The Scots have haggis, the Irish have stew, and the Welsh? The Welsh have rarebit: a melty, lashingly-sharp cheese toast that puts all other cheese toasts to shame.
According to Wikipedia, the Holy Grail of all reliable information and last-minute book reports, Welsh rarebit was originally spelled Welsh rabbit. Though there's no rabbit even remotely involved in this dish, some speculate that the name could have come about as a sort of cruel joke implying that the Welsh were too poor to afford even the cheapest of meats—as well as a nod to the country's love of cheese.
Regardless of its provenance, Welsh rarebit is a dish that any country should be happy to claim. Essentially a jazzed-up version of cheesy, toasty bread, there are many variations of the classic: some involve bechamel drizzled over toast, while others feature bread coated with a thick, cheesy paste and broiled until golden; some recipes call for Gloucestershire or Caerphilly, a Welsh cheese, while others incorporate Parmesan; some use milk to thin out the cheese sauce, while many opt for traditional stout.
When developing the recipe, I decided to riff off of the first Welsh rarebit I ever ate, at nose-to-tail pioneer Fergus Henderson’s restaurant St. John’s in the Clerkenwell neighborhood in London. St. John's menu changes daily, but there are two dishes which never leave the menu: Roasted Bone Marrow with Parsley Salad and, you guessed it, Welsh rarebit. Because in the words of Henderson himself: "Who doesn't love cheesy toast?"
Of course, this being a Fergus Henderson recipe, it bears no resemblance to any cheesy toast you've ever had before. It is bracingly savory; so umami-heavy (courtesy of the Worcestershire sauce and sharp cheddar) that instead of soothing you, it wakes up all your tastebuds. The initial salty hit is offset by the rich creaminess of stout, and the whole thing stays perked-up thanks to mustard powder and cayenne pepper. Together, the ingredients leave you going back again and again, each time surprised by how intense the flavor is.
This is not cheesy toast for the faint of heart. It is for the die-hard cheese lovers, those who can never quite satiate their savory craving. Perhaps this is why Henderson recommends serving it alongside a glass of rich, sweet port (though I find that it pairs just as well with red wine or some more stout).
Pro tip: If cut into quarters or sixths, Welsh rarebit could make an excellent hors d’oeuvre or first course for a casual dinner party.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 teaspoon English mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 cups stout (or any dark beer)
- 1 very long splash of Worcestershire sauce (if vegetarian, look for a version without anchovies)
- 4 cups sharp cheddar (or any other tangy cheese), grated
- 4 slices sturdy bread, cut thickly
Have you tried Welsh rarebit? Or are you more of a mild cheese-toast lover? Tell us below!