Bobby Freeman, Fishguard restaurateur and cookery writer
Fishguard’s very successful 2023 Food Fair would have brought a smile of pleasure to the face of ‘our’ Bobby Freeman, the person who is probably most responsible for bringing Welsh cuisine to the wider world.
During the 1960s Bobby ran Compton House Hotel at 7 Main Street. She had already had a successful career in teaching and business before entering the field of catering. Although born in Manchester, her mother was Welsh and Bobby started to research Welsh recipes to offer her guests. Her interest became a passion as she delved into the old recipe books and manuscripts to be found in museums, libraries, archives and country mansions across Wales. She seems not to have left a culinary page unturned. She consulted historians, cooks, chefs and Women’s Institutes as well as her own friends, staff and neighbours in Fishguard.
Her book ‘First Catch Your Peacock’ appeared in 1980 and although publishers were initially sceptical about such an obscure subject as Welsh food, the book, which is both scholarly and practical, proved a huge success and received rave reviews inside and outside Wales. The restaurant critic of The Independent, Simon Hopkinson, described it as ‘ a small masterpiece’, the respected food writer Alan Davidson called it ‘one of the best cookery book bargains of 1980’ and Wynford Vaughan Thomas praised it as ‘an original and important contribution to the way our forebears lived – the whole story of Wales seen through the kitchen window’. The book has gone through several editions and is still available today.
Although ‘First Catch Your Peacock’ (the title refers to a medieval recipe for the bird) covers the entirety of Welsh food, Bobby Freeman paid tribute to the knowledge and experience she gained in her Main Street restaurant. She mentions the Teifi salmon sent down from Cardigan by bus “fresh caught and packed in cool, fresh green bracken, 6 or 7 big fish to a box. The bus would pull up outside the hotel less than a hundred yards from its scheduled stop, and the conductor himself would carry the salmon down our kitchen steps.” Fishermen brought fresh-caught mackerel “up to us from Lower Town quay around midnight, a hundred or more at a time, as we were clearing the kitchens for the night. We couldn’t refuse them, there was no help for it – into the pantry to gut and clean for an hour or more until they were all safely in the deep freeze, their freshness caught and held.” She was given “an old and treasured family recipe” for bara brith by a member of the Mortimer family who owned Trehowell Farm during the time of the French invasion of 1797. Bobby’s recipe for Fishguard cawl is a classic and she persuaded the distinguished, local, Herald Bard of Wales, Dillwyn Miles, to translate Pencaer poet Dewi Emrys’ praise song to the soup from the local dialect for the book.
Markets were another of Bobby Freeman’s passions and she paid fulsome tribute to our own in Fishguard, still both a significant feature of the local economy and a valuable social occasion when she lived here. “Fishguard’s market day is Thursday and winter Thursdays probably saved our communal sanity in the 1960s for the town which spent the rest of the week in gloomy wintry desertion sprang into comparatively feverish life as people from miles around hurried into and out of the market or formed groups for animated conversation in the streets and town square.”
First Catch Your Peacock is full of such nostalgic gems, entertaining reminiscences and curious histories, along with a wealth of recipes and culinary advice. The book can be ordered from Seaways or bought second-hand online. Living in Fishguard inspired Bobby Freeman as a restaurateur and as a food writer: she deserves to be honoured here for her contribution to Welsh gastronomy.
see also Bobby Freeman – wikipedia