Do You Know Welsh Rabbit?

A Famous Beer Dish – Or It Was

In the early years of the beer renaissance, when the subject of beer in cooking came up, two dishes were invariably mentioned. One, Welsh Rabbit, sometimes called Welsh Rarebit. Two, the Flemish beef carbonades, which is beef stewed in beer, mustard, sugar, vinegar.

Almost all beer fans then knew of these, or at least one. They were iconic beer dishes. Today, I’d wager most people under 40 who have a good knowledge of the beer scene don’t know what they are. At least, my informal polls in recent years suggests this. And after all times change. But it’s something of an irony that as beer has widened its reach in society, knowledge of its iconic dishes recedes.

Of course to the dedicated fan of beer and food, it became clear that traditional brewing cultures – setting aside that is craft beer and studied attempts to marry food and beer – had other examples of blending food and beer. Carp was often cooked in beer, and shellfish. Beer was used in batters of various kinds. Chicken was cooked with it in some beer countries, and meats other than beef. Some who looked back far enough saw that ale was a standby in refined kitchens in the Middle Ages.

But by about 1900, in Western gastronomy, the two dishes mentioned, Welsh Rabbit and carbonades of beef, were the main dishes associated with beer. Perhaps beer soup could be added, and carp in spiced and sweetened beer. Also, beer and oysters was an acknowledged combination.

Food and social literature in Anglo-American areas, so Britain, U.S., Canada, Australia, etc., frequently mentioned Welsh Rabbit. Oh it’s melted cheese and beer, nothing to do with rabbit, need I say?

I have no need to explain its origin or the etymological question whether the Welsh Rarebit is the true name. It’s all laid out crisply and accurately in Wikipedia, just look under Welsh Rabbit.

My interest is more to know a good recipe, as I’ve had signal failures in the kitchen trying to make it. The cheese never melts correctly, in particular. The rubbery strands flavoured with bitter hops seems an odd treat even if it is handed down through the centuries.

A real rabbit, bunny I mean, can be stringy too now that I think of it (fibrous). I wonder if the presumably English wag who named the dish was poking fun, not so much at the Welsh for not having rabbit to cook and being satisfied with cheese, but for having a dish which resembled the average rabbit casserole. Who knows.

Anyway I do like a good grilled cheese sandwich. A grilled cheese well-made is nice, and it seems a derivative of Welsh rabbit, same general idea but without a beer or other liquid addition. Kraft process cheese in fact makes the best one. You can add different things to it, I can abide the tomato, but that’s it. It was a student standby at the cafes near McGill University in the 70s. There’s another dish you never see any more, yes?

As for Le Welsh, as the French call it, I think I’ve never used the right cheese. The French probably always get it right given they have 1000 cheeses there; they will find the right one, certain. The French are long-time partisans of Welsh rabbit despite its Britannic origins.

Probably the stuff I’ve used isn’t aged or dry enough, and perhaps being pasteurized as most cheese is the cooking is affected somehow. I happen to have some reasonably aged Welsh cheddar at the moment, Costco offers an excellent type and well-priced. This would seem ideal to try the dish with. As for the beer to go in it, any kind would seem about right although in the recipe discussed below, the author makes a point of insisting on American lager.

The recipe uses egg yolk, a rich addition I’d have thought unnecessary given that cheese is high in butterfat to begin with. But maybe I’ll use it, for authenticity. As for many recipes in the 19th century and earlier, the egg is barely cooked though. Eating raw egg is never a good idea, at least I think so. Anyway, I’ll persist in the name of authenticity.

Now to the beer, any lager would do I guess. I’ve got some Old Tomorrow lagered ale which sounds about the right compromise anyway between American and English beer, so I think I’ll go with that.

The recipe is from 1900, in John Willy’s Hotel Monthly, look under that raft of drink names (interesting unto themselves: Willy was promoting a book by a cocktails specialist).

The recipe does seem rather generic, yet as Willy reports its proponent proclaimed it as the best ever and the guests subjected to a test fully agreed. I wonder what the secret was … maybe all that salt, one teaspoon, worked some magic. Cheese is pretty salty as it is, though, I think I’ll omit it entirely. Paprika sounds right though. And the mustard, they are classic additions. But corn starch? Who knew.

Welsh Rabbit was often eaten as a late-night snack. It was associated with light meals in general, and often taken after theatre at the cafe. It’s in all the cookbooks, it was “in the air”.  Today the dish is almost forgotten, even in beer circles. Strange are the ways of history and culture but it was always thus.

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5 thoughts on “Do You Know Welsh Rabbit?

    • Tom, good pointers, thanks. I think cheddar-and-beer soup can be counted an American specialty too, and perhaps is another spin-off of the British Welsh Rabbit.

      Gary

  1. From Oxford dictionary:
    A more likely derivation of the name is that Welsh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was used as a patronizingly humorous epithet for any inferior grade or variety of article, or for a substitute for the real thing (thus a Welsh pearl was one of poor quality, possibly counterfeit, and to use a Welsh comb was to comb one’s hair with one’s fingers). Welsh rabbit may therefore have started life as a dish resorted to when meat was not available. The first record of the word comes in John Byron’s Literary Remains (1725): ‘I did not eat of cold beef, but of Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese.’

    For a superior grilled cheese add bacon !

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