Gingerbread Recipes

The evolution of Gingerbread recipes illustrates the development of British cooking both in terms of both ingredients and equipment, see here.

Medieval Gingerbread

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

6 cloves

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.

Parliament Cake

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

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

8oz butter

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.

White Gingerbreads

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.

Ashbourne Gingerbread

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.

Ormskirk Gingerbread

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

Pinch cinnamon

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.

Cornish Fairings

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 and Gingerbread

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:

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway comfits

Candied sticks of Angelica

Almond comfits

Macaroons

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.

Timeline:

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.

Bibliography

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)

The Grass Beneath Your Feet

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!

Meat-Free anchovy recipes

Pissaladiere

Savouries

Simple Scotch Woodcock

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.

Palmiers

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

1 egg

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.

Pissaladière

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

50g butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Thyme

jar anchovy fillets, cut in half lengthwise

24 black niçoise olives

Bread dough:

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.

Salads

Salade Niçoise

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

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.

Serves 6

3 cos (or romaine) lettuce

12 anchovies

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.

Pasta

Orecchiette con Broccoli

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

Olive oil

Shallot

4 anchovies, minced

Raisins

Pine nuts

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.

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.

Recipes

Good Cooking starts with Good Ingredients

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.

Meat

  1. 1. Winter is peak time for wild game, how many of the following did you eat?
  • Pheasant or Partridge
  • Pigeon
  • Hare
  • Wild Venison or Boar
  • Wild Duck
  • Snipe/Plover/Woodcock
  1. 2. How many of the following did you buy, direct from the producer, as a whole, half, or quarter animal?
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Goose
  • Turkey
  • Chicken or Guinea Fowl
  1. 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

Fish

  1. 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

Vegetables

  1. How many types of vegetable or salad leaf did you have growing in your own garden/allotment/windowsill during the winter?
  1. 6. How many of the following did you grow or buy direct from the grower?
  • Kale
  • Flower sprouts, sprouting broccoli or other sprouting brassica
  • Celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes
  • Land Cress, Mustard and Cress or other micro leaves
  • Root Chicory, Radicchio
  • White cabbage
  • Cardoons

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.

Meat

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:

http://www.britishwildboar.org.uk/index.htm?Suppliers.htm

https://www.primalmeats.co.uk

http://pipersfarm.com/

Fish

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.

Vegetables

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!

Bilberry Recipes

TARTE AUX MYRTILLES SAUVAGES

(Wild Bilberry Tart)

This tart is such a classic of the Alsace region that I felt I had to call it by its French name.  The most difficult thing about this recipe is picking sufficient bilberries.  It is best made with fresh picked fruit but I often have to store mine in the freezer until I have sufficient.  If the fruit has been frozen it will exude more juice during cooking and, if cooked in the pastry case, can turn it soggy.  I therefore cook my fruit and pastry separately to begin with and then amalgamate them for the final cooking.

Best made a day or two in advance.

For a 9″/23cm tart (Serves 6)

Sweet pastry:

8 oz/225g plain flour

5 oz/140g butter

2½ oz/70g caster sugar

1 large egg yolk

Filling:

1¼ lb/550g wild bilberries, thawed and well drained if frozen

1 level tbsp arrowroot or cornflour

1½ oz/40g caster sugar (vanilla sugar is good if you have it)

1 egg yolk

3 fl oz/85ml double cream

Pick over the bilberries to remove stalks and leaves but do not wash them.  If frozen put them in a colander to drain as they thaw.

Combine the ingredients for the pastry in a food processor.  Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

Roll out the pastry and line a lightly buttered 9″/23cm tart tin.  Cover and return to the fridge to rest for half an hour.  Meanwhile preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.  Prick the pastry with a fork and cover with a circle of greaseproof paper.  Fill the case with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes.

Put the bilberries in an ovenproof dish and cook them at the same time as the pastry case until the juices begin to run.  Drain the bilberries retaining the juice separately.  (See recipe for Whortleberry Ice Cream as a way of using this).

