The Corn Laws: Part 1 – The Landowners’ Monopoly

Britain in 1815 was a country exhausted. Under the Duke of Wellington’s command, Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The country was victorious. But it had come at a huge cost.

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo

The country had been haemorrhaging money to pay for the war, and the series of naval blockades had prevented the import of certain key food imports. It had meant very lean times; Britain was far from being self-sufficient when it came to key cereal crops, and a poor domestic harvest in 1812 forced up prices, hitting the working poor hard. Indeed, the poverty had started to creep up to the middle classes. The next year saw a bumper crop, and prices dropped, but they were not decreased exactly in line, so the starving poor didn’t feel as great a benefit as they should in the good growing years.

The war may have brought the country to its knees, but it did bring the country landowners a monopoly; that significant drop in cheap imports, meant that the British, in the main, had to buy British. This came in contrast to the Britain before the wars: the idea and implementation of free (or nearly free) trade was driving down the prices of staples and luxuries alike, and the working classes were finding that they had a little surplus money to buy more of life’s luxuries. It also kept wages low, meaning that the new industrialists, who employed citizens in the factories could make a tidy profit. Low food prices, in short, were powering the people of the industrial revolution, and the tax from the profits were paying for the country’s empire building. There was, then, a tension between the landed gentry and landlords in the countryside and the industrialists in their towns and cities.

A Cruikshank cartoon from 1815 showing the English turning away cheap foreign corn whilst the poor starve

When the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, the landowners did not want a return to a world where competitive foreign imports drove down prices, forcing them to sell their grain for less than they were prepared to sell it, and so a plan was hatched to protect them and their grain prices. This plan was not done in secret, but in plain sight in the House of Commons. The landowners were powerful, indeed many of the country’s MPs were landowners. At this point in history, one could only vote if one owned a certain amount of land. Industrialists, though vocal, did not – in the main – own large amounts of land, and therefore there was a political bias toward the rich men of the countryside, and away from the rich men of the towns and cities.

At first glance their arguments seemed not just solid, but patriotic too: after all this war, and the lack of domestically-grown foods that came with it, Britain should never find itself in this situation again. We need to favour our own farmers and develop our agriculture so that we can be self-sufficient. Not only that, Britain had led the world in the agricultural revolution the century before, and without that, the industrial revolution would never have got off the ground. As 20th century historian C.R. Fay put it: ‘Producers’ strength pulled one way and consumers’ necessity the other. For wheat was a necessity of the poor, and agriculture was the symbol of productive strength at home.’ Britain’s agriculture had to keep going.1 Lord Liverpool leader of the Tory Party and Prime Minister argued that millions of British citizens ‘could not depend upon foreign nations for the necessities of life’.2

Tory Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool

This all sounds fine in theory doesn’t it? But the reality would be very different when Liverpool passed the Corn Law Act on 23 March 1815. You see, the Act allowed the free trade of grains imported into the country, but only after domestic prices reached a threshold amount. And it was high: 80 shillings per quarter3[*] in the case of wheat, these prices were ‘were near famine inducing levels’.4 The only way prices would go above the threshold would be when there were extreme droughts or crop failures from cold or wet weather. So despite there being cheap and plentiful cereals available from outside the country, because of their monopoly, British landowners could sell their grain at any price up to that threshold.

When the Act was announced there were riots in the streets, but despite the vocal lobbying from industrialists, they arguments fell largely upon deaf ears. Before the Act was announced Anti Corn Law Leagues were set up too, but their efforts came to nought.

The passing of the Act in 1815 incited rioting in the streets

As the poor became more destitute, the Acts were reissued with lower thresholds, but they were still too high. The Duke of Wellington during his tenure as Prime Minister introduced a sliding scale, allowing some foreign grain into the country, but not it was not freely-traded. Over the following decades (they wouldn’t be repealed until 1842), the working classes were ground down by degrees: never before or since was the country so close to revolution. In the 1840s, wages reached their lowest levels in a century, and staple foods were expensive and hard to come by.5 It didn’t just affect the urban poor either. A Shetland fisherman, who before the laws were passed happily traded his fish for grain from Spain and Germany. This cashless exchange of goods suited all parties, but after the pass he had to sell his fish within Britain for cash, and being able to buy British grain only, found he could afford to buy just have the amount he used to before the acts were passed.4

The country was stuck under the thumb of greedy landowners and the House of Commons, but they would be repealed, and in part two, we’ll look at the key players on both sides of the battle.


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References

  1. Fay, C. R. The Corn Laws and Social England. (Cambridge University Press, 1932).
  2. Thompson, T. P. Catechism on the Corn Laws: With a List of Fallacies and the Answers. (Westminster Review, 1834).
  3. An Act to amend the Laws now in force for regulating the Importation of Corn. (1815).
  4. Carpenter, K. Petitions and the Corn Laws. UK Parliament: Petitions Committees https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/326/petitions-committee/news/99040/petitions-and-the-corn-laws/ (2019).
  5. Drummond, J. C. & Wilbraham, A. The Englishman’s Food: Five Centuries of English Diet. (Pimlico, 1939).

