In Easter Biscuits we can see some of the clearly defined regional preferences that have largely been blurred by commercial food production and countrywide distribution.
Tracing the exact origin of these biscuits is not easy as they are similar in many aspects to Shrewsbury biscuits, i.e. of a widely found shortbread type studded with dried fruit. However, I believe the origins of the Easter speciality may lie in an area of Somerset known as Sedgemoor. Here, as in Shrewsbury, the biscuits were often called cakes – Sedgemoor Easter Cakes. So the inspiration may stem from Shrewsbury, but what made these biscuits peculiar to the Sedgemoor area? The answer lies in the additional flavouring. In Sedgemoor, Brandy was the defining flavour although cinnamon was also included. Not far away in Bristol, which has a tremendous baking heritage owing to its position as a dock where spices, dried fruit and sugar would first have been landed, Easter Biscuits are still very popular but here the defining flavouring is oil of cassia. Cassia was the poor man’s alternative to the more costly cinnamon, to which it is, loosely, related. Nowadays it is a lot harder to find oil of cassia than it is cinnamon, and certainly no cheaper, but you will find it on the internet – don’t worry if it says that the essential oil is not for consumption, this is standard advice and the small quantity used in Easter Biscuits is fine. However do take care not to get the undiluted oil on your skin. Personally, I don’t like it’s strident, rather bitter, flavour much, but, for my husband and his family, brought up in Bristol, an Easter Biscuit is not an Easter Biscuit without it. Others it seems may share my opinion, because in London the defining flavour is lemon zest. Commercially made Easter Biscuits, rather predictably, cop out of these regional preferences by using mixed spice.
The recipe I have given is the Bristol one that my mother-in-law has bakes, but by all means, do replace the oil of cassia if you prefer with one of the other regional flavourings. There is a recipe for the Sedgemoor version on Baking for Britain blogspot, which also provides the following information vis-à-vis the Easter connection…
Traditionally they are served after church on Easter Sunday, and are presented in a bundle of three biscuits to represent the Holy Trinity. They are eaten alongside hot cross buns, simnel cake and copious quantities of chocolate eggs as part of our Easter festivities.
Throughout February the dairy industry has promoted the positive aspects of dairy under the hashtag #Februdairy. This was, at least in part, in response to the negative press that dairy has received at the hands of vegans, including the shocking revelation that a list of dairy farms to be targeted for abuse exists. As if having to contend with bTB and prices so low that many dairy farms have already gone out of business weren’t enough, our farmers are now being persecuted for feeding us. The #Februdairy campaign was one that I was happy to support, mainly from my perspective as a cook but also as a long-standing protector of endangered foods. One of the advantages of a month-long focus on one single aspect of food and farming was that I discovered several new producers and initiatives. What follows is a summary of my findings over this month.
Milk – nutritious and affordable
The Campaign Mission4Milk was launched on 22nd February to continue the work of promoting the health benefits of milk post #Februdairy. Dairy is now widely seen as fattening and dairy-free is a phrase all too frequently seen as a positive. Yet rickets, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Britain, is again on the rise, and milk is one of the main dietary safeguards against this. It is as near a whole food as we can get and personally, when I am struggling to get my young nephews to eat a balanced diet, I heave a sigh of relief that they will always drink milk. The fact that it is so cheap (too cheap) makes it one of the best sources of nutrition for those on very limited incomes. Whilst I have concerns about the effectiveness of blanket marketing of dairy products (see below), these attributes remain tremendously important.
Grazing as protection against the effects of climate change
The highest temperatures ever to be recorded in February occurred this year and most farmers were able to turn their cows out to graze. Whilst one incidence of unusual temperatures is not proof of global warming, the subject did get a lot of coverage this month. School children went “on strike” to highlight their demands for climate change to be declared an emergency and a book, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, was published stating that things were much worse than previously thought. This brought the role of grazing in land management into focus. Despite last year’s drought and predictions of similar this year, the UK climate is still one of the best in the world for growing grass.