Put the corn flour and sugar into a small bowl and mix with a couple of tablespoons of the bilberry juice to make a smooth paste.  Beat in the egg yolk and double cream and then very gently stir in the bilberries.  Pour the filling into the part baked pastry case having now removed the baking beans.  Turn the oven down to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and bake for a further 15 minutes or until the filling is just set.

Serve cold sprinkle with icing sugar just before serving.  On Exmoor it would always be accompanied by clotted cream!

WHORTLEBERRY ICE CREAM

Here I have reverted to the Somerset name for Bilberries.  This recipe came about as a way of utilising the excess juice from making Tarte aux Myrtilles sauvages.  You could, of course, make it by puréeing whole whortleberries, and it would probably taste even better, but this method does make good use of the by-product from the tart.

5 fl oz whortleberry juice

1-2 tbsps sugar

lemon juice

5 egg yolks

8 fl oz good channel island milk

3½ oz vanilla sugar

8 fl oz channel island cream

Add 1 tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of lemon juice to the whortleberry juice, heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and then bring to the boil.  Continue boiling until the juice has reduced to 4 fluid ounces and has thickened to a light syrup.  Taste and add more lemon juice or sugar if needed (the syrup should have a little acidity).

Heat the milk to just below boiling point (and if you do not have vanilla sugar to use you could instead infuse this with a vanilla pod).

Whisk the egg yolks and vanilla sugar together until pale and fluffy.  Pour on the hot milk, whisking as you do so.  Return the custard mixture to a clean heavy based saucepan and cook over a gentle heat until it thickens slightly.  Transfer immediately to a bowl stood in a sink of cold water, add the whortleberry syrup and stir until it cools.  Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.  Stir in the cream and transfer to an ice cream maker to churn until frozen.

Other Ideas

For a smaller quantity of bilberries cook them gently with a little sugar and lemon juice until the juices begin to run.  They are then a perfect topping for cheesecake or lemon posset.

Bilberries

Britain’s reliance on immigrant labour to pick fruit is a concern to farmers who fear that our decision to leave the EU will deter them in future (although a points-based immigration system is intended to ensure our immigration needs are catered for).  However, the British reluctance to pick fruit does puzzle me.  It used to be a great way for students to earn money during the summer holidays, but now they don’t appear to need the money.  And although there does seem to be a growing interest in foraging for wild food, I can find almost no-one else picking Bilberries – a fantastically tasty and healthy fruit that used to be harvested commercially and still widely picked in Scandinavia.  Yes, they are time consuming to pick, although I’d rather pick them than Sea Buckthorn berries, so fashionable at the moment. Have we just become “too posh to pick” or is the wonderful flavour of bilberries something that most people, including foragers, have yet to discover?  I hope to inspire you to try them.

What is a Bilberry?

A Bilberry is the most widespread name for the fruit of the low, scrubby plants Vaccinium myrtillus but they are known by many different regional names including whortleberry and hurtleberry (West Country), blaeberry and whinberry (Scotland) and myrtille (France).  Myrtleberry is the most confusing name as what is commonly known as a myrtle is the fruit of Myrtus communis, which grows in the Mediterranean, especially Sardinia and Corsica, and is a sweet but spicy berry similar to juniper. The Vaccinium genus includes cranberries and blueberries and grows on acidic soils in the northern part of the northern hemisphere.

Bilberries outside the UK

Bilberries grow all over Scandinavia and are still gathered in enormous quantities.  There, they also have a northern bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) but prefer the superior intensity of flavour of Vaccinium myrtillus.  I fell in love with bilberries in Alsace, a region of France renowned for its fruit tarts, of which I consider bilberry to be the finest.  But it was in Italy that I found my bilberry comb – I recognised it having previously only seen one in a museum here in the UK.  Bilberries are, evidently, still picked in the northern Italian hills although in decreasing numbers.  In Ireland, Lammas Sunday, the last in July, is also known as Bilberry Sunday, marking the beginning of the harvest.

