Before going any further, perhaps I should do a little translation and explain the meals we take during the day.
They may have the same names as the meals others are used to, but in the mining valleys of Wales (The Valleys) they have a very different meaning!
Breakfast : this is the meal we take first thing in the morning, the same as everywhere else; but this is where we part company!
Lunch : this is the meal we take mid-day, but only if it is a light lunch – soup, salad or sandwich. If we eat a cooked meal we call it dinner; if it’s roast meat with vegetables then it’s a big-dinner. Irrespective of what we call it, or what we eat, the time is always called dinner-time.
Dinner : this is a hot meal taken at mid-day, or dinner-time as we call it. On Sunday’s it’s A Big Sunday Dinner, or just Sunday Dinner – but only if we’re having a roast meat, veg and gravy dinner!
Tea : not the dainty finger sandwich and fancy cake beloved of tea shops. In the Valleys, Tea is our evening meal. If we’ve only had ‘lunch’ then it will be a cooked meal, but if we had ‘dinner’, then we’ll have a sandwich, soup or something on toast for tea.
“What are you having for youer tea tonight?” a friend might ask, to which the response could be either “nothing much, we had ouer dinner at dinner time” or “I’m making dinner tonight ‘cos we only had lunch today”.
Supper : not for us dressing up in our diamonds and jewels for a fancy three or four course meal at supper time. We get into our pyjamas and nighties for supper, which is taken shortly before bed-time and will be something like a bowl of cereal, a single-round of bread sandwich or cheese and a cracker. Invite us out for ‘supper’ and we’ll turn up in our dressing-gowns expecting cocoa ......... and an explanation!
As for Mam, well, as the name would suggest she’s the mother/mother-in-law of the family. The Matriarch; capital M; stand to attention and mind your p’s and q’s. Mam is very much the head of the family. Picture, if you will, a stout woman of imposing presence, if not of stature; clad in a voluminous white apron and arms folded under an impressive saucy-postcard bosom. Frosty of face and sharp of tongue, she has a heart of sheer gold. Her children will quake under her steely gaze but her grand-children will adore her. Her starched white apron will repel any stain that dares to contemplate the merest possibility of thinking about desecrating its gleaming whiteness and chill the blood of husband, son or daughter as they see her determined approach. Her grandchildren however will find comfort being enfolded in a cuddle on her lap, corner of the very same apron being used to wipe away tears or clean grazes, while a sweet would always appear from the pocket. Mam rules the roost.
Back to Sunday Tea though. An occasion in and of itself, it follows a proper roast dinner – Sunday Dinner. Anticipated all week, and, done properly, will produce enough leftovers to last until at least mid-week in various guises!
Sunday Tea at Mam’s is a big tradition here in the Welsh Valleys. It’s almost a legal requirement for families to return to Mam’s on Sunday for Tea! Traditionally, the table would be laid with a crisp white cloth, and Mam herself would be wearing a fresh apron!
Tea itself consisted of a big plate of sandwiches, usually sliced meat from the Sunday joint and a plate of cake, usually Bara Brith, Teisen Lap or Welsh Cakes, there might be a rice pudding or jam tarts for the little ones.
If there was a special celebration the ante would be upped and a plate of salmon and cucumber sandwiches laid out. These would be made of tinned salmon* mashed together with black pepper and malt vinegar! The cake would usually be a jam and cream sponge and there might even be a trifle. Mam’s best lace or embroidered tablecloth would come out, along with the best china. Mam might even ditch her apron in honour of the celebration! But woe-betide the child who dropped one of the best plates! We children were usually handed an older plate, part of a broken set, or even a melamine plate!
*Poached salmon only made an appearance at posh weddings, where old dears would be heard to loudly exclaim “duw there’s posh, poached salmon”!
(In proof-reading this, hubby has just told me that he was 25 years old before he ate salmon that hadn’t come out of a tin!)
When I was growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s Sunday Tea was nothing short of an ordeal! Households had started moving away from the traditional Sunday Tea described above and embraced the new delights that were appearing in shops.
In our house it consisted of tinned fruit and condensed milk (usually a tin of Ideal Milk), with bread and butter on the side. Remember, this was the 60’s/70’s – canned fruit was NOT good; think soggy strawberries, fruit cocktail with hard squares of unidentifiable fruit and vibrant red cherries that had absolutely nothing in common with the real thing! This would be served up every Sunday evening, without fail. The only variation my mother permitted would be the type of fruit, and these were rotated military-wise; tinned peaches, tinned pears, tinned strawberries, tinned raspberries (better than the rest, but still not good!) or tinned fruit cocktail – the work of the devil! Strangely, tinned pineapple, which is actually quite good, never made an appearance!
I used to look forward to the odd Sunday when we had visitors, then at least we’d get a rest from “fruit and Ideal” and have salmon and cucumber sandwiches and maybe even a nice bit of home-made cake, or even a trifle if it was a special occasion!
I can’t describe to you how ecstatic I was when my mother discovered packets of Dream Topping in the mid 70’s. Mixed with milk they made a huge improvement on Ideal Milk with tinned fruit, it almost made it palatable! Later still we had Angel Delight – a revolution in Sunday Tea Time!
In my family the days of returning to Mam for Sunday Tea are long gone. Like a lot of families, long working hours saw an end to the tradition somewhere around the 90’s. These days Mum finds it too much; in fairness, she is nearly 80! Occasionally my sister or I will host a Sunday marathon with what my cousin calls an endless procession of food! We usually invite my aunt and uncle to join us too. Lunch usually starts somewhere around 1.30pm and can sometimes be a roast or cooked lunch, but is increasingly a help-yourself buffet. Somewhere around mid-afternoon the first of desserts will be served, often a trifle – a big family tradition! A little later we’ll cut into the sponge, usually a raspberry jam and cream Victoria sandwich, but sometimes a chocolate cake. Finally, around 5.00pm we’ll bring out the cheeseboard, complete with bread, crackers and chutney.
Like Mam, I’ll usually be wearing one of my aprons and sturdy of frame I preside over the table. Like a true matriarch, I have perfected my steely glare that often chills the blood of those foolish enough to cross me. Grandma would be proud!