[*] A quarter was a unit of measure used typically for dry goods rather than liquids and it was equal to 8 bushels, a bushel being 8 gallons. In metric units, a quarter is the equivalent of 291 litres.

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Forgotten Foods #9: Carrageen Pudding

This pudding has been on my ‘to post’ list for absolutely ages. It has become of my favourites, though as you will discover as you read the post, not everyone agrees with me. I’ve called it a forgotten food, but it is still well-known in Ireland. It was popular in many parts of England too, but it doesn’t seem to get made anymore. Carrageen pudding is a set dessert akin to jellies, blancmanges and flummeries, but it is made from the gelatinous seaweed carrageen, also known as Irish moss. It used to be gathered in Yorkshire and South-West England, going by the name ‘Dorset Moss’.1

I first made it in 2015 as part of one of my semi-regular Pud Clubs; I always liked to make one risky pud, and carrageen pudding was it. I flavoured it the traditional way with sugar, lemon and brandy. I didn’t particularly like the taste: there was something of a Lemsip about it. If I remember rightly, it was voted worst pudding of the day. However it wasn’t the flavour that put people off; it is more gummy than a gelatine set dessert, and doesn’t dissolve cleanly in the mouth. As John Wright puts it: it doesn’t have an acquired taste – it barely has any  – ‘more of an acquired texture.’2 That particular Pud Club was the closest I’ve seen anyone get to vomiting at one of my paid food events.

I returned to it later in the year after I’d had the idea for a seaside-themed popup restaurant, and though I could use it in the dessert course. I refined the recipe, adding some whipped cream to give it a mousse-like texture and flavoured it with elderflowers. I combined it with a gooseberry sherbet, and I was pretty pleased with it.

My ‘Buttery by the Sea’ menu from 2015

What is carrageen?

Carrageen is a common seaweed found throughout the coasts British Isles, except for parts of Lincolnshire and East Anglia.2 It is found in rockpools, is branched and a dark red colour. The wonderful food writer Theodora Fitzgibbon describes it as ‘a branching mucilaginous seaweed found on all rocks in Ireland’, which does not sound appetising, I realise. She goes on the comfort the reader, telling us that ‘it does not taste at all marine when properly prepared.’3 It is picked and dried in the sun, typically in April and May, and during the process it lightens from a dark red-brown to a creamy brownish beige, tinged with a pink-red hue.

Dried carrageen

To prepare carrageen, it is reconstituted in cold water, drained and then simmered in fresh water. It quickly turns viscous, bubbling away like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. The gloopiness is caused by the release of a trio of closely-related carbohydrates together called carrageenan.2 To extract it properly, the whole lot has to be squeezed through some muslin (cheesecloth). These carbohydrates are not digested by the body, and are therefore an excellent source of soluble fibre. Indeed, carrageen has been used as a treatment for a range of stomach and digestive complains and it ‘is considered extremely salutary for persons of delicate constitutions’.4 Its viscosity also made it a common treatment for sore throats and chest complaints. It also ‘fills plaster pores, makes wallpaper dressings…and fixes false teeth.’1

Carrageen a-bubbling away

Today carrageenan is commonly found in factory foods. For example, fat-free yoghurts no longer able to set properly are thickened with carrageenan. It is perfectly safe to eat, but foods that contain it should be avoided, because its inclusion is a dead giveaway that the food has been highly processed. Eat your yoghurt lipid intacta.

Don’t let my previous description put you off making this dessert; I really think I have the recipe right. The texture is good and is certainly better than using cornflour to set desserts.

My recipe for carrageen pudding

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References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.5: Edible Seashore. (Bloomsbury, 2009).
  3. FitzGibbon, T. Irish Traditional Food. (St. Martin’s Press, 1983).
  4. Leslie, E. Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery: Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches. (Summersdale Publishers Limited, 1851).

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Filed under Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, foraging, General, history, Ireland, natural history, nature, Puddings, Recipes, Uncategorized

Colostrum (Beestings)

It is always an exciting day when I happen upon an ingredient I have never cooked or eaten, but have read about. I was, therefore, very excited when I approached the market stall of organic dairy farmers Hook & Son at London’s Borough Market at the end of December last year. They specialise in raw dairy products – indeed, it was spotting raw milk and butter that originally piqued my interest – but then I saw on their products list amongst the more typical dairy produce: colostrum. I immediately bought some (along with some excellent raw salted butter).

