Mrs S Minwel Tibbott and Making Yeast the Old Welsh Way

I have borrowed this photo of S. Minwel Tibbot from the website of Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum Wales and hope the attribution suffices. She is an historical figure I very much admire,  and I intend, when I get my head around how, to begin a Wikipedia entry on her, because she deserves one as an important historian of Welsh domestic culture. She began to work for St. Fagans, the fantastic museum of Welsh culture, near Cardiff, in 1969, learning and writing.  At that point it was called the Welsh Folk Museum and was curated by Trefor M. Owen who writes in the introduction to her Welsh Fare: A Selection of Traditional Recipes (1976):

“The main task of the Welsh Folk Museum since it opened in 1948 has been to collect and record, to study and reflect the folk life of Wales in all its various forms.  The advent of the tape recorder made it possible to record the voice of the informants and also facilitated the building of a comprehensive account of the traditional life of our country…. It is the responsibility of the WFM, having collected this oral evidence from the oldest inhabitants with their generous cooperation, not only to preserve this historical information for the benefit of future scholars [Can I count as one of these? 🙂 ] , but to present it…to contemporary readers as part of their inheritance….  This volume was prepared by Mrs. S Minwel Tibbott, an Assistant Keeper [in the Department of Oral Traditions and Dialects]  …”

“She realised very early on that information [on traditional Welsh foods] would not be found in books,” the website linked above tells us. “Travelling the length and breadth of Wales, she interviewed, recorded and filmed the older generation of women, the majority of them in their eighties. Their memories harked back to the end of the nineteenth century.” She worked in a moment of history when so much was changing- the way people lived, the domestic technologies with which they cooked, the availability of old foodstuffs before the prevalence of new supermarketed foodstuffs….. Even looking at the photos in her book you can see this. Times were changing, and Tibbot’s  contribution is critical.

As a culinary anthropologist / historian, her books are compelling and wonderful. Welsh Fare is my favourite of all the old-timey collections of Welsh recipes. (First Catch a Peacock, by Bobby Freeman in 1980, is also great and one of the best.) I am in the middle of an experiment with a traditional Christmas tart, which I’ll soon be blogging, and this is why she’s come up for me now.

But I remembered reading Welsh Fare a few years ago, in the height of my sourdough bread-making, and being really inspired to recognise alternatives to store-bought yeast as well as the method I’d developed from reading the book Wild Fermentation. The sourdough culture/ starter I’ve had now for five years was formed by simply mixing small amounts of flour and water and a few raisins, and waiting, and then adding more flour, a little bit a day, until a living starter, a collection of wild and sundry yeasts, was formed, a “culture” that could be fed and nurtured and used as leavening in breads and doughs.

It’s such an easy method that it’s startling to read what Tibbott documents in Welsh Fare, but in the interest of Yeast and Bread Studies, and considering the book is out-of-print, I share it here.  If you’ve ever started a sourdough culture, you can understand how easy it would be to play with and vary the ingredients– you could certainly experiment with excluding the wheat flour in order to be gluten-free:

Burum Cartref–Home Made Yeast

four ounces hops
six potatoes (unpeeled)
one and a half gallons water
one cupful sugar
one cupful flour
quarter pint yeast reserved from previous lot

Boil the potatioes and hops in the water until the potatoes have disintegrated.Strain the infusion into an earthenware bowl and allow it to cool in blood heat. Mix the sugar and flour with a small quantity of this liquid, pour it back on to the remaineder in the bowl and then add the old yeast. Cover the bol and allow to stand in a warm place for two days. Now strain the liquid yeast into bottles or earthward jars, cork tightly and store in a cool place.
Pennant, Montgomeryshire

Liquid Yeast prepared a home in this way was known as burum total or burum direst (temperance yeast) in Cardiganshire. Its strength was not equal to that of the dried yeast and this accounted for the custom of preparing the dough in the eve night s and leaving it to rise in a warm place overnight.
Rhydlewis, Cardiganshire

Home made liquid yeast was prepared in large quantities to augment the family income. Known as berman direst or berman total, it was sold to the neighbours for approximately a penny per pint. It was also possible to buy liquid yeast (berman tafarn) from the local inn; this brewers’ test proved to be stronger than the home made variety. –Pen-prysg, Glamorgan


I look forward to making this someday– perhaps not in the huge quantity, though one could also experiment with thickening then dehydrating the liquid to attempt a dried yeast.  Whenever I buy ready-to-use yeast in a shop, in a can or a packet, I’m reminded that it’s a kind of industrial-laboratory product, something so different from the force-of-nature that wild yeast cultures feel like.  Store-bought yeast of course performs predictably in modern recipes.  But as always, it’s fun, informative, and maybe important to understand how to get ever closer to the basics of our food.