Exmoor’s Bilberry History

All of Britain’s moors grow bilberries, as well as the acidic heaths of Surrey, and whilst I am sure all of those regions have their own memories, it is in Somerset, particularly Exmoor, that I have learnt about its history.

On Exmoor, the permission of the landowner used to be required for picking, even on common land. The landowner would be pressured by locals to give this early, before gypsies arrived, and it was common for children to play truant from school to pick berries if the summer holidays had not yet started. Picking would continue “every fine day except Sunday’s” throughout August, moving to higher ground as the season progressed.

The pickers were usually paid by those who had transport to take the fruit to market – from Exmoor the fruit went mainly to Birmingham and Manchester, but they were also popular with the miners of Wales and North Yorkshire. Typically about one ton of bilberries would leave Minehead station each day.  The price varied depending on the quality of berries that year, and also the varying demands, because bilberries were also used to dye cloth, including RAF uniforms.  Fighter pilots swore that eating bilberry jam before a night flight helped their vision.  The income from picking bilberries was often used to buy school clothes, giving some idea of our comparative wealth today.  American soldiers stationed here loved them because of their similarity to their native cultivated blueberry, and whenever the Australian cricket team played in Somerset, it was traditional for The Castle Hotel to make them Whortleberry Pie. The fruit was also preserved, by bottling and in jam, to last throughout the year. You can still find whortleberry jam for sale on Exmoor, although gathering the berries in sufficient quantity makes even this rare.

Blueberry Cultivation

Bilberries would be very difficult to cultivate, they grow only above an altitude of around 1000ft on acid soil, living in symbiosis with a fungus.  Heather moorland is an ideal habitat in which to find them.  The American highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosom) can however be cultivated in any acid, peaty or sandy soil.  The berries are much larger, and together with the higher bushes, this makes them much easier to pick.  Their health-giving properties have earnt them a reputation as a “superfood” and thus increased their popularity.

About a decade ago, one Exmoor farmer, blessed with the perfect growing conditions and mindful of the local whortleberry heritage, began cultivating blueberries.  The project has been only moderately successful.  When, and if, you can employ anyone to pick them the price of the berries is one that locals, surrounded by the free and much tastier bilberries, baulk at paying it.  Blueberries are, after all, only sold in fairly small punnets, so if you are only adding a handful to your breakfast or dessert, it would not be too onerous to pick them.  To buy them in sufficient quantity to be the dominant ingredient in a dish is not financially viable for the pubs, hotels and guest houses in the area.  The farm now operates mainly on a pick-your-own basis and this has some appeal for tourists.

Personally, if I wanted to use bilberries in larger quantities, for example to make jam or a pie, I would cut them with whitecurrants, but then I have plenty in my garden, if I had to buy them, they also would be too expensive.  The taste of blueberries is bland in comparison to their wild counterpart.

How to forage for bilberries

If you are now tempted to pick your own bilberries what is involved?  Wellington boots and a stick are essential for me – everywhere that bilberries grow in Somerset is also prime habitat for adders.  Wear old clothes that you don’t care too much about getting stained.  Once home, I somehow always manage to walk one around the house before spotting the stains – but lemon juice does work wonders for removing the colour.  Try to find bushes that are growing on a bank or hummock so that you don’t have to bend so far.  As long as you are on common land there is no need to get the landowners permission to pick for your own consumption. Take punnets with secure handles – if you drop them it takes just as long to retrieve them up as to pick fresh ones.  Once you have caught the bug you will probably want to buy a comb, although I think the ones sold in the UK are really for larger berries than bilberries.  Whilst a comb is quicker you will get leaves and other debris that will need to be removed at some stage, although the right amount of breeze can help separate the leaves if you lay your crop out on an old tea-towel.  I don’t wash the berries – they are too delicate.