Two-thirds of UK farmland is down to grass, much of it unsuited to growing any other type of crop. Grazing it with livestock is the only way to convert grass into food for human consumption. The degradation of our soil and its inability to hold water can also be restored by effective grazing, broadly termed “mob grazing”, which has is much more effective than random grazing or just spreading slurry. The land and air quality can be further improved by Silvopasture – planting trees and hedges. Far from being bad for the environment, grazing should be considered part of the solution
Whilst nearly all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly grass-fed, the amount of time spent grazing outdoors varies considerably, in addition the health benefits of grass-fed diminish considerably in a pretty short time of grain feeding. Two organisations to look out for are Free Range Dairy whose Pasture Promise label guarantees a minimum on 180 days a year outdoors, and Pasture for Life, which certifies 100% grass fed meat and, for the first time this month, cheese.
The Ethical Dairy
Animal welfare is the first objection to dairy raised by vegans. They believe that milking animals for the benefit of humans is an abuse of those animals and there is probably nothing that can convince them that dairy cows are very well looked after and happy. However, there is one aspect that dairy farmers themselves are uncomfortable with, and that is what to do with the bull calves. Finding someone to take them can be difficult and some farmers have to give them away but there is a slowly increasing market for veal and for some farms this is a profitable diversification.
An increasing number of micro-dairies are even affording to keep the calves with their mothers until they are ready to be weaned. Obviously, this reduces the volume of milk available for sale, but people seem prepared to pay for it (up to £3.90 a litre) and Radio 4’s Farming Today programme recently discussed how this approach could be upscaled.
It expresses perfectly the thoughts that had been gathering in my own mind. As someone with a passion for food who can afford to pay for it to be produced in the way I prefer, I needed to question whether micro-dairies will remain a niche market or whether in fact they provide a way forward for dairy farming.
I have been fully behind Farmers for Action in their efforts to force a fair price for milk. However, I believe that a system that has seen milk reduced to a mere commodity will inevitably see it traded as such. Under this system there is no reward to the farmer who takes better care of his land or animals, whose milk might taste better or be more nutritious. It all ends up, literally, in the same pot, with organic being the only significant differentiation. Below are three extracts from Alex’s article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but these points explain why I have concluded that his approach is right.
…I think the dairy industry needs to look at what’s underlying consumer concerns. Why is it, for example, that older generations say dairy is good for them, and younger generations say that it is bad for them? What’s happened in the last couple of decades that’s led to such a wholesale change in opinion? Dairy is still the nutritional food source it always was – after all, northern Europeans are very well adapted to consuming milk thanks to a chance genetic mutation thousands of years ago.
…Identity can lead to trust – or lack of it. If your milk is packaged in a bland, plastic bottle and you don’t know what farm, region or even country that it’s produced in and there’s no information about how it’s produced, then it’s hard to trust its provenance. I think farmers underestimate the importance of provenance, as they take knowing where their food comes from for granted. The general public are wanting to know more about their milk, as well as other foods. The dairy industry’s mass marketing campaigns for a nebulous product are missing the point.
…There are two basic issues that face farmers and they’re both intertwined. They’re paid too poorly, and they’re undervalued and under-appreciated. This is inevitable in a commodity market. The rebranding and re-localisation of milk is an essential first step towards addressing these issues. Farmers will feel better about the work they do, and rightfully get paid more for it. There is a revolution in dairy waiting to happen and some innovative farmers are already starting to reap the rewards. Those who are investing in bottling their own milk, producing their own cheese, yoghurt or kefir, and connecting with their customers are getting a head start in a completely uncontested marketplace. It can be done on the individual farm level or in co-operatives, but it won’t be achieved in supermarkets. This is a chance for farmers to take back some of the power from large corporations.
Unique Selling Points
To market your own milk you need to have a “unique” selling point. In addition to the health and welfare angles discussed above here are some more things that people are willing to pay more for:
Breed – Most of the early adopters of direct selling have traditional dairy breeds. Several of these sell their milk raw. They have also been the most likely to have the alternative of selling their milk to a cheesemaker who will pay a higher price for the suitable fat structure. There is a shortage of milk suitable for cheesemaking as Francis Gimblett found when he started his Surrey cheese business three years ago. Of the 23 farms within a 30-mile radius, most couldn’t supply him, either because their contracts with the big dairies wouldn’t allow it, or the milk quality wasn’t good enough for making cheese. When people can really taste the difference, they are far more likely to remain loyal to a brand. There are fewer options for those who followed the high-yield path provided by Holstein, but it has been done!
