Welsh Shearing Cake (Cacen Gneifo) A traditional recipe for a Welsh seed cake, and one that would have been served to the sheep shearers during shearing season. This buttery cake would have originally used bacon fat in place of butter, although the caraway seeds and peel are authentic to older country recipes.
A Traditional Welsh Recipe
I have a deep-rooted love of baking, in all its forms, it stems from my early childhood whilst watching my maternal grandmother bake in her old cottage in Northumberland, and then subsequently being taught by my mother, who is also a great baker, and who taught me from a very early age how to make shortcrust pastry, crumble, apple pie and chocolate cake! My grandmother never knowingly under-catered, and she was known for her cakes, especially fresh orange and fresh lemon cakes, as well as fruit cake, sticky ginger loaves, crusty cottage loaves and many other types of bread, double crust pies – her meat and potato pies were legendary, as well as her amazing Yorkshire puddings. This type of home baking, and cooking, was instilled into me from a very early age, and my earliest memories are of cosy tea time meals, sat at an old scrubbed wooden table, with piles of freshly made sandwiches, boiled eggs, a plate of tender, pink sliced ham, be-jewelled fruit cake and a big platter of bread and butter with homemade jam – in the middle of the table taking pride of place, stood, beneath an old knitted tea cosy, an enormous Brown Betty tea-pot, probably what is classed as a 10 cup pot today……it’s not hard to see why food, and home baking is so important to me. Today’s recipe comes from the other side of the UK, it’s an old Welsh recipe that I have adapted, for Welsh Shearing Cake (Cacen Gneifo) or what I know as Seed Cake.
Welsh Shearing Cake, or Cacen Gneifo as it is known in Welsh, is exactly that, a cake that would have been made by way of refreshment for the shearers at shearing time; also known as Threshing Cake, when it was served to the workers at harvest time, the original recipe would probably been made with bacon fat and buttermilk with vinegar when the hens were not laying. As far as I can make out from research, the main flavouring ingredients are the caraway seeds and the mixed peel, although some recipes omit the peel and add fresh lemon zest and ground nutmeg. Welsh lamb is world-famous, and many sheep farmers are hill farmers, living in remote and inaccessible parts of Wales – so, at shearing time, all the neighbouring farms would get together to help each other out, from rounding up the sheep, bring them down from the mountains to shearing them, it was a collaborative enterprise with each farm helping the other farms on a rota basis. The host farm was expected to, and indeed wanted to, feed the helpers, so the farm kitchens were a hive of activity for days before shearing, with cooked meats, bread, tarts and cakes being made to feed the army of shearers, and, caraway seeds seem to feature very heavily in all original Welsh recipes for shearing and threshing cakes.
I love historical recipes like this one for Welsh Shearing Cake, they stand the test of time and are intrinsic to the region that they originate from; this cake is quite a robust cake, and I can see how the subtle aniseed flavouring of the caraway seeds and the added texture of the candied mixed peel would have appealed to the tired workers, although, the cake is elegant enough to be served at any afternoon tea time table, as well as being a very suitable cake for high tea too, maybe sliced and buttered. You could of course bake it in a loaf tin, for that sliced and buttered idea, and, for haters of mixed peel and caraway seeds, they could be left out, but that rather defeats the point of making a Welsh Shearing Cake! However, you could try one of the other recipes, where there is no peel, and fresh lemon zest is added as well as nutmeg – if you do go down that route, please let me know what you think, and I may yet try that recipe variation too. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this old Welsh recipe, now that I am living in beautiful North Wales, at the head of the Llyn Peninsula and next to the Snowdonia National Park, expect lots more Welsh inspired recipes to come…….have a wonderful week ahead, Karen