Colostrum is the name given to the milk produced by female mammals from their mammary glands for the first few days after giving birth to their young. It is very rich and is particularly high in protein: in the case of cows, around five times the protein of whole milk. Because it is the milk produced in order to give a newly-born calf a nutritional boost, it is not a commercial product. A calf should not be ‘deprived of this first natural aperitif’ as Dorothy Hartley put it.1 Whilst this is true, the reality is that there is a great deal of surplus colostrum ever since dairy cows have been bred to produce huge amounts of milk following the agricultural revolution of the 18th century. It was surplus because the highly nutritional colostrum – the beestings (sometimes spelt beastings) as they were called – gave calves diarrhoea.2 Some was reserved for motherless calves.

Leftover beestings would be sent into the community in jugs where it was considered a great treat. ‘It could not be bought’, Florence White tells us, ‘the farmer’s wife used to send a jugful to some of her oldest and best customers’, she would insist that the jug came back unwashed. Superstition held that ‘[t]o return the jug washed [would] bring about the death of the new-born calf.’3 It is today a niche foodstuff, and is typically considered ‘unmarketable’. Today colostrum is dried into powder and sold as a supplement to calves that would otherwise miss out in this very important food.4

Colostrum has been described as ‘golden yellow and as thick as double cream’.1 Well as you can see from my photograph, mine was certainly golden in colour: like a rich egg yolk custard. Upon inspection, however, it did not seem thick at all; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it appeared watery. I tasted it and rather than it tasting lusciously creamy, it lacked sweetness. In fact, it had an almost savoury minerality about it. It still tasted nice; just not what I was expecting.

As colostrum comes to just the barest simmer, it thickens noticeably

Colostrum in the Kitchen

Being rich in fat and protein, colostrum was a foodstuff in its own right, but it was more often consumed cooked. This special milk has a rather curious property in that when it is poured into a saucepan and heated, it thickens just like a custard without having to add egg yolks or cornflour. The reason is down to the proteins. Regular whole milk contains broadly three types of protein: casein, whey protein and immunoglobulins (aka antibodies). The vast majority of the protein is made of casein in whole milk. This protein is temperature stable and doesn’t unfold (‘denature’) when hot. Therefore regular milk doesn’t gel or thicken. Colostrum however is very high in whey proteins (5x more than whole milk) and immunoglobulins (80x more than whole milk), both of which denature between around 55°C and 70°C.5 There is so much protein that colostrum will thicken and set like a custard all on its own. There can be so much protein in there that it has to be diluted with milk.

More typically, it was made into a thick ‘porridge’ with sugar and various flavourings: in Yorkshire it went under the name ‘bull jumpings’,6 in Wales it was called pwdin llo bach (calf’s pudding),7 but more generally, it was called beestings pudding. It is made by simply heating colostrum in a saucepan with sugar, some spices and dried fruit. It could also be set in the oven if more convenient. In fact it could be baked inside a pastry case like a Yorkshire curd tart (but without the curds or eggs!).

There was a certain amount of trepidation when I made mine – I thought that perhaps it would be too thin to thicken up. Well I needn’t have worried, it thickened readily with a pleasant slight graininess, just like a curd tart. Whilst it did feel rather odd to be eating colostrum, I have to admit it was a delicious milk pudding – one I heartily recommend.

Beestings pudding hot

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Beestings Pudding

Beestings pudding takes a matter of minutes to make. It tastes very much like the filling of a Yorkshire curd tart, especially if the pudding is flavoured with allspice. If you like, the pudding can be baked in shallow dish, or even better, a blind-baked sweet shortcrust pastry base. Follow the instructions for baking a Yorkshire curd tart if you fancy having a go at that.

Serves 4

500 ml colostrum

60 g caster sugar

60 g raisins

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg or ground allspice

Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over a low to medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat to medium. It’s a bit like making custard now, but the heat can be higher: keep stirring until the beestings thicken – as if by magic – as it comes to a simmer.

When the beestings are thick like creamy, but slightly granular, porridge, it is ready.

Divide between four bowls and serve, or refrigerate and eat cold.

Beestings pudding cold

References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. The Medical Times and Gazette (1857).
  3. White, F. Good Things in England. (Persephone, 1932).
  4. Foley, J. A. & Otterby, D. E. Availability, storage, treatment, composition, and feeding value of surplus colostrum: a review. J. Dairy Sci. 61, 1033–1060 (1978).
  5. Hege, J., Ghebremedhin, M., Joshi, B. L., Schreiber, C. & Vilgis, T. A. Soft gels from bovine colostrum. Int. J. Gastron. Food Sci. 23, (2021).
  6. Brears, P. Traditional Food in Yorkshire. (Prospect Books, 2014).
  7. Beestings Pudding. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513615.

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Competition: win a copy of ‘A Dark History of Sugar’

Well my book A Dark History of Sugar has been released onto the wild, and I am very pleased to say it has been (thus far) well received. Phew!

The book is out now to buy in the UK and is published by Pen & Sword History, RRP £20.

It’s available from the Pen & Sword website, as well as any of your favourite bookshops: Waterstones, Amazon, Blackwell’s and WHSmith, to name but a few.

