(AFP) – Dec 21, 2007
TREVELIN, Argentina (AFP) — Want a real taste of Wales? While some might hop a plane to Cardiff for rarebit, others can head to the end of the world for tea and cakes in Patagonia.
Welsh emigrants landed in Argentina more than 150 years ago but their heritage and language have endured unchanged, largely thanks to tea houses.
"The traditions of our ancestors are now practiced here more than they are in Wales," boasts Susanna de La Fuente who runs the Nain Maggie teahouse in the town of Trevelin with her family.
Each year, a Welsh cultural festival known as an "eisteddfod" -- Welsh for "to sit" -- which includes singing, poetry and lectures and dates back to 1176, is held here and in other Argentine Patagonian towns.
While the annual eisteddfods are popular, the teahouses with their homemade goods are the real Welsh cultural hubs.
In 1865, Welsh settlers fled British rule for a mix of historic, economic and political reasons that included the right to speak their native language. After the first came to what is now the city of Puerto Madryn, it took years and the help of Tehuelche natives for them to settle in as farmers and ranchers.
"When women got together, they'd share what they had at hand, which are the ingredients for these," says de La Fuente, pointing out trays of homemade tortes, breads, jams and scones along with a big pot of black tea being prepared for Nain Maggie customers.
Though the Welsh culture's popularity waned during heavily nationalist periods such as the Peron governments in the 1940s and 1950s, and again following the Falkland Islands War, it is now on the rebound. The younger generations, particularly in the smaller Welsh strongholds, are becoming more interested in their background and language courses are flourishing again.
But some of the most important traditions revolve around the table.
"This is how my family ate," says de La Fuente's mother and Nain Maggie founder, Lucy Underwood, referring to the two generations that preceded her in Patagonia.
She, her daughter and son Javier still do all the mixing for tarts and cakes served at the teahouse by hand, around the table. "The apple tart is apple, sugar, flour and eggs. The cream tart has cream and a little sugar. It's simple," Underwood says.
"It's an excuse to get together. It's a social occasion," says de la Fuente.
Fernando Coronato, president of the Asociacion Punta Cuevas which runs a museum at the original Welsh landing site in Puerto Madryn, says ironically "there is no teahouse tradition in Wales"
But "for us, it's important because restaurants and gastronomy have always been a way to transmit culture. Thanks to our teahouses, many people have learned about our culture."
"In five or six generations, Welsh blood has spread widely across Patagonia," Coronato said. In the Chubut province where the population is well over 400,000 he estimates about one person in four has a pure-blooded grandparent and some 5,000 people speak the Welsh language here.
The Welsh heritage and the language revival are most evident in the town of Gaiman, which is well known for a large number of low brick or stone buildings and quiet streets lined with a large number of teahouses.
One called Plas y Coed run by Ana Chiabrando Rees was opened by her great-grandmother in 1944.
"Nobody makes a lemon tart like mine!" she says, before deferring to the past. "My grandmother made a lemon tart for Bruce Chatwin. Page 31!" she adds proudly, pulling out a Spanish-language copy of Chatwin's "In Patagonia" and opening to the part where he visits Gaiman.
"My mother didn't speak Welsh, but I learned from my grandmother and great-grandmother," says Rees, who now teaches Welsh in Gaiman and made her first trip to Wales a year ago.
For Rees, it is baking at the teahouse that connects her to her Welsh heritage.
"I was always running around here as a kid," she says, gesturing in a zigzag pattern across the kitchen. "When my grandmother died last year, I took over."
"The language almost died here," she says. "But now the Welsh descendants are learning again."
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