THE WELSH RAREBIT
The origin and evolution of Welsh Rabbit (aka Welsh Rarebit) differs according to one’s point of view. Combinations of melted cheese and toasted bread have been enjoyed in several cultures and cuisines for thousands of years. However, the name of this dish originated from 18th century Great Britain, after Wales. Welsh Rarebit is typically made with Cheddar cheese, in contrast to the Continental European fondue. And Welsh Rarebit made be considered a local variant.
There is no evidence that the Welsh actually originated this, although they have always had a reputation as cheese-lovers. 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 – as a substitute for the real thing. Welsh rabbit may therefore have started life as a dish resorted to when meat was not available.
Although the term is often used simply for a slice of bread topped with cheese and put under the grill, the fully-fledged Welsh rabbit is a more complicated dish with several variations – the cheese (classically Cheddar or Double Gloucester) can be mixed with butter or mustard, beer or wine, and it can be pre-melted and poured over the toast rather than grilled. Welsh rabbit has of course produced one of the great linguistic causes celebres of gastronomy with it genteel variant Welsh Rarebit. There is little doubt that rabbit is the original form and that rarebit (first recorded in 1785) is an attempt to reinterpret the odd and inappropriate-sounding rabbit as something more fitting to the dish. Precisely how this took place is not clear. It has been speculated that “rarebit” was originally “rearbit” – that is, something eaten at the end of a meal. But there is no actual evidence for this.
Here is a recipe for Welsh Rarebit from Chowning’s Tavern, located in Colonial Williamsburg:
– from Chowning’s Tavern
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup beer
2 teaspoons mustard powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ cups grated Cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt to taste
4 to 6 tomato slices
8 to 12 slices (½ inch thick), toasted French or Italian bread
Preheat a broiler. Place the beer, mustard, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce in a saucepan, and heat over medium heat until boiling. Slowly whisk in the cheese, making sure each addition is melted before adding the next. Add the butter, and whisk until smooth. Season with salt to taste, and set aside.
Place the tomato slices on the rack of a broiler pan, and broil for 1 minute, or until lightly browned.
To serve, place the toast slices on the bottom of an oven proof gratin dish or in individual gratin dishes. Pour the cheese over the toast, and then top with the tomato slices. Place under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and brown. Serve immediately.
Note: The components of the dish can be prepared up to a few hours in advance and kept at room temperature. Reheat the cheese until hot, whisking until it is smooth, before the final broiling.