A cottage on earth, and a castle in air,
And Diana Mereryd’s white apron shall wear,
And bake barley bread to a tender song
Of Love in a cottage, that always was young.
The old Welsh rhyme “Bara Haidd” (“Barley Bread”) celebrates the central role barley played in the lives of the Welsh peasantry, who valued it for its ability to withstand cold weather and rocky soil. In the mountainous region of Caernarvonshire, the peasantry lived almost exclusively on barley, buttermilk, oats, cheese and potatoes.
Violent storms, however, prevented the widespread cultivation of barley. Farmers would plant their crop only to have it decimated by the region’s merciless winds; half the country then remained as meadows and wastelands.
Life was difficult in mountainous Caernarvonshire. During the summer months, the peasantry herded their sheep and small cattle to wild and solitary uplands lined with walls of dry stone, which were used to mark the boundaries of a particular grazing area. The stone for these walls was carried by the peasants up the steep sides of the lofty mountains — a dangerous and tiresome business.
The region’s homes were also built of stone, with deep-set windows containing only a single pane. Moss plugged the thick walls of these simple cottages, which were sometimes drafty and cold. But their warm, roomy chimney corners offered a cozy retreat during winter nights when fires fed on peat moss blazed in the cottage fireplace.
The longevity of the inhabitants of these mountainous regions was attributed to their simple diets. Here is an 1867 recipe for barley cakes from a Welsh hermit (Meudwy) of ancient lineage who lived in a cell cut out of a rock opposite the Well of St. Gover. His diet, like that of the Caernarvonshire peasants, was austere but wholesome.
Thin Welsh Barley Cakes
Mix fine barley meal and milk together to the consistency of batter, and pour slowly on the bake-stone out of a jug until it has formed a circle the size of a small plate, then let it bake slowly. It ought to be very thin but soft, like a pancake or a pikelate; it is likewise eaten with cold butter.