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A short history of Laverbread – the Welsh Marmite?

31 May 2022 5 minutes Read
Laverbread and cockles. Photo heatheronhertravels is marked (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Carwyn Graves

Porphyra umbilicalis, Bara lawr, the Welshman’s caviar, Laver bread. A dark green – or is it red? – or pink or deep brown? seaweed that is simultaneously the crowning joy and sharpest point of division of all Welsh foods.

Crowning joy, because this is a true delicacy, with a deep umami flavour and a rich, smooth texture that fills your mouth.

Sharp point of division, because, like Marmite, this is a love-it-or-hate-it foodstuff, shunned and adored in equal measure even within the same family.

Laver bread, properly speaking, is the finished product made with laver, the name of the seaweed itself, derived from the Latin laver, laveris and cognate with the Welsh “lawr”.

It is native to rocks on all the westward shores of the British Isles,  grows best in cold nitrogen-rich water, is one of the major plant-based sources of vitamin B12, and has a high content of a number of dietary minerals, with concentrations of both iron and iodine particularly high. (The iodine is what gives it the characteristic umami flavour akin to oysters or olives). And its marine riches have been appreciated for a long time in Wales.

We don’t know exactly when people first started harvesting and using laver in this part of the British Isles, but Gerald of Wales mentions its use in Pembrokeshire in the 12th century. At Freshwater West on the southern coast, women collected the seaweed from the rocks and hung it up in huts.

Black butter

William Camden, writing in his volume Britannia in 1607 gives us a more detailed account of how the weed was harvested in springtime: “Near St Davids, especially at Eglwys Abernon, and in many other places along the Pembrokeshire Coast, the peasantry gather in the Spring time a kind of Alga or seaweed, where they made a sort of food called lhavan or llawvan, in English, black butter.

“The seaweed is washed clean from the sand, and sweated between two tile stones. The weed is then shred small and well-kneaded, as they do dough for bread, and made up into great balls or rolls, which some eat raw, and others fry with oatmeal and butter”.

In more recent times, and certainly by the early 19th century, a cottage industry had grown up on the Burry Inlet and the Loughor estuary between Gower and Llanelli, and laver was a mainstay at nearby Swansea market.

A Victorian writer describing the curiosities of south Wales records that the laver on the southern Gower coast was “got close to low-watermark, washed well in sea water to free it from sand, then boiled 12 hours and seasoned with salt.”

Being easily harvestable, it provided welcome pocket money to poorer people in coastal communities, as a lady from Gower recalled in the 1970s: “Then I used to pick laver from the rocks, regularly. To help out with the mortgage on the house I used to do a regular trade with the laverbread I made. I used to sell it to local people, four pence a pound….Oh, I love laverbread. Always have it in the house if I can.”

Porphyra umbiliculis. Laverbread. Harlech. Photo by Mary Gillham Archive Project is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Laver needs to be boiled for a good 10 hours before it can be used as food. Traditionally, throughout Wales, this boiling is done with a little salt, and it continues until you have a greeny-black puree.

Suffice to say, to the uninitiated it is not the most appetising of foods in appearance at this point. But from here, a huge array of possibilities present themselves. Traditionally, this included making the laver into little cakes fried with oatmeal, as Camden mentions, and eaten with bacon and cockles, or using it as delicious tangy spread on toast.

Oral memories captured by Minwel Tibbot in the 1920s from elderly people who could recall their childhoods in the 1840s and 50s give us recipes from Cardiganshire and South Pembrokeshire, and the accompanying note: “the most common method of cooking laverbread in the counties of South Wales was to fry it in bacon fat and serve it with bacon, usually for breakfast”.

This tradition carried over into the industrial coal-mining valleys, where laver and bacon was a relished Saturday morning breakfast for working class families into the late 20th century, providing a host of nutrients otherwise in short supply.

Cawl

It was also commonly made into “cawl lafwr” (a stew or soup) and was even served as a condiment with mutton and lamb. Bobby Freeman includes in her study of Welsh foods a recipe from a cookery book published in 1808 after the compiler, Mrs Maria Rundell, had visited Swansea.

The recommendation here is that ‘after roasting, Welsh mutton used to be dished with the piping hot laver ‘bread’ mixed with Seville orange juice’.

More recent recipes include laverbread quiche, laverbread pasta, laver sauce to accompany crab, or even as laver as a salad.

There are now serious efforts underway to develop laver cultivation off the coast in order to increase the amounts harvested, but as we shall see, the laver tradition continues today on the whole much as it has for centuries…

This is an extract taken from Chapter 3 of Carwyn Graves’ new book ‘Welsh Food Stories’ which tells the tale of many of Wales’ iconic, traditional and forgotten foods and is published o Thursday 26th May. You can purchase a copy of the book here……


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Dai Rob
Dai Rob
1 month ago

Beautiful stuff!!!

Marc
Marc
1 month ago

My favourite breakfast mixed with finely ground oatmeal and cooked in a little salted butter served on toast with a sprinkle of white pepper or Aleppo flakes 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago

As a child was offered a spoonful by my mother to taste but just couldn’t eat it. Never really been one for seafood myself but understand how some love it whilst others loath hence the marmite factor.

Glen
Glen
1 month ago

Laver bread, cockles and smoked bacon on wholemeal toast.
My Saturday breakfast.

Llinos
Llinos
1 month ago

Oh I can’t abide the stuff. There’s always a bit of sand left in it and it stays on your breath for days

Llinos
Llinos
1 month ago
Reply to  Llinos

A Downvote? There’s a wrong answer?

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
1 month ago

What’s this 10 hour thing? Can’t be the only or best way to cook seaweed. In North Carolina they boil Collard Greens for hours. Yes, Collards are tougher than other greens. But I stir-fried Collards and they were great. What’s the answer for laver? Just dry it and snack or put in quiche? Not the dark sludge from Fishguard Market which cut short my honeymoon….don’t ask! Needs re-inventing

Quornby
Quornby
1 month ago

Now available in tins…..Tesco et al please take note.

Last edited 1 month ago by Quornby
Llinos
Llinos
1 month ago
Reply to  Quornby

Oh no! That’s the stuff I tried. Gritty beach scrapings.

Ken covack
Ken covack
1 month ago

Some of the small markets still have Lava bread, and the big boys are shutting down their delis, so availability is becoming harder as the smaller market stalls close because of higher rates within the towns. I even freeze it to have some on hand for my bacon and black pudding with all the trimmings, for tea.

Margaret Duce
1 month ago

Which airport is the head complaining about? Chicken or the egg. Which came first planes or school!? Get triple glazing and air con! We had bombing raids we coped!

Margaret Duce
1 month ago
Reply to  Margaret Duce

Honestly whatever next! I hope your school doesn’t need protecting should we be invaded! It’s a tough old world we’re living in. Come on these children’s aren’t delicate little flowers! Toughen them up. This is reality! I’m fed up with all this pampering! It’s not as though they fly for the whole duration of an examination surely!?

Llinos
Llinos
28 days ago
Reply to  Margaret Duce

What has this to do with laver bread, Margaret?
Are you recommending bombing raids? I’m confused. Or more likely you are confused

CJPh
CJPh
27 days ago

Had a bara lawr curry in Sketty once. I never thought Swansea’s Bangla community could improve on their culinary mastery but that chef’s trip to the market proved me wrong. 🇧🇩🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

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