I’ve come to hate Halloween with the adoption of American traditions such as Trick or Treat. If you have children you will find it hard to fight against, but perhaps reintroducing some of our own traditions will help.
Ever popular with children is Apple Bobbing and indeed apples feature in many Halloween traditions. Also perpetually popular is sitting around a fire telling ghost stories.
Fires were lit to ward off evil spirits and, thus protected from harm, people believed that the ghosts could help foretell the future. Nuts might be thrown into the fire – if a nut burnt brightly it meant that the thrower would still be alive in twelve months’ time. If it flared up suddenly, it foretold marriage within that twelve months.
The most common question put to ghosts concerned future marital prospects. Apple pips could be thrown on the fire in the same way as nuts with the name of the loved one being said as the pips were thrown. If they were lively as they burnt, spluttering and popping, it meant the love was returned, but if they burnt silently this was not a good sign.
There were several other ways that apples were used to foretell romantic prospects. One involved peeling an apple in one long piece – the length of peel predicting the length of life remaining. Women who wished to predict who they would marry would then throw the peel over their left shoulder – the form it took was meant to spell out the first initial of their future husband. If a woman had more than one potential lover in mind as her future husband, she could stick apple pips to her face – one for each lover. The pip that remained stuck for the longest would foretell who would remain most true. Another method was to cut an apple into nine pieces then, at midnight on 31st October, begin eating the pieces whilst looking into a mirror. When she got to the ninth piece, rather than eating it, it was thrown over her left shoulder and the face of her future lover was then supposed to appear in the mirror.
Cakes or puddings were made which contained fortune telling charms:
A coin for wealth
A pea for poverty
A button for a bachelor
A thimble for a spinster
A wishbone for your heart’s desire
That someone’s fortune was so bound up with marriage seems very old-fashioned and some charms, such as the matchstick, which predicted that your husband would beat you, have thankfully disappeared. Nonetheless I remember buying Halloween Brack in Dublin, finding a wedding ring and thinking how much more pleasant this was than trick or treating.
So, Great British Bake Off returns tonight but now on Channel 4 and with only Paul Hollywood remaining of the original BBC presenters. Am I going to watch it? Probably not, it always annoyed me anyway, but there is no denying that it has had considerable influence in actually getting people to bake, not just watching. The Westwood Show that I attended yesterday demonstrated as much enthusiasm for baking competitions as for the gardening and crafts.
The Sunday Telegraph ran a big feature to promote the new series including recipes for “ten classics you need to master to earn your place in the tent”. That got my attention. Before learning that she was to become the new judge, Prue Leith had previously criticised the programme for encouraging unhealthy eating, and I hope that she might bring it back to basics and away from the presentational emphasis on creating “show-stoppers”. There was no suggestion that the “10 classics” were of her devising, and thank God, as very few are what I would consider classic, nor British, and every single one of them is sweet – very sweet. Given that there are two judges, one specialising in bread, I have always wondered why this is so under-represented in the programme. Anyway, it gave me the opportunity to consider what would make my Top 10 (Great British) Baking Classics, so here they are:
1. Overnight Risen London Bloomer
Why? Sandwiches are the nation’s favourite lunch. They are a British invention (the Earl of Sandwich, who didn’t want to leave the gaming table to eat) and their popularity spread nationwide. A proper Afternoon Tea would always include sandwiches, dainty ones with the crusts removed. Being able to bake the sort of bread that can be cut thinly enough for this must surely be an essential skill of the British baker. There is no reason why overnight rises (so much more healthy, digestible and traditional than modern fast-risen loaves) could not be incorporated into the programme schedule.
2. Regional Yeasted Bun
Why? All over the UK people added something sweet to a piece of their standard bread dough before taking it to the bakers and thus arose hundreds of localised specialities. A Chelsea Bun and Bath Bun became nationally famous (so much so in the case of the Bath Bun that it came to be a pale reflection of the original). Many others remained specialities of their area and everyone should know how to make their local speciality bun.
Why? Before people had ovens at home they either took their dough to a baker or cooked on a griddle directly over the fire. There are numerous recipes cooked in this way and I toyed between choosing English Breakfast Muffins and Crumpets for my classic recipe. It would be good to remember that English Muffins have nothing in common with the American version that is now so ubiquitous. However, whilst it used to be possible to buy some quite acceptable commercial crumpets, I haven’t found any for a few years now so making your own is a must if this winter treat is not to be lost.
Why? Essential for a cream tea. I did consider whether the older, yeasted, version known as Cut Rounds in Devon and still popular in many parts of the West Country was more classic than the modern version that relies on baking powder as a raising agent. However, modern scones are so quick to make that if you have these “off pat” you can whip them up for unexpected visitors in the time it takes to heat the oven.
Why? If I had to choose one biscuit for the rest of my life it would be shortbread. In fact, I’m not too bothered about any other type. Buttery, crumbly delicious home-made shortbread. It is also a great accompaniment to fools and other soft desserts. I even allow some flavour additions in these cases!
6. Suet Pastry
Why? We have become so afraid of animal fats when they are actually healthier than vegetable substitutes. Suet puddings, both sweet and savoury, are classic British fare and I would love to see fresh suet become readily available again.
7. Hot-water crust pie
Why? Pork Pie is the most famous version although once you have mastered hot-water crust pastry you can make beautiful raised Game Pies too and you can’t get much showier than that!
Why? These are so useful – they actually improve on keeping. There are so many variations based on this technique e.g. malted fruitbread, sticky gingerbread, date and banana loaf (useful for using up over-ripe bananas).
9. Eccles Cakes
Why? I admit that it might seems bizarre to single out one regional speciality above others but I have chosen Eccles Cakes for the following reasons: the use a rough puff or flaky pastry that is useful in other classics, e.g. sausage rolls; the fruit content makes them high energy but high in natural sugar; although a regional speciality they are popular nationwide, there is even an acceptable commercial product, and they are also good with cheese.
