in that department too), but the one who can connect with the reader in such a way as to challenge their thinking, touch their hearts and communicate something of the depth of human experience. Is Seamus Heaney the greatest poet of our age? – I’ll let you be the judge.

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The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Opening the gig with Ten Thousand Hours

Opening the gig with Ten Thousand Hours

Wednesday 11th September was a good day for me – I had one of the best experiences of my life – I was fortunate enough to see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis play live in Birmingham. Yes, if you’re not familiar with their music, this may seem a little dramatic, but I also believe that’s because you haven’t really got it yet… Let me help.

I’d stumbled across a few of their songs some time last year (not even realising I had until I found them in my Spotify playlist some months later), had enjoyed them at surface level, but hadn’t really taken the time to check them out properly, listen to the lyrics or pay attention to Ryan Lewis’s musical wizardry. OthersideMy Oh My and Wing$ had been floating around somewhere in my subconscious, but I hadn’t yet granted them the attention they deserved. However, when Thrift Shop was released shortly after my initial discovery, it was hard to ignore. The track, featuring Wanz, took the music world by storm and reached number 1 in countries all over the world, despite being produced, recorded and released independently.

Everywhere I went, that song followed me around. That hook and saxophone melody was living in my head, keeping me company at night when I couldn’t sleep or setting my pace as I walked to my meetings. Needless to say, I soon found myself rapping along, bopping to the undeniably catchy beat and eating, sleeping and breathing that track. From that point, my Macklemore & Ryan Lewis love affair developed and escalated pretty fast.

It only took me a few days of internet scouring to work my way through their body of work, but in those few days, I found myself being challenged and questioning some of the things I’d taken for granted. Sure, Thrift Shop might not be his deepest and most provoking track, but there’s still an undercurrent of questing at cultural obsession and label-loving apathy. Same Love is a track that has spoken to people on many different levels – focusing on the legalising of gay marriage, this track went a long way to helping the campaign for same-sex marriage in Washington State. Wing$ is another track that considers the deeper issue of consumerism and examines society’s infatuation with certain brands. While Thrift Shop, at first listening, might paint Macklemore as nothing more than a comedy rapper who got lucky, The Heist as an album, has not only entertained me, but has also challenged me and forced me to confront myself on subjects that I might otherwise have disregarded.

The Heist - the album

The Heist – the album

Shortly after my much anticipated copy of The Heist arrived through the post (and I had begun my incessant playing of it), my Dad asked me where my ‘obsession’ had come from. I found myself replying with: ‘Dad, listen to what he’s saying. It’s something worth saying. It’s something worth listening to.’ I think this was probably met with a bemused and appeasing nod of the head or some such, but he soon started listening for himself and found an appreciation for what I revered. That’s not to say he didn’t have questions of his own or raised points that we’ve hashed out between us, but that’s one of the great things about Macklemore, he get’s people talking  – about things that they might not agree with or hadn’t thought about or want to rethink. But more than this, while he writes in depth about his own personal struggles and experiences, Macklemore isn’t afraid to write about controversial topics that centre around things other than his life. He approaches issues head-on, sometimes using humour and irony to deconstruct societal issues, but never losing sight of the problem at hand, sombre as it may be. Musically, producer Ryan Lewis, draws on a range of influences, carefully layering them to create a unique sound that is fresh and appealing, but ensuring each has it’s own unmistakable riff and hook – pure genius track after track.

All of this combined with a huge stage presence and the fact that they seem like genuinely humble guys makes for an electrifying live performance. Sharing some personal memories and experiences in between  songs allowed the crowd to feel connected and reinforced Macklemore’s down-to-earth, nice-guy persona. I’ve never felt that much excitement, energy and momentum all at once or walked out of a performance feeling so drained of energy and emotion whilst being on an adrenaline high. The gig was a roller-coaster of raw emotion and it seemed everyone left feeling they had experienced something special, something they would never forget.

