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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About
The enjoyment of food in Wales has always been constrained by circumstances and limited resources; but that does not mean that life was always hard. Though much of Wales is upland, its soil thin and acid and its climate wet, there is still some good soil to grow cereals; good grass to fatten sheep and cattle in the hillsides and valleys; and rivers, lakes, and coasts to provide a great variety of fish.

Early Celtic society was still semi-nomadic, and transhumance persisted in parts of Wales almost into the 18th century, with flocks being taken up to the hafod in summer and brought down to the hendre for the winter. Chiefs and kings took their courts on perpetual circuit, and each tenant or community they visited paid for the privilege by providing quantities of food according to a minutely detailed tariff. The system can be glimpsed in the legal codes of medieval Wales, all of them claiming to be versions of the customary law codified by Hywel Dda in the mid-10th century. Food renders were paid in beer, bread, meat (usually on the hoof), and honey; oats, cheese, and butter were sometimes demanded as well. In good times, these were what most people ate, with the addition of more perishable items such as fish and shellfish, and a few vegetables—Hywel Dda’s Laws mention only leeks and cabbages.