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Welsh rarebit (Pic: BBC)
Welsh rarebit (Pic: BBC)
Welsh rarebit (Pic: BBC)

By rights, every day should be Welsh rarebit day. Hot bread plus hot cheese is an eternally winning combination: a conclusion that is apparently shared by every short order chef in every diner everywhere (providing they can throw a bit of meat in from time to time).

But if we are going to spend a whole day commemorating this particular dish (and there is no reason not to), the least we can do is spend a moment learning how it got its name, that’s just good manners.

The first and most important thing to say is that rarebit isn’t a word. It only exists next to the word Welsh in reference to the dish Welsh rarebit. There’s no rarebitting involved in making Welsh rarebit, no rarebits are harmed during the cooking process and you don’t serve it on a rarebit, Welsh or otherwise.

It’s thought that the term derives, rather obviously, from rabbit, and that the English (who can on occasion be a snooty bunch) called the dish Welsh rabbit simple because there’s no rabbit in it. You know the kind of thing; the Welsh eat so poorly that their version of a fine roasted rabbit is cheese on toast. Ha ha.

Or possibly it was to indicate how much the Welsh were said to enjoy hot cheese. There was even a medieval joke to that effect, that St. Peter was so tired of the noise from the Welsh people in heaven he tricked them into believing there was a roasted cheese just outside the pearly gates, and when they all ran out to get some, he locked the gates.

It’s probably funnier in the past.

And Betty Crocker’s cookbook claims it’s because the Welsh were banned from eating rabbit by the English, and so it’s both a bitter, satirical culinary joke (if you’re Welsh) and a sneer from on high (if not).

In any case, rarebit is a derivation of rabbit that arrived after the dish had originally been named, and is therefore less correct. What’s interesting is that there were similar dishes, with different ingredients, named English rabbit, Scotch (meaning Scottish, not whisky) rabbit and Irish rabbit. But because of the confusion over whether there was actually rabbit in the dish—not a confusion shared by people eating toad in the hole or spotted dick, I might add—people took to spelling it rarebit as a primitive and early attempt to avoid getting into trouble with grumpy travelers.

Not that it should have been an issue for long, especially after the dish proved to be so popular in the taverns and rest-stop inns along the roads of 18th century Britain. Call it rabbit, call it duck, call it sliced Cornish unicorn in you like, you’ll never forget your first slice.

Here’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe.

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By Fraser McAlpine