Why? A British classic that involves many elements and is a genuine show-stopper. Forget packet custard or jelly and think instead of syllabub, homemade trifle sponge, biscuits and jam.
I further justified my Top Ten selection in that I have deemed them all sufficiently important to have covered previously in my articles and recipes for The Campaign for Real Farming so just click on the links to get more information.
This has a very adult flavour, not just because of the gin but also the bitter almond flavour contributed by the damson stones. The colour is fantastic.
There is a considerable difference in the ratio of stone:flesh depending on whether the damsons are wild or cultivated so you will need to taste and adjust the sweetness accordingly.
50 ml water
Approx. 150 g sugar
2 tbsps gin (if you have Damson Gin so much the better)
Put the damsons in a pan with the water and cook until the fruit is completely soft. Push the fruit through a coarse-meshed nylon sieve to remove the skins and stones. Depending on the type of damsons used you will have about 350 ml of purée. Add the sugar in stages, stirring to dissolve and tasting after each addition, until you are happy with the sweetness. Add the gin and chill thoroughly for several hours or overnight before churning in an ice cream maker.
PLUM & COBNUT CRUMBLE
For a 3-pint dish
2lb of Plums
3 tbsps vanilla sugar (this, I find, sufficient for ripe Victorias, but increase if using a sharper plum)
3 oz plain flour
2 oz rolled oats
1 oz coarsely chopped cobnuts
3 oz butter
2 oz Demerara sugar
Cut the plums in half to remove the stones and then lay them, cut side uppermost, in the dish. Sprinkle with vanilla sugar (or plain caster sugar) and place in the pre-heated oven whilst you prepare the topping. This initial cooking is not essential but does enable you to fit them in the dish more easily!
Mix the flour with the oats and rub in the butter. into the flour. Mix in the chopped cobnuts and demerara sugar. Cover the plums and press down lightly. Bake at Gas Mark 6/200°C for 20-30 minutes until nicely browned.
1 tbsp Amaretto liqueur (or greengage liqueur if you have it)
3 small eggs
¾oz/20g butter, melted
Make the pastry by combining the ingredients in a food processor. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins to an hour. Roll the pastry and line the greased tart tin. Return to the fridge to chill for a further half hour or so. Preheat the oven to 200°C Gas Mark 6 whilst the pastry case is resting.
The filling also needs to rest before using so make this immediately after the pastry.
Process the almonds in a food processor until they are quite fine. Put them in a mixing bowl and then add the remaining ingredients, whisking in the eggs and butter at the end.
When you are ready to cook the tart, put the blind pastry case into the oven and turn the heat down to 180°. After 10 minutes remove the case from the oven, add the filling and bake for 5-10 minutes until it is just beginning to set and will enable you to arrange the greengages without them floating. Llay the greengages halves (or quarters if you prefer) so that they are just overlapping, all around the edge to the tart case. Continue to cover the rest of the tart case with halved greengages, cut side uppermost.
Return to the oven and cook for another 30 minutes or until the filling is puffy and golden.
Serve with thick crème fraiche.
SPICED PLUM OR DAMSON SAUCE
This is so simple it barely warrants a recipe. I serve it with duck, but it is also good with gammon.
Damsons or plums
1 star anise
Cook the damsons or plums with a splash of water and the star anise until they have collapsed. Push through a nylon sieve to remove the stones, skin and the star anise. Now taste the purée. It will be sharp, but how sharp depends on the fruit you have used. Add sugar and balsamic vinegar to achieve a nice sweet-sour balance remembering that it is a savoury sauce so should not be too sweet.
4 fl oz/125 ml water
1pt/600ml cider vinegar
24 whole cloves
1 blade of mace
1 stick of cinnamon
Wash and prick the damsons then put them in a large earthenware bowl.
Put all the other ingredients in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Brush around the edges of the pan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar stuck here and then only when all of the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Pour the syrup over the damsons, cover and leave for 24 hours.
The following day, drain off the liquid and bring to the boil again before pouring it back over the damsons*. Leave for a further 24 hours.
On the third day, sterilise the jars you will be using, either in the hottest cycle of a dishwasher or by hand washing and placing in a roasting tin containing about an inch of water. Heat to 120°C to sterilise.
This time boil the damsons with their liquid but remove the damsons to the jars as soon as it comes to the boil. The liquid can then be boiled for a while longer to reduce and thicken it slightly before it is poured over the fruit.
Cover with non-metallic lids or used waxed paper below the lid to prevent corrosion by the vinegar.
* This is a heavily saturated sugar syrup, but overnight the damsons should have added some of their juice to the liquid. If however the sugar has crystallised out, heat just the liquid whilst at the same time heating the bowl and sugar in a low oven with a little more water. Gradually stir in the now warm syrup until all the sugar has dissolved and then bring the whole to the boil again.
August and September are the months for Plums and their close relations such as the wild Bullace and Myrobalan. Without getting too hung up about the differences, they might first be divided into two categories – those good for eating raw and those whose sharpness dictates that they need to be cooked. Secondly, they could be divided into those which grow wild and those that have been cultivated, although the categories are interlinked. Those that grow in the wild are seldom sweet enough to eat raw and tend to be smaller than cultivated varieties, mainly stone with very little flesh. Yet it is these wild plums that are the most interesting from our culinary history point of view.
In The last food of England Marwood Yeatman notes…‟One of the more curious aspects of the English countryside is the use of plums as windbreaks and field margins, up to a quarter of a mile long: hundreds of trees that could provide tons of food, planted so as to economise on land that could be used for other crops…. Many people know they have a local apple even if they do not know what it is: they also have local plums. There are hundreds of heritage, self-fertile and other varieties, which need little looking after unless fan-trained…”
Some of the plums used as hedging were of the Damson family. The Lythe Valley in Cumbria is famous for them, but there is also the Shropshire Prune and a Godshill Damson. Regional heritage plums include the Kea plum in Cornwall, Dittisham Plum in south Devon, and the golden Warwickshire Drooper.
