Nothing better than a bowl of cawl on a cold wet winters day. There seem to be as many recipes as there are cooks in Wales but one thing they all seem to agree on is that leeks are essential.

The word cawl in Welsh is first recorded in the 14th century, and is thought to come from the Latin caulis, meaning the stalk of a plant, a cabbage stalk or a cabbage.

Cawl may once have played an important part in Welsh history. A story is related concerning the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Gruffydd’s father Llywelyn ap Seisyll had been king of a considerable part of Wales in the early 11th century, but on his death the throne was taken over by another dynasty. His son Gruffydd was said to be an idle youth, and one New Year’s Day was driven out of the house by his exasperated sister. Leaning against the wall of another house he heard the comments of a cook who was cooking a dish which appears to be cawl. The cook complained that one piece of meat kept rising to the surface however often it was pushed down. Gruffydd took that to refer to himself and from that day on changed his outlook on life, to such effect that by 1055 he was king of all Wales.

In modern Welsh, to make a cawl of something is to mess it up.

This is a wonderfully wholesome dish. The contents used to be dictated by geographical location, i.e. if you were on the coast you might be making a seafood cawl, inland maybe a bacon cawl, and in the hills and mountains mainly lamb and mutton. These days a good balance of meat/fish and vegetables are used, with the meat usually being cooked on the bone to maximise the flavour.

Serves 6


  • 6 x small Welsh lamb shanks
  • 1.2L/2pts water
  • 225g/8oz potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 225g/8oz swede, peeled and diced
  • 225g/8oz onion, peeled and chopped
  • 225g/8oz carrots, peeled and diced
  • 225g/8oz leek, cleaned and sliced thinly
  • A bunch of herbs-Bay, thyme, rosemary and parsley
  • ½ a small Savoy cabbage
  • 2tbs vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper

Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan, season the lamb shanks add to the pan together with the onion and brown all over (you may have to do this in batches if your pan is not large enough. Pour over the water and add the bunch of herbs. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 40 minutes. Add all the vegetables except for the cabbage, bring up to the boil again, reduce to a simmer and cook for a further 40 minutes. Shred the cabbage and add to the cawl, cook for about 5 minutes, then serve.

Cawl can be made throughout the year, just adjust the vegetables according to the season. Chopped runner bean, broad beans and peas are wonderful during early Summer, add a little chopped mint at the end of cooking.

Duing cooking the stock will reduce somewhat, so top up with more water, or some wine. You may also wish to add pulses such as lentils, or beans, pearl barley is also good during the winter months.

Substitute lamb with a piece of gammon, just make sure you soak it before cooking. The broth will make an excellent soup, add peas and fresh mint. Serve the gammon with creamed potatoes, broad beans and parsley sauce.

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