Recipe

For those harvesting a few ounces by hand for their own consumption, one of the best ways to eat them is to make a compote to top cheesecake or lemon posset. Only since I have bought a comb have I been able to pick more than a pound at a time to recreate the tart that I enjoyed in Alsace and which is my favourite recipe for them.

A Taste of Scotland

It seems a lot of people will remain in the UK for their holiday this year.  We did, travelling to the Outer Hebrides via the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh, The Trossachs and The Isle of Skye.  The deciding factor of where to holiday is usually the weather, with more people booking holidays abroad in the years that follow a poor summer here, but cost is also important and holidaying in Britain is not cheap, but this year comparatively cheaper owing to the weak pound.  For me good food is an essential element for a good holiday and whilst I find it necessary to research this more carefully at home than in many places abroad, provided I do this there is much to be enjoyed.

Scotland demonstrated a sense of place that is far less evident in England.  If you had time for only one meal in Scotland to provide a snapshot of their produce it should be at The Kitchin in Edinburgh.   A slice of boned and rolled pig’s head served with roasted tail of langoustine and a crispy ear salad is a signature dish that gives you an idea of what to expect.  I can’t think of anywhere in London where I have eaten as well.

Langoustine (or prawns as they are modestly described by the Scots) are the ultimate Scottish ingredient.  Half of the world’s langoustine catch comes from the cold seas around Scotland (and most of the rest from Iceland).  The biggest markets are Spain and France – I bet more people have eaten them there than freshly landed off the west-coast of Scotland.

There are plenty of untamed places in which to forage for wild food, the first Girolles were just appearing when we visited and seashore foraging has become very fashionable.  Shooting, stalking or fishing for this wild food is often what attracts people to holiday in Scotland, although sadly fishing for salmon is now more like looking for a needle in a haystack.  There are several theories about the reasons for the dearth of wild salmon, including the impact of salmon farming – see http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/aquaculture-risks/ .  Whatever part salmon farming played in decline in wild salmon, I hope that Scotland has learnt lessons about the importance of valuing and protecting their precious wild habitats.  It is also a salutary lesson about what happens when someone decides that a food is too “elite” and must be made cheaply available to all – no-one cares whether they ever eat it again.

Somerset Maugham opined that “to eat well in England, you should breakfast three times a day”.  When in Scotland you will eat so well at breakfast that you will barely have room to eat twice more!  As we were travelling quite long distances on many of the days of our holiday we took full advantage of this by eating enough at breakfast to skip lunch.  You may think that you would soon become bored but the variety on offer ensured this never happened.  In addition to the “Full Scottish”, at its very best on the Isle of Lewis and Harris where both Black and White Puddings from Stornoway were included, there were plenty of fish options – kippers, haddock or smoked salmon, for example.  Berry fruits, especially raspberries, thrive in Scotland and were usually on offer at breakfast – with porridge (of course) but also homemade bircher muesli, granola or pancakes.  Scotland shares with the rest of Britain a fine baking heritage; grains, particularly oats and barley, are prominent in the Scottish diet, and good bread was baked almost everywhere.  Should we feel peckish on arrival at our next destination and still a good few hours away from dinner, there was often a slice of homemade cake to accompany tea or at the very least homemade shortbread.  If I could eat only one biscuit for the rest of my life shortbread would be the one!

In fact, the choice at breakfast was often far greater than that offered for dinner, but I’m not complaining.  This limited or no-choice menu, served to all at the same time, has largely been abandoned in England, but it is what enables the Scots to continue serving fine home-cooked local and seasonal food.  Beef and lamb were popular for main courses but the one thing they struggle to obtain here is vegetables, although everyone was trying to grow what they could.  Those vegetables we had were always nicely, if fairly plainly cooked, but it was the one thing that was sometimes supplemented with imports.  You would struggle as a vegetarian here.  But there is no point yearning for what there is not when there is so much fine produce to compensate.  I would far rather this honest striving to serve local food than when the food of the world is imported to your doorstep – as in most big cities.