Also popular as hedging are cherry plums, which might be of the Prunus avium family as in Landkey, near Barnstaple on the north Devon coast. Here a number of varieties, known collectively as Mazzards, are grown; or the Prunus cerasifera family (Myrobalans), which can be traced back to the 1700s and were often grown as windbreaks for orchards.
This wild fruit is particularly good for flavouring alcohol. Sloe Gin is the template, but Damson Gin (or Vodka) is currently more fashionable. One family firm, Bramley and Gage, has built their reputation from making fruit liqueurs using wild fruits. Their plum liqueur, for example, is made from two heritage varieties – the Dittisham Plum and Blaisdon Red (from Gloucestershire).
In the past, these hedgerow fruits would also have been preserved for the winter by bottling. This old domestic technique, where the fruit is preserved by heat sterilisation, was largely superseded by commercial canning and that probably contributed to the degradation of the culinary status of plums – or maybe it was the blandness of the fruit grown for this process. The Victoria plum established itself as the dominant commercial variety in the Victorian era and, as Jane Grigson wrote in 1982, “Victorias are for canning. Victorias are for plums and custard, that crowning moment of the school, hospital, prison and boarding house midday meal: I reflect that Mr Bird invented his powder round about the time that Victoria plums were beginning their career.”.
This is, I feel, a bit harsh on Victoria plums, still our most widely grown variety and useful both for cooking and eating. However, I do prefer the improved variety, Avalon, which was bred at Long Ashton Research station and gives larger and fuller flavoured fruit which are easy to part from their stone.
The Vale of Evesham became famous for its asparagus, but this was grown as an under-crop in plum orchards – the area was first known for the Purple Pershore Plum, at harvest time you could smell the canning factories cooking it. The canning industry was not confined to Worcestershire. Cambridge, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire all had huge areas of plum orchards primarily for this purpose.
What else can you do to preserve plums? Being high in pectin, they make excellent jam, often suggested as the ideal beginners’ jam because obtaining a set is so easy. However, jam is not eaten anything like as often as it was in the past, and it does rely on copious amounts of sugar as the preservation agent.
Damson cheese has become popular I the last decade or so, made in the same way as the more famous Spanish Membrillo (quince cheese). I have, however, found the pectin content more of a problem than a benefit here as it often sets too firmly, although doubtless with practice one would find the correct point at which to halt the cooking process.
Pickled damsons are another favoured preservation method. Just a spoonful makes a delightful accompaniment to cold meats.
I don’t freeze plums, it adversely affects their texture. However, the freezer does give me the option of making ice cream or sorbet, both of which are delicious when made with damsons. Although as the texture deteriorates over time, these are best eaten quickly. The preserving option I am currently experimenting with is drying. I haven’t yet bought myself a dehydrator, although I think that is the next step. Dried plums are, of course, prunes. Those from Agen being the most famous, but there are other dried and semi-dried (mi-cuit) options.
I have concentrated above on preserving the fruit because the season for eating them fresh is relatively short, although a great filler whilst we wait for the main crop of apples. The earliest plums – Czar an early cooking plum, and Opal which has the flavour of a gage and the size and colour of a plum, can both be ready to eat by late July. Most damsons are early August, with Victoria and Avalon plums coming in the second half of the month. A later damson variety is Damson Farleigh, which dates from the 1800s and is very hardy, so often grown as a windbreak, usually ripening in mid-September. Gages, which incidentally only Britain distinguishes from plums, are considered to be better flavoured than most plums, with a delicious honey note when fully ripe – wait until they have turned from green to yellow. The latest of these is Coe’s Golden Drop, an C18th variety for which it is well worth waiting until the end of September.
In their season, I devour the fruit fresh, bake some to serve as a compote at breakfast, with just the occasional pudding as a treat. I can’t resist one annual plum crumble, including some cobnuts in the topping and, if there are enough to spare, one greengage tart or Clafoutis leaves me satisfied for another year. See Recipes.
The evolution of Gingerbread recipes illustrates the development of British cooking both in terms of both ingredients and equipment, see here.
The following appears in 15th century recipe books. Note that it does not contain any ginger! Honey is an essential ingredient of this time and it is actually formed from bread.
1½ lb honey
¼ tsp each saffron and ground pepper
2½ oz breadcrumbs
½ tsp ground cinnamon
18 small bay leaves
Bring the honey to the boil in a pan with the saffron and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs so as to make a very thick paste. Simmer on an asbestos mat over a low heat for 15-20 minutes until the paste has dried out. Place in a 9×5 inch loaf tin. Smooth over the top and sprinkle with cinnamon. Make 6 trefoils on the top by sticking groups of three bay leaves together at the stalk end with a clove pierced through each group into the surface of the ginger bread. Chill for several days (in a refrigerator nowadays). Serve in small slices.
The old hard style of Gingerbread was known in Edinburgh as Parliament cake. The judges, lawyers and men of Parliament Square would meet for a midday break of whisky, rum or brandy accompanied by a salver of ginger biscuits or parties. Very strongly ginger-flavoured, to match the strong drink, the recipe appears in Meg Dodds (1826). (via Laura Mason and Catherine Brown)
With two pounds of the best flour dried, mix thoroughly one pound of good brown sugar and a quarter pound of ground ginger. Melt a pound of fresh butter, add to it one of treacle, boil this, and pour it on the flour, work up a paste as hot as your hands will bear it, and roll out in very large cakes, the sixth of an inch thick or less; mark it in squares with a knife or paper-cutter, and fire in a slow oven. Separate the squares while soft, and they will soon get crisp.
Note that treacle has already replaced honey and flour the breadcrumbs of older recipes but that no raising agent is employed. This is the type of gingerbread that would be used to make gingerbread men or houses although raising agent would now be employed and golden syrup replaces treacle. The following is Mary Berry’s recipe from Great British Bake Off. You will see the similarities but note also that it contains about half the ginger of the Parliament Cake.
375g/13 oz unsalted butter
300g/10½oz dark muscovado sugar
150g/5½oz golden syrup
900g/2lb plain flour
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsps ground ginger
Make the mixture as described for Parliament Cake but bake the cut biscuits at 200°C for 7-8 minutes.