BUT if you like, you can order a book straight from me for £18 plus postage. This is £2.85 in the UK, but if you’re ordering from another country, it’s whatever the going rate is.* If you would like to purchase a copy, drop me an email at neil@britishfoodhistory.com. I will of course, sign it for you.

People of North America: you will have to wait until 23 June 2022 before you can lay your hands on a copy. Rest of world: I literally know nothing!

HOWEVER, here’s a chance to win a signed copy – and it is open to anyone around the world. If you fancy having a go, all you have to do is answer this multiple choice question in the comments section below. I’ll reply to the winner on Sunday 5 June 7pm, GMT, so don’t forget to look at the comments and check to see if you have won.

Here goes:

A Dark History of Sugar charts the sinister global history of sugar, but where was sugar first cultivated?

A. New Guinea

B. China

C. Hawaii

D. India

When you leave your comment, don’t forget to check back to see if I have replied to your comment!

*So far I’ve posted to the Republic of Ireland and the US and prices have varied between £9.90 and £24!

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To Make Digestive Biscuits

Just like the workers of the 19th century, my work days are punctuated by tea & biscuits

I have been promising recently a blog post for subscribers containing my recipe for digestive biscuits, it’s taken me a little longer to write it up than I expected, but here it is.

This blog post complements the podcast episode ‘A Dark History of Sugar Part 2’ on the British Food History Podcast.

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Blue Cheese Ice Cream with Poached Pears

As I promised in my last post, I have a second cheese recipe for you that uses a traditionally-made British cheese. Harvey & Brockless sent me a whole loads of excellent cheeses and other goodies, and tucked in there was probably my favourite British blue cheese, Isle of Wight Blue:

‘Established in 2006 by mother and son Julie and Richard Hodgson, Isle of Wight Cheese Co. flagship blue is soft and creamy with a bluey green natural rind and blue veins.’

Beautiful Isle of Wight Blue (pic: Harvey & Brockless)

It’s strong, yet mellow and very creamy. Nothing like a Stilton at all (I love a good Stilton too, of course).

This is exactly the sort of cheese Professor Peter J. Atkins and I were talking about in my podcast episode about the British cheese industry, and how there is a resurgence in traditional styles and methods: softer cheeses made in small batches in small farms – before the behemoth that is Cheddar came along!

This cheese, because of its blue cheese flavour, low acidity and smooth consistency, is perfect to make into an ice cream. Cheese ice creams used to be popular, hitting a peak in the Regency period: indeed, the Prince Regent himself tucked into Parmesan cheese ice cream. My ice cream, like Prince George’s, is sweetened, but it is not over-sweet. It’s very simple to make – a case of mixing soft cheese into some cream and sugar. A curdy, hard or crumbly cheese would not work here.

I’ve combined it with a dessert classic: pears poached in red wine. There’s a recipe in Forme of Cury for it, so it really does have quite the vintage. The poaching wine is sweet and spiced and is reduced to a delicious, tart and slightly fiery spooning sauce. On the side: a nice digestive biscuit.

This is a well tried-and-tested recipe: it’s popped up on restaurant and pop-up restaurant menus in the past, but I originally made it as part of The Telegraph Fabulous Foodie competition all the way back in 2015. It was judged by none less than Xanthe Clay, John Gregory Smith and Jeremy Dixon and it took me to the grand final. So if you are still unsure as to whether you’ll like it, take it from them, not me, that it is good!

Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. Also, see below for an excellent way of using up left over ice cream and sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

For the ice cream:

1 x 225 g round of Isle of Wight Blue at room temperature

450 g double cream

1 ½ tbs icing sugar

In a bowl, break up the cheese as best you can and beat into it one third of the cream. You won’t be able to blend it in perfectly, but a little texture is no bad thing.

Sift the icing sugar with the reminder of the cream in a second bowl and whip until just slightly floppy, then fold into the cheese.

Freeze it in an ice cream churn if you have one. Alternatively, place in a tub, pop in the freezer and beat it with a small whisk every 20 to 30 minutes or so until it becomes too difficult; at that point you are done, and it can be left in the freezer until required. If you don’t want to freeze it, you can whip the cream a little more and use it like clotted cream.

For the pears:

4 to 6 unripe conference pears

500 ml red wine

100 g caster sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 long peppers (or ¼ tsp black peppercorns)

¼ tsp ground ginger

Peel the pears, leaving the stalks intact. Slice the bottom so that the pear is able to stand up sturdily. If you have one, use a melon baller to remove the core from beneath.

Bruise the cinnamon stick and long pepper (or crack the peppercorns) and place in a pan with the wine and sugar. Put over a medium-low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved, add the pears.

Bring to a simmer and cover the pan, turn down the heat and poach until tender. This will take around 20 minutes. The pears won’t be completely submerged, so to ensure an even colouring from the wine, turn them half way through cooking.