Recipes for hogget leftovers

VICARAGE MUTTON

Hot on Sunday,

Cold on Monday,

Hashed on Tuesday,

Minced on Wednesday,

Curried on Thursday,

Broth on Friday,

Cottage Pie on Saturday.

From Dorothy Hartley, Food in England, 1954

Above is one approach to using up leftover mutton or hogget.  An advantage of such flavoursome meat is that its presence is felt even when the amount is little.  This sits perfectly with the view that we should be eating less meat but of better quality. It is definitely worth cooking a larger joint than you might need “hot on Sunday” to set you up for at least one or two more meals.  Here are my favourites.

Cold on Monday

Dorothy Hartley was not a great fan of re-cooking leftover meat in other dishes, noting … ‟Cold mutton need not be unappetising.  It is a pity to spoil good joints by re-cooking, and better to serve them plain cold, with pickles and salad, keeping less interesting joints for made dishes.  The pickles for mutton should always have a fruit element, or be green: pickled damsons, pickled ash keys, spiced cauliflower, French-beans, etc., or small white pickled onions.  Mint or caper sauce may also be served with cold meat.”

It is difficult to add to this advice, certainly even shoulder can be good sliced and served cold the following day and pickled damsons and runner bean chutney are two of my favourite accompaniments.

Shepherd’s Pie

Everyone thinks they know how to make Shepherd’s Pie, but it has changed somewhat over time so first some history.  The names Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie are frequently interchanged but it is now generally accepted that a Shepherd’s Pie should contain mutton or lamb whilst a Cottage Pie is made with beef.  There are earlier references to Cottage Pie than to Shepherd’s Pie, for example the diarist Reverend Woodford recorded that he had eaten Cottage Pie for dinner in 1791 (although it is not clear precisely what this contained).

Potatoes were first introduced to England in 1520 but they did not become widely accepted until the 18th century and it is probably during this century that both dishes were invented as a way of using up and eking out leftover meat.  Shepherd’s Pie originated in the north of England or Scotland, where there were the greatest numbers of sheep.  The oldest recipe using this name is dated 1886.  Food historian Alan Davidson states that the phrase “Shepherd’s Pie” dates back to the 1870s, when mincing machines made the shredding of meat easy and popular.

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, written by Lizzie Heritage in 1894 gave the following full account of Cottage Pie:

…Required: a pound and a half of cooked potatoes, half a pound to three-quarters of cold meat, seasoning and gravy as below.  Cost, about 9d.

The potatoes must be nicely cooked and mashed while hot… They should be seasoned and beaten until light with a wooden spoon.  A pie dish should be greased, and potatoes put at the bottom to form a layer from half to an inch in thickness.  The meat should be made to a thick mince of the usual kind with stock or gravy…or it may be mixed with onion sauce or any other which might be sent to table with meat.  The nicer the mince, the nicer of course will be the pie.  The meat doest next, and should be put in the centre of the bottom payer, leaving a little space all around.  The remainder of the potatoes go on top, beginning at the sides – this prevents the boiling out of the gravy when the meat begins to cook.  Rough the surface with a fork all over, because it will brown better than if left smooth.  It may just be brushed with melted dripping or a coat of beaten egg, part of which can then be used in the mashed potatoes.  As soon as the pie is hot through and brown it should be served.  There are many recipes for this pie, or variations of it, and in some directions are given for putting the meat in the dish first and all of the potatoes on top.  The plan detailed above will be found the better, because the meat, being enveloped entirely in potatoes, runs no risk of becoming hard as it would do if exposed to the direct heat of the oven.  Any other cooked vegetables may be added to the above, but they should be placed between the meat and potatoes, both top and bottom.  If a very savoury pie is desired, make the mince very moist and allow a longer time for baking. The potatoes will absorb some of the gravy and found tasty.  In this case the heat must not be fierce at starting, only at the end for the pie to brown well.  For a richer pie allow a larger proportion of meat….