Parkin is the northern form of Gingerbread. The name was in use some time before the 1730s, when it was cited in a Halifax (West Yorkshire) court case about stolen oatmeal – one of the defining ingredients. There are many local names and recipes, for example Thar cake, that suggest its origins stem from the Middle Ages and an association with pagan bonfire ceremonies which took place at the end of October. It is still made for Bonfire Night in Yorkshire.
Recipes for Parkin have been modernised over time. Originally it would have been made on a griddle or bakestone but now an oven. In the 1800s Oatmeal became cut half and half with flour, the fat also might now be half lard and half butter. The cake was further lightened with baking powder and, when Golden Syrup came on the market in 1880, it began to be substituted for black treacle.
In Yorkshire and the neighbouring counties Parkin is a soft, sticky sponge that improves with keeping. The name can also relate to the biscuit form found mainly around the Scottish Borders, see Parliament Cake above.
Florence White gives no fewer than eight recipes for Parkin. The following comes from Bolton-le-Moors.
8 oz medium oatmeal
8 oz plain flour
8 oz black treacle
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tablespoon cream
½ tsp salt
Mix the oatmeal, flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Rub the butter into them.
Mix together the spices and baking powder.
Warm the treacle and cream and use to blend all the dry ingredients together. Leave all night.
The next day, bake in a flat dripping tin in a moderate oven for 1 to 1¼ hours. Some people add candied peel, which should be very finely chopped. This Parkin will keep a long time, and improves with keeping, but should NOT be kept in a tin or it will get dry.
In the 17th century white gingerbreads became fashionable in the East Midlands, the best known being from Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Grantham in Lincolnshire, the key difference being the presence of eggs in the latter. Both are pale in colour and domed in shape.
10 oz plain flour
8 oz butter
5 oz caster sugar
2 level tsps ground ginger
Pinch of salt
2 oz finely chopped candied peel
Cream together the butter and sugar. Mix the spices and salt with the flour and stir into the creamed mixture. When smooth, add the finely chopped peel.
Press into a Swiss roll tin and bake at 180°C for 20-25 minutes taking care that the mixture does not turn more than lightly brown. The traditional shape of these biscuits is an elongated hexagon but rectangles of about 4×6 cm will suffice.
The style of Gingerbread sold to travellers as their stage coach, and later, train, arrived in Ormskirk was a round, crisp biscuit about 6 cm in diameter. It is still made commercially and, although that recipe is a trade secret, several recipes have been published before along these lines:
8 oz butter
8 oz soft brown sugar
4 oz golden syrup
4 oz black treacle
¼ oz ground ginger
1 oz grated lemon peel
1¾ lbs plain flour
Cream together the butter and sugar.
Melt together the syrup and treacle then work these into the creamed mixture.
Add the spices to the flour together with the grated lemon peel and fold through the mixture until evenly combined.
Roll out to 5mm thick. Cut into rounds of approximately 6 cm in diameter.
Bake at 170°C for 25 minutes, turning out the oven for the last 5 of these. Leave to cool on a rack.
Although the name harks back to the oldest form of Gingerbread, the biscuit recipe below is more modern with raising agents being a significant ingredient. These have been made commercially by Furniss of Truro since 1886 although their recipe is a trade secret.
A rough, irregular surface is a distinguishing feature and, containing raising agent, they are left to spread creating a less precise round somewhat thicker, and therefore less crisp, biscuit than the Ormskirk type above.
8 oz plain flour
½ tsp salt
2 level tsps baking powder
2 level tsps bicarbonate soda
3 level tsps ground ginger
2 level tsps mixed spice
1 level tsp cinnamon
4 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar
4 tbsps golden syrup
Sieve together the dry ingredients then rub in the butter (as you would for pastry). Stir in the sugar. Heat the syrup gently and then pour in sufficient to bind the mixture, which will be fairly stiff.
With floured hands, take walnut sized pieces of the mixture, roll into a ball and place on a greased baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 5-7 minutes or until the biscuits are beginning to brown then turn out the heat and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes.
Leave to cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.
Pear and Ginger Upside Down Cake
With the exception of Parkin, the above recipes are all for the biscuit style of gingerbread. I have, however, given the recipe before for my favourite ginger pudding, so the link is here.
Ginger has a very long history of use in English cooking for it was already in use before the Norman Conquest and probably arrived with the Romans, who used it in quantity, although mostly for medicinal purposes. So, by the time the 12th century crusaders brought back so many of the spices that we use today, ginger was already familiar.
All manifestations, be they dried, ground, preserved in syrup, crystallized or pickled, come from the rhizome zingeber officinale, the finest of which comes from Jamaica. In medieval times ginger was as common in savoury dishes as in sweet, although it is in the latter that it really established its popularity in English baking. Spices were not cheap, so their use was reserved for high days and holidays. At court or in other wealthy households, gingerbreads might be gilded with gold leaf. Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, and often also gilded, was always found at fairs. In Florence White’s Good Things in England a Miss M. W. Rogers from Marazion writes that a proper and complete “fairing” included:
Candied sticks of Angelica
In Yorkshire, Parkin was made especially for Bonfire celebrations around the end of October. Gingerbread was also popular on the continent, especially in Germany, where it was often used to construct cakes in the form of houses, but also in France where Pain d’Epices was, predictably, claimed to be the original. This may in fact be true, because whilst ginger was known in Britain well before the Norman Conquest, recipes for Gingerbread only began to appear soon after it.
Gingerbread became particularly popular in the North of England with Ormskirk being renowned as the Gingerbread capital for centuries, helped by its position as a staging post between Liverpool (where the ginger was docked) and Preston. At the Ormskirk stop travellers would encounter the Gingerbread Ladies selling their wares, each proclaiming their own recipe as the best.