Remove the pears and set aside. They can be stored in the fridge for up to four days.

Now make the syrup: turn up the heat and bring the wine to the boil and let it reduce by around three-quarters or more, until viscous. Pour into a jug or jar and allow to cool.

To serve:

Remove the ice cream from the fridge around half an hour before you want to serve. Place a pear in the centre of a plate – it may need another trim at the bottom if it’s been in the fridge a day or two – and carefully spoon a couple of teaspoons of the syrup over the tip of the pear.

Place a biscuit next to the pear – I used a homemade digestive (post coming soon), but a hob-nob would also work very well – and place a scoop or quenelle of ice cream on top the biscuit.

Leftovers: there will probably be leftover ice cream and syrup, the latter of which keeps for weeks. Treat yourself to a very grown-up ice cream cookie sandwich using digestives instead of cookies, cheese ice cream instead of vanilla, and red wine syrup in place of raspberry sauce.

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The Return of the British Cheese Industry


This post complements the episode ‘Cheddar & the Cheese Industry’ on The British Food History Podcast:


Britain’s cheese industry has certainly been through its peaks and troughs over the centuries. As Peter Atkins and I discuss in the podcast episode Cheddar & the Cheese Industry there was once a great variety of local cheeses, but as urban populations grew and there was the need for cheap cheeses for the masses, Britain underwent a cheese bottleneck. The reason? The ‘cheddarfication’ of the industry: our lovely Cheddars were stripped of their character in the 19th and 20th centuries, massed produced and insipid. Not only that, but other cheeses became more like Cheddar, i.e. sharper and harder: Cheshire, Dunlop and Wensleydale all became more like Cheddar. The latter, now a mild and curdy cow’s milk cheese was once a soft, blue ewe’s milk cheese! Writing in the 1950s, Dorothy Hartley thought our cheese industry was dead: ‘the sub-standard cheese is so poor that it invites contrast; so the good cheese standard must be lowered till both are “standard mediocre”. The industrial revolution of the dairy is complete! And our really fine cheeses are lost to England.’1

But then old cheeses and old methods returned with gusto from the late 1980s. How? You’ll have to listen to the podcast! Writing in the 1990s in the third edition of her book English Food, Jane Grigson was impressed by the ‘marvellous choice’ available by the end of the 20th century: ‘One of the happy developments since I wrote [the first edition of] this book has been the renaissance of cheesemaking in Britain.’2 She was particularly happy about the raw milk cheeses, and chesses made with ewe’s and goat’s milk. I’d like to add more soft cheeses and proper full-flavoured hard cheeses.

You are not going to find these cheeses in your local supermarket: you need a good purveyor. I can highly recommend Harvey & Brockless. They have some excellent cheeses, in fact some of my absolute all-time favourites. They sent me a selection of British cheeses through the post, and I must say I was impressed.* It wasn’t just the quality but the fact there was the full gamut of historical and traditional cheeses represented: a Romanesque fresh goat’s milk cheese (Rosary), a cheese that could have been Anglo-Saxon (Bix, a raw creamy cow’s milk cheese), my favourite blue cheese of all time (Isle of Wight Blue; just divine). There was too the oozy and very ripe Baron Bigod, and some traditional cheesecloth matured Cheddar and Devonshire Red (both by Quicke’s). There was even a jar of salty raw goat’s cheese in a herby and garlicky oil (Graceburn) which I made into a salad using the oil to make the dressing – excellent!

Eating Cheese

Excellent cheeses such as these require little help. It’s important you allow your cheese to come up to room temperature under a cheese cloche (or upturned bowl). Proper cheese is a living breathing community of bacteria and fungi and it can sit happily under cover for 2 or 3 days in a cool cupboard or larder.

Letting your cheese come up to room temperature brings out their true flavour.

Eat with simple crackers (H&B provided me with Fig & Sultana Toasts from the excellent Millar’s, and Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbreads) or good bread, oatcakes and digestive biscuits (recipe coming soon!). In Yorkshire cheese is eaten with fruit cake, apple pie and gingerbread. Add equally simple accoutrements such as fruit jellies, chutneys or pickles.

Cheese Recipes

Using great cheeses in your cooking improves dishes immeasurably and I thought I’d provide you with a couple of good recipes that makes a small amount of cheese go a long way: a historical toasted cheese and a blue cheese ice cream which is excellent served with poached pears and home-made spelt digestives (that one will be coming in the next post).

Lady Shaftsbury’s Toasted Cheese

This is a recipe I have adapted slightly from Jane Grigson’s English Food. Jane was fortunate to receive the ‘receipt’ book that belonged to Emily Shaftesbury ‘wife of the great social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury’. They were relatively poor, at least as far as the aristocracy go, and were always in debt.2 Because of this, many of the dishes are cheap – again, as far as the aristocracy go – and this one is delicious. It would make an excellent savoury or starter, or even a ‘light’ lunch if served with a green salad on the side.

