Welsh Influences in Argentina – Food and Culture in Patagonia

How did the Welsh end up in Patagonia? To a certain extent, they fell victim to a dodgy marketing campaign. Feeling threatened by English dominance in the 1800s, they were looking for a place to relocate to in order to protect their language and culture. Originally, this was set to be Vancouver Island in Canada. “That place with all the pine trees and fresh-water lakes?” someone might have said. “Nah, you don’t want that. Come to Patagonia, instead. It’s just like Wales!”

Of course, it was nothing of the sort. Arriving from Liverpool aboard the Mimosa in 1865, they found a region even more desolate than it is now. There was no shelter, limited water and very little food. Yet somehow, through determination (and a lack of other choices), they made it work.

Fast forward almost 150 years and some tourists arrive in these southern towns expecting the streets to be full of people waving daffodils in the air and singing Tom Jones hits. For better or worse, the reality is a lot tamer, yet there is still a strong connection between the old country and the Patagonian province of Chubut.

The Welsh-Argentine community is centred around Trevelin (“Milltown”), Trelew, and Gaiman, with the number of Welsh speakers estimated to run into the thousands across the province. If you time your visit with one of the area’s annual festival – such as the Eisteddfod poetry and music celebration in October – you can get a much clearer insight into how Welsh culture is being kept alive. Otherwise, you might have to make do with some tea.

Tea in Patagonia
Tea in Patagonia; Photo courtesy of Victor.

In truth, apart from visiting a few tiny museums or marveling at some stone houses, the best and only way to get a dose of this unusual heritage is to take one of the famed afternoon teas. Gaiman has the biggest concentration of teahouses. They’re tourist traps, of course, but provided you have a sweet tooth, they are an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Expect knitted tea cozies, bone china saucers, and a generous spread, featuring way more cakes than any person could eat in one sitting.

What’s so Welsh about it? Much is made of the local specialty, a dark, rich fruit cake called torta negra (black cake). The name is a Chubut invention, but the recipe itself is a twist on the “bara brith”, which in Welsh means “speckled bread” and relates to the concentration of dried fruits. Here’s a recipe for the Patagonian version.

And here’s tea house owner Ana Chiabrando Rees explaining torta negra’s significance:

Ty Nain Welsh tea house in Gaiman, PatagoniaTy Nain Welsh tea house in Gaiman; Photo courtesy of Joachim Pietsch.

All tea houses typically offer a complete ‘menu’, including a pot of tea and a selection of several homemade cakes, with scones and sandwiches. In Gaiman, Ty Nain (meaning Grandma’s House and situated on Hipólito Yrigoyen 283) is a favourite, as it doesn’t allow tour groups.

Other Welsh Patagonian recipes include torta de crema (a baked cream pie) and a white grape jam. You may also find dulce de leche creeping into a few of the locally produced cakes, rooting you firmly back in Argentina.

Tempted? You can easily add a short side-trip to Gaiman onto a visit to the unmissable penguin colony in Punta Tombo.

To get you in the mood, the Welsh/Argentine film Patagonia has fully romanticized the two nation’s transatlantic connection. It came out last year and features Welsh singer Duffy.

If that doesn’t appeal, here – for no reason other than the loose geographical connection – is a penguin falling over. Penguins and cake: you can’t really ask for more from a day out.

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Vicky Baker
For five years, journalist Vicky Baker was Buenos Aires's stalker. She randomly turned up on its doorstep whenever she could, kept track of all its movements and felt seethingly jealous if anyone else made a move. Finally in 2008, she took the plunge and made the city her base. From here, she writes for the Guardian, Time Out, Reuters, Sunday Times Travel Magazine and others. In here spare time she also writes a travel blog – www.goinglocaltravel.com – and gets over her inadequacies as a non-steak-eating, non tango-dancing wannabe porteña by drinking lots of Malbec.

2 responses to “Welsh Influences in Argentina – Food and Culture in Patagonia

  1. thetravelchica says:

    I was surprised to learn about the Welsh influence when I visited Puerto Madryn and did a tour that stopped in Gaiman.  I wish I had been more hungry to enjoy tea and cakes when we stopped.

  2. […] and is named after Lewis Jones, a pioneer of Welsh colonization in the region. For this reason, Welsh culture in the city is fairly prominent and can be explored in a number of ways. First and foremost, there […]

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