There can be few recipes for which there have been so many recognised variations. For example, in Florence White’s Good things in England, written in 1932, a chapter entitled Country Teas gives 15 different ginger cake/bread/biscuit recipes (out of a total of only 50) with a further 5 appearing in the chapter on Local Specialities.
If we first remove cakes from the equation, there are still many variations on the Gingerbread theme. The first distinction is perhaps between thick and thin – oats were more widely available than wheat flour and produced a thicker, chewier version epitomised by Parkin, but the thinner, crisp, biscuity version was more dominant in Scotland and the borders. Remember too that many gingerbreads were cooked on griddles before homes had ovens, although Bakers’ ovens accounted for earlier commercial versions. Commercial bakers were not the enormous national companies that we see today but small family firms that played an essential role in keeping alive regional recipes, which all too often become extinct when these businesses close. Probably the best known commercial gingerbread being made today is Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread. Sarah Nelson’s recipe is a trade secret although Grasmere was well known for it’s gingerbread before Sarah Nelson began selling hers to tourists in the 1850’s. In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her Grasmere journal of her efforts to buy both the thick and thin versions associated with the village. The thick version is still made for the annual rush-bearing ceremony that takes place in the village church of St. Oswald. Rush-bearing ceremonies occur throughout the Lake District, and in fact elsewhere in Britain, and involve laying fresh rushes on the floor of the church. In Grasmere, St. Oswald’s church-wardens’ accounts for 1819 give the earliest record of payment for “rushbearers’ gingerbread” – the reward for those who gathered and laid the rushes. In contrast, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is of thin type – with a sandy, almost shortbread like, texture.
Although most recipes have been updated to reflect the availability of new ingredients and equipment it is still possible detect the evolution through the recipes. Here is the basic timeline, and example recipes can be seen here.
55 BC – 407 AD The Romans used ginger in large quantities but more for its medicinal than culinary properties.
407 – 1066 AD The Anglo-Saxons certainly valued spices, ginger is amongst those listed amongst the prized supply left by the Venerable Bede on his death in 735, but it would not have been in widespread usage.
1066 – The Norman Conquest – marks the earliest references to Pain d’Epices, the French Gingerbread.
C15th – The Crusaders brought back many spices and the use of ginger became almost as common as pepper, in both sweet and savoury dishes, at least in wealthy circles. The gingerbread made at this time (note that it did not always include ginger) was served at court and on ceremonial occasions, made in elaborate mounds and gilded with gold leaf. Smaller versions, often shaped as men or pigs, were sold at fairs and known as “fairings”. Gingerbread at this time was made from breadcrumbs and honey.
C16th & C17th – Breadcrumbs were replaced with flour or oatmeal and treacle replaced honey (a distinguishing ingredient of pain d’epices). Butter and eggs became popular additions and in the C17th white Gingerbread became fashionable especially in the East Midlands (e.g. Ashbourne Gingerbread).
C18th & C19th – Towns and villages throughout the north of England became associated with their own version of gingerbread.
The Taste of Britain – Laura Mason and Catherine Brown (Harper Press 2006)
Good Things in England– Florence White (The Cookery Book Club 1932)
The Oxford Companion to Food– Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press 1999)
The Gingerbread Ladies– Jack Hallam (John Siddall 1979)
I have just returned home from Sicily where I spent time learning about the influence different soils and climates have on wine. Planeta own vineyards in five distinctly different areas of Sicily and demonstrate a profound understanding of “terroir” as their website explains… ‘It is a new way of thinking about the journey through Sicily; after Menfi, Vittoria, then Noto, then Etna, then Milazzo. Not a random route, but one strongly linked to the variety of countryside, to the winds, to the character of the people and thus of their wine…’ Diego Planeta
It is not only wine to which terroir applies, pretty much every food that is produced in Sicily has a village that is recognised as being the best, e.g. Bronte for pistachios, Pachino for tomatoes, Avola for almonds, to name just a few.
As we flew home I had fantastic views of Mount Etna, the Aeolian islands, Corsica, the French Alps and then finally, after we had crossed the channel, the richest green fields greeted me. Here was what the UK grows best – grass. It may not immediately strike you as food, but that is exactly what it will become, first for the sheep and cows that graze upon it, and then ultimately in their meat or the dairy products produced from their milk. There is nothing like being away to make you appreciate home! I couldn’t wait to eat my creamy yoghurt in the morning, to spread butter on my bread, and then cook some meat for dinner!
We of course usually take all this for granted, but in Sicily, not far off the coast of Africa, the heat is too great to produce beef. They do have a native breed of cattle, the Modicana, a sturdy breed that can withstand the heat and rocky terrain. There are however only around 1000 of these cows remaining on 14 farms in the Modica area. Their milk is used to make Rugusano cheese. Some veal is sold, usually beaten out very thinly, but if left to become beef it would be too tough for anything other than long slow cooking.
The quality of grass may not be something that you have ever really considered yet this is the main determinant of the quality of the meat or dairy we eat. Next time you walk through a field, look closely and see how many different grasses and wild flowers you can count. A field that has only recently been ploughed and sown will have very few but permanent pasture may have hundreds. This variety is good not only for the animals that graze it, as they can instinctively search out their own “medicine”, but it is also great for wildlife. Follow Jonty Brunyee @ConygreeFarm on Twitter for examples of wild plants found throughout the year.
The Pasture Fed Livestock Association was formed in 2012 for those farmers who care about their pasture and who are committed to rearing their animals 100% from this means. I have written about the benefits to human health from eating 100% pasture-fed meat before here.
Since they formed, I have been fortunate to attend several of their events such as tastings of meat from comparative pastures and farm visits. You can read about the hogget tasting here. Having begun by looking at the importance of pasture for meat they have now begun to widen their remit to consider dairy. As one top cheese producer once told me, “the only way to continue to improve my cheese is to grow better grass”. The subject is an endlessly fascinating one in which we should all be showing an interest. Pasture for Life will be featured on BBC’s Countryfile this Sunday and you can find out more from their website
No need to travel abroad to understand “terroir” it has been under our feet all along!