I use inverted commas when I write ‘light’ because it is actually pretty heavy going; essentially it’s a fondue of good Cheddar cheese, egg yolks and cream that is grilled before serving with toast. The small amounts given are enough to feed four people.

A good strong melting cheese is required, and I used Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar. It is perfect: potent, yet creamy with just the merest hint of blue. Just one 150g piece is needed for four people.

Be warned, Jane points out that toasted cheese can cause nightmares,2 so don’t eat it too close to bedtime.**

50 g butter

5 tbs double cream

150 g grated mature Cheddar cheese such as Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar

2 medium egg yolks

Freshly ground pepper

Optional extras: pinch of Cayenne pepper or 1-2 tsp smooth or wholegrain mustard

4 slices of toast cut into soldiers

Preheat your grill to a medium-high heat.

Gently melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, then add the cream, cheese and egg yolks.

Stir to combine so that the cheese melts and the egg yolks thicken the mixture to produce a smooth, thick mixture like a thick pouring custard. On no account let it boil, otherwise the cheese may split and the egg yolks scramble. Slow and steady wins the race.

As the sauce is melting, season with pepper and add the Cayenne or mustard if using.

Divide the cheese mixture between four ramekins and grill until a golden brown colour, around 3 minutes.

Serve immediately with the toast soldiers.

References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).

* I should point out that I am asked fairly often to do this sort of thing, but I usually turn the company/producer down, the products on offer not being my thing at all, but the brands sold by Harvey & Brockless are genuinely the ones I purchase anyway. You can be sure I would never endorse a product I didn’t think was excellent. I am no cynic!

** Cheese does not cause nightmares.

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A Dark History of Sugar – out 30 April 2022

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been working on a book all about sugar’s dark side over the last couple of years, and I am very pleased to announce that A Dark History of Sugar will be published on 30 April 2022 by Pen & Sword History. It is – as far as I know when I write this – available in the UK and Australia from this date. North America, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it: 30 May.

Before I tell you all about the book, I thought I’d let you know that if you pre-order via Pen & Sword’s website (so there’s not long left) you can get 25% off the cover price. The book is, of course, available from other booksellers. I will be receiving some copies, which of course will be signed by Yours Truly. I’ll let you know when they are available. I’m not sure as yet how much I’ll be able to sell them for, but hopefully it’ll be under the cover price. Keep your eyes peeled here and on my social media.

In fact there’s another reason to look at my social media: I’ll be doing some competitions on here, but also on Twitter and Instagram on, or around, publishing day. If you don’t follow me already I am @neilbuttery on Twitter and dr_neil_buttery on Instagram.

Okay, let’s talk about the book.

Writing it was very involving and sometimes even distressing and upsetting; unfortunately the history of this everyday and all-too-common commodity contains possibly the darkest in human history. But why is its history so bad? Well, it’s because it’s so good.

Botanical plate (c.1880) of sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum

I begin the book looking at the lengths early man went to just to get its hands on honey – the purest natural source of sugar. You see, Homo sapiens adapted to spend a great deal of its time thinking about sugar and how to get hold of it. We evolved bigger brains with the ability to problem solve that feed on glucose only – no other sugar will do – and we evolved pleasure centres that are never sated and stomachs we can stuff with sweet foods well after we are full.

This evolved adaptation is advantageous if there is little sugar about, but when it’s available any time we want in any amount we want, our brains go into overdrive and out pleasure centres spin like Catherine wheels, reinforcing our behaviours, training us up to eat more and more of it. At any cost. As I say in the book:

We take sugar for granted, but now we are paying the price, and have been for some time. With cheap and plentiful sugar came centuries of exploitation, slavery, racism, diabetes, obesity, rotten teeth, and mistreatment of an exhausted planet.

But sugar and sweetness are seen as pretty favourable: sugar is good, heavenly even; little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ Somebody who is described as ‘sweet’ is cute, friendly, kind, and your romantic partner is your ‘sweetheart’. We look at sugar with dewy-eyed nostalgia: baking cakes with Grandma, chocolate coins at Christmas, buying sweets in the corner shop.

Detail from A compleat map of the West Indies (1774). The tiny islands of the Lesser Antilles are dwarfed by the greater islands, Cuba and Hispaniola.

The reality is different, for we are a world of sugar junkies, and as consumers we have had the wool pulled over our eyes for centuries. Of course, sugar manufacturers, confectioners and fizzy drinks companies much preferred it when we knew nothing about how sugar was made and what its effects are upon the human body.

