The OED establishes that the original name of the food was “Welsh rabbit”, and mentions “Welsh rarebit” only as an “etymologizing alteration of [the preceding]. There is no evidence of the independent use of rarebit”. The source is not exactly known, but most likely was originally a slur. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was common to use the adjective “Welsh” to mean inferior quality, even implying counterfeiting.
In a society where most people could snare a rabbit for the cooking pot, a Welshman was considered by some people so hopelessly feckless that cheese melted with beer would have to substitute. The first record of the word was in 1725. The alternative form “rarebit” only occurs from 1785.
In the Victorian era and later, however, recipe books began to refer to this dish as “Welsh rarebit”. This was a euphemism based on folk etymology (that is, this was a new word made up by people who didn’t understand why the dish was called “rabbit”). There is little doubt that “rabbit” was the original form. Perhaps because the disparaging origin is recognised, the form “rarebit” is reported to be common in Britain, although the original form is sometimes used.
In parts of the United Kingdom today, there is a tendency for the traditional name to be replaced by the more prosaic “cheese on toast” (more typically applied to a slice of dry cheese, placed on toast, then grilled) or “toasted cheese”, or a jocular reference to “Welsh rabbit”. A slice of bread topped with cheese, however, is not a real Welsh rabbit.
The Welsh name for Welsh rabbit is caws-wedi-pobi, or the northern caws ar tôst.
There are many versions of this dish. Traditionally it is served on toast, sometimes with a poached egg on top. However many chefs have taken to using the rarebit mixture for more adventurous dishes such as a topping for fillet of Welsh beef, or for fillet of roasted cod. Of course it is ideal as a vegetarian dish and is exceptionally good poured over a dish of roasted vegetables, then baked in the oven until golden. The following recipe is a basic rarebit mix, but the application is definitely a contemporary version of the toasted sandwich. You can add various flavourings to the rarebit base such as herbs, fresh chilli, garlic, cooked leeks, chopped ham, crispy bacon or chopped sun-dried tomatoes.
For the rarebit –
- 25g/1oz butter
- 375g/12oz Mature Welsh Farmhouse cheese
- 100ml/4floz ale or milk
- 1/2 tsp mild mustard
- Salt and pepper
For the sandwich -
- 18 medium size circles of bread
- 6 large, ripe tomatoes sliced thin
- Fresh flat leaf parsley or basil
- Salt and pepper
To make the rarebit- Melt the butter in a pan, add the grated cheese and stir over a low heat until melted. Pour in the ale or milk, add the mustard and any other flavouring you wish. Season to taste.
Bring the mixture up to near boiling point, then remove from the heat.
To prepare the sandwich- either toast of fry the bread (use a little light olive oil, and drain off any excess after cooking on some kitchen paper). Assemble a three tier sandwich with the sliced tomatoes, herbs and seasoning between the layers.
Place on a baking sheet, pour over a good helping of rarebit mixture and brown either under a hot grill, or in a hot oven (preheated at the highest setting). Serve immediately.
Recipe listed by the kind permission of the WDA