The name of this dish illustrates how well anchovies stand in for meat – no woodcock are involved, just eggs and anchovy paste. It is a classic Edwardian Savoury – a dish that would have been served before (or instead of) dessert. Today we would be more likely to eat it for breakfast or brunch. Instead of making a spread with butter, anchovies and capers I find Gentleman’s Relish is perfectly adequate. However, I would find it worthwhile to use English Muffins rather than ordinary toast. Spread the split and toasted muffins with Gentleman’s Relish, top them with scrambled eggs and garnish with two crossed anchovies.
Gentleman’s Relish is also handy for making hors d’oeuvres like Palmiers to serve with drinks. Simply spread Gentleman’s Relish on one half of rolled, good quality, bought puff pastry. Fold the un-spread half over and roll again to the original dimensions. Starting from one of the long edges, roll the pastry up tightly to the centre and then repeat on the other side. Rolling the pastry in its original paper makes this easier. Wrap the roll in cling film and chill for an hour.
Cut the pastry roll into slices nearly 1 cm thick. Lay them flat on a lined baking tray.
Cook at 200° C until puffed and golden – about 12 minutes.
Sage and Anchovy Fritters
This recipe comes from Franco Taruschio.
24 large sage leaves (at their best in June)
12 anchovy fillets preserved in oil
150g plain flour
2-3 tbsp white wine
1 tbsp olive oil
Oil for deep-frying
Rinse the sage leaves and dry thoroughly. Lay the anchovy fillets on kitchen paper to remove excess oil.
Make a batter with the remaining ingredients and leave to stand for an hour.
Sandwich each anchovy fillet between two sage leaves and secure with a cocktail stick. Dip into the batter and fry until golden brown.
Serve hot with aperitifs.
Lettuce and Anchovy
This is so simple it can hardly be called a recipe. It is a Spanish Tapas – just very fresh crisp lettuce, quartered Little Gems hearts are perfect, each quarter enveloping an anchovy.
This Provençal dish originally had a bread base, like a pizza, and is sometimes claimed to be the for-runner. It now often has a puff pastry base. Personally I much prefer the bread base, hence the recipe below, but I do see that bought puff pastry provides a quick and easy alternative. The topping is also sometimes varied, for example I have seen slices of tomato included. At this point I think we are missing the simplicity of the dish – the topping should consist of plenty of slowly cooked onions, with a lattice formed by anchovies and a black olive punctuating each of the diamonds formed by the anchovy lattice. – “Simples”!
1 kg onions
2 cloves garlic, crushed
jar anchovy fillets, cut in half lengthwise
24 black niçoise olives
10g fresh yeast
10g sea salt (preferably Maldon)
375g strong flour
225ml tepid water
2 tbsp. olive oil
Peel and halve the onions then slice them thinly. Melt the butter in a large oven proof pan. Turn the onion slices in the melted butter until they are all coated. Add the crushed garlic and some fresh thyme leaves. Cover and cook in a low oven (120°C) for a couple of hours until very soft. Remove the pan from the oven and place over a higher heat to drive off any remaining liquid and lightly caramelise. Leave to cool.
To make the bread, stir the yeast into the tepid water, then add the olive oil. Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, pour in the liquid and mix to form a dough. Turn out and knead until smooth. Return to the bowl, cover, place in a warm place to double in size – about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Turn out the risen dough and “knock back” by kneading briefly. Roll or stretch to fit an oiled baking tray about 30×24 cm in size. Cover with the cooked onion then form a lattice of anchovy slices (cut lengthwise if thick). Place a black olive in the centre of each diamond formed by the anchovies.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
This salad often includes Tuna, but provided you include sufficient good quality anchovies it is quite superfluous. The salad should be arranged rather than tossed, with crossed anchovies as the final garnish. The other ingredients should include: Little Gem lettuce, boiled new potatoes, cooked green beans, just boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, capers, chopped flat leaf parsley and, of course, anchovy fillets, 5 per person.
The dressing includes raw garlic, finely chopped with salt, pepper and red wine vinegar finished with good olive oil.
Caesar salad is apparently named not after the Roman Emperor but the brother of the chef, Alex Cardini, who created it. Since then there have been many variations on the original recipe. The enduring popularity of this salad is no doubt partly due to the strong umami taste of anchovies, Parmesan cheese and Worcester sauce, which, when combined with sour lemon juice makes an exciting, refreshing salad.
3 cos (or romaine) lettuce
3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
6 slices of good white bread
2 eggs, at room temperature
12 tsps lemon juice
3 tsps Worcester sauce
18 tbsps olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
9 tbsps freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Put 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan with the slices of garlic and heat very gently, on no account allowing the garlic to burn. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.
Remove the garlic from the oil and lay the bread in the pan to absorb the oil. Cut the bread into cubes and scatter on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes until crisp.
Cut the anchovies into strips, putting 3 fillets into a mortar and the rest in a bowl with the washed and dried lettuce leaves. Grind the 3 anchovy fillet to a paste and blend with the lemon juice and Worcester sauce.
Break the eggs into barely simmering water and poach for 1-2 minutes, until the white is just opaque. Now use a teaspoon to lift the yolks out of the pan (discarding the whites) and add them to the anchovy and lemon mixture. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion. Season with black pepper (taste, it probably won’t need salt). Pour over the lettuce, add the Parmesan cheese and croutons and roll the leaves gently to coat.
Orecchiette con Cime di Rape o Broccoli
Orecchiette means “little ears”, the little cup shapes are formed by hand in southern Italy, although you can sometimes buy them dried. They are traditionally served with Cime di Rape (turnip tops) in Puglia, although similar recipes using broccoli, Romanesco or cauliflower are found elsewhere in the south, for example in Sicily. The flowering greens are cooked with anchovies, raisins and pine nuts. If you can’t find orecchiette, other small shapes such as farfalle are fine, or I have seen bucatini (a thicker version of spaghetti) used in Sicily. Saffron is a good addition to cauliflower, I also like to add some chopped preserved lemon. Use this recipe as a guide adjusting cooking times depending on the vegetable used.