Just how did we in Europe go from returning crusading knights bringing back a few sugar samples to pass around at court, to a transatlantic trade in African slaves that displaced 12 million African men, women and children to the sugar colonies via the horrific Middle Passage?1 The slave and sugar trade made many people rich; not just investors and merchants, but also those in Britain selling fancy goods, food, tools and furniture to the colonies. This intricate web of commerce reached into almost every aspect of trade is called the ‘sugar-slave complex’.2

Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves on the sugar colonies. From the 1807 book The Penitential Tyrant by Thomas Branagan.

When the slave trade, and then slavery itself, was abolished, one might think that working conditions might have improved. Sadly they did not: new World sugar plantation owners simply swapped one type of exploitation for another, making it nigh-on impossible for freed slaves to leave them.

As the British Empire grew, so did the British sugar manufacturing industry, with sugar plantations cropping up wherever it was viable to do so. At this point, the association of sugar manufacture with exploitation could have been decoupled, but sadly this was not the case, and the indigenous people who had become suddenly, and usually violently, subjects of the empire were worked to death, and many were displaced to work on plantations thousands of miles away from home. Indian workers, for example, were forced to work on the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius as well as India itself.

A political cartoon from 1791 titled Barbarities of the West Indias showing a cruel overseer plunge a slave into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ them up.

And it still goes on today: people across the world are still being exploited to make sugar, even children.

There is not enough space on the blog to go through everything discussed in the book: sugar as (useless) medicine, the Coca Cola Company, Cadbury and Queen Victoria, environmental disasters, the horrors of the sugar making processes and squalor of the slaves, rotting teeth, diabetes, Big Sugar, Christopher Columbus, the Haitian Revolution and the fact that every English monarch from Elizabeth I to George III had a stake in the sugar-slave trade. The list goes on…

An 1890s Coca Cola advertisement. Coca Cola managed to keep its price set at five cents a bottle until the close of the Second World War.

I hope you find A Dark History of Sugar interesting and informative, and that I achieve my aim: to connect the dots between the first time sugar was made in Asia to the mess we are in now…and some thoughts upon how we can get out of it.

References

  1. Curtin, P. D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
  2. Abbot, E. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. (Penguin, 2008).

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Filed under Books, food, history, Uncategorized

Cheese and Leek (or Onion) Pie

Hello! I’m back after two-month hiatus. Did you miss me?

It’s British Pie Week this week so I thought I’d post a recipe for a favourite of mine. The trouble is, I have many favourites, so I came up with a list of four and let Twitter decide. I was very glad to see my favourite won.

Later, I saw the cheese and leek/onion pie was tenth in the top ten favourite UK pies, receiving just 1% of the vote!* Shocking. I think there may be a north-south divide effect at work there; back in the days of my market stall and restaurant, cheese and leek pie was by far the favourite.

The cheese and onion pie or pasty used to be a very important food for the working classes of Northern England, especially Yorkshire and Lancashire: it’s easy to make and the ingredients are cheap compared to meaty fillings. It’s the pie equivalent of the Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit.

The simplest of fillings were made of cooked onion, thinly-sliced raw potato, or cold mashed potato, and grated cheese. On the fancier side, a thick white sauce is used instead of mash. For my recipe I am going somewhere in between to hopefully enjoy the best of both worlds. I use onion and leek interchangeably because either (or both) can be used: I make leek pies as I’m intolerant to onion.

As for the cheese, use a mature kind that melts easily: Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester etc. The pastry should be a simple shortcrust made with half butter, half lard, but all butter is good too.

Serve the pie with mashed potatoes or chips, with peas and gravy as is traditional, but this pie eats very well just warm with a dressed green salad and some good old salad cream.


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Makes one large pie to serve 6 people (or 4 greedy ones who always have seconds)

For the filling:

50 g butter

1 leek, trimmed and sliced, but with the green left on; or 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced

350 g (approx.) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 medium-sized ones)

Salt and pepper

1 tbs plain flour

1 tsp English mustard powder

275 ml hot milk

150 g grated cheese

Pinch Cayenne pepper (optional)

2 tbs double cream

For the pastry:

400 g plain flour

200g salted butter, or 100 g each butter and lard (or shortening)

120 ml water or milk

Egg wash

Start with the filling. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leek or onion and potatoes, season with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the leek or onion melts right down. Do this slowly, turning down the heat if necessary – you don’t want to fry them, though a pale golden brown colour is fine.

Stir in the flour and mustard and cook for a minute before mixing half of the milk. When the milk combines with the flour to make a smooth sauce, add the remainder of the milk and combine again.

Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Mix in the Cayenne pepper. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper. It’s a good idea to slightly over season the filling to make up for the comparatively bland shortcrust pastry. Finally stir in the cream and allow to cool completely. I usually make my cooked fillings a day or two ahead of time.

