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Jon Gower - Place Names and Foodie Connections

I’d imagine even the most dedicated pub quiz goer might struggle to name a place in the world named after a brand of gin. Yet the Boothia Peninsula exists on the map of the Northern Canadian Arctic because Sir Felix Booth, from Booths’ gin, sponsored an expedition to try to locate the North-West Passage.

It got me thinking about Welsh place names connected with food or drink. Some celebrate the bounteous harvest of the sea, such as Oystermouth, Fishguard, from ‘fish yard’ or Dinbych y Pysgod, ‘little fort of the fish,’ being the Welsh name for Tenby. There are two place names in north Wales – Cerrig Delsyg and Porth Delsyg – which refer to edible seaweed, Fucus palmatus, the basic component of the most delicious green sludge known to man, a.k.a laverbread. Herring, ysgaden, was the mainstay of our fishing industry for many years so this silver currency of the Irish Sea is present in the name Porth Ysgaden near Tudweiliog.

But some names are more obscure. One of these is the Welsh name for Fairwater in Cardi. Tyllgoed might well derive from the words for an oak tree which is ‘holed, or perforated.’ At one time trees were pierced in order to attract honey bees, a practice common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. It added value, too: early Welsh law suggested that if a tree was ‘bored through three score pence are to be paid for that.’ There are, of course lots of other place names associated with food. The Dyfed-Powys police headquarters are at Nantycaws, ‘the river of the cheese’ which alludes to rich pasture-lands capable of supporting dairy cattle, a quality present in other places such as Nant Llefrith, llefrith being milk and Afon Llaethnant, llaeth being a variant name for milk or cream.

A modern development has seen place names associated with very specific foods, such as our only native cheese, the iconic Caerphilly, being given European Protected Geographical Indication, joining the likes of Champagne and Parma Ham on the list of foods safeguarded in this way. One of the most recent to be added to the list was the Vale of Clwyd Denbigh Plum, which was added at the end of 2020.

One of the great things about place names, or of food names which are also places is that there are often stories connected with them. So here’s a story to go with the latest food to be added to the roster of 15 Welsh food and drinks which includes Welsh Lamb, Cambrian Mountains Lamb and its lowland cousin, Gower Salt Marsh Lamb, Anglesey Sea Salt, West Wales coracle-caught Sewin, Carmarthen Ham and Pembrokeshire early potatoes.

We planted a Vale of Clwyd Denbigh Plum tree in our garden to commemorate the fact that my wife Sarah and I met at the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh in 2001 and have been very happily married ever since, to the point that we have never argued about anything. Believe me if I was married to me I’d be arguing all the time, so let’s put some of it down to her boundless patience. You may have already done the maths but this year marks the 20th anniversary of our first meeting and curiously this was the year our small tree finally produced fruit. Sadly the incessant rain, inclement weather and marauding gangs of greedy garden thrushes took their toll so we failed to make so much as a single pie or plum crumble from our purple harvest. But a couple of weeks ago we tried some of the dessicated specimens still stuck to the branches and they were sublime. Think Cardiff’s answer to the Californian prune, and in this instance being tasted by an actual Californian prune, as my wife comes from Oakland. We have now dubbed this part of the garden Denbigh Plum Corner.

Which got me thinking: wouldn’t it be a thing if someone planted enough of these native fruit types to not only produce so fruit but also convert the surplus into dried fruit? A unique food, grown in Wales, carrying the sweet taste of summer over into autumn and winter. Anyone with an orchard suitable for such an experiment do please get in touch.

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