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets, stem peeled and sliced finely
4 anchovies, minced
Saffron and preserved lemon (optional)*
Pangrattato (fried breadcrumbs) to serve
Bring a large pan of water to the boil.
Meanwhile dice the shallot, diced stem and anchovy and cook gently in olive oil.
When the water is boiling add a ladleful to the vegetables together with a pinch of saffron, if using, and the raisins.
Add a couple of tablespoons of salt to the pasta water, then add the pasta. Add the broccoli florets at a point in the cooking time so that they will be cooked at the same time as the pasta.
When the water has evaporated from the vegetables, add the pine nuts and brown lightly.
Drain the pasta, retained a little of the cooking water, toss with the vegetables and sufficient water to amalgamate.
Top with pangrattato to serve.
*Note: Not authentic, but I like the addition of preserved lemon, added with the anchovies.
Despite their tiny size, cured anchovies make a tremendous contribution to the taste of a dish. This makes them especially important in meat-free dishes although not, of course, for strict vegetarians. In the meat world, bacon performs a similar service. What they have in common is a high level of the free glutamates that give the taste “umami”. When eaten fresh anchovies are remarkably mild in flavour but, being a pelagic fish, when they are caught they are caught in large numbers and so preserving them is the norm. Cured fish have been used as a seasoning ingredient since Roman times, although the methods of curing vary.
Anchovies swim mainly in warmer waters. The Mediterranean is their heartland, they are the staple diet of tuna so you will always find them where tuna swim. In the summer some anchovies do make it to our shores and as far north as Denmark, but the fact that they feature so often in traditional British cookery is thanks to their being preserved and then transported. There is an apparent anomaly in one of the best-known anchovy dishes, Jansson’s Temptation, coming from Sweden but this is explained when you learn that the fish used in this dish are not actually anchovies but sprats. If you want to make this dish you need to buy Swedish “anchovies”, apparently Ikea sells them, and you will find they are sweet pickled, like miniature rollmops.
Curing anchovies in vinegar is also a tradition in Spain. Elisabeth Luard describes their link to the silk trade in European Peasant Cookery. The mulberry trees on which silk worms feed grow in the hill villages of the Alpujarras above Granada. As soon as the fresh anchovies were landed on the coast, donkey-boys would set out for the hills with their panniers laden, arriving by mid-day. There, they would trade the fish for silk worm cocoons and return to the silk merchants in town. The highly perishable fish were then cleaned, beheaded and gutted in one swift move – by pulling the head through the belly with the backbone still attached. Laid open and skin side up in a shallow dish the anchovies were then sprinkled with salt and covered with sherry vinegar, diluted with an equal quantity of water. Covered and kept cool the fish were ready to eat in a couple of days and would keep for a week. Prepared this way, anchovies are known as Boquerones and are still popular in every tapas bar. They can be bought here, but the quality depends very much on the vinegar that has been used as sometimes this overpowers any taste of the fish. Good examples can be found, but more usually where they have been freshly prepared. They also differ from the Swedish variant, firstly in being the true anchovy rather than the larger sprat and secondly in the cure.
The form of anchovy with which we will most be familiar is filleted, salted and then stored in oil. Actually there is another form, bone in and salted, which need soaking and filleting before using. I find these too salty. And sometimes unsalted anchovies (and therefore grey rather than red/brown in colour) stored in sunflower oil are imported from Holland. But back to those stored in olive oil. Italy tends to pack them in jars whilst Spain favours cans. From a taste point of view it doesn’t matter which vessel is used, but personally I prefer to buy by the jar so that I can use just a couple at a time. Unlike sardines, anchovies do not improve with storage so checking the date and buying the freshest is one quality consideration. Prices do vary considerably and this is mainly dependent on the size of the fish, the quality of the filleting and the oil in which they are stored. If you are going to eat the anchovies whole it is worth paying more, and Ortiz is widely recognised as the best, although you may well find others that suit your palate just as well. If you are using the anchovies in cooking it is nigh on impossible to detect differences so you can save your money here. There are also several readymade options that you can use to bring the umami flavour of anchovies to your cooking, e.g. Patum Peperium’s Gentleman’s Relish, Watkin’s Anchovy Sauce and Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce, all of which have long established positions in the English kitchen. Nam pla is the Indonesian equivalent that has found its way into several dishes here.
So when would you use anchovies in cooking? You can see from the list of proprietary preparations that it is very wide ranging. Although an anchovy is a fish, it does not add a particularly fishy flavour, in fact it enhances meat better than it does fish. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, it is their contribution to non-meat dishes that I have focused on in my recipe selection. From classic summer salads such as Caesar and Niçoise, to the hot Bagna Caoda dip for winter vegetables, broccoli & anchovy sauce for pasta, Pissaladière and British savouries such as Scotch Woodcock, the anchovy provides a depth of flavour that compensates for the absence of meat.
Anyone who cooks every day will at times lack inspiration about what to cook for the next meal. Nature should provide us with that inspiration, offering up the best produce of the season. We will soon be entering the “hungry gap” – that time of year when even the stored fruit and vegetables of autumn and winter are well past their best and spring has yet to offer up much that is harvestable.
Yet it is not only during the “hungry gap” that people struggle, partly owing to us having become used to everything being available from somewhere or other in the world at any time of the year. How I have laughed recently at those panicking at not being able to buy a courgette or iceberg lettuce this winter!
Supermarkets, for many varied reasons, are not good places to buy food. Even chefs, who rarely go out to shop but instead rely on suppliers to deliver produce to their kitchen, suffer when they lose their connection to the ingredients. I have witnessed this many times, most recently observing at close quarters how a love of cooking can be rediscovered by reconnecting with produce and producers through personal shopping at farmers’ markets. All good cooks will be familiar with the frustration they experience on holiday when they visit a market but don’t have a kitchen in which to cook the produce. Every now and again it is helpful for all of us to shake up our buying habits to find that inspiration again.