Now make the pastry. Rub the fat(s) into the flour. If you are using unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt. If you are making pastry by hand, unless you have forearms like Popeye, use fats that are at room temperature. If using a mixer, use the flat beater and use cold fats straight from the fridge. Either way, once it resembles breadcrumbs add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead very briefly, wrap in cling film and leave it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

After resting, take around a third of the dough and roll out on a lightly floured worktop. I used an 18 cm cake tin because I like deep-filled pies, but a shallow pie dish or flan ring of around 25 cm would work too. Roll out a third of the pastry into a circle. Leave the pastry to rest again for a minute or so before laying it in the tin. Be careful to press the pastry into the corners without stretching it: lift it in carefully. If using a deep dish as I have it’s helpful to fold the pastry into quarters, placing it in the dish or tin and then unfolding it.

Roll out the remainder of the pastry to make a lid. Cut a steam hole in the centre and set aside.

Spoon in the pie filling, but don’t fill it too much – it does expand as it cooks. Now brush the edges with egg wash (I use an egg, or egg yolk, beaten with half a teaspoon of salt). Glue the lid in place, pressing the lid down well.

Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife and then crimp the edges or use a fork to seal the lid. Paint with more egg wash, and if you like add a bit more black pepper. Place in the fridge to set the pastry.

Preheat your oven to 220°C and pop a baking tray on the centre shelf.

(If you have any left-over pastry and filling, make a pasty with it (see here for my Cornish pasty recipe) and bake it with the pie, or freeze it. Both pastry and filling freeze well separately.)

Take the pie out of the fridge and place in the oven on the hot baking tray (this prevents a soggy bottom from developing) and bake for 45 minutes, turning down the heat to 180°C when the pastry is a nice golden brown.

*The poll appeared in the Metro back in 2017: https://metro.co.uk/2017/03/09/the-most-loved-pies-around-the-uk-may-divide-the-nation-6498584/

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Filed under baking, Britain, food, General, history, Recipes

Happy New Year!

Enjoying an NYE Smoking Bishop

Well I didn’t think I would be starting my New Year post in the same way as last year’s, but hey:

2020 2021 is finally over, and 2021 2022 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months 2 years have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.”

It has been surprisingly busy year: I handed in the manuscript of my first book A Dark History of Sugar, and am currently working through a draft of my second, plus I contributed to some food and cookery shows: I made Christmas Pottage and Christmas Cakes on Amazing Christmas Cakes & Bakes, plus some Wassail! On Our Victorian Christmas both on Channel 5. Then there has been the return of the podcast as well!

The Christmas pottage I made for Amazing Christmas Cakes & Bakes

I mention this only because none of it would have happened without you, dear reader: it’s the followers, and the comments and shares that make the blog popular, and makes me want to write year after year…

…and what a year! 2021 saw the blog’s 10th birthday and a record number of views! Gosh.

The top 10 posts are below; it is nice to see two seasonal posts getting high views – simnel cake and Twelfth Night cake have never made it into the top 10 before. It is, of course, very good to see puddings and offal represented there too.

So thanks for reading, liking, listening and watching; it really does mean a lot. Also: a massive thank you to anyone who had pledged me a virtual coffee or pint, or become a regular subscriber. It is getting increasingly expensive just to have a blog and podcast. It really does help, and it means that I can make more online content.

I’m gonna stop gushing now: I’m a Yorkshireman for goodness sake.

This year the blog covered a wide range of topics including: the surprising history of the pressure cooker, the problem with saltpetre and other nitrates in meat preservation, why Samuel Pepys buried his round of Parmesan in the garden, as well as the difference between a cobnut, filbert and hazelnut. There were recipes, and the histories behind them, too for frumenty, seed cake, Glamorgan sausages and the humble hot toddy.

Cobnuts (or are they hazelnuts?)

The other blog (Neil Cooks Grigson) saw me cook probably the craziest recipe in there, Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire Christmas Pye for the TV (which was then subsequently cut out of the show), smoking my own meat, including a cold-smoked chicken. There was too an inedible three gourd garnish, plus two chapter reviews: Poultry and Saltwater Fish. I have only five recipes to cook to complete the book!

My home-made cold-smoked bacon

The second and half the third season of the podcast was published this year, and it is doing much better than I expected. If you have any suggestions of topics for the podcast, by the way, please let me know. Topics this year have included: food in gothic literature, savouries (with recipe for Scotch woodcock), gingerbread, Christmas pudding, the dark history of chocolate, Forme of Cury and, of course, the trilogy of eel episodes!

The first part of the new year ahead looks pretty busy: A Dark History of Sugar will be out at Eastertime and my second book will be handed to publisher at the end of January. I’m going to take a few months off from writing books after that – two in two years has been pretty full-on – and concentrate on the blogs and podcast. I have a large backlog of posts, and I really want to get those final Jane Grigson recipes cooked!

I really do hope that by the time we are approaching wintertime 2022 there will be a better looking – dare I say normal? – year ahead of us. But for now, we shall soldier on, eat plenty of puddings, and read more cookery books.

Take care and be safe,

Neil x

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Filed under Blogs, Britain, food, history, Uncategorized