Glass Bottles – Concern about plastic has led to a rapid rise in those who would like to buy their milk in a glass bottle, or even their own re-useable vessel. Glass bottles stand out on the shelf. A vending machine can give both options. Josh Hares runs a 200 head herd of Holstein Friesians at his farm near Wells and the decision to install a vending machine as well as finding a market for his bull calves enabled that farm to turn things around following a long period of bTB. Full article here: https://www.fginsight.com/vip/vip/making-dairy-pay–17994
Diversification – sorry to use the word, but I’m not talking Yoghurt not Yurts here! I live next door to the headquarters of Yeo Valley Dairy, who made their name selling yoghurt when it was still a niche product. Today’s equivalent would, I think, be Kefir. Only a year or two ago it was only to be found in a health food shop but now even Arla are doing it. Those really interested in health want a pure product but the price paid reflects that, e.g. Daylesford Organic Milk Kefir sells for £4.99 for 500ml via Ocado and their flavoured Kefir, via their own shop, for £3.99 for 250ml. Ice Cream has proved another popular route to getting value from your milk and there is still plenty of potential for good butter, of which we are still a net importer.
You can see Suzanne’s #Februdairy tweets on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie
The Thackeray quote above is one I try to live my life by – it is included in my introduction to Food Culture. Over the past year, I have been reminded to return to it and re-examine whether my approach to setting a table is in keeping with the sentiment.
The annual Real Farming Conference, which takes place in the first week of January, provides a perfect platform for making food related resolutions. The topics debated are of the utmost importance to the future sustainability of farming in the UK. Against this worthy backdrop it is almost apologetically that I tell you that my food resolution for 2019 relates to how I set the table, but please indulge me!
The catalyst for this was not the Real Farming Conference, but a new responsibility I have taken on for looking after my two nephews after school until their parents get home from work. It includes giving them their evening meal. Interesting them to a wide variety of food and learning how it is produced is, unsurprisingly, my main focus. The bigger surprise to me was how important the table is in this endeavour. Being comfortable whilst you eat is important. Ideally, children should eat at a table of a size where their feet will touch the floor. I cannot provide this, but have observed carefully what else I can do, and it seems that involving them in setting the table helps. Initially, my husband and I ate after the children had been picked up but, and thankfully it is only once a week, we now eat with them at 5.30 pm. Rather than being presented with their meal already plated, they like to have dishes on the table from which to help themselves and frequently return for more. Yes, this makes more washing up, but it got me wondering why we save our best tableware for the occasional dinner party.
There has been quite a backlash against formal dining. Dinner Parties have been replaced by Kitchen Suppers. Please don’t mistake me, I am not an advocate of formality. I can’t bear to eat in the sort of establishment that won’t even allow me to pour my own wine. At the same time, I have become fed up with having to fold paper to stabilise my table, sit down gingerly on a chair that looks as though it might be about to collapse, and drink wine out of tumblers that would look more at home in a bathroom. Showing proper respect to the winemaker by serving wine in a glass that will enable the bouquet to be appreciated is surely a better approach to drinking alcohol than treating it as mere plonk?
I have been asked in the past whether my insistence on knowing how, and by whom, my food has been produced doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. Actually, I find quite the opposite. I am very fortunate that I have often either visited the farm or know something of the producer’s history for the vast majority of food that appears on my table. The feeling of connection is deeply satisfying. In a similar way I am rediscovering the pleasure to be found in remembering who gave us this of that particular plate or dish. It is not only children who find lighting a candle makes an occasion special.
Therefore, my food resolution this year is to extend my mindful approach to the presentation of the table, even if it is nothing more than ensuring the kitchen table is clear of other clutter and picking a few extra herbs as decoration rather than just for the pot. Life is short, but every meal is an occasion.
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.
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.
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!
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!