Ana Rees tips flour and sugar into a mixing bowl to get another batch of scones under way. Nothing is measured. All the cake and bread recipes for her Welsh tea house in Gaiman, Patagonia, have been in her head since adolescence, when she spent long summers watching her grandmother make them time and again.
As she mixes the dough, she gazes through the window onto a garden full of fruit trees her great-great grandparents began planting when they emigrated here, to Argentina, from their home across the Atlantic in Wales. When they’re in season, she’ll make jams from the plums, figs, apricots, and peaches that have helped sustain generations of her ancestors.
Whatever Ana is creating– be it griddled Welsh cakes, rich fruity torta negra, or a loaf of bara brith– she’s not merely baking for customers seeking the Welsh afternoon teas that have become something of a pilgrimage for visitors here.
Her great-grandmother, Dilys, opened her home as Patagonia’s first Welsh tea house in 1944 and it’s from that same kitchen that Ana is helping to maintain an intriguing slice of Welsh culture, 7,500 miles from the homeland that so many families left behind 150 years ago.
When the first 153 settlers traveled by tea clipper from Britain’s shores to Argentina’s east coast in July 1865, they clutched hopes of escaping English oppression of their language, religion, and culture, and of building a better life in a “new Wales.”
They had deliberately chosen a remote location to shield themselves from outside interference, but none could have imagined they would find such a desolate place that seemed hopelessly ill-matched to their dreams of a fertile promised land. For years they persevered and pulled together, replicating the infamously tight-knit communities of the small country they called home. And in time they turned to familiar rituals – popular throughout Britain since the 18th century – like marking life’s milestones, or simply consoling each other, over tea and traditional bakes.
Communal teas, particularly in the chapels, came to be at the heart of community life–but could the pioneers have possibly imagined that tourists would be flocking to the province’s Welsh tea houses a century and a half later?
And they do come, by the thousands, from all over Latin America and overseas, to Welsh communities such as Gaiman and Trelew on the Atlantic side of the country, or Esquel and Trevelin, 400 miles west, at the foot of the Andes.
Tour buses, cruise ship passengers, and independent travelers arrive– belts slackened at the ready– to tackle trays groaning with scones and jam, bread and butter, cheese rolls, and treats such as apple tart, lemon cake, and jam roll. And we haven’t even gotten to the main event yet. The essential Welsh tea loaf named bara brith, the round griddled fruit “scones” called Welsh cakes, slices of achingly decadent cream tart, and that most Patagonian of Welsh tea constructs, the famous cacen ddu-– black cake or torta negra– are also consumed in the same sitting.
It’s all washed down with a bottomless pot of tea nestling snugly in a quaint – some might say kitsch – crocheted tea cosy.
“This is not only a shop, it’s my life too, my heritage, my traditions,” says Ana.
As with many people in the Welsh-founded communities of Argentina, a country in which about 50,000 people have Welsh blood, Ana feels the pull strongly. Two sets of her great great-grandparents came from there – one travelled on the original ship of settlers in 1865, while the other arrived in 1905 and bought the house from which she still runs the tea house under its original name, Plas y Coed, or “Cottage in the Trees.”
“Being part of the Welsh community here is an honour and an obligation too. Our ancestors suffered a lot to keep their traditions and language alive, and we need to honour them.”
As she bustles around with the tea tray, explaining the array of cakes and pointing out old family photos and Welsh artefacts on the wall, Ana’s voice is quietly mesmerising. Like an estimated 5,000 of the Argentine descendants of the Welsh, Ana can speak the language of the old country and delivers it with a Latino lilt. When she speaks English, it’s with a Welsh accent.
To say their ancestors suffered is an understatement. After two months at sea, dreaming of a bright new future, the settlers landed in mid-winter to find a windswept, barren semi-desert that offered virtually no shelter, water, or sustenance. In the first years, many considered leaving, and some managed it.
The Argentine government had offered them land to come, but for years they battled against bureaucracy, crop failures, flash floods, despair, and near starvation. One early settler wrote of his hungry family desperately wanting to kill and eat a crow, but first taking time to check the Bible to determine if it was permitted. His mother tried to exchange her wedding ring for a single cup of flour for bread.
Given the early challenges they endured, that there is still a thriving – albeit small – Welsh language and culture in Argentina is remarkable. The colony did grow and succeed for several decades, but they later faced adversity of a different kind – the politics of a changing nation that discouraged Welsh speaking in favour of a more nationalistic approach, new waves of immigrants from different countries, and eventually a dictatorship that banned people from giving their children Welsh names.
“My grandmother’s generation used to get abused at school. Most of them didn’t speak Spanish before they went to school, they couldn’t understand anything,” says Ana.
“They came home running and crying because people threw stones at them. The other children would shout, ‘Galensos, pan y manteca!’ (‘Welsh people, bread and butter!’) to insult them about what they ate.
Ana, 39, is of a generation that has largely skipped growing up hearing Welsh spoken as a first language. She is among many who have opted to learn it later in life and are also sending their children to new bilingual Welsh-Spanish schools that have sprung up in the area.
The growth in Welsh language learning is part of a revival of the whole culture that slowly began in 1965, when the 100th anniversary of the settlers’ arrival was celebrated, and has grown through community activism and support from the Welsh government.
That in recent times there’s been an Argentine political culture more inclined to embrace the country’s multi-ethnic past than deny it, and that there’s an ongoing trend for ‘heritage’ and cultural tourism, have certainly helped.