And We Danced - hello Raven Bowie!

And We Danced – hello Raven Bowie!

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Being Human, Being Welsh

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As I was walking through town the other day, in a hurry to get to my lecture, I was stopped by someone who asked me to partake in a survey. Short on time, I shrugged the poor lady off, but she asked me to consider a single question and go back and tell her later.

The question she asked, ‘What is being Welsh?’

Luckily I hadn’t stopped to give her an answer then, or I might still be there now trying to pinpoint it. The truth is, it’s not an easy question to be able to give a definitive answer to, but I’ve tried my best in the short ramble below. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got anything else to add to the list – it certainly gave me a lot to think about!

So what is being Welsh? Well, to me it’s so many things, little things. It’s welsh cakes and daffodils, and dragons and leeks, it’s rugby and banter and a language not many speak and not many more can pronounce, it’s poetry and music and passion and history, it’s fearlessly punching above our weight at every opportunity, it’s having a cwtch and a countryside full of sheep, it’s our varying accents, it’s living in the rain but only seeing the sun, it’s living next to (but not in) England and fiercely defending the border, it’s castles and mountains and rivers and beaches and all the beautiful landscape you could wish for. Being Welsh is so many things – all of them mixed up inside of us in this huge cauldron of pride that allows us a sense of combined identity, a unity that others might not be able to understand, but witness the loyalty of, and admire. For me, that’s what being Welsh is.

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The Dragon’s Rawr

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Well, that’s it for another year folks – the RBS Six Nations are over and I can very happily report that the Welsh boys managed to retain their title as Six Nations Champions! (And spoil the potential England Grand Slam party *icing on the cake*.)

I’m not going to gloat over my English friends any more, suffice to say that the score at the Millennium Stadium was 30 – 3 and history was made in what I’m sure will be remembered as a legendary match. What I do want to focus on though is the wonderful sense of unity and camaraderie that such a tournament fosters amongst its followers.

Many of you reading this will already know that I’m a bit of a rugby fan. You know, just a bit. Okay, so actually I’m fiercely passionate about my rugby and do tend to go a little mental at this time of year with all the regional rugby and Six Nations going on – I love it! And being Welsh and a Cardiff Blues fan living in Cardiff, makes it pretty hard for these seven or so weeks not to be some of the most exciting sporting weeks of the year. And it is oh so easy to get caught up in all things rugby when the faces of the national team of being driven around on the back of buses and covering the newspaper stands. However, it seems that the Six Nations-fever gets hold of more than just me and my fellow Welshies! But why is the 6 Nations such a big deal? It seems especially so for the Welsh and for the duration of the campaign the nation pulls together in a fierce unity of passion, belief and hope.

The tournament is of course steeped in history, but there is more to it than that. The camaraderie that such a tournament evokes is remarkable; fans, regardless of their differences become pals, drinking together, cheering together, groaning together and analysing together. And on more than one occasion I have found myself amid a crowd of my Welsh brethren, both celebrating and protectively keeping an eye out for each other; only yesterday a fellow mad Taff offered to ‘get a drive on’ through the maul of fans to help me make my way to the bar, and then having done so, offer to drive me back to my seat! And it would seem that the excitement is contagious.

When I first went to Aberystwyth University, several years ago, I found myself living with a large group of men who were almost as crazy about rugby as me. However, it was two of my close friends (a Mozambican and an Englishman), who found themselves caught up in the crazy and honorary Welshies, completely caught up in the Welsh-rugby mentality. Mich, from Maputo, had never seen a rugby match before that Six Nations, but she found herself passionately cheering on Wales and entering into the famous Welsh/English banter like a pro. Similarly, one of my best friends who moved to Cardiff from Germany in October, also found herself bursting with pride (and a little moist around the eyes) as the final whistle of 2013 Wales vs. England match blew.