To help you evaluate whether your food shopping has got into a rut, try the following review, which considers what you ate this past winter, from 1 December to 28 February.
1. Winter is peak time for wild game, how many of the following did you eat?
Pheasant or Partridge
Wild Venison or Boar
2. How many of the following did you buy, direct from the producer, as a whole, half, or quarter animal?
Chicken or Guinea Fowl
3. Whole (or part) carcass buying does not always include the “odd bits”. How many of the following did you eat?
Ready-made Black Pudding, Haggis or Faggots
Tail, Trotters or Feet
Kidneys, Liver, Heart or other internal organs
Cheek, Tongue, Brain, Ears or other part of Head
Sweetbreads or testicles
Short ribs, Bavette or Feather-blade beef
4. We are an island nation and yet our fish consumption is low and very limited in variety, how many of the following did you achieve this winter?
Cooking a whole fish on the bone
Eating fish at least twice a week
Eating mackerel, sardines, kippers or sprats
Eating at home oysters, mussels or other bivalves
Cooking fresh squid, cuttlefish or octopus
Eating any of the following: sand eels, conger eel, gurnard, grey mullet or megrim sole
Eat any of these shellfish: hand-dived scallops, creel caught langoustine, British lobster
How many types of vegetable or salad leaf did you have growing in your own garden/allotment/windowsill during the winter?
6. How many of the following did you grow or buy direct from the grower?
Flower sprouts, sprouting broccoli or other sprouting brassica
Celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes
Land Cress, Mustard and Cress or other micro leaves
Root Chicory, Radicchio
How did you do?
The above is not an exhaustive list of British produce available in the winter and some things are easier to source than others, for example if you ate cardoons you probably grew them yourself. Snipe, plover and woodcock are all illegal to sell (although not to shoot) and hare, whilst legal to sell, is rare in some parts of the country. So, you may not even wish to eat everything on the list, but it does highlight how we limit our choice if we source our food from only one place. Here are some suggestions for widening your range of produce.
I could not eat such a range of meat if I did not own a chest freezer. At the peak of the shooting season I can have half a dozen birds in a week. Although I like to eat game close to the season, really just because it messes with my mind otherwise, I know there are plenty of people freezing down pheasant breasts for their summer barbeques. Game is fantastic value and very good for you, being high in Omega 3 and low in fat. Some of it is in such plentiful supply that numbers need active control – wild deer being the top example but pigeons and rabbits can also exist in such large numbers that they are a pest. If you shoot yourself, there will be farmers who will welcome your help in controlling these. If you don’t shoot, make friends with someone who does or look out for game on sale at Farmers’ Markets.
A freezer also enables you to buy farmed meat direct from the producer in larger quantities. There are considerable savings to be made if you can buy, for example, a whole or half lamb. For the farmer, it means that every part of the animal is sold, as when people buy single joints from a butcher there tends to be a big inequality of demand for different joints. You don’t even have to live near the farmer to buy this way, many of them sell online.
Chefs have done a great job in popularising some of the lesser known cuts of meat. Sometimes this results in a previously cheap cut becoming far more expensive – lamb shanks being a case in point. Staying ahead of these trends is the way to continue paying less for your meat as well as helping ensure that every part is used.
Since we lost so many local abattoirs it has become increasingly difficult to find many of these less popular parts. The offal has to be used whilst the carcase is still hanging. Abattoirs are supposed to return any requested offal to the farmers but my local farm shop reports that they are constantly having battles because they can see that some of the things returned to them don’t relate to their own animals. Apparently, it all gets quite mixed up at the abattoir, and that is if they comply by returning things at all, I have, for example, found fresh suet increasingly difficult to buy.
You will find many direct suppliers of meat online, here are just a couple of sites to start you off:
Unless you live by the sea, finding a fishmonger can be very difficult. Unlike meat, fish does not freeze well, but if you do have to go down this route it is better to buy it ready-frozen than to freeze your own – unless of course you have caught it, in which case you have little option. Fish that has been frozen at sea has been frozen very fresh and very fast, which reduces the size of the ice particles that form – the major problem for texture when freezing.
Others methods of preservation are well-worth considering. I get to buy fish just once a week but will often buy delicious Craster Kippers alongside my fresh fish in order to eat fish at least twice a week. Smoked Mackerel or canned sardines are also excellent options for lunches, but you need to find a quality source. I buy Connetable sardines online in bulk so that I always have a supply in my larder.
The fishmonger I use has a stand at the local Farmer’s Market and it always has the longest queue of any stand there. Despite the fantastic selection that they have on display, and their skills in preparing it for you, I am always amazed by the number of people who seem to buy the same thing every week – usually fillets or sometimes steaks, salmon and cod being the most popular. Cooking fish is quick and easy – the buying is the hard part. If you are not confident, this is one subject where it really pays to do a cookery course. Contact me if you would like to come to Somerset for a day learning how to cook fish. Or just buy yourself a good fish cookery book and work your way through that.
Everybody ought to grow something themselves, even if it is just mustard and cress on the windowsill. Quite a few gardeners grow only in the summer and yet the active gardening, even for winter vegetables, has to be done whilst the day length is sufficiently long for the growing. Winter vegetables then just sit there enabling you to harvest them over a long period and to always have something fresh you can fall back on. If you want to try this for the first time, Cavolo Nero would be my suggestion – it looks wonderful and you can strip as few or as many leaves as you need, even when there is snow on the ground. They will regrow, albeit fairly slowly. Don’t forget a pot or trough, kept close to the back door, from which you can snip some fresh salad leaves – I grow Landcress for a winter supply.
More and more people now have a vegetable box delivered. Try to make this from a local grower. I think we have rather missed the point if the vegetables are being grown abroad and then transported all over this country. Local growers will often offer a cheaper price if you are prepared to take a box of unstipulated vegetables, enabling them to pick whatever is at its best at the time.
I hope this has given you a few ideas for increasing the range of food you eat. Your starting point should always be the produce, then find the recipe rather than the other way around. Happy Eating!