Somewhat of a culinary and linguistic oddity, lava bread contains no lava and is not bread and the ‘lava’ in question is not the molten rock that flows from an erupted volcano... Like lava, though, it does flow on rocks and like bread, it is edible. But neither of those comparisons will get us much closer to discovering what lava bread actually is. Nor why it bears that name.
Let’s start with the linguistic side of things. Lava is actually a variation of the word “laver”, a type of seaweed, scientifically porphyra umbilicalis. Bread is the English translation of the Welsh “bara”. Originating in Wales - or in Cymru (pronounced [ˈkəmrɨ] ( listen), as the country is called by its natives - Bara Lawr or Bara Lafwr is often eaten at breakfast. A Wales native himself, Richard Burton is said to have described laver bread as “Welshman’s caviar”; a younger Welsh actor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is said to have eaten laver bread as a health food while growing up there.
The use of the word ‘laver’ for this type of seaweed may come from Pliny’s mention of a sea plant, though it is unlikely that he was referring to porphyra umbilicalis. Laver needs to be thoroughly washed, as many as 5 times, to ensure that none of the sand caught up in it remains, which has given rise to the belief that ‘laver’ may be associated with the French laver [laVAY], to wash. Also, according to Oxford’s Reference Dictionary, it is “archaic, a washing or fountain basin; a font. Etymology: ME lavo(u)r f. OF laveo(i)r f. LL (as LAVATORY)” In any case, laver is awash in minerals, vitamins and protein, and contains no sugar or cholesterol.
Indeed, not known much outside of Wales in the English-speaking world, the health benefits of laver are well-known in Japan, where it is called nori (海苔), and commonly used in dishes from sushi to soup, as well as in Korea, where it is called kim or gim (김).
Back in Wales, on the culinary side of things, lava bread is primarily eaten at breakfast. After it has been adequately washed and boiled for several hours, it is often puréed, rolled in oatmeal and cooked in bacon grease. It is also eaten as an appetizer with cockles (small clams).
There are a myriad of family recipes available on the web, including everything from lamb to baked beans. Food writers have described the taste of laver as being “like olives with marine undertones” but I beg to differ. Olives? No. Marine undertones? More like marine overtones. A kind of sea-spinach flavor, in a nice way. My cat was sure we were cooking up fish.
Next time you’re in Wales, do try lava bread, in whatever form. And bon appétit! – Enjoy your meal! – or “Mwynhewch eich bwyd!” in Welsh. It is truly delicious. Here’s another Welsh expression that might come in handy: “Bytwch, mae pob gair yn damaid” - Eat up, every word is a bite.