Modern recipes, where there is not the same need for thrift, certainly do tend to include a much greater proportion of meat.  For example, Jamie Oliver uses 1¾ lb of meat for 6 people and recommends a 2″ layer of meat topped with a 1″ layer of potato.  With less people cooking joints of meat, it is often made now by cooking minced fresh meat, although shredded meat from a cheaper cut cooked slowly on the bone gives a better flavour and more interesting texture.

SHEPHERD’S PIE

Serves 4

3 pint/1.75l capacity dish that is at least 2 inches deep. (see notes below)

500g cooked shredded meat (easiest to do before the joint if completely cold)

small onion

carrot

½ stick of celery

mushroom

tomato

bunch of thyme

salt and pepper

½ pint of leftover gravy

For the vegetable base:

1 large onion

3 carrots

½ stick of celery

salt and pepper

thyme

For the potatoes:

2½ lb floury potatoes

¼ pint whole milk

1 small onion

bay leaf

thyme

¼ tsp salt

4 peppercorns

1 egg yolk

Finely chop the onion and celery, season with salt, pepper and a few thyme leaves, and cook gently in a little of the lamb fat until soft and lightly coloured.  Cut the carrots into half rings and cook these briefly to soften slightly.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the peeled potatoes until soft.  Meanwhile gently heat the milk with the flavourings and leave to infuse.

Shred the meat from the bones using a couple of forks.  It should be shredded reasonably finely so that no cutting is required and to double check that all the meat used is tender.  This is easiest to do before the meat is cold.

When the potatoes are cooked drain them into a colander.  Remove the flavourings from the milk and put the milk into the hot saucepan in which you just cooked the potatoes so that the milk is warm (re-heat if necessary).  Put the potatoes through a ricer into the milk.  Blend the egg yolk with a tablespoon of cold milk and stir this into the potato.  Mix until smooth.

Place the cooked vegetable base in the bottom of the dish and then cover this with the meat.  Pour on sufficient gravy to barely cover the meat.

Top with the potato and rough the surface with a fork to help it brown.  Place on a baking tray (to protect the oven from spills) and place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C.  Cook until the top is nicely browned and the whole dish is bubbling hot.

Notes

The prepared Shepherd’s Pie may be covered and refrigerated once cool for cooking the next day.  In this case remove the dish from the oven to bring it up to room temperature before cooking and allow a little longer cooking time to ensure the meat is thoroughly re-heated.

The quantities given will serve 4 for a main course supper.

The quantity of potato required will depend on the exact dimensions of the dish used.  The dish needs to be at least 2 inches deep to allow sufficient room for the three layers but a deeper dish will give a greater proportion of meat to potato.  For a smaller Shepherd’s Pie a 2 pint capacity dish (1.2l ) will suffice.

RISSOLES

The name rissoles may not sound that appetising but most cuisines have their own versions, varied by the herbs and spices used and the accompaniments – some variations are suggested below.  The strength of flavour in the meat transfers so readily to the breadcrumbs that you will feel that you are eating pure meat so rissoles are a very economical way of making a small amount of leftover meat go further.

8 oz cooked hogget

1 small onion

1½ oz fresh breadcrumbs

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

2 level tbsps chopped parsley

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 small egg, beaten

salt and pepper

Either mince both the onion and the meat through the finest blade of a mincer or chop them finely in a food processor.   Then add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into six portions and shape each into a round cake shape with your hands.  Coat each rissole with seasoned flour, cover and chill for at least half an hour.

Shallow fry for 5 minutes a side.

Variations:  For spicy rissoles add half a red or green pepper and use chilli powder in place of the cinnamon.  For a Middle Eastern flavour try adding ½ a teaspoon each of ground cumin and coriander.  A yoghurt and mint dip is a perfect accompaniment.