And that many aspects of the Celtic culture are highly marketable have done the Patagonian Welsh renaissance no harm. What’s not to love about spine-tingling male voice choirs, a singsong diction, romantic poetry, and endless rounds of tea and cake?
But like most migrant communities, the culture away from home has evolved into its own particular brand.
Argentinean Ana Chiabrando Rees talks about her family’s Welsh tea house.
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The first settlers invented some of the recipes Ana and others still use – adapting traditional favourites to fit their new needs and ingredients. Moreover, the concept of casas de té, as they are available to the public now, was not imported with the original colonists but came later.
In a sense the whole package is a distinctly Welsh Patagonian creation, and that’s the experience the tea houses are aiming to deliver – a fusion of the old Wales and the ‘Wales’ that was created on foreign shores.
So a visitor from Wales will not find exactly the same afternoon tea that they would have at home, but nor should they expect to.
“Is there a Welsh tea in Wales? I know there are some tea rooms in Wales… but it’s not the same. I think that the tea [we have here] was invented by the Welsh ladies here in Patagonia. For them, the tea was the dinner, that’s why it’s abundant and with salty and sweet food together,” explains Ana.
Two of the most renowned sweet offerings are the cream tart and black cake, both of which were devised by the Welsh women who found themselves living in an alien land with different resources and circumstances to work with.
“Every cake has its own history. When the women started to have a lot of milk from the cows, they needed to do something with it, so they invented the tasty cream tart. I’m sure they used a lemon tart recipe to create it, but without lemons,” Ana says.
“It’s the same with the torta negra (black cake). The recipe was adapted from the traditional Welsh bara brith – a fruit loaf that translates as ‘speckled bread’ – mixed with a Christmas pudding recipe. It was developed more as a necessity by the Welsh women, who were looking for a food product that would last a long time in the event of flooding and when food became scarce. It has a lot of calories, and it lasts for years. Each Welsh family in the area has their own recipe for this cake. They are kind of secret but they are all similar,” she says.
These days she concocts 16kg (35 pounds) of black cake in one go. Flour, sugar, margarine, tea, coffee, spices, raisins, and dried fruits are combined to feed customers and sell as gifts. At peak times, up to 160 people will pass through her tea house per day, says Ana – who is married with two teenagers and also finds time to run a B&B, teach Welsh classes, and study for a degree in the language.
It’s quite different to the days when her great-grandmother was baking a few cakes for parties and friends in the 1930s and ’40s.
When Dilys Owen Rees opened her tea house in 1944, it was the first of its kind in the province. The blossoming of the idea of offering teas to the passing public was perhaps influenced by changing fashions in the cities and abroad.
Ana continues, “Before she opened the tea house Dilys was famous for her baking and for her cacen ddu (black cake), which was served at many weddings in the village. She used to give tea to her friends, when they came back from shopping in the town. Her friends would bring food to her and she did them a favour in return by giving them tea. Apparently, they insisted that she open the shop. It worked very well and it came to be a tourist place too, not only for the people of the town.”
Before Dilys died in 1977, she asked her daughter-in-law, Marta Roberts, Ana’s maternal grandmother, to run Plas y Coed.
“She promised she’d run the shop for the rest of her life, and she did it with all the passion someone could do it, until she was 83. I lived near Buenos Aires until I was 19, but spent all my holidays here. I remember learning all of her recipes. I loved going to the kitchen to ‘help’ her. She didn’t like to me be in the middle of all the work, but there was no choice, I didn’t move from there!”
“She used to cook everything, getting up at 5 AM to start making bread. At 11 PM she was still awake. She loved to talk with the people and tell the stories of both her and my grandfather’s family. She was quite a character.”
When Marta died in 2006, Ana says it was “natural” for her to take over. She made a few changes to the business before re-opening in 2007, but the recipes stayed the same.
“I like to stick to the traditions and have real Welsh cakes. If we don’t keep and share them,” she says, “they will disappear.”
“There are some other tea rooms [that] serve cakes that are not Welsh, but the people that go there think they are. When you do that, the traditions start to not be real,” she adds.
Welsh tea houses receive just as many Argentine visitors as foreign, and many have tinkered with their menus to cater to domestic tastes. It’s not unusual, for example, to see that Argentinian obsession, dulce de leche, creeping into a tea house cake in Patagonia.
“I don’t use dulce de leche because it doesn’t exist in Wales! I really love it, but if we are offering Welsh food, it can’t be there. If I go to a Chinese or Japanese place, I can’t ask for a milanesa, and it’s the same here,” Ana explains. “All the recipes I make came from my grandmother or my great-grandmother’s recipe book.”
When the women of “New Wales” devised the black cake as a matter of pragmatism, could they have envisaged it enduring as a symbol of ‘Welshness” until their descendants celebrated the 150th anniversary of their arrival?
“With every Welsh recipe in the community, we all compete.. mostly with the torta negra,” says Ana, who’s taking part in an anniversary black cake festival in which more than 100 people are going head to head with their creations.
Cake aside, the pomp and ceremony surrounding the event, on July 28, will include presidents and prime ministers dropping by, church services being held, concerts staged, and speeches made.
Then, after the most poignant of all the commemorations – a re-enactment of the day their bewildered and exhausted ancestors landed at the shore – there will be tea.
About Paula Dear
Travel and features writer Paula Dear is a former BBC journalist who left her London life in 2011 and is now in the fourth year of a longer-than-expected road trip through Latin America with her husband. They live in a VW campervan and are blogging their journey at www.seventeenbysix.wordpress.com.