There’s a lot of talk these days of football being a bigger sport in Wales than rugby, and maybe it is getting that way, but it remains undeniable that the passion in Wales for international Welsh rugby is pretty up there. As ex-rugby player and broadcaster, Phil Steele tweeted yesterday (16.03.13), ‘Today you realise there are 3 sorts of people in life, 1, [the] Welsh, 2, those who wish they were Welsh, 3, those with no ambition’. So what is it about Wales in particular that develops such a sense of pride and passion? I’m not going to pretend I have the answer to that one, I don’t. But I can say, I’m sure as hell proud to be Welsh – and it’s days like yesterday that really drive that home. Even in our dark days we find a sense of unity, but when we win (and win BIG) it’s an unparalleled feeling to be surrounded by so many people who feel that strongly about their country. And riding that wave of adrenaline and euphoria? – The best.

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Cymru am byth

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Empty Noise

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Why is it that society today demands, and indeed apotheosises, music that doesn’t actually do anything? It seems increasingly that the charts are filled with catchy tunes that don’t say anything and inspire nothing. Call me old fashioned, but weren’t songs of the bye-gone-age, songs that actually caused some emotion, a little more warranted than the electro-loops that dominate the radio, but effect little else than a tapping foot?

Frisky, for example, was certainly another chart hit for Tinie Tempah, though having been released shortly after his number 1 hit, Pass Out, was somewhat overshadowed by it. Whilst Frisky was undoubtedly another club favourite, it’s similarities to Pass Out are paramount. With very familiar synth-hop beats, Tinie Tempah delivered another irresistibly catchy hip hop track. Lyrically, Frisky is just as indulgent, arrogantly witty and self-assured as Pass Out; hard to take seriously, the track offers something to mindlessly enjoy – great for dancing to, and not a shadow of any real depth. The inventively repetitive chorus, ‘Ooh la la la la, la la la la la, ooh la la la la, la la la frisky’, leaves more than a little something to be desired. Similarly, it doesn’t take a genius to note Tempah’s more than obvious chauvinistic tendencies: ‘Honey I won’t even miss ya when I’m done with ya, eh eh.’ Whilst women will groove out to this song with the best of them, would it really be beyond Tempah to stretch to an illusion of women being anything other than an easy one night party-pass?

But Tempah is not alone. The acclaimed singer-songwriter Taylor Swift has been at it too, with one of her latest hits repeatedly claiming: ‘We are never ever ever getting back together, We are never ever ever getting back together, You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me, But we are never ever ever ever getting back together’. So basically, everyone knows it’s over between her and the ex-beau, but little else can be dragged out of the so-called-hit. And who can forget Rihanna’s Umbrella and the annoyingly nonsensical ‘You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh,’ that reigned at number 1 in the UK singles chart for 10 long, painful weeks? That was one hell of a rain-dance, and boy did we hate her for it afterwards; but why the love for it in the first place?

Back in the day, it seems musicians weren’t so self-absorbed and considered things much bigger than themselves. Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, looks at the inevitability of death and challenges people’s general fear of it. It wasn’t, as some believed, an anthem to promote suicide, but instead the exploration of why people fear death and what it would be like to be re-united in an afterlife.  A few years later, Triumph released Fight The Good Fight, a song clearly prompting people to value the important things in life and own up to the truth of the moment: ‘You think a little more money can buy your soul some rest, you’d better think of something else instead, you’re so afraid of being honest with yourself, you’d better take a look inside your head’. This was something apparently playing on many musicians’ minds of the time with Kansas, Styx, Asia and many more besides also releasing songs that echoed similar principles.

While I am guilty of happily singing along to all the aforementioned tunes, it is not the songs of recent years that I turn to when I’m actually dedicating time to listening to music, but those from the 70s and 80s. Perhaps I was just born a generation too late, but I’m massively envious that it was my parents and not me who got to grow up to the likes of Kansas, Led Zeppelin, John Lennon and Eric Clapton who